It happens every year at this time.

The Christmas decorations are going up, the smell of fresh greenery is in the air, the red velvet bows are still crisp, the melodies of Christmas carols follow us everywhere we go – except in church, of course.

There is a festive feeling in the atmosphere, a sense of expectation, of freshness and celebration.

And then appears John the Baptist to spoil the party.

In he storms from the wilderness, smelling like the camels from whose skins his clothes are made, his hair and beard long and unkempt, and matted with honey and locust crumbs, his eyes burning with a wild passion.

He looks around and instead of admiring our Christmas finery, complimenting us on how beautiful everything looks this year, and asking for some eggnog, he fervently shouts, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent! Repent!”

Who is this guy? And why do we keep inviting such a disagreeable character back every Advent? Why in the midst of our festivities must a wild man appear exhorting us to repent?

            * * *

Years ago, the playwright Lillian Hellman wrote an autobiography entitled Pentimento. Pentimento is from the Italian word pentire, to repent.

In art, the pentimento is the image that the artist puts on the canvas first. Even when it is covered with other layers of paint, the original image is still there.

For Hellman, writing her autobiography was an attempt to examine the layers of her life, perhaps to repent, to go beneath the surface to the depths, to the pentimento at her core.

The relationship between Advent and Christmas is like a pentimento. Christmas is not absent from Advent. It is beneath the surface, waiting to emerge.

But to truly appreciate Christmas, to truly prepare for it, we must go through all the layers of waiting, of expectation, of repentance.

And on the surface of our painting is John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, the one who helps prepare the way, the one who points to the Messiah and the kingdom of God that the Messiah ushers in.

To get to that world, to get to the Christ at the bottom of the canvas, we must first encounter John, must listen to his prophetic message, must take it to heart, and let it transform our lives.

To get to the pentimento, we must repent.

That’s why John the Baptist shows up on the canvas of our worship every Advent. He comes to remind us that all our holiday finery and festivity may prepare us for Christmas, but it doesn’t prepare us for Christ.

There is no other way to prepare for the coming of the Messiah than the way John describes.

The repentance John calls for is not a simpering and teary apology, not an empty groveling, not a contrite “I’m sorry” today, and back to our old ways tomorrow.

John calls us to be honest about our lives, to look beneath the surface, beneath the defenses, illusion, and rationalizations to the core of our character.

In Greek, the word for repentance is metanoia. The literal translation of metanoia is to turn around.

That kind of repentance is not an emotion, but an action — something that can be seen and measured. It’s a turning around, a turning back towards God, a transformation of life.

John urges us to turn toward God, to prepare the way for the coming of God’s kingdom.

A time when the mountains and hills — the ruling elite who maintain their power and position by exploiting the weak and disadvantaged — will be humbled.

A time when the ravines and valleys — the lowly and the poor — will be raised up to a life of justice and peace.

A time when the crooked realities of life will be set straight.

John the Baptist boldly, loudly, and energetically implores us to make sure that the road we are on is that that is heading to the kingdom.

Are we headed in the right direction?

Are we headed in the direction of the good?

Are we headed in the direction of God?

If we’re not, John says, it is not too late for us to turn around, to change directions now.

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, writes about concrete ideas for ways for us to heed John’s call. She suggests we focus on one thing for each week of Advent.

For example, she suggests that we start by giving thanks for the people in our lives — all of them. “Pray for the courage to start healing a damaged relationship with one of them,” she says.

“Discover the image of God in that person and bless the goodness in that person’s life. Find something to bless in a person you find difficult. Reach out and tell him or her of your gratitude.”

Or we may focus on the abundance in our lives. “Consider how much or how little is really enough,” she asks. “What is superfluous and could bless both you and others by being passed along?”

Finally, she suggests taking time to think about the rhythm of our lives. How much time do we spend in a typical week working, reading, playing, serving others, praying?

“Make a conscious decision about how you would like to change that pattern,” she says. “Plan a small change in that rhythm for each week of Advent.”

All of these suggestions are ways of preparing for the coming of Christ, not just the celebration of Christmas.

John’s call for repentance and Schori’s suggestions for Advent are both calls for conversion, to get back to the depths, the core, the image of God that is the pentimento at the core of each of us.

Of course we know that repentance, conversion, turning towards God, is not a one-time task. It is a lifetime process, one that is never fully accomplished, and one in which we need the help and grace of the One who is to come.

On this second Sunday of Advent, the One we await already lies beneath the surface of the Baptist’s call to repentance — the Christ coming forth, the picture shining clearer, Advent proceeding to Christmas, the Messiah moving from shadow to light.


Pin It on Pinterest