The Comfort of Repentance

St. John the Baptist is the next great protagonist of the Advent season of preparation for Christ that we encounter in today’s Gospel. He is the one who prepared the way for Christ by calling the people of Judea to repentance, the last and the greatest of the prophets, because he pointed out Christ Himself: “Behold the lamb of God!”

There is a statue of St. John the Baptist at the back of this church that incorporates some of the traditional iconography of this saint, but I fear that it is somewhat misleading. Look at what St. Mark writes in today’s Gospel about this herald of the Gospel: “John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.” Really, we could not have a statue of the real John the Baptist at the back of our church, because all the children would be frightened of him! He is frequently depicted in paintings with long hair sticking out in all directions, his eyes wide and his figure gaunt. John would have looked like a crazy man. If you or I saw him wondering around Goshen, we would call the police.

John’s appearance is meant to be shocking, but in its shock value it all attracts the people of Judah, first with a curiosity at this strange figure, and then by convicting them of their need to repent of their sins. John is preaching a baptism of repentance, which is the first and most fundamental meaning of Baptism.

To the people of John’s day, the need for repentance was obvious. They had a deep sense of the fact that they were sinners. Think about the psalms that we sing in church. They frequently state that we are sinners and are in need of God’s mercy. These were the most frequent prayers of the Jewish people – “be merciful to us sinners.” However, our own day and age is very different. We have invented what is possibly the most dangerous error of all: the denial of the reality of sin, and thus the denial of the need for repentance. If we are to heed John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way for Christ in our hearts, in our families, and in our society, we must begin with a recovery of what has traditionally been called a “sense of sin.”

If we do not recognize that we are sinners, there is little cause for joy at Christmas, and there is little true cause for the joyful anticipation we experience during Advent (which is greatly heightened today by the beautiful, snowy landscape we behold around us). It is the promised redemption from our sins that is the source of true Christmas joy, and the source of our anxious expectation during Advent.

Once we have a sense of the fact that we are sinners and are in need of God’s mercy, then we can understand the message of the prophet Isaiah when he says, “Comfort, comfort, oh my people!” This is confusing, because John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the desert foretold by Isaiah, seems to do anything but comfort. Rather, he convicts us of our sins, of our need to repent. How is this in any way comforting?

You and I, as modern men and women, are obsessed with comfort. Think about it – so much of our lives is driven by this desire for comfort. My favorite example of this is furniture. Think about the difference between the furniture in your home versus what you’ve seen in antique stores, museums, or your great-grandmother’s house. I bet you have big, plush couches and chairs. I’m guilty too – we love comfort. Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting to sit on a comfortable couch while you read a book (or do less virtuous things that usually involve a glowing screen), but the relentless pursuit of comfort that this tendency has engendered has led to laziness in our spiritual lives (and elsewhere) and of placing the pursuit of pleasure at the top of our societal priorities. Even our laws have become slaves to people’s relentless pursuit of pleasure.

Isaiah, though, is speaking about a very different sort of comfort. For the honest man or woman, who knows himself to be a sinner, the promise of forgiveness for our sins is the greatest comfort that our hearts could receive. We can take this for granted either because the Lord’s forgiveness is so readily available to us, or because we have lost sight of our need for it in the first place.

Isaiah’s voice crying out for repentance comes in the desert. Over and over again in the history of the Jewish people, the desert is where they went to find God. They went to a dry, arid place where they were forced to rely on God for absolutely everything, even for a basic supply of water. When Moses first comes to Pharaoh to give him the Lord’s command to let the Israelites go from Egypt, it is precisely so that they can worship the Lord a three day’s journey into the desert. This is important for us, because in our own modern obsession with physical comfort, the experience of the desert is readily apparent to us when we are forced to consider our own sinfulness. It we do not live with this reality every day – as the people of John the Baptist’s day did – then considering our sins and asking for the Lord’s forgiveness is very difficult. But that is a good thing. We should experience this need to be drawn away from ourselves, from our own tendencies to seek comfort and ease, to humble ourselves before God’s majesty as we confess our reliance upon His mercy.

There is a rather obvious practical consequence to this need for repentance that I am sure you have already thought about: the Sacrament of Confession. Renewing your devotion to the Sacrament of Confession is the absolute best way for you to prepare your heart to receive Christ – both at Christmas and also at the hour of your death, for which this Advent season reminds us to be ready. This could take different forms for different people depending on what your current relationship with this sacrament is:

If you’ve been away from confession for some time, come back to the Lord through this sacrament this Advent! No matter what sins you have committed, if you are willing to accept God’s grace and to start the process of changing your life, then the Lord is ready to forgive you. There is no sin that is too big for His mercy. Nothing you do could ever change His love for you. This is the true comfort offered to us by the prophet Isaiah in the first reading: the comfort of knowing that we are in a state of grace, in a state of friendship with God.

If you are currently going once or twice a year – good! Our Holy Mother the Church asks that we confess any mortal sins we have committed at least once a year (that is, sins that the Church teaches to be objectively grave, are known by the sinner as such, and are freely chosen). However, unfortunately, many people let bad habits and vices fester until their Advent or Lent confessions, even mortal sins – which ought to be confessed as soon as reasonably possible, and always before receiving Holy Communion. If there are mortal sins that you are committing habitually, you are in grave need of this sacrament in order to have God’s grace in your life, of which mortal sin deprives the sinner. Even if you do not regularly commit mortal sins (thank God!), regular confession (such as monthly) can help you to prevent bad habits from forming, to guard your soul against potential, future mortal sins, and to help you reach the heights of holiness, to which you are called as a beloved son or daughter of God. Remember: God wants you to be a saint!

Furthermore, doing the minimum is rarely actually sufficient for salvation, because if you only do the minimum, it is a lot easier for the Devil to tempt you to do even less than the minimum. This Advent could present the opportunity for you to commit yourself to more regular confession (such as monthly), especially if you habitually commit grave sins (such as missing Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation, ahem).

If you are already going to confession on a regular basis (and I thank the Lord that there are many people in this parish who are!), then growing in devotion to this sacrament could mean deepening the practice that you already undertake. It could mean going more in-depth in your examination of conscience, maybe by downloading a confession app on your smartphone or looking one up online (such as the one on the EWTN website, which is excellent). (N.b. though, you cannot actually go to confession via smartphone – you still need to be in person for that) It could also mean making a daily examination of conscience and reciting the act of contrition every evening. Or, it could mean choosing one sin in particular that you need to root out of your life, and making what is called a particular examination of conscience every day in which you keep track of how many times you have committed that sin, working to reduce the number of occurrences each day.

You may have noticed that I tend to talk a lot about confession. It’s not an accident. There is no greater tool for growing in holiness given to you by God and His holy Church than this great sacrament, which has become far too neglected in our day. This week, on Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. here in church, we will have our parish Advent penance service. There will be many priests from surrounding parishes here who speak both English and Spanish. They are merciful and kind men who are excited to share the Lord’s mercy with you, no matter how long it has been and no matter what sins you have committed.
If you have been away from confession for some time, this is a great opportunity for you to come back. If you are a once or twice a year penitent, renew your practice of confession this Advent by resolving to go more frequently (I would suggest monthly), and if you already go to confession frequently, renew your devotion this Advent by going deeper. Christ is coming – you must be ready! Being fascinated with him – like many of the Jewish people were with John the Baptist – will not be sufficient. You must take concrete steps to follow Christ. Repentance from your sins will open your heart to receive the truest joy of Christmas – the forgiveness of your sins, the beginning of new life.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
II Sunday of Advent, A.D. MMXVII