Penitence and Hope

Sunday 13th December 2009
The Third Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist

If a member of the Church of England from another part of the country asked us what kind of church we were, we would probably say, in our strange language of mixed metaphors, that we were higher than middle of the road, perhaps even catholic; but I think I can be fairly certain that we would not describe ourselves as 'happy clappy'; indeed, the term is frequently used in a mildly pejorative way, suggesting that we are a little superior, more theologically mature, more self aware, less superficial.

I can understand why some of us might demur at being clappy; but what's wrong with being happy? Why is it that we are so much better at being miserable than being happy? What kind of Christianity is it that broods on the human condition and concludes that we are a bad lot; and that is the end of it?

I suspect that one reason why we reach this conclusion is that, as a church, we've rather lost the habit of penitence. The Medieval Church was obsessed with penitence, corporately in the form of fasting, individually in the Sacrament of Confession (now termed Reconciliation) and in sacrificing worldly pleasure in exchange for admission to the heavenly banquet. It went too far in the indulgences scandal which fired Martin Luther and the German Reformation but, as usual with human beings, particularly in partisan mode, there was an over-reaction. If we simply participate in the collective act of penitence on Sundays but do not examine our consciences as part of daily prayer or submit ourselves to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are hardly likely to be deeply conscious of penitence unless it is forced upon us by an error which calls for our personal admission of failure to a friend or colleague; and that, too, can be made more difficult if the error is felt to be a purely personal act which is not understood within the framework of the penitence which is a response to God's boundless love.

The truth about penitence, represented by this rather equivocal day in our church calendar when we light a rose candle and Father John wears rose, rather than purple, - the rose of beauty, scent and thorn - is that there is, contrary to Victorian sensibility, an absolute bond between rejoicing and penitence; remember the shepherd who rejoices at finding his lost sheep or the woman rejoicing at finding her lost coin. When we turn back to God in penitence, heaven rejoices but, equally, we, too, should rejoice because we have done the right thing and returned to our natural state of goodness. We were made to be good and to choose to do good but because we necessarily make wrong choices as part of the context in which we exercise free will, God has, kin an act of limitless love, told us through Jesus that no matter how often we fall short, we must always turn back to God and make a new start.

We are so accustomed to the idea of pain and pleasure being somehow entwined, or even integral to each other, that we have borrowed the German word Schadenfreude to express the idea. That is to recognise the human condition, that is to say that earth is no place of unalloyed joy; but neither is it a place of unalloyed sorrow. This rose day provides a perfect delineation of the human condition; and so we should value today as a stopping point, a time to assess ourselves and the human condition before the last stage of our preparations for Christmas.

And here again, we need some perspective. We really must stop telling each other that Christmas has become too commercial while we submit to the peer pressure of consumerism; but, much more important, we really should stop saying that Christmas is lovely when there are children about and that it's really for them.

Christmas is lovely for children, whether we are thinking of the glittering tree, the prospect of presents, the drama of the nativity play and the wonder of the manger; and the way we unfold Christmas for our children will be formative throughout their lives: what they remember about Christmas will be lived in their adulthood and in their child rearing; but the key point here is that Christmas is a profoundly adult festival which should deeply engage us. As Christians, we are invited to re-live the wonder of the incarnation in which our world becomes a host to the divine presence.

What that means is that we should behave like guests, making everything ready: making our hearts ready, making our homes ready, making our community ready and, to the extent we can, making the world ready; and this making ready should be conducted with sober cheerfulness. A little fasting never goes amiss and we might, as a gesture, refuse to be drawn in by Advent Calendars which dispense daily chocolate when the whole point of advent is to defer gratification until the arrival of our guest.

There is nothing wrong with the penitence of Advent when we examine our consciences and turn yet again to God; and there is nothing wrong with the generosity of spirit which finds its expression in card sending and present giving. What is wrong is to approach penitence as if it were simply an exercise in self abasement or to approach present giving as a form of peer competition. And in a strange way, these two human flaws are highly inter-dependent: the guilt of materialism will drive us to self abasement and the low esteem of self-abasement will drive us to competitive materialism. In both cases, we need the truly sacred internal rightness of penitence and the truly sacred external balance of present-giving where the pleasure of the recipient is the true pleasure of the giver.

The problem with extremes is that they ask so much of us that the best becomes the enemy of the good. We are never, even at the point of penitence, so unflawed that we will not find ourselves in the same position again; and we will only have very fleeting points of earthly bliss which give us a clue to the overwhelming quality of God's love. Nonetheless, it is our condition to do good in difficult circumstances, in penitence and generosity.

There is a time for the purple candle, both in Advent and Lent; and there is a time for the bliss of the white candle at Christmas and at the rising of our Lord at Easter; but we need to give much more time and thought to that part of our condition represented by the rose which combines penitence with hope. And if we do that, we might not only smile in gratitude for our human condition as children of God, we might actually recognise that we are happy; and then, we might just bring ourselves to clap!