Each year as we begin the season of Advent, we hear from the Gospel, the lonely voice of John the Baptist crying out to all of us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” Sub-consciously, the seriousness of John the Baptist’s message is diluted by the sentimentalism and commercialism of Christmas of Orchard Road. While the beginning of Advent reminds us of the importance of going to Confession as a Sacrament of Reconciliation, the background message of Orchard Road dilutes and trivialises John the Baptist’s message of “Repentance” by singing to us, “You better not pout, you better not cry. . . Santa Claus is coming to town!”
To “repent” more than feeling guilty or feeling sorry for not trying to be better spouse, father or mother, son or daughter, priest or religious, employer and the like. How often have we heard someone say, “Each time I quarrel with my wife or argue with my mother, I feel so guilty. When they cry it makes me feel really down and depressed. I feel sorry for having hurt them . . . I make promises to myself that I should not do it again . . . but, somehow, I keep on hurting them. Others would say, I go to Mass every day, but I still keep on talking bad about my friends and gossip about people I dislike . . . I cannot overcome my prejudices
and negative views about them regardless of how hard I try . . .
My brother and sisters in Christ, feeling guilty is not the essence of what repentance about. Repentance is not merely about our emotions even though it is very much part of our experience of repentance; repentance is essentially spiritual and has to do with our relationship with God.
St Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorists congregation says that spiritual repentance consists of at least three important elements:
First, spiritual repentance means we are sorry to God because we have sinned against Him. Thus, repentance is not about feeling sorry because we were caught or because God is going to punish us. We are sorry primarily because we have hurt God. We are sorry because of God, because He loves us more than we realise and we have not loved Him as we rightly should.
Second, true repentance is sincere acceptance of our sinfulness. In such humble acceptance of our sinfulness, we don’t make excuses with God; neither do we rationalise our sins away. Every good psychologist will tell us that the beginning of all real conversion and change is the acceptance of what we have done. Only in truth can repentance begin. The Book of Proverbs says, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whosoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” (Proverb 28:13)
Third, true repentance means a turning from and a turning to. We are each called to turn away from the sin of pride, empty pleasures and glory of the secular world and turn back to God. These empty pleasures are like “soap bubbles in the air . . . they glitter in the sun for a while, but then they burst and disappear. What is money if we don’t have love? What is physical pleasure if we don’t have peace?” And so, St Augustine rightly says, “Our hearts are made for You O God . . . and they are restless until they rests in Thee.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, Advent is a challenge to real repentance. It is a call to look beneath and beyond the sentimentality of Christmas and find the Incarnation; the reality of the presence of God in our lives. We are sinners, yet deeply and personally loved by God. Advent is an invitation to discover the spiritual reality of God in our lives; a God who resides beneath the empty tinsel of the commercial and materialistic world. If there is no authentic and sincere spiritual repentance, then in all probability the true meaning of Christmas will pass us by unnoticed - through the shimmer of sentiment and worldly gifts. Has this been happening in our past Christmasses?
We live amongst people who are wounded and hurting and we live in a world that promotes superficial living. But, let us remember that we have gathered here today as brothers and sisters in Christ, who have the common goal of not only living together as family, but also finally living together with God and all the saints for all eternity; even though our unity is not perfect and is often fragmented. Let us remember that we have not been abandoned by God, on the contrary, it is us who are abandoning God if we do not heed the worlds of John the Baptist to repent sincerely and return to God’s Truth and Love.
Thomas Merton says that laziness and cowardice are the two greatest obstacles to repentance and to holiness. We are afraid to be good. We are afraid to repent and to acknowledge our sins and turn away from them to God. We are afraid of what people will say or afraid of the price we have to pay for being good. But, most of us, Thomas Merton says, are just lazy. It’s too hard to change. It is so much easier to just stay where I am. “Why make things harder or more difficult? Take the easy and comfortable ways instead.”
(cf: Adapted from: The Mustard Seed, Reflections for Daily Living, Joseph A.GAldon,SJ: pub.: the Bookmark, Inc.; 1991; pp230-232.)
And so to conclude and sum up, I would like to end with praying the Act of Contrition of St Francis Xavier as it captures the true spirit of repentance that St John the Baptist proclaimed . . . as we journey more deeply into the season of Advent:
My God, I love you above all things
and I hate and detest with my whole soul
the sins by which I have offended you,
because they are displeasing in your sight,
who are supremely good and worthy to be loved.
I acknowledge that I should love you
with a love beyond all others,
and that I should try to prove this love to You.
I consider You in my mind as infinitely greater
than everything in the world,
no matter how precious or beautiful.
I therefore firmly and irrevocably resolve
never to consent to offend You
or do anything that may displease Your sovereign goodness
and place me in danger of falling from Your grace,
in which I am fully determined
to persevere to my dying breath. Amen.
(St Francis Xavier,SJ)
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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