Advent: avoiding repentance?

Marcus Borg explores the meaning of the season of Advent and critiques the use of it as a mini-Lent. Has he gone too far in rejecting repentance as a part of Advent or not? From Patheos:

I begin with the obvious: Advent is a season of preparing for the coming of Jesus. For many centuries in Western liturgical churches, it has (like Lent) been a penitential season. Though it is about remembering his first coming 2000 years ago, it has also been about his second coming at the last judgment and the need for us to be prepared through earnest repentance.

Thus, like Lent, the liturgical colors for Advent have been (and for the most part still are) violet or purple, the color of penitence. Recently, in some churches, the liturgical color of Advent has become blue, reflecting a change in emphasis.

Seeing Advent as a penitential season strikes me as unfortunate. It is the product of a seriously distorted and yet widespread understanding of Christianity: namely, that the central issue in our lives with God is our sinfulness (commonly understood as disobedience and/or failing to measure up to what God requires from us) and thus our need for repentance and forgiveness. Within this framework, that’s the reason Jesus was born. As the divinely-conceived Son of God, he was sent by God to be the perfect sacrifice, the payment for our sins, so that we can be forgiven. Provided, of course, that we believe in him.

Paige Baker wonders if Borg has gone too far in his understanding of Advent:
Although I have great respect for Marcus Borg, I disagree STRONGLY with this piece.

I look forward to the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. I don't buy the traditional understanding of the atonement, but I think it's important to recognize how we fall short of God's ideal for us. Not in a self-flagellating way, but in a way that spurs us to do better and be better.

Advent is the perfect time for that for me. The capitalistic Christmas season is a stark reminder that God's ways are not our ways--and that the way I live and the choices I make have a direct impact on people all over the world.

And this is where I think Borg misses the point: as a white, Western Christian, he (and I) have a lot for which to repent--and there is no time of year that highlights that need better than Advent.

It's not about Jesus coming to "pay for our sins"--it's about God taking human form and helping us to recognize and repent of our sins, and learn to care for each other--particularly the most vulnerable among us--and the planet on which we live.

Observing Advent as a penitential season is a way to remind myself of the need for true economic, social, and environmental justice. The only way that justice will be achieved is if privileged people like me (and Borg) acknowledge how we participate in systems of oppression, and work to dismantle them.

IMO, trying to avoid the penitential aspect of Advent is just another way of avoiding the hard call of Christ to give up what we value most in service to God and our fellow travelers.

Comments (14)

I wonder if Paige Baker has ever read a book by Marcus Borg... Borg is perhaps the best known theologian today who argues that Christianity is all about striving for economic, social, and environmental justice. In his blog entry referenced above, "Thinking About Advent", Borg does much more than critique the penitential aspects of Advent. He goes on to list the more traditional and scriptural themes of the season (such as liberation from bondage; return from exile; yearning and fulfillment; etc.) Borg has certainly "acknowledge[d] how we participate in systems of oppression", and through his work as a theologian has consistently challenged a Christianity that is comfortable with the economic and political status quo while so many people suffer from injustice and exclusion. I don't think Borg misses the point at all...

Penitence and austerity are not necessarily the same thing. Lent, by its very nature, calls for more austerity, more simplicity, so that we can do a "Spring soul cleaning" in preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Advent can be penitent but still decorative, joyfully expectant, as we prepare our hearts afresh as a home that welcomes Jesus' presence.

Yes--I have read Dr. Borg's books, and I agree with him on most issues.

But when it came to this piece, I may have been responding to what I see as a real dislike for the concept of personal repentance among progressive Christians--among whom I number myself.

When I first joined the Episcopal Church, I heard a lot about "corporate sin"—and that was a good corrective to the fundamentalist notion of individual wickedness with which I grew up. I'm a firm believer in the need to acknowledge the sin that we commit together, as a group and as a culture.

But I think it is a mistake to overlook or ignore the sins we commit as individuals (especially those that reify and contribute to the corporate sins). I believe in the need for repentance—not in a beat-yourself-up sort of way, but as an acknowledgement that God is always calling us to be better and do better.

So here's the part of Borg's essay that bothered me:

The central themes of the stories of Jesus’s birth (about which I will say more in my blogs about Advent in the next few weeks) are hardly at all about sin and our need for forgiveness.

Rather, they and the texts from the Old Testament that they echo are about a much more robust, attractive, and compelling vision of what Christianity, Advent and Christmas are about. Their themes, which will be explored more fully in future blogs, include:

*Liberation from bondage – from the Pharaohs and Herods and Caesars who dominate us and the world. These include oppressive political and economic systems and also psychological-spiritual agents of oppression."

I think this framing elides the responsibility that people like him--and me--have for the bondage (economic, social, environmental) that so many people in this world experience. It's all very convenient to talk about "Pharaohs and Herods and Caesars who dominate us and the world"--but it isn't honest. We ARE the Pharaohs and Herods and Caesars.

And that's why I made my comments about Dr. Borg--who, in my reading of his post, seems to want us to ignore the penitential aspect of Advent at the time when the whole Western world goes absolutely crazy over capitalistic consumption.

For me, the penitential aspect of Advent is a crucial corrective to the frenzy and excess of "American Christmas." As I watched news reports of shoppers hurting each other to get the "best deal" on Black Friday, I couldn't help feeling that penitence is called for. Clearly, YMMV.

Tom Sramek--we cross-posted. I love the way you framed Advent as both penitential and joyful. Thanks for that helpful way of thinking about it.

To me, Advent is a period of reflection, preparation, and joyful expectancy of the coming of Emmanuel, God with us. Even as we wait, we know Emmanuel, God with us, is already present here and now - the paradox of right now and not yet.

As we reflect and prepare, most of us will be aware of the ways we fall short, but I don't think of Advent a penitential season.

In our church, the liturgical vestments and candles are blue, which I prefer to purple.

June Butler

I'm not sure Marcus Borg has a dislike for the concept of personal repentance, I think he's just saying that, unlike Lent, it's not the major aspect of Advent. In fact, when you write "It's all very convenient to talk about 'Pharaohs and Herods and Caesars who dominate us and the world' - but it isn't honest. We ARE the Pharaohs and Herods and Caesars" -- you sound a lot like Borg. In the book "First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth by Borg and John Dominic Crossan, there is a section called "Advent as Repentant Preparation", in which they write about "the imperial captivity of Advent and Christmas". They state that "American Christians need especially to see the political meanings of these stories, for we live in a time of the American Empire" and that "in a sense, we are the new Rome" (pgs. 158-160). They also state quite beautifully, "We are meant to be changed by Advent and Christmas" (pg. 160).

It's unfortunate that Borg's blog post hit such a nerve with you, since I think you both agree on many of the same points...perhaps it's just a matter of wording or emphasis.

Check out the collects and the Daily Office readings in the Prayer Book. It all sounds rather penitential to me.

As Rowan Williams writes in his book Tokens of Trust, the Coming of Christ signals an encounter with unavoidable Truth (about God, myself, my life, the world). I for one feel the need to repent an awful lot in the face of that reality. For me, that (as well as the emphasis in Western tradition and within the Prayer Book) makes Advent a penitential season.

Advent as a time of preparation is all about anticipation. Certainly reflection is a necessary part of preparation, but I think Borg is calling for a recognition of the difference between Christmas and Good Friday. The birth of Jesus necessarily brings joy; the death of Jesus necessarily brings sadness. The liturgical periods of time (Advent and Lent) leading up to these two significant events necessarily need differing emphases.

Paige Baker is absolutely and completely correct to point out the corruption of our culture, and of our participation in it, in the days leading up to the birthday of Jesus, although in recent years that corruption is no longer limited to Advent but rather now seems to begin in early September.

Yes, Paige Baker is correct. Christmas marketing began in my neck of the woods in each of the stores I visit well prior to Thanksgiving, and in a few cases prior to Halloween. It brings to mind a variant of a famous Christmas carol which the girls at the school where I was a chaplain in days of yore used to sing after dinner: "Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy." Even so many years ago the high school girls saw the evident discrepancy between what we say and what we do.

That said, using the theme of preparation which includes necessarily thoughtful reflection does not equal repentance so much as making sure the wicks are trimmed. It is my observation that giving both seasons (Advent and Lent) independent integrity of theme gives more credibility to both.

It is, therefore for me, not a case of "either/or" but rather "both/and". We should be properly reflective but also we should prepare with joy.

Jim Hammond
retired cleric
Winchester, VA

Marcus Borg has a compelling argument about the nature of the advent season. Focusing on advent as primarily a penitential season is an "impoverishment" of advent.There is indeed so much more to both the season and the faith. It might be wise to withhold judgement of Borg's stance until he maps out his take on the various themes in the promised coming blogs.

Sometimes it is helpful to review historical origins. Those of you who have easy access to Marion J. Hatchett's "Commentary on the American Prayer Book" and/or (the older) "American Prayer Book Commentary" by Massey Shepherd may find them useful on this one. It also helps to look at the unfolding of advent themes in our liturgy--beginning with the anticipation in the advent collect and ending with St. Mary full of grace.

As a spiritual exercise advent is perhaps a gift, an alternative to frantic consumerism in the days leading up to the celebration of the incarnation.

Pope Francis, by the way, has a lovely but challenging pastoral word about advent as a season hope.

Right on, Paige! Sing it, sister! Seeing Advent as a season of repentance can never be an "impoverishment," for repentance -- in the original Greek of the Bible's New Testament, "metanoia," literally "change of mind" -- is what Christianity is all about: a change of heart and mind, a change of attitude and outlook, a change in how we live and relate to others, both God and neighbor and enemy. In other words, "conversion" -- a concerted lifelong process, not a split-second event. Frail and prone to spiritual attention deficit disorder as we human beings are, we need seasonal reminders of that to pause, take stock, readjust and reorient ourselves spiritually -- especially in the materialistic, consumerist hubbub that the Christmas season has become in contemporary American culture. Advent not only points "backwards" to the first coming of Christ Jesus as a babe in the manger, but also "forwards," to his second coming as king and judge at the end of time. How will we stand before him then? Hence, the need for repentance! There is joy in repentance, not dour sadness. It is all about positive change.

Just a question -- does "change of mind" always mean repentence?

I like the Sarum blue of Advent. It is an expectant color, not a sackcloth-and-ashes one like the purple of Lent (even though purple is for royalty, something that usually gets forgotten). Blue is the color Mary usually is pictured as wearing, and Mary was definitely expectant, not repentant. Yes, we should always be repentant for sin, whether it's Advent, Lent or Easter or a week from last Tuesday, but I think it's much less an Advent thing than a Lenten one. Me, I'm just enjoying the expectation.

Linda Ryan

Depends on what direction the mind changes in, Linda.

When it changes from an egocentric focus on self to a reaching out toward God and others, then yes, change of mind means repentance.

That's what the Biblical word for repentance, "metanoia," means: change of mind, change of heart, change of outlook, change of way of living.

"Metanoeite kai pisteuete en to euaggelio," Mark 1:15 has Jesus saying in the Greek original.

Often translated "Repent and believe in the gospel," it can just as well be rendered, "Change your minds and trust in the good news!"

The call to repentance orients us not to "feeling bad," but to good news!

I too prefer blue for Advent, though I don't know there's anything particularly expectant about it.

("Blue," in fact, can also mean "sad" or "melancholy" in our modern English.)

And I don't find anything particularly sackcloth-and-ashes about Lenten purple, since the sackcloth I've seen is beige, and the ashes, black.

To reduce repentance to mere regret and ruing over past sins misses the point and impoverishes us.

Repentance is much more, and much more positive and liberating, than that.

It's the change of mind where I no longer see a homeless person on the street as a shiftless bum, but a fellow human being in need of my help.

It's the change of mind where acquiring the latest Ferrari or X-Box is no longer the attractive priority I once thought it.

It's the change of mind where my life stops focusing on myself as the center of the universe and gravitates toward God and others out of love.

Repentance doesn't negate expectation.

If anything, it enhances it, as we remember during Advent not only the Christ Child born long ago in Bethlehem, but the loving Lord whose return we await with the cry, "Come, Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22:20).

Just a postscript spring boarding from a comment made by Paige Baker in response to Marcus Borg,(above) "It's all very convenient to talk about "Pharaohs and Herods and Caesars who dominate us and the world"--but it isn't honest. We ARE the Pharaohs
and Herods and Caesars."
Actually, I don't think we necessarily are the Pharaohs, Herods, Caesars.

Borg has a critical point to make her about power, wealth, and control. The notion that we are all Caesar is kind of
reductionism that deprives Borg's insight of its edge. Now, no doubt some of us in western affluent economies may benefit more from economic arrangements than folks in the developing world, and some of us may be variously complicit in current economic arrangements. Notwithstanding, there is in our global economy a critique that applies specifically to the makers and maintainers of our economic system and its values. The convenient argument is that we are all Caesar, thus alleviating the need for a specific prophetic social justice critique of the pwoerful.Ask the public pensioners in Detroit if they fee like Caesar.

As for advent, the season is something that has been constructed by the church.It did not fall ready made from heaven. The emphasis can, and perhaps should change over time. Penitential seasons have their origin in ancient periods of preparation for baptism. There is no need to make a constant bemoaning and wailing of our sins the red alert stance of day to day Christian life.

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