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Advent: avoiding repentance?

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.


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Rod Gillis

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.

Gregory Orloff

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 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

Gregory Orloff

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.

Rod Gillis

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.

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