Encountering God in the liturgical year


‘Repent’, said John the Baptist in the wilderness.

‘Repent’, said Jesus at the start of his ministry.

My Dad, a sixth form chemistry teacher, once had a very puzzled student come and ask…”Mr Whilde – why have you written ‘repent’ on my work?” Now my Dad has awful handwriting…what he actually wrote on the work was ‘repeat’. The work was so awful he couldn’t be bothered to write anything else.

It’s become a family joke – but it is perhaps a good picture for how we often understand that word ‘repent’. We imagine God saying “your life is so awful I can’t be bothered with you until you change.” Saying…if you repent, then the kingdom of heaven will be open to you. Saying…look to yourself first before you are ready to come to me.

But when the equivalent passage in Matthew’s gospel came up in our Pilgrim session last week – I noticed that Jesus doesn’t just say “Repent”, or even “Repent because your life’s bad”…but “repent for the kingdom of God has come near”.

I suggested last week that Advent might be a time to examine not ourselves, but God – and the difference this makes in how we might hear Christ’s call to repent has been with me this week.

We often understand ‘repentance’ as turning around lives that are going in the wrong direction – in Advent we might think of turning from darkness to light. But do we focus first on the darkness of our lives or on the light of God?

Maybe it’s just me – but I’ve found focusing first on myself rather than on God can result in me swinging between two extremes. Looking at my own life, with only the world to compare it with…it’s easy to deceive myself. I know I don’t get up in the morning intending to do wrong. I know there are people who behave far worse than me.

If someone criticises me, I can get defensive, make excuses, persuade myself that what happened was someone else’s fault as much as mine…end up feeling not that I need to repent – but rather self-righteous.

But then, because deep down I know I’m far from perfect, I decide everything must be my fault, I wallow in guilt… feel there’s not much point in repenting as I’ll just do the same again.

That may be only me…but I do think there’s a danger that the act of repentance at the start of each Eucharist becomes just saying sorry for things we’re almost certain we’ll do again next week. If we focus first on us rather than God – we can be left where we are.

But Jesus said, “Repent – for the Kingdom of God has come near”…God, in Christ approaches us – to help us repent. What if I look first towards the light of Christ this Advent – at God first, rather than myself?

For me this difference became real through the story of the Prodigal Son.

A book I was reading suggested imagining myself as the prodigal son – living through the story. It was a powerful experience – and this is how it looked from the inside…

The Son has what seems a completely sensible idea – he should have the wealth he will inherit from his father while he is still young enough to enjoy it. Focused on the world, he has only the world to compare himself with – and sees nothing wrong with his life.

Even when the money runs out and his friends desert him – he sees himself as victim, rather than sinner. At his lowest point, reduced to eating pig food, he realises how much better off even his Father’s servants are. So, he carefully composes a speech to his Father about how he has wronged him, how he isn’t worthy to be a son anymore…and sets off home to deliver it.

Living through the story, I could feel no repentance in the son, he was just hungry! His speech is what he thinks his Father wants to hear.

But as he approaches he sees his Father waiting for him in the road with arms open to embrace. He realises the Father has been there every day…waiting. Faced with such love and forgiveness, the son can see how he needs to turn his life around and the apology, the repentance, suddenly become real.

Advent seems a good time to think of repentance as looking first at the light of Christ, as turning to that light. We still have to look at our own lives – but doing that in the light of Christ means we can’t hide our sin, our need for repentance…but also that we know we are forgiven and offered an alternative, a pattern to follow.

Christ’s light shows us how life should be; through him we know that the Father is always waiting with open arms. Although we know we will continue to fail – repentance becomes less about dwelling on our failings, on saying sorry in the knowledge we’ll probably do the same again – and more about trying each day to walk a little more in the light.

That experience with the prodigal son didn’t suddenly make repentance simple, but I think…I hope…looking first at God before I look at my own life has made me a little more forgiving, a little more loving, a little more self-aware…just a little more Christ-like.

And so I pray…heavenly Father, when your son comes he brings to light the things now hidden in darkness, and discloses the purposes of our hearts. This Advent may we look for his coming light, repent of our sins, and walk with him in newness of life. Amen.


a little surer of being a little nearer

Thoughts on the liturgical year at the start of Advent. (Advent 1, Year B – Isaiah 64:1-9)

This last year – and particularly since my priesting in June – I’ve been initiated into the strange and wonderful world of Anglican vestments. And since they were all made for men, I’ve had to work on me wearing them – rather than them wearing me…

And it isn’t just one set – the liturgical year (and the glories of the Whitkirk cupboards) demand regular changes. Today we begin Advent – so having presided at 8.30 I now know there’s at least one chasuble of each liturgical colour that I can wear. Today we begin Advent, so the legendary four candles banner is also on show.

Why do we go to all that trouble? Well I guess for the same reason Matthew makes an effort to celebrate festivals on their correct day – with week-day Eucharists – and why as well as spurning your coffee, at this time of year he will also refuse your mince pies…

…because the church year can be a powerful aid to our faith. It can seem odd and inconvenient…this year Advent 4 is also Christmas Eve; sometimes there is hardly a gap between Epiphany and Lent. But in a way that is its power…the church calendar is different to other calendars…it is not a marking of historical events in order…but a story, an account of the self-revelation of God. Not just dates to remember…but something we participate in. And by taking part – something that makes God’s interaction with the world real for us now.

That’s why after the excitement of processions and hosannas on Palm Sunday, we travel with Jesus through Holy Week. If we share in foot washing, stripping the altar and the desolation of Gethsemane on Thursday; and the almost unbearable sadness and cruelty of Good Friday – then the emptiness of Holy Saturday prepares us to experience, as well as proclaim the joy of Easter morning. As St Paul says – by dying with Christ, we live with Christ.

Forty days later, we come on a perhaps inconvenient Thursday evening to be reminded by his ascension – that Jesus conquered death for all people in all times. Putting aside that time does far more to make it real than just reading about it.

Sometimes, the way the story fits into the year can seem odd. Infant teachers struggle to explain Jesus going from baby in a manger – to the Son of God dying on a cross…in three months.

…and it can become too familiar – we know what happens next – one year blurs into another. This can seem especially acute in Advent.

Advent, we are told is a season of waiting…but one of the comings we wait for has already happened. We celebrated it only 11 months ago…

The introduction to my Advent book this year uses the image of a snowball rolling downhill as a useful picture for the church’s year, and its story of God’s interaction with the world. As the snowball rolls, it’s the same snowball – but with every turn it picks up more snow…

…we recount the same story each year – but with each telling and retelling it picks up more resonances, more ways we can understand…and we are drawn deeper into God’s story.

The snowball picking up new snow reminds us that the salvation story continues today. The point of telling and retelling the story of God’s interactions with his people is so that we can recognise it when it breaks into our world. Entering properly into the church year reminds us that God does break into our world: creating, healing, saving…and will do so again. God is present in our world – but so often we don’t recognise his presence.

To experience Christmas as God breaking into the world, rather than the recollection of a nice story, we need to make use of Advent. The purple vestments and hangings can make Advent seem a lot like Lent – and both are a time of preparing, of waiting – but whereas we use Lent to examine ourselves and how we have wandered from God…Advent is a time to examine God, and our readings help us do this.

Today we heard Isaiah wrestling with how God has chosen to relate to the world, how God seems hidden, seems to have turned his face away – how hard this makes it for God’s people. Yet, he says ‘O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are our potter.’

In Advent we spend time with patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist, Mary…people who were called to speak of God in difficult times…people who understood that though often hidden, God is faithful…people who lived in hope.

Advent is not about hurrying on to Christmas. Advent is about acknowledging the darkness of the world – but doing so with the collective memories of God’s people reminding us that God has broken into the world, and will do again.

Sharing the same story year after year means that every season, whilst unique, also contains the truth of the whole year. In advent we wait with longing for Christ to come into the world…but we do so not as unredeemed people who fear that Christmas might not come.

The purpose of Advent is not to persuade Christ to come…but to prepare us so that we notice when he does. Advent is not Lent – but the disciplines we use in Lent are a good pattern…the doing something different…the changing the rhythm of our lives just a little.

I will try to set aside time to read my Advent book and consider what it tells me – but there are lots of other things we can do…join us at morning or evening prayer, or midweek Eucharists; James has advent candles – light one each day and spend the time waiting on God, or if you are waiting with children he has advent calendars…read the readings for next Sunday each day.

What ever you decide to do – I pray that this Advent we will all learn a little more about the God for whom we wait in hope.