1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
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I would wish you all a Happy Advent, but, well, I can’t. It’s Advent and, in Advent, we’re not allowed to be happy. We’re not allowed to laugh, and we’re not allowed to even smile. Advent’s a penitential time, and that means it’s a time when we’re all supposed to act really sad and think about all the horrible things we’ve done. Lisa and I have picked out some really depressing music, too. In seminary, I took a class called “How to make sure your congregation is penitent during Advent and Lent.” It wasn’t a very fun class, but that’s how it’s supposed to be.
[in a normal voice, now]
Now, when I was teaching, my students said that I have a very straight face when I’m being silly, so I should stop right now and tell you: I’m joking. Yes, it’s Advent, but you can joke. Yes, it’s a penitential season, but you can smile and have fun. Yes, we’re all dressed up in purple and things are a bit dimmer with rainy weather and all, and our liturgy will be a bit more contemplative, but that doesn’t mean we have to be sad and mopey.
Advent, just like Lent, is a penitential season. That is indeed why the vestures and hangings are purple. And that is why the readings today, and those for the rest of Advent, have a somewhat somber tone. And that’s all well and good, but I think when we hear the word “penitential” we often think of doing “penance”: and doing penance is never fun. Penance, we think, is what you do after you sin to make up for all the bad stuff. The old image of the sacrament of Confession is when a person tells the priest all their sins (through this little window in a tiny, dark confessional), and the priest says, “Ahh, yes, well; that was very naughty, so say fifteen Our Fathers and forty Hail Mary’s and call me in the morning.” I once read an account of medieval penance, where, if a priest dropped the sanctified host on the floor, he’d have to clear out the church and kneel on the hard, cold, stone floor for the rest of the day, praying the psalms. Penance, we often think, is what you do to hurt yourself into doing the right thing, to give you such a bad memory of the repercussions that you don’t do it again. And, I’d like to say, even though I love the medieval period, I think it’s a pretty good thing that we’re not that sort of penitential anymore.
And yet, even still, we are called to penance during this time of Advent. But what is good penance, then? I could give you the dictionary definition, but I’d rather tell you about growing up in rural New Jersey at my parents’ house in the woods. You see, in the house, there was a room that we called the “living room”, though we rarely went in there. When we gathered as a family, we did it around the kitchen table, or on the couch in another room, or our own rooms where we kept our toys. The living room was for special occasions. There was a big table on one side that could fit 10 people, and on the other were couches which, I remember, I was definitely not allowed to jump on. There were also two great wardrobes, and one filled with an old set of Shakespeare and Dickens; and on one of the end tables, there was an old washing basin that rattled whenever you went past, even if you snuck by. The walls in this room were painted white, but all the rest was dark: dark wooden floors and dark moulding. There was also a great hearth that was so big that I could still fit inside it, even now, and, standing heavy above it, a long, dark, thick mantelpiece.
This room, the “living room”, was where we had Thanksgiving dinner. As a child, I remember walking around between all the tall adults, wondering what in the world they were talking about, smelling the delicious food before I saw it, and sitting at that great table with people I only saw once or twice a year. It was warm, and the food was filling, and there was joy in the air. It was Thanksgiving.
But then Thanksgiving would be over. My birthday would pass, and it would be Advent. The house was decorated, and we listened to Christmas music, and everything was very festive, but…something changed in the air from Thanksgiving. It was colder. All the trees in the forest had lost their leaves. The grass was dim, and there was a feeling in the air that it might snow, but not yet, not yet. And the sky was white, and the trees are dark brown, just like the white walls and dark woodwork of the living room. And even with the Christmas music on, there seemed a quietness to the house that was of no one’s making. All was still and patient and waiting.
And when December 1st came, we would start our Advent calendar. This was a felt hanging with pockets that we put on the door just before the living room. And on it were little scenes of Santa Claus preparing for Christmas. In one, he was wrapping gifts; in another he was decorating a tree. In one he was pushing his car that had got a flat tire (this one always confused me; why was Santa driving a car?) And in each, he was alone: just him and the small chores of the season. Now, in each pocket was a little chocolate treat that my sister and I would get if we finished our dinner. But there were only twenty-four pockets, not twenty-five, so that Christmas seemed like a whole other world, a new reality just beyond the edge of sight.
These were just some of the traditions we had as a family while growing up. And, now that I’m older, I see that there was a sort of penance in all of it. There was a penance in waiting, of keeping that living room free of normal, everyday life, of keeping it sort of holy. There was a penance in those white walls and deep, dark fireplace that mirrored the trees outside, swaying in the chill air against a cloudy sky. There was a penance in that Advent calendar, even though each day I got chocolate from it. There was a penance in watching Santa go through the month, day by day, keeping time, alone, with decorations and preparations; and there was a penance in the wonder of realizing, even so young, that when Christmas came, the world really would be different – and not because I’d have new toys to play with, but because the world itself would remember – it would feel the reverberations of that day two thousand years ago when everything did change.
And what is this penance? What is this penance that Advent calls us to? It is life. It is a penance written deep into the world and into our lives. It is a penance of reflection, of allowing the old things in our lives that are dead and dying to fall away, as the trees lose their leaves, at first one by one, then all at once. It is a penance of prayer that doesn’t bite or pinch, but that sits down with you at a great fireplace below a thick mantle, and sips coffee or tea with you, while you and God slowly take stock of the world. It is a penance that first is empty, that clears and cleans and lets fall away, and remains that way, so that we may breathe the crisp air. And in the end, that emptiness will be filled: by God. Those silent times before the slowly crackling blaze will become the joy and laughter of rebirth and new life in Christmas and Epiphany. And those bare trees will, one day, bear leaves and fruit again. But not yet. Not yet, for first we must sit with the world in her darkness and wait for that day that is on no calendar, when the Lord will come again.
So let us end together, and read in unison the collect for today: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.