December, 1980: It was Christmas time, and I was in kindergarten, and we were given the task of making ornaments for our classroom tree. The popular craft of the era was the old Christmas card picture framed in a stack of toothpicks carefully glued together. I remember making my stack, then the disappointment as my toothpick stack collapsed under the strain of the glue oozing from the corners. As my classmates swarmed and danced around the tree, looking for a place to hang their ornament, I stayed behind with my failed Christmas ornament, feeling very sad. (A footnote: 35 years later, I’m pretty sure everyone else’s ornament probably had 2 toothpicks and a half cup of glue on it for decoration; my failure was the curse of being a perfectionist kindergartener!)
In this the Gospel reading for the second week of Advent (Lk 3: 1-6), we heard that John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What is this repentance like? I think sometimes we approach repentance much like I approached my failed Christmas ornament project: treating God like he is far away, we feverishly try to identify and root sin out of our lives. We have these dreams of showing the Lord our now-sinless soul, made perfect by the strain of our efforts, and we sing, “Ta-da! Look what I’ve done all by myself!” We know all too well that this so-called “success” never actually happens. In our efforts to root out sin, we fall back into it. Then we pull the same old thing our first parents did: we try to hide from God, going back to where we started, feeling more distant from him than ever.
Jesus shows us in this second week of Advent that repentance doesn’t have to be that way. On Monday, we hear that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins (Lk 5:17-26). Then in the reading for Tuesday of the second week of Advent, Jesus tells that parable of the lost sheep, assuring us that he doesn’t wait for us to come to him; he comes to find us (Mt 18:12-14). Finally, on Wednesday, we hear these consoling words,
Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
In this passage, I think we hear the secret of the joy of repentance. Jesus is with us every step of the way in the work of repentance. In fact, he has initiated the work through his grace won for us on the cross. And when we lay down the heavy burden of equating “repentance with “no sin” or unattainable perfection, and also foisting conditions on God’s love (he will love me when I am perfect), we will experience the joy of picking up the yoke of Christ. Instead of figuring out on my own what obstacles there are to my personal holiness (and approaching this all on my own), I can now ask Jesus, “Lord, what is there that is keeping me from deeper communion with you?” and open my heart to the grace offered in the sacraments, because it is only through, with, and in Christ that I can experience true conversion. When we do this, we are acting on the faith that Jesus has truly redeemed us; he has stood in the place of our sinfulness as the beloved Son of the Father. It is only when we have this daily conversation with Jesus that we experience the joy of repentance, of being the beloved son or daughter of God through the redemption offered us by Jesus Christ. This is when the yoke become easy and the burden light, as impossible as that sounds. It is then that we will experience the hope expressed in Isaiah (Monday’s first reading):
Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
They will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
Let’s answer John’s call to repentance this Advent!