Tag Archives: repentance

Nothing is going to get better…without your work.

I find the way sinfulness and repentance is portrayed in the readings today problematic. Here I go again arguing with centuries of tradition, but it seems offensive to have to appease and angry and tantruming Lord, to consider ourselves condemned unless we humiliate ourselves- that seems to go against the idea of a loving God that wants us to thrive and grow.

But if I assume that a loving God wants us to thrive and grow, what am I left with of these readings?

  1. It’s not too late to repent. In terms of the extreme sins of society that we are entangled in. In terms of our personal investment in those sins (lifestyles reliant of environmental degradations, disgusting inequalities, consumerism, cowardice, addictions). In terms of the lack of hope in humanity’s future if we don’t repent quickly the readings have a few things to say.

“Even now…return to me with your whole heart…” Don’t just despair that it ought to have been done a decade ago, get busy saving the earth now. “Let your hearts be broken…” repentance is an emotionally honest process, not a performative one. The second reading tells us that “now is an acceptable time…a day of salvation”. The time we need to be doing any work of repentance is NOW. Not despair over a past when we “should have”, not wishy-washy trust in a nebulous future but the hard yards need to happen “now” (there is a promise that we will feel joy).

  1. This is urgent. The business of fixing the values that we live by as individuals and demanding better from our society is urgent- more urgent than getting married, or other cosy lifecycle practices of human beings. At the same time I realise that this reading was written many centuries ago for quite a different time, so the universal call to leave family and celebration and make a serious and urgent event of repentance comes around again and again and again. Hence we have lent. It’s exhausting to live in a serious-minded lent frame of mind for long, so we can’t blame ourselves for needing other parts of the liturgical year, however lent has a sense of urgency- we need to change how we relate to ourselves, each other and the world, therefore improving our relationship with God.


  1. This needs to be real. Performative holiness, looking like the person who prays more and fasts more and does more for the church or good cause does not fool God. God wants a deep commitment, that other people don’t even always need to be aware of. Having said that, recently a young man confided in me that because he has not got any children he uses a truly staggering part of his salary each week (which he works hard for) to support a cause he believes in. I did not feel he was telling me this to make me approve of him or admire him (though it did have a positive effect on my opinion of him), he was telling me as part of his need to share his journey and his fierce hopes and looming despair. I felt inspired and connected by him trusting me enough to tell me- so I don’t think giving ALWAYS needs to be a secret. It can be a model, and inspiration for others we may have all sorts of good reasons to let people see our light. It is just that the gospel is picking up the theme of the first reading.


The point of generosity and goodness is not to appear holy or admirable, it is to make an actual difference within ourselves and the world. Reading smug parenting blogs with a passive-aggressive judgemental tone has taught me to look for my motivation in sharing something I am good or successful at. Am I really trying to be “good news” when I talk about something I think I have got right? Sometimes the answer is “yes”, and I truly appreciate the young man’s confession of how generous he is. Other times all I am doing is trying to look better than others or shame them. God is not impressed.

Ove the years I have seen some unhealthy tendencies in my own relationship with God. One is dependence, this is the one that is often encouraged in some churches- where God’s role in the relationship is to know everything and order everything and fix everything for me from my economic woes to my mental health. This is a seductive idea because it takes the responsibility to act and grow away from me, I am simply a victim of the divine and need to trust more or surrender more to be fixed.

In my experience, no matter how hard people pray and believe they don’t always magically get what they need. Then people will try to tell you it must be “God’s will” that you suffer. I reject that idea also. What is the good of life if God plays creepy, psychotic mind-games with us to “test” us or something? Theologies like that give rise to unhealthy power-structures and all sorts of abuses.

So my final point about repentance, and it springs out from these readings is that it is an active verb. We repent, change our ways, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel”. We take radical responsibility for ourselves, including the responsibility to separate what is “sin” and what is “me” and not confuse the two. I can turn away from sin but I cannot turn away from myself (and in fact self-hate of various sorts has been a consistent and toxic sin that I have had to battle for many years). A measure of self-compassion needs to blend with our repentance, like that drop of water that brings out the flavours of a good whisky.

Repentance is not about holding myself to a higher and higher impossible standard, forbidding myself human weakness and moments of being trivial. But it is about trying to move away from “victim narratives” where the world is too awful to be born, or escapist and addictive behaviours and overfocus on the wrong things. God is calling us “now” to a fuller, deeper, richer, more meaningful life. We must care for ourselves AND others. This is not a chore but a fulfilment of our true nature in God. Look deep inside and allow yourself to care. Feel compassion for the child you were, the adult you have been, the adult you are currently and all the great and flawed things you will be tomorrow. You have been hurt. You have been harmed,

Then compassion needs to flow outwards as well. Who is suffering more than you? This is not to belittle the validity of your pain and scream of anguish, but simply to find solidarity and compassion for them, your God-given vocation. What do we all need for the best possible future? How do we look beyond our own private good to a “kindom of God” approach to life?

Rest up and heal if you need to but also stand up for things and give generously to others. Demand a world that does not crush your light (my light, your light are connected to every other light that God has put into creation). I won’t give words for a prayer today, it is too easy to hide behind words. I will look for my awareness of where my potential is to turn more fully to be facing God in the dance of life. I will look at where my understanding and compassion are needed. I will forgive myself for not being better, but I will do it with a joyful spark of knowledge that the “not better” is only a “not yet”.

I will work for the things that matter, giving up escapism (in my case dumb computer games) for the duration of lent and stop avoiding the deep reflective time that is needed for my growth. I will light a candle and contemplate without words (or try to).



“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not” (Dr Seuss, The Lorax)


Lovers, sisters, friends and God’s presence

My intention was to write a reflection for the 4th Sunday of advent but the problem with websites, is they have their own rhythms and when I switched on, the US bishops’ website showed (as always) the readings for today. I did mean to flick across to Sunday, I did! But today’s readings are some of my favourites, it is like turning your back on rich dark chocolate to flick past them. So sorry, but it is going to be readings for the final Thursday in this advent instead (I am sure there will be many other people giving great reflections for this Sunday, or you can consult a decent commentary and make your own with prayer).

In the first reading, the call from God is shown us as a call from an infatuated and very attractive lover. The earth is in perfect harmony with this lover- flowers are springing up, the harshness of winter is finished and this is the beginning of a “happily ever after”. OK so I sneer at romance novels and keep a cynical smirk on my face when anyone says “happily ever after”…usually. But looking past the metaphor this is God we are talking about. God comes to us in desire and joy and beauty, seeing the good in us, “my beloved, my dove, my beautiful one” and calling us into the flower-scented springtime of life.

I am unsure if it is still God calling, or the soul calling back in the last stanza (who is yearning to see and hear their “dove”?) but any separation needs to be ended.

This is what it truly means to “repent”.

We all know that any lover or close friend will take us out of our comfort zone, upset our careful routines and defence mechanisms and call forth from us some sort of change, not because they are finding fault with us but because in relationship it is always needful to accommodate to each other.

We often get the dreary guilt trip to “repent from sin” to “repent from how awful you are” and all of that, like children being constantly told to “wash your hands” and “don’t whine” and “act like a big boy” (although I try to avoid the “big boy” comment these days). Repent because you are dirty, repent because your desires are unanswerable or even wrong, repent because you are (spiritually) immature.

But the lover in the first reading (hint: it’s always God with the bible) says “Repent away from loneliness. Repent away from boredom. Repent away from not knowing you are beautiful. Repent with me into the abundant harvest. Hear me (or let me hear you). See me (or let me see you). Arise my love, my beautiful one and come.”

This seems like an excuse to turn to my favourite Christmas carol (as I already did in last Sunday’s liturgy) and I will use it as a bridge into a gospel that actually passes the Bechdel test (I know I said that last year…but it’s part of the reason I love this story so much).

Let me retell the story in my own (rather biased) words.

Mary understood how important “girl talk” can be for making meaning and offering support together, woman to woman. Although she was pregnant she journeyed a really long way to get to Elizabeth and offer her compassion and share her joy…also to exchange the exciting and slightly scaring news (I think it bears mentioning that the gossipy angel had mentioned to her that Elizabeth had news to share in the first place).

This story so far is full of the sort of femininities that often get mocked- the need for gossip and talk and emotional support and there is a heroic quality to Mary’s determination to offer and receive support in this way. Scripture is not working for the patriarchy here.

Mary “travelled in haste” and got to Elizabeth (in Zechariah’s house, scripture won’t/can’t move out of defining Elizabeth by her husband and his ownership of her home). As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, as soon as the inspirational female preacher spoke, the exceptional prophet (ie John the Baptist) in her womb leapt for joy.

Of course we have always been told (and I don’t entirely disagree) that the reason he leapt for joy was the proximity of Christ (in Mary’s womb). Yes, but what signalled Christ’s nearness? Mary’s voice!

Mary spoke and John heard the first stirrings of his vocation and knew joy. Elizabeth recognises this reaction from her infant/prophet and theologises about it. A gossip session has turned into an important meeting of theologies. But there is still the traditional element of women’s talk- giving compliments “Blessed are you…” (please note I, myself, am really bad at giving compliments and am still learning how to do it, but working in an all female workplace for a number of years has shown me what an important part of interactions it can be).

There the text stops which is disappointing because it means I have to pull my bible off the shelf (or open a new tab) to get the text of Mary’s proclamation and preaching. Mary places her joy and work firmly in the kindom of God with radical restitutive justice sweeping through every human dealing “he fills the hungry with good things, sends the rich away empty” and grounding herself in ongoing salvation history (echoes of Israel, Abraham and all the rest of them). I’ll say it again- with a mother like that can we be surprised Jesus was a great preacher and perceived as a dangerous revolutionary?

A couple of years ago I needed (for personal reasons) to explore a possible lesbian reading of Mary and Elizabeth but this year I am sitting with this as a meeting of minds, an intellectual and spiritual encounter set within the “women’s work” of nurturing and “gossip”. The common theme with this first reading is affectionate, joyful human relationships as places of encounter with the divine. Human love as the vehicle of vocation. Like the lover in the first reading- Mary (and Jesus) travel at haste toward someone they want to be joyfully with – Elizabeth (and John). As in the first reading the one who comes calls and the response in the one visited is joy and transformation.

John recognised in the voice of Mary the presence of Jesus. John was perhaps smarter than some official church leaders who think it is impossible for a woman to preach or minister (I do mean minister as I am sure Mary washed and fed and tended to her heavily pregnant older cousin and family, not just talked). Jesus came into the world surrounded by the buzz of “girl talk”, the sharing of news, the giving of compliments, the radical politics and theology…everything we know we do when we get together with other women. He also had the nurture of Joseph who trusted Mary to go on this long journey, who was the supporter not the “boss” of his family, although he does not appear in this story.

As the last few days of advent roll by let us listen for the voice of love that will make Christmas meaningful. We tend to eat too much and exchange gifts no one really needs and sometimes we feel guilty or judgemental about that. But it is our way of trying to connect in love. Instead of a more ascetic approach to Christmas, perhaps we can discover a more inclusive or transformative approach where gift and food are shared to those who need it “he fills the starving with good things and doesn’t burden the earth by giving his rich relatives stuff they don’t even really want”.

But I hope all my readers will have a really joyful Christmas with the people they love, and find somewhere within the celebrations the voce of the lover “Arise my beloved, my beautiful one and come”

The discomfort of camel-hair and the pleasure of washing.

I said this at church for advent 2. The readings were here. 

I bring uncomfortable words, but it is advent and John the Baptist urges me to be courageous and honest. Hopefully there are no Herods here, but in any case I attempt to find a truth greater than my own thoughts and experience. The truth (God) is also greater than the text, because the text is not God.

The first reading begins by promising us “comfort” and initially my heart sang at the thought, but then I read on.

I find no comfort in the gendered relation of power that is revealed, between a guilty (feminine) Jerusalem and her punishing Lord, however much in this reading he is staying his hand. This smacks of a cycle of abuse.

Reading on there is ecological disaster, the earth turned upside down for the sake of this “Lord”, mountains and valleys eroded. This version of “power” is all too familiar in the modern world and I find terror, not comfort if I attempt to identify God with it. The shepherd imagery at the end is tender, however we know that in reality shepherds exploit and eat their sheep who they tend to view as “stupid”. Similarly at times in political debate, people who naively accept what they are told are referred to as “Sheeple”.

I love my tradition and I want to find God in it but I am wary of how I will view myself, others or the world if I accept this reading too casually. I am sure wiser people than me might rehabilitate it somehow, I would rather sit with John the Baptist in camel hair, foraging for survival and not accept the precarious comforts of living in the shadow of abusive power- even when it claims kinship with God.

But we know God, we know her from the entire scriptures not just this one passage and we know her from the saving and companioning work of Jesus, from the heart-lifting vision of radical justice of Mary in the Magnificat, from the desperate call for repentance of John the Baptist, from the well-meaning, impulsive bumblings of the apostle Peter and from our own lives and meaningful connections.

In the second reading, Peter (if this is in fact he) is uncharacteristically humble, admitting that he does not have all the answers. We are urged to hope in God’s desire for universal salvation- whatever that will finally mean and however that will finally look. We can’t control the conditions around us, we can neither hurry nor delay the grace of God but what we can do is make ourselves ready, make our own conditions ideal for God’s presence.

There is a form of spiritual self-care that I think is being suggested here, which if we think of advent as a time of pregnancy, a time of bringing into being radical possibilities for the whole liturgical year starting with a birth at Christmas, then by nurturing ourselves and our inner life we are also nurturing the Christ-possibilities within. In that sense we can leave behind anything that defines “repentance” as responses to punishment or guilt, and see it instead as a call to a better, more hopeful, joy-filled life- what has sometimes been called “right relationship”. I frankly did not see a good example of right relationship in this first reading.

Across all three readings, there is a clear call to admit our sin and then a suggestion that baptism will wash away some sort of spots or dirt marks. Even then if sin is what makes us or our ways of being dusty and dirty then it originates from outside of ourselves from abusive patterns in the world. Thus to turn away from sin, to wash ourselves is self-care and associated with rest and even the pleasure of hot water and fragrant soap– repentance does not have to be about self-blame we can deeply understand and forgive our own imperfections (as a way of helping us be more tolerant and forgiving toward others). Instead we can turn toward God for the love of the divine “otherness” of God and for the joy of our potential to sink into and become one with that otherness as a deep affirmation of our own truest being.

John reminds us that when we act as “church” we enact sacraments that are shadows of the real sacrament of the real Christ. The priest, the prophet, the enacter of the mystery is no more worthy than the one who repents and accepts sacrament.

Let us sit and ponder a moment

What is the camel-hair, the uncomfortable reality we need to grapple with this advent?

How do we wash ourselves, be our best and most cared for selves? What do we repent from? What do we turn ourselves toward or into?

As we do this, let us stay with the idea of being gift and having gifts that is also part of our advent reality. Let us be brave and critical in our faith as we share our thoughts with each other. Let us trust our own experience of God in love and joy.


Sorrynotsorry; taking back misguided penitence

Let me be careful in introducing this content. I DO think it is useful and healthy for us human beings to be reflexive, responsible and have an intention toward better ways of being. There are times I am abusive, neglectful or “off task” with my vocation into transformed humanity and relationships. There is privilege which cushions me from consequences and blinds me to my failures to enter into Godness. There is my inability to distangle myself (and my choices) from oppressive economic and political systems and my investment in them. Nothing that follows should be read as implying that I am perfect or have nothing to repent from.

But as a woman, a lay person, a flaming queer, a dole bludger, a single mother, a nutcase, a feminist, a tree-hugger, a feral radical (etc, etc, etc) I have often been conned into having a deficit view of myself, positioned as a “sinner” within my identity (in terms of faith or just in terms of society). I am ashamed to say I have often cringed and hated myself and felt genuine remorse about things that either were NOT SINS or that I had little or no control and choice over. So let me begin a non-penitential rite and I hope any of you that have shouldered guilt that does not belong to you will be able to do the same.

This confession then is not a “sorry” statement, far from it. It is a bursting out of the closet statement (or in biblical terms bursting out from under a bushel-Matt 5:15). I am sure I will have ample time on some other occasion to dwell on my genuine sinfulness.

I confess

that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” (psalm 139:14),

that and any “fear” in it does not belong to God.

Love, the Creator and Love the Master Workman collaborated to plan and bring me forth (Proverbs 8:30),

and Love the Midwife caught and checked me over (see eg Isaiah 66:9 but God is about this profession several times)

I am made in the image of all three- Love and Love and Love

and so I am called to grow into my nature (Love),

and to find my destiny (Love) and to embody the reality of my being (Love).

I can claim this in so far as I live with respect for my sisters and brothers, human and non-human -earth, sun. stars, ocean, flame, music, animals, plants, ozone layer, galaxies and all there is, was or may be.

Coming together as God’s family, let us recognise the Divine plan that we should be diversely beautiful, powerful and social agents. Let us not insult the creativity of Godde by hating what we are.


And so I confess that I am not sorry

for having conceived children out of wedlock (and having unlocked wedlock and got away)

for “impure” thoughts that are respectful of boundaries and the safety of all parties,

for being a lesbian (and for finding this out the hard way- which was neither my choice nor my fault)

for being angry at times

for responding to authority at times with questioning, disobedience, anger, ridicule and activism

for being too tired to be a better activist,

for being a shy and underachieving person

for using too many words and failing to remain silent,

for loving my children more than I love anyone or anything else (beyond all reason),

for loving myself enough to sometimes say “no” to others, even my own children,

for being slow to learn and understand- because for some things teachers were scarce,

for anything I did as a child, when I was too small, scared, inexperienced and vulnerable to do better

for having depression,

for being broken and needing help again and again,

for taking charity when it was available,

for not always being able to pay for things,

for not being able to afford every advantage for my children,

for attempting suicide, and for sadly understanding the logical reasons why others have done this and weeping more for the fact they needed to try than for the fact they succeeded,

for not being “better” than I am, and not always being interested in taking advice on how to be.

All the peculiarities and weaknesses of who I am, will grow into compassion and wisdom through the grace of God. I am called to heal, support, affirm and challenge others around me. Like a newborn baby I will crave and demand sustenance for God for my growth (1 Peter 2:2-3) and She will always feed me for fullness of life. Amen

Feel free to tell me in the comments things that you are not sorry for (that perhaps you were taught to see as sin but have realised are not in the real sense of the word).




Remembering that I am (star) dust

Lent. Repentance.(if you have time I STRONGLY ecommend you read that second link). What sort of a Spiritual detox can I undergo for the next 40 days? When I look honestly at my life I can see a lot of work needed- despair, fear of the other, fear of myself, commitment to my own powerlessness, self-pity, weariness, anger, traces of hate.

I want to turn back to my Micah 6:8 inspiration (not a text the church suggests for Ash Wednesday but one that seems to bring out the better possibilities for me. So I will try a three part plan

  1. Act with justice

This lent I will seek some way of speaking out (writing, attending a gathering) for justice. I will not allow myself to think it is pointless or hopeless. I will listen to people and engage them. I will debate with honesty and without cowardice. I will try to do what is fair.

I will seek to be fair also in places where I have power (as a mother, as a teacher, as someone who is listened to in certain groups) and I will seek to allow others to have a choice. I will deliberately target reading materials written by people whose voices need to be heard.

2. Loving-kindness

This is hard when I am tired and depressed but I will try always to make allowances for people and to assume they are doing their best. When I am angry I will seek to stay within the bounds of the specific complaint and avoid ad hominem (and ad feminam) attacks or over-the-top responses. I will forgive others their imperfections and I will forgive myself the same. I will rediscover my pacifist core in my interactions.

I will actively cultivate my veganism and a non-consumer attitude to be loving-kind also to my sister-mother the earth and to my own body and soul.I will seek to be generous and nurturing in my dealings with others- the children, old people, single mothers, lost souls, young questioners and all who can benefit from gentleness.

I will have anger when it is needed but will seek to keep it slow to start, quick to cool and fair. I will be brave in expecting others also to forgive and understand me. I will devote time for deliberate gratefulness both within myself (which I am reasonably good at but could grow) and outside of myself (expressed) which is harder but also needed.


3. Walking mindfully (heartfully, prayerfully) with my Godde

I will let go of my addiction to despair. When I refused to despair because my children had left me then I focused on TRUST that they had absorbed my love and it would win. Now my children are part of my life again and I am glad. I need to let go of other expectations to some degree, to TRUST. Not to become lazy in escapism (always a temptation for the weary and despairing soul) but to try and rest in the trust that God loves me.

Which is not to be naive that everything always happens as it should.

But I will seek not to despair about my vocation, my career, my love-life and my thesis. None of them appear to be going anywhere. I will quietly seek opportunities. I don;t know how I will do this but I know I need to. I will be polite in putting boundaries on other people’s advice (again I am not sure how but I will remember kindness).

I will experience the love of my Godde in my life and in the lives of my friends.

It might all seem like a cop-out. Where is the “extra challenge” when I am meant to do all this anyway? But if I take this seriously, rather than some token (like cutting out chocolate or wine…though I may need to reduce their place in my life) I will be growing as a person. Which is not to say that a token that helps focus us is a bad thing. But I need something more helpful and transformative than just guilt and self-criticism.

Turning away from sin in a patriarchal society is connected to turning away from the pervasive hatred toward all things woman/female. Including the stultifying, limiting hatred of the self.

This lent I pledge to make my meditations and changes ones that move me toward justice, loving-kindness and walking onely with my ultimate reality!

Please feel free to share in the comments your lenten plan if that is helpful to you to talk about, or keep it private if you prefer 🙂 Much love to you for reading.



Being patient- the “not yet” of Christmas.

“The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.”

As a metaphor this is a beautiful idea, that the wasteland and disappointed places inside myself have transformative potential at the coming of Sophia. But there is a chilling side to this metaphor in the year when we have had such a wet and abundant spring that everyone has harvested record breaking vegetables and roses (this in Australia) meanwhile the North Pole is fast disappearing (and how many species with it?)
“Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

All the limits we feel in our bodies and in our places in society will be overcome by the one who comes to “vindicate” the weak and frightened. There is radical hope here. How to read the hope together with the despair of a burdened earth? The psalm reminds us (as scripture does again and again and again) of God’s agenda, nothing to do with what you believe or who you sleep with but justice, relief, healing, sanctuary. God offers these to the poor and oppressed and calls us to be part of the movement of actualising her offers. I’d like to take that psalm on as a creed. The God I worship and call to is the God who does all those things. The hair-splitting theological points become irrelevant as God in this psalm, elsewhere in scripture and in the world rolls up her sleeves (shades of Washerwoman God here) and sets to work cleaning the house, nesting, making ready for baby Wisdom at Christmas and demands that as members of the household, the economy/oikonomia of God we do the same.

The second reading calls for patience (like every Mum ever talking to her small children about Christmas coming). Apparently we can’t hurry grace. We are also asked to stop complaining about each other, I would not think this refers to people who cry out against the genuine oppressions that God abhors but rather the nitpickers who judge other people’s sexual morality, spending habits or lifestyles and completely miss the point that God is coming to spread radical hope and justice and above all LOVE. We can all be a little bit mean-minded and judgemental at times, we all know better than others how they ought to live their lives. God doesn’t seem to have time for all that though because there are real things to be put into order (strangers to be protected and widows and orphans to be sustained).

The gospel could be read simply as part of the story of John the Baptist, a great prophet one who called people to repent back toward God and tried to open them up for the radical possibilities in Christ. There is also the bigger picture of reading the signs of the times. We keep wanting more and more and more proof and certainty before we make any decision or act. Jesus here seems to be advocating a boldness in the gospel. Don’t follow every reeed swayed by the wind, don’t expect your prophets packaged more perfectly. There are already voices of prophecy telling us about our times (there are the plants telling us the climate is skewed, there are the refugees telling us capitalism has failed the world). Take on the news you don’s wish to hear (that we must all repent radically and immediately) in order to make way for the Word that we do want, the hope and salvation of the world.

So pressed for time energy and money this year, so bereft of hope I do not know what I can bring to the table of celebration, in what way to connect with God in this coming season of Christmas. Patient waiting with the pregnant Mary is all the action I can offer at this stage, but also accepting the refocussing and repentance of the advent readings, to prepare myself for hope, for tiny baby-voice Wisdom to wrap delicate but insistent fingers around my finger and bring me back down to her level. To first steps not yet taken; to angels singing in Luke’s remembrance of the beginning or mysterious gifts and sudden journeys that are Christmas in the gospel of Matthew. And John reminds us to open our hearts to the Word- full of grace and truth. If we already had all the answers I guess we wouldn’t need Christmas.


Justice shall flourish … and fullness of peace for ever.

The Utopian vision in Isaiah’s first reading, gives us some idea of what was wrong with the world in the time this text was developed. The writer is longing for the world to be ruled by “wisdom and understanding…counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge an the fear of the lord”. This vision involves a radical sort of justice that looks beyond the shallow and the popular to the deep experiences of the oppressed. Nature itself will put off its need to compete and destroy each other with animals lying together peacefully and safely.
In 2016 a rationalist age of markets and worship of “the economy” and the image of each special individual this both soothes and attracts us but also fails to seem achievable. Of course lions eat lambs, that is natural and we ascribe to “nature” a whole host of negative human behaviours besides. But within the Jewish roots of our Christian tradition is an idealistic call to challenge the current view of “nature”, the essentialist and inevitable acceptance of injustice and inequity. As the people of God, our work is to achieve a more peaceful, wise and just world. The advent call is the call by a vulnerable baby that in Matthew’s gospel overstepped national boundaries to be recognised by foreigners (magi), and hated by the status quo (Herod), that is our Christmas movement to become uncomfortable for the unjust powers of the world and to break boundaries in radical inclusion and openness. If we are lions, we need to pull back from devouring; in so far as we are lambs we need to be courageous and visionary.
Even though the psalm talks about a “king” bringing God back in line with the ruling class, there is an idealistic view here of a king who is ruling for the poor and afflicted. Kingship in this ideal is not the exploitative relationship we often see in the privileged and the powerful of our world, but is a radical challenge to the greedy and the exploitative. “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever”.
This is a useful ideal to aspire to in so far as we are “kings”, in our relationships of leadership and power in our worlds. How do we treat our own children? Our elderly? Our employees or student? How do we “rule” over a group of people, who do we advocate for in our decision making and what values underpin our pronouncements? This is also an ideal worth holding our own leaders to. No-one can rule or govern forever but people and the times they live in go down in history as more or less peaceful and abundant.
The second reading from Romans encourages us to go to the scriptures for instruction, seeing the scriptures as sources of hope and practice. It also advocates harmony between believers, which at times gets interpreted by the powerful in the church as a sort of obedient group-think, but I don’t believe the idea here is to stifle debate and questioning, just for everyone to be considerate and ready to accept compromise so that life and liturgy together may be possible.
The reference to the “circumcised” and the “patriarchs” is broken open by a sudden appeal to the Gentiles, to be welcomed and “at one-ed” with also. The writer here claims that the idea of broadening out the inclusive vision was already written into the heart of the tradition, so the sort of change that accepts the challenge of the other is in no way a departure from the tradition we hold dear but the most faithful following of it. Who are the “Gentiles” of our time? Who do we seek to keep out? Muslims? LGBTIQ+ people? Women who have a vocation to ministry? Single mothers? It is someone who challenges our sure knowledge about the right way to live and the hegemony of our own way of life.
Having focused ourselves on justice and inclusivity by these readings, the gospel sweeps in the voice of John the Baptist giving us our advent call to “repent”. People often seem to think repenting means feeling sorry or guilty but in fact it isn’t a feeling at all it is an action of achieving radical change within ourselves, of turning around and facing the opposite direction to the negative one. Last advent I reflected on the unacknowledged need in me for so many years to “repent” of my heterosexuality, which is not to imply that people who are heterosexual are wrong, but that it was wrong for me and not what God had created me for, I always knew this deeply but in the cowardly way of a child began a path of obedience to my cultural context instead of my calling. Repentance is finding those spots of wrongness inside us, not necessarily “sin” in the sense of doing wrong, but the blockages from God’s grace and hope and the inability to respond to God’s call to live what we were created.
John the Baptist is concerned with more than personal identity-work of course, he is a huge threat to the status quo which is why he is ultimately put to death. But he also reminds us that it is our repentance, the ways we choose to radically alter our way of life toward hope and justice that prepares the way for Jesus/Wisdom to enter the world. John’s radical asceticism is unattractive to the modern gaze. He wears itchy, dirty clothing and eats an inadequate diet. I don’t want to emulate quite the minimalism of his lifestyle but instead I want to let him refocus me on what really matters, not always having the finest materials next to the skin or the prettiest appearance or the most tantalising foods (no not even at Christmas when we hear the call of the “economy” to spoil ourselves and others in this way) but what deeply matters is the repentance that leads to radical justice and hope, the world-altering growth that welcomes into the world God’s Word.
John also reminds us to be wary of relying on our religious pedigree, our alliance with an institutional church and reminds us the survival of the institution is NOT THE POINT since God can raise up believers from the very stones (a theme that is alluded to at Palm Sunday and other places). Our call is to “produce good fruit as evidence of [our] repentance” to actualise God’s reign not to get right a series of rituals and self-aggrandisements. John gives us a terrifying view of a purifying, cleansing, judging God to come- speaking back into the first readings preoccupation of fear of God. The point I take from that is not that God is terrifying and punitive but that there is an implied threat/warning to those who continue to oppress others, especially in God’s name. We can read all the grace and forgiveness and rehabilitation of the sinner in the mission of Jesus (and I do take comfort from this) nevertheless a call to repentance remains and it is a strong demand from God not a half-hearted suggestion. We may repent imperfectly and be forgiven but we outright ignore God and God’s beloved poor (the earth may be included in this) at our peril!
In conclusion I circle back to that beautiful vision of the first reading, of buds and shoots and new growth where we thought we saw decay. The jacarandas were late to blossom this year but they got there. Life wants to spring up and live abundantly. Let us embrace life as we enact and expect the radical transformation of the world from the vulnerable baby who is also the Word.