The call to repentance is an integral part of the penitential season of Advent because without the willingness to change and to be changed we cannot be said to have prepared ourselves for the coming of Christ. John the Baptist, with his outspoken message, can be seen an embodiment of the mad sage, a figure found throughout myth and literature, representing someone who lives on the margins of society yet who has a message for mainstream society, often confronting it with uncomfortable truths about prevailing attitudes and behaviour. People tend either to heed such voices or completely dismiss them, rarely is their reaction lukewarm.When John says that he is a voice crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, he is echoing the words of Isaiah which foretell the coming of the Messiah. In 1963, in his speech to members of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King also drew on the words spoken by Isaiah and John to call people to a radical attitude of repentance. He said he had a dream that, " one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together" and that his words would help to transform the “desert state of Mississippi” into an “oasis of freedom and hope”. King’s allusion to these two prophets was clear, he too was a voice crying out in a wilderness, and he too is drawing a comparison between inhospitable landscapes and the desert of our hearts. Our attitudes to God, ourselves and each other need to change in order to usher in the Kingdom of God and allow the glory of the Lord to be revealed.
This Advent message of changing our attitudes to others truly needs to be heard. A study just recently suggested that our current economic downturn does not seem to have brought out a spirit of compassion or empathy. In marked contrast to previous recessions we seem more willing to blame others, in particular the poor. Rather than all being in it together, we seem much more interested in getting out of it unscathed, in the meantime feeling resentful about everyone and everything that “caused” the problems – except, of course, ourselves.
The Advent message of changing our attitudes to ourselves also needs to be heard. Advent is often described as an “emptying “- as John says, “I must become less, he must become more.” We’ve lived for too long in a culture that tells we should take everything we can. We’ve been told to aspire to have and buy the best we can - because we’re worth it. No wonder we feel aggrieved, perhaps we might not be worth it after all? I suspect that at the root of a lot of our human anguish is the fear that we might be worthless. It sounds paradoxical, but emptying of the self allows us to find worth. I am really, really bad at the whole emptying lark by the way, but I know it is only when we make room within our hearts that we grow.
Repentance opens up the potential for change and that paves the way to hope.