Advent Penance Service

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-3, Matthew 9:1-8

advent-candles-mThis afternoon I was thinking about the fact that people don’t experience things in the same way.  I was in downtown Naperville with my sister, my two nieces and my nephew.  We were out having lunch and doing some Christmas shopping just as the weather was getting pretty nasty.  My sister and I were probably not having as much fun trudging through the snow as Danny and Molly, whose attention I could not get because they were absolutely transfixed by the beauty of the snow.  One person’s hassle is another’s delight – especially when the other ones are three and four years old!

I know a lot of people who get depressed this time of year.  Probably you do too.  Many people are missing loved ones who are far away from home, or who have passed away.  Some of my friends have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, and so they are depressed when we don’t see the sun as much on cloudy days like today, or when it gets dark so early as it does during this time.  Some people also look back on another year almost finished, and they lament what could have been, or what actually has been.  If there is any reason for being a little depressed at this time of year, it often seems like the joy that other people are experiencing during the Christmas season makes the pain even worse.

So for whatever reason, many of us experience darkness during this season, when so many seem to be rejoicing in light.  In essence, that’s what Advent is all about.  The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts.  This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  “Rise and walk.” “Your sins are forgiven.” And just like the paralytic, we are healed not just of our noticeable infirmities, but more so of our inner woundedness.  We, like that paralytic in the Gospel tonight, are completely healed – from the inside out.  The darkness of our world and the darkness of our hearts are absolutely no match for God’s light.  In another place, Isaiah prophesies about this Advent of light: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater [like the light of seven days].”

Our Church makes the light present in many ways – indeed, it is the whole purpose of the Church to shine a bright beacon of hope into a dark and lonely world.  We do that in symbolic ways: the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath symbolizes the world becoming lighter and lighter as we approach the birthday of our Savior.  But the Church doesn’t leave it simply in the realm of symbol or theory.  We are here tonight to take on that darkness and shine the light of Christ into every murky corner of our lives.  The Sacrament of Penance reconciles us with those we have wronged, reconciles us with the Church, and reconciles us most importantly with our God.  The darkness of broken relationships is completely banished with the Church’s words of absolution.  Just like the Advent calendars we’ve all had reveal more and more with every door we open, so the Sacrament of Penance brings Christ to fuller view within us whenever we let the light of that sacrament illumine our darkness.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  In our first reading, Isaiah comes to proclaim “a year of favor from the Lord.”  We can receive that favor, that light, by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way.  Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

The wonderful hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” speaks of the light that is to come to us:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us.  The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ.  As we approach Christmas, that light is ever nearer.  Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

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