Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26; Matthew 5:13-16

As joyful as this season is supposed to be, it can be so hard for so many people.  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.  And all we have to do is turn on the news this year, and hear of tragedy in Connecticut or the fiscal cliff, and even the most joyful among us can be turned to sadness.  And to make matters worse, 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.

But the struggle between light and darkness is 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.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on.  We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light.  Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world.  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].”  This is a light that changes everything.  It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

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 symbolically with the progressive lighting of the Advent wreath which represents 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.  We receive the light by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way.  Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in our hearts.  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.

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.”

O Key of David

Today’s Readings

We humans put up all sorts of barriers.  Some are necessary, like the walls of prisons, or the sound barriers along a highway.  Some are sad, like the old wall that used to separate East and West Germany.  Others are exasperating, like the wall along the frontier into Mexico.  The physical barriers that we accept every day keep us safe and warm, define our space, and keep us in our place.  Not sure if that’s always good or bad, but there it is.

Perhaps the saddest barriers that we put up, though, are the spiritual barriers that keep us from God, or the spiritual barriers that are intended to keep God from being God, or are intended to force God to do what we would want.  How often do we want God to answer our prayers in our own way, or not at all?  Are we sometimes afraid of what God would do if we really let him open the dark places of our lives?  Are we like the Israelites who could not bear to even look at Moses lest they be enlightened by the radiance of God at work in him?  The spiritual barriers that we put up as some kind of laughable defense against God are heartbreaking, because they succeed only in defeating the outpouring of God’s mercy on us in this time and place.

For all of us locked up inside those barriers, the antiphon from Vespers today prays:

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom. 

In today’s Gospel Mary found out that nothing can stand in the way of God’s plans, that the Key of David can even unlock the barren womb of her cousin Elizabeth to provide a herald’s voice for the coming of our Savior.  Perhaps today we can allow the Key of David to unlock the dark places of our hearts so that we can see a miracle happening in our own lives too.