Reflections on the Season of Advent by the Presiding Bishop

December 1, 1998

Advent is a season filled with paradox: it marks both a beginning and an end. It marks a time of waiting and anticipation, as we look to the incarnation of the word of God in the person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, it causes us to reflect on Christ coming again at the end of time to gather up all things and make them whole.

Advent is also a season of dislocation, as the voices of the prophets of Israel and that desert wild man, John the Baptist, disturb our comfort and challenge us to examine the assumptions and unquestioned patterns which constitute our lives. Israel of old perceived itself to be faithful and God fearing, and accepted the existing structures of social and religious life as consonant with God's will and intention. However, the very liturgy that was intended to bring about an ever deepening relationship between God and the children of Israel became for many a way of keeping God - and the ever present call to conversion - at bay.

Repent, turn around, see clearly and accurately is the message of the prophets. And the purpose of repentance is to find oneself, and indeed one's community of faith, aligned with God's purpose, God's project of rooting compassion and justness and self-giving love deep within our hearts, within the inner core of our personhood. As we repent our hearts of stone are transformed into hearts of flesh.

Many of us view repentance primarily as beating our breasts and admitting our sin. Though that is sometimes the case, repentance has a larger and more positive meaning. To repent is to turn away from distortions and self-serving images and understandings of God. While these images may give us security, they also keep us from embracing the larger vision. They keep us from embracing the vision of wholeness and reconciliation which corresponds to God's unfolding fullness. They can blind us to how God continues to act in the world. They keep us from seeing the fullness of God which alone can heal and reconcile all things.

I think here of a text to which I return again and again: "If you make my word your home you will indeed be my disciples; you will know the truth and the truth will make you free" (John 8:31-32). The word isn't just what Jesus says, but the word signifies his whole person. If we make our homes in Christ - just as Christ through Scripture and the Sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, seeks to "dwell in us as we in him" - then we will truly be disciples. That is, we will be teachable and available to the insistent motions of the Spirit who leads us and forms us over time through the events and experiences which accost us and demand to be lived.

In this way, we will come to know the truth - not as a series of propositions but as the inmost possession of our souls. And, in that process of knowing, we discover our freedom: freedom from our distortions, from fears, untruths, and "the dullness of our blinded sight," as the ancient hymn Veni Creator expresses it.

In this way, we will give room to the word of Christ who is the Word, and who continues to address us in the Spirit. The Spirit draws from what is Christ's and declares it to us (John 16:13-14). Though our baptism we have become a community of disciples (learners) who continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42) To "continue" means not simply fidelity to the past, but persisting in a process of continual growth and discovery, continual wrestling with and response to the living word of ongoing divine address.

What I am describing requires discernment and a testing of the spirits (1 John 4:1). Continual discernment is necessary lest a personal or group agenda make us so zealous and single-minded in the name of one cause that a sense of God's larger purpose is lost. Such zealousness renders us unable or unwilling to give room to what the Sprit of truth may be trying to declare through the voices and lived word of others who are also limbs - through very different limbs - of Christ's risen body the Church.

Discernment of the authentic motions of the Spirit involves all of us who have been baptized into Christ. It is always a corporate undertaking involving risk, struggle, dislocation, conflict, endurance, generosity of spirit, and, above all, continual repentance: turning away from our own limited perspectives and partial truths to the ever unfolding mystery of the truth as it is in Christ. "Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).May the words of St. Paul give us confidence and hope as we continue together to be faithful to the leading of the Spirit and, along the way, may we resist every temptation to say to one another "I have no need of you" (1 Corinthians 12:21).

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA

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