The Christmas season is a season of preparation. We busily prepare our homes for guests, we decorate and cook special meals, and we purchase gifts as we anticipate the arrival of Christmas morning. In general, we busy ourselves with preparations because of the joy and gladness we anticipate with the arrival of Christmas day. But the Christian season of Advent, which culminates in the celebration of the birth of Jesus, is a season of preparation in an entirely different way.
The first movement of Advent calls Christians to prepare their hearts through repentance for the day of the Lord. For Advent not only looks ahead to the birth of Jesus as a baby, but also to his coming as the Messiah King. The ancient prophets of old heralded a Messiah who would usher in the kingdom of God; but the prelude for his coming would be a righteous cleansing. The prophet Malachi warned: “But who can endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”(1) The coming “day of the Lord” would bring a cataclysmic cleansing. Like a refiner’s fire that burns the impurities from precious metals, the Lord would purify the priestly line and establish righteousness. Echoing this prophetic tradition, the voice of John the Baptist hundreds of years later called the people to “prepare the way of the Lord.” John called for a preparation of repentance, just like the prophets from Isaiah to Malachi: “Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
As Isaiah envisioned, repentance prepared the way for the coming Messiah. The Messiah came as the refiner’s fire, and as the one who brought low every mountain and hill in the judgment of unrighteousness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented this lost theme of the preparation of repentance in an Advent sermon he preached in 1928:
“It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God….We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.”(2)
The Advent season intends to prepare hearts through repentance, for God will come again to judge the world in righteousness. The prophets similarly intended to prepare hearts with repentance as they looked toward God’s entry into the world in Jesus Christ. Such repentance does not leave us in fear or shame at our undoing. Rather, godly repentance prepares the way for hope—hope that in Jesus, God’s justice and mercy are joined. Isaiah envisioned a hopeful outcome from the preparation of repentance: “[A]ll flesh shall see the salvation of God….Like a shepherd He will tend his flock, in his arm He will gather the lambs, and carry them in his bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes” (Isaiah 40:5-11). The God who will judge the world in righteousness is the same God who gathers people like a shepherd and tends the flock with gentleness. The most vulnerable—lambs and nursing ewes—are not forgotten.
The season of Advent calls for the preparations of repentance. It is a repentance that acknowledges the need for change. It is a repentance that brings hope into a culture busied by other preparations, a repentance that brings hope in the loving justice of God.
Margaret Manning is a counselor in Washington.
(1) cf. Malachi 3:1-4.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 185-186.