I have just come from a country where the commercial machinery of Christmas seems to be already operating at full capacity, in a remote kind of way. Strangely deserted streets echo to the blah of canned music and sugared carols. But as I wandered around in this twinkling wilderness I was reminded of my own tendency to treat Advent purely as a season of hope, ignoring the fact that to speak of hope without speaking of penitence is to deal in a twinkling fantasy.
It is easy to over spiritualise the season of Advent, allowing fuzzy ideas of hope to morph gently into sentimental vaguely religious thoughts of Christmas and what we are going to receive, give, or cook on Christmas Day. All of this is helped along by the canned music, the sugared carols, and the blaring advertisements, each in their way a manifestation of what is both cruel and false about our society, cruel to the rich as well as to the poor. The inevitable debt that will be a burden to many following this season and the false needs being projected, through the music and the ads, on those who can afford to gratify them. There is much to repent of.
There is also much to repent of in the life of the Church, where we sing the beautiful carols of Advent while ignoring the hurt inflicted by the powerful on some of our own members. The Church is called to be the prophetic voice of hope in the world, especially during the holy season of Advent, but what hope is there for people to believe in when we read of yet another instance of the sexual abuse of the vulnerable by clergy, or of bullying that is every bit as nasty as what must go on in the advertising world by those in positions of power and influence in the Church?
If the Church is to be believed, let alone become a sign to the world of the hope of Advent, some honest and brave repentance needs to take place in regard to these issues right now, during this season of Advent. By honest, I mean a clearly articulated apology from those highly placed clergy who are directly responsible for the hurt they have caused to individuals under their care and jurisdiction, and for the dishonour their behaviour has brought to God’s Church and to their particular Office. Let us not content ourselves with simply blaming the secular or Church press for telling the story.
Apologies need to come from these highly placed clerics, both publicly and privately, along with a willing acceptance of the possible consequences of their treatment of others, or of their failure to care for them; that they have caused mental and physical breakdown, along with the destruction of professional lives, in those they have abused. Furthermore, their words should be substantiated by action. These clerics should therefore step down from their positions of power for at least the amount of time others have sacrificed as a direct result of the abuse endured at their hands. Resignation or prolonged leave of absence would be the mark of something like genuine repentance.
All of this also points to the glaringly obvious fact that one of the greatest sins that the Church needs to repent of is clericalism itself, the hack professionalism that has led to an almost complete breakdown of the Church’s spiritual and, at times, moral life.
So let the world see the Church repent so that the real carols can begin. That would be a sign that it is serious about its prophetic witness to the hope of Advent.