A few years ago, I got one of those phone calls that parish priests in New York City relish.
“Hi, I’m Jewish and I’m writing a movie and I need to understand more about the Episcopalian idea of purgatory.”
A really fun teaching conversation ensued. . .starting with, the Episcopal Church doesn’t believe in purgatory. And then, the caller got to a question that I think all people wrestle with no matter their religious background, and which was probably at the heart of not just the phone call, but of her film:
“Do you believe that if someone commits some sort of big sin, they really can be forgiven?”
Yes. Absolutely. Sins really can be forgiven. Even really big ones.
Which is the Gospel of Mark begins exactly as it does: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and immediately launches into not the story of Jesus but the story of John the Baptist, the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, “Repent.”
The way we prepare for Jesus is through repentance. And that is the beginning of the Good News–repentance is good news, not bad news, and it is the beginning of the Good News, not the end of the Good news.
So this week, as we rest in between two Gospels readings about John the Baptizer: take some time to reflect on those sins, both individual and corporate, for which John is calling us to repent, that we might be better prepared to welcome Jesus into our lives once again this Christmas.
In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the general confession is so eloquent at identifying the myriad ways in which we sin. As a spiritual exercise in inspiring our repentance, I encourage you to read it slowly, so you can apply each line to your own life, your own sins. And listen for the voice of John the Baptist crying out from the wilderness, “Repent!”
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.
Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.