Advent Reflection – “Repent”


One of the great themes of Advent is the Christian act of repentance. It’s an act so basic we often forget its importance, and though not always popular, repentance is common to all religions and quite central to Christianity itself. For us Christians, then, what is repentance?

First of all, repentance is not some kind of theatrically performed brow-beating. Still less is it the artificial inducing of needless guilt and shame. It’s something much deeper and profoundly healthy.

The 20th century Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrote famously that the church was a body “semper reformanda”, always in a state of reforming. The phrase is believed to come from St. Augustine, and implies that the Church, like Israel before her, is always being called back to the Lord to be cleansed and renewed. Doesn’t that describe our lives as well?

Back to the original question. What does it mean to repent? The Greek word for repent means “to change one’s mind or perspective.” The meaning is even stronger in the Hebrew, where it means “to turn around or return, to reverse direction.”

Who has seen that powerful scene in the 1986 movie The Mission? The story takes place in South America during colonial times, and depicts the Jesuit missionaries and their attempts at connecting with the Guarani people who live in a territory above some enormous waterfalls.

Robert DeNiro plays a slave trader named Mendoza who has killed and captured many of the Guarani. He also kills his own brother in a fit of jealous rage. As he broods in a cell, hating himself and believing himself to be beyond all redemption, Fr. Gabriel visits him and tell him there is a way out of his spiritual prison.

The missionaries take Mendoza with them on their next trip up the falls, and he pulls his weapons and armour behind him in a big net, dragging it up the cliff to the territory of the Guarani.

After the groups make contact, the Guarani recognize Mendoza as the man who had been attacking them. A chief draws out a knife and approaches him. Mendoza believes this is the end, a rough sort of justice that is fitting for the gravity of his crimes.

Instead of cutting his throat, the chief cuts the rope that holds the net of armour instead, pushing it over the cliff. In one of the most moving scenes in cinema, Mendoza begins to cry, the waves of both repentance and mercy washing over him.

God’s mercy is like that. It is lavish and unexpected, and it is great. But it requires a heart that is ready to receive it, that has been softened by acts of repentance.

The scriptures are full of his call to repent, and this call is the main work of the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist. You might remember another movie, the well-known mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” by Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli.

In one scene, the Jewish people are flocking from all over to hear John the Baptist preach by the River Jordan. His message is not a soft pat on the back; they must turn from their sinful ways.

Watching it when I was younger, I was impressed by Michael York’s fiery performance as the Baptist shouting, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit!”

Like Mendoza we must allow ourselves to be led into the wilderness a while, to take a little time to remember who we are. We must not be afraid of what we might see there, because it’s only to bring it to the light of mercy. We’ve been invited by Love.

Remember the words of the prophet Hosea: “So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart … I will make a covenant for them on that day …. I will espouse you to me forever.” (Hosea 2:16, 20-21).

The Lord wishes nothing less than to be espoused to us poor creatures. Being baptized by fire and the Holy Spirit is to be met with the consummate fire of God’s love. It’s a fire that will burn away all self-centeredness from our souls.

Although I am a person “semper reformanda”, my act of repentance is but a preamble to the main act, the coming of God into my life in a new way. Come Lord Jesus!


Video version here.


John O'Brien, SJ is a promoter of vocations for the Canadian Jesuits.

  • Michelle Mahoney
    Posted at 07:02h, 05 December Reply

    Insightful and helpful! Thank you, John!

  • Barbara Lewis
    Posted at 08:25h, 05 December Reply

    Thank you. Our Father passionately loves us.
    Shepherding us must feel like herding cats … cats with sharp long claws … sleepily blind … carelessly preoccupied …
    a patient passionate Father
    Thank you.

  • Norbert Piché
    Posted at 09:37h, 05 December Reply

    Very powerful… Thank you John.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 21:37h, 05 December Reply

    Thank you John!

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