A close-up of The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (1566) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (b. 1526-1530; d. 1569) in the Museum of Fine Art in Budapest.
LATE have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
When we hear each year during Advent “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” – the immoderate voice of that untamed lion of God, John the Baptist – we cannot miss his demand for repentance – 4 John [the] Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Let us remind ourselves what “to repent” means by consulting the dictionary.
To review one’s actions and feel contrition or regret for something one has done or omitted to do; (esp. in religious contexts) to acknowledge the sinfulness of one’s past action or conduct by showing sincere remorse and undertaking to reform in the future. Formerly also in weakened sense: †to change one’s mind (obsolete). Frequently with of; occasionally with for, at, †on.
When we conclude that the Baptist’s message is “Repent!”, we miss the point, or at least most of it. Notice in the definition given above that there is no mention of WHY one repents, and there is no indication that this spiritual action concerns a personal relationship that one is actively experiencing with God.
We need to think more carefully about repentance. Pieter Bruegel the Elder has done so by painting the Baptist in so surprising a way: John as so gentle, so vulnerable, and so “available” to everyone. The Baptist is making no demands on anyone. We ask the painter, “How can the Baptist be demanding repentance when you present him like this”?
First, consider this: if repentance is something that one has to demand of people, then we, demanding it, have very little insight into who John the Baptist was and how he understood his mission. And if it were about John demanding repentance, then why did Jesus not demand it? The Forerunner should be on point with the message of the One he announces.
Second, repentance is a result; it is not a cause. Or to put this more starkly, repentance does not produce anything. Why is this important? Because if we are not careful, we will begin to imagine that our sins, and then our repentance of them, is the cause of God loving us (or at least of God loving us “more” than He does). We convince ourselves that repenting is a “work” that we do to produce a positive outcome for us who repent.
But the real meaning of repentance is not this.
In other words, we effectively turn repentance on its head, making it a religious performance – a mechanism we grant to our false-self to prove to itself, and to others, that we still have the ability to make ourselves right. We have made repentance into our repentance (a “work”) and have lost our capacity to understand that repentance is a result in us of a beautiful act of God.
We have made repentance about ourselves … and it is not.
Third, it is sin’s effect in us that causes us to consider repentance as a “work”, as our work, which we may or may not accomplish. It is sin’s effect in us that causes us to conclude that when we do this work, we will have made ourselves right with God and, as a result, will have bent towards us His benevolent notice (i.e., repentance as producing a good result for us). It is sin’s effect in us that causes us to be performers before God, and convinced that the performance that most pleases God is our repentance.
See the inward-curving result of sin in a personality? We, without noticing it, want repentance to restore our false-self, rather than letting God destroy it. Such a personality will always misconstrue what God gives to us in true repentance.
Third, any “repentance” that we have to do, or must do, or darn well better do, is not what God means by repentance. Instead, repentance is a response to a “work” of God that overwhelms our inward-turned selves and, to our great relief, frees us to respond outwardly, whole-heartedly to God. Repentance has to do with an experience of JOY. In a certain way of speaking, we can’t help but give such a response – repentance – because finally it is what we have always most wanted to be able to give. We do not have to repent; we want to repent because suddenly we can … and so there is no need for it to be demanded of us.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder paints John not as demanding repentance, but as in the midst of experiencing God – the sheer grace of otherness granted him to experience, which is repentance. Just look at John’s face.
Fourth, repentance, properly understood, is, on the one hand, an experience of being given a special gift of awareness of God Who shows Himself to us, and, on the other hand, it is our response to that gift in a mode uniquely fitting to us human beings. We need to be given by God a sufficient way to express what we feel for God, when occasionally He overwhelms us by His holy presence. That sufficient way is what we call “repentance.”
True repentance, then, is not really about our sins, as it is about being given a forgetfulness of our sins and of our self, because we have become preoccupied with God and God’s goodness and God’s quality and God’s depth of life and beauty. Repentance, if I may put it this way, is a uniquely human way of praising God produced in us by God’s choice to appear to us, personally, courteously, and powerfully.
In this regard, listen to Ellie Arroway, towards the end of the movie Contact (1997), who replies to those demanding that she prove to them, who have not had her profound encounter with the Beyond, that her experience was real.
“Because I can’t. I … I had an experience. I can’t prove it; I can’t even explain it. But everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are NOT, that NONE of us is alone! I wish…. I wish that I could share that. I wish that everyone, if only for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and hope. But…. Well, that continues to be my wish.
Let us now conclude by returning to Pieter Bruegel’s insightful painting.
Observe that John is not saying anything – his mouth is closed. He stands in their midst in vesture strikingly understated (in contrast to everyone else), showing a face of great kindness towards them all. For one so famously portrayed as strong, implacable, and burning with conviction we are struck by how vulnerable and undefended, and silent, Bruegel paints him to be. Why this way?
John blesses them with his raised right hand (no finger-pointing, as by one making demands on others) and he gestures eloquently (an expansive, inviting gesture) with his left arm and articulate fingers. Nothing in this painting of the Baptist suggests that he is demanding or insisting or scolding. Why? Because John wants them to see God as he does, to experience God as he is, Who sets us free not to look inwardly at our sins but towards Him. John knows God and wants them all to know God better, deeper, and in a way far more real than they had expected was possible for them. Repentance’s vector points at God, not at our sins and self.
I think that Bruegel paints John here as a man in the midst of receiving a powerful experience of being loved and possessed by God. The blessing that John is giving is the Blessing that he is experiencing. It is for this reason that I began this Meditation with a quotation from St. Augustine’s Confessions (see above). I imagined that this Baptist, whom Pieter Bruegel the Elder has painted, could speak just such words as these: “Late have I love you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!”
A TASK FOR WEEK TWO OF ADVENT: Be deliberately preoccupied this week with graces you experience, or that you notice others in the act of experiencing. Collect a “garland” of these graces (like beautiful flowers woven together) by writing them down (in a journal or on your electronic device), so that you can see them piling up from day to day. The point is not the “piling up” but whether you begin to notice that you feel more hopeful, less distracted by the imperfections of others and the cultural desolations it has become too easy for us to worry about. Fr. Bernie Tyrrell, SJ, a sweet Jesuit who gave most of his academic life at Gonzaga University, spoke of “mind-fasting and spirit-feasting” – a coordinated discipline of attention practiced by children of the Light.
 Wied, A., & Miegroet, H. (2003, January 01). Bruegel family. Grove Art Online. Ed. Retrieved 30 Nov. 2018, from http://www.oxfordartonline.com/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000011669, concerning Pieter Bruegel the Elder (b. 1525 to 1530; d. 1569) – Pieter Bruegel I, was one of the greatest artists in 16th-century northern Europe. The influence of his work, particularly his allegories and landscapes (some of which were disseminated through engravings), was widespread and long-lasting. Bruegel’s art combines religion, folklore and humanism and falls between the last elements of medieval mysticism of Bosch and the Baroque exuberance of Rubens…. Painter and draughtsman. Although heir to the early Netherlandish painters, particularly Hieronymous Bosch, Bruegel brought a new humanizing spirit and breadth of vision to the traditional subjects he depicted while creating many new ones. His style and subject-matter were adopted but rarely surpassed by the many artists of the later 16th century and the 17th who were influenced by his work, especially the landscape and genre artists of the northern provinces of the Netherlands.
 Taken from Book X 27, 38 – St. Augustine. The Confessions (1st Edition; Study Edition), translated by Maria Boulding (Kindle Locations 6158-6169). New City Press, 2007. Kindle Edition. ASIN: B004D4YOWE.
 The Oxford English Dictionary at “immoderate” – Not moderate; exceeding usual or proper limits; excessive, extravagant, too great.”
 See: “repent, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/162742.
 The most obvious counter to my point here is those occasions when Jesus goes after the Pharisees and Scribes – “whitened sepulchers” and all of that. But Christ is not demanding repentance; rather He is telling them Who He judges them to be and specifically in relation to those who look up to them for religious leadership. Jesus leaves it up to them – the Pharisees and the Scribes, as He did in the case of Pontius Pilate, as He did with the men gathered to stone the woman caught in adultery – to decide whether they want to change their lives and to receive the grace that Jesus is offering them.
 The idea of “more” here is worth long thought. Perhaps we do not realize how often we are measuring the degree of God’s love for us … because we do this so often in our relationships to others. God does not practice “more” and “less” love, because God IS love.
 The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to misconstrue” – “To put a wrong interpretation upon (a word, action, etc.); to mistake the meaning of (a person); to take in a wrong sense (in modern use often intentionally).”
 Consider, for a completely different perspective on repentance from what I am arguing, that notorious Sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards at Enfield on 8 July 1741, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” See complete text at the Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas.
 Julian of Norwich (14th century), that incomparable theologian of God’s relationship to us, uses the term “showings” to describe her own profound experiences of God coming very close to her, teaching her, and transforming their relationship with each other. God “shewed” her the truth from inside their relationship.
 In Mark 1:4, we get a suggestion of this when he quotes John as preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance, on the one hand, and forgiveness of sins on the other. The experience of repentance is made possible by God’s closeness to us, causing us to “let” God forgive our sins, making it possible for us to become preoccupied with God rather than with ourselves.
 The Oxford English Dictionary at the 14th century noun “vesture” – “An article of apparel or clothing; a garment or vestment.”
 Recall Psalm 8:4 – “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers….” I love this attention that the Psalmist pays to God’s fingers. In the same way, notice the expressiveness of the fingers on the Baptist’s left hand in this painting.
 See, Bernard J. Tyrrell, SJ – his two Christotherapy books, now published by Wipf and Stock Publishers. See: https://wipfandstock.com/author/view/detail/id/7605/.