By the Reverend Phil Wales
Odd though it may seem, last Sunday you may have been wished a happy new year. If so, it wouldn’t have been a mistake but certainly would have given you pause for thought. Advent, which began on Sunday, marks the start of the Church’s year. Advent (from the Latin, adventus, meaning ‘a coming or arrival’) is a season of waiting, or preparing, to celebrate Christ’s birth. It’s a time of great eagerness as we look forward to Christmas. The coming weeks will be filled with lots of wonderful opportunities to take part in the Christmas story. I am looking forward to joining in the many carol services taking place this year. Especially so because they won’t be limited by the pandemic restrictions that we had become so used to.
Among the hurly burly of Christmas shopping and different kinds of seasonal fun Advent offers a still place where we may reflect more deeply on our preparations. Who is it that we’re getting ready for? How are we going about it? This is why, for me, John the Baptist’s invitation to repent, which we shall hear in our Advent Bible readings, is so compelling. John stirs us out of our everyday habits of thinking. He draws us into a place of deeper thought about how close God is to us and, yet, how we may be quite unaware of His presence. Given the challenges of the last few years it’s quite understandable that we may wish to skirt around our need to repent right now. But if that’s the case then it may be that this stems from a misunderstanding of what it means to repent. It’s a word which has soaked into the popular culture but has become heavily weighed down with unhelpful associations in the process. This baggage can get in the way of experiencing its liberating power.
Our English word repent translates from the Greek metanoia meaning a changed mind. This is not simply about making different choices but to do with a much deeper sense of transforming one’s mind. To repent means that we open ourselves up to change who we are because we have developed a different mindset by outgrowing our present one.
Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist and economist has done a great deal of thinking, and writing, about how we make decisions and our habits of thought. In Thinking: Fast and Slow he describes how we have evolved to become very efficient users of our thinking power. He suggests that we have, in large part, two types of thinking: ‘system 1’ or fast thinking and ‘system 2’ or slow thinking. One consequence of our being efficient thinkers is that we are drawn, without being aware, towards habits of thinking that require the least effort. We may default to ‘system 1’ or fast thinking when a little more ‘system 2’ or slow thinking would be the better option. When this occurs what is needed is a commitment to give a little more time to thinking more slowly. Though the key ideas in his book may seem like common sense (thinking may be hard work and that forming a new mindset takes time!) his years of detailed study provide a scientific basis for understanding how our minds work (and so how we can be more accepting rather than unhelpfully self-critical of ourselves).
So, if the notion of repentance seems unappealing, bothersome, or inconvenient then give a little space for some slow thinking during the days ahead. It may just be that your preparations for Christmas are transformed in the process.