The Very Rev Professor Martyn Percy
Dean of Christ Church, Oxford

THERE is a clothing shop in Oxford market that sells T-shirts with some quite excellent religious messages.

Particular favourites include "I have found Jesus!" (and, in small letters underneath, "he was down the back of the sofa all the time").

Or "God loves everyone" and in small print, "But I’m his favourite!".

And appropriately for the season of Advent, now upon us, there is "Jesus is coming! Quick, look busy".

Traditionally, Christians have used the season of Advent to prepare.

The four weeks that precede Christmas, marking the first appearance of Jesus, are punctuated with acts of penitence, abstinence and self-examination.

But just when the whole world seems to be caught up in the feverish consumerism of pre-Christmas preparations, the church has a hard task on its hands in trying to persuade us that this is a time to pause, and to think about the judgment that awaits us all.

Setting aside most of December as a period of penitence and holy preparation must seem strange to many.

Most folk don’t like churches that bang on about sin too much.

In our therapeutically-attuned culture, the very concept has been somewhat downgraded.

Sin may induce guilt and shame. Such concepts, we are frequently assured, are paralysing and unhealthy.

A culture formed mainly out of desire and achievement may find itself in the grip of a subtle temptation – namely, to confuse sin with imperfection; with what we lack as people, and on how to achieve greater fulfilment.

Sometimes it is helpful to be conscious of sins of omission or negligence.

Yet a society that plays down the idea of serious personal and social sin, and even apparently unfashionable concepts such as original sin, does so at its peril.

For if we ignore the dark side of human nature, we risk collapsing into a falsely optimistic or even utopian world-view, that then struggles to cope with the reality of evil when it strikes.

Rather than accepting sin as commonplace, we have presumed to regard the state as exceptional, or even a private matter.

I suspect that part of the problem lies in language. Sin is a short, simple word – perhaps too easy and quick to utter. The very accessibility of the word it has arguably played a part in the weakening of its power.

But our older and arguably denser religious vocabulary preferred the word "trespass": "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us".

The word captures something active – the idea that lines have been crossed; that some of the things we say, do and think are actually offensive, and grieve God.

Cranmer’s majestic collect for purity in the Book of Common Prayer understood that a great deal of sin is concealed inside us.

Yet to God, all hearts are open – replete with their miscible emotions and motives.

And all our desires are known too, with no secrets hidden. All of them are seen by the one who is returning.

Yet the prayer continues in petition, "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit".

A prayer for the cleansing of desires and hearts seems a peculiarly appropriate way to approach the cluttered and gluttonous onslaught of the Christmas consumer-fest.

But it also captures something of the Advent hope. That light can pierce the darkness; purity cleanse pollution; salvation overcome sin.

Advent, then, is a serious time of preparation. For Christmas, yes, but also for the rest of our lives and beyond.