Were you to ask most Catholics over the course of history whether Advent is a penitential season, the answer would be a resounding “obviously yes.” Violet vestments, no Gloria, a focus on the second coming and the Last Things, not to mention spiritual preparation for one of the great feasts of the Church—it all seems pretty obvious.
But it has become trendy in the last half-century to minimize this penitential character. Maybe it’s because most people do not like the idea of penance. Maybe it’s because Catholics do not want to appear as “scrooge” in the face of mainstream secular holiday cheer. Maybe it’s because this same half-century has been marked by a generational determination to act as if history began and ended in 1970.
Canon 1250 narrowly defines “the penitential days and times” as all Fridays and the season of Lent, which provides some ammunition for declaring, on a technicality, that Advent is not one of the penitential seasons of the year. But the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, although it largely rests in that technicality, acknowledges that “some effort to overcome sin” (105) is a coherent part of the anticipation of Christ’s coming.
Perhaps it will come as a surprise to certain modern liturgists, but Advent was not invented by the Missal of Paul VI. Its observance dates back to the Church’s adoption of Christmas by the middle of the fourth century (give or take a few years, depending on the location). In the early Middle Ages, many churches in the West observed a full forty-day fast leading up to Christmas, sometimes called “St. Martin’s Lent” since it began on his feast day in November. Some churches of the Byzantine rite, even today, maintain a similar discipline, though in that case, it becomes “St. Philip’s Lent” due to their particular sanctoral calendar.
In the Latin Church of the late Middle Ages, leading up to the Council of Trent, this longer fast gradually gave way to the four-week period that we know today. The stricter fast in many cases changed to simple abstinence. However, as recently as 1917, just before the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law, fasting (not mere abstinence) on Fridays of Advent was obligatory in most Latin jurisdictions.
Indeed, the Homiletical Directory doesn’t refer to Advent as a “penitential season” per se, but it makes reference to “penitential attitudes that are proper to this season.” Such attitudes are proper to the season because, as Dom Prosper Guéranger writes in The Liturgical Year, “the mystery of that great day (Christmas) [has] every right to the honor of being prepared for by prayer and works of penance.”
Perhaps the recently recurring idea that Advent is not penitential stems from an all-or-nothing attitude toward penance. Another trend in modern liturgy has been a shrinking back from anything that seems ambiguous or mixed in character. Prior to the Pauline missal, the Roman liturgy was closer to some of its Eastern brethren in its willingness to combine multiple things. Most characteristically, a celebration of the Mass could have several collects (the “prayer [oratio] of the day.” The new missal insists that there can only be one—if multiple commemorations happen on the same day, one must simply choose from among them.
Perhaps another example of this trend is the new rite’s drastic renovation of Masses for the dead. Because Masses for the dead are supposed to be about the Resurrection, they should not, we are told, be sad, but a joyful “celebration” of life. One imagines a condescending cleric insisting that old-fashioned rites are “confusing” to the faithful, who are far too simple to handle the complex and jarring images handed down by the tradition.
Yet the larger imagination of the Roman Rite has always been more comfortable with paradox and nuance. For all the years that we spoke of Advent as “penitential,” no one ever confused it with Lent any more than they confused Christmas with Easter. (I suspect even the “Chreasters”—the folks who show up at church just those two times of the year—know the difference.) The liturgy itself operates in its own unique way. While Lent deepens the farther along we get, plunging eventually into the darkness of Good Friday, Advent notably lightens: the readings turn from St. John the Baptist to Mary and her pregnancy, and in the final days before the Nativity, we hear the great “O antiphons,” those beautiful chants of joy and longing at the coming of the Savior.
Here’s what Guéranger has to say about this combination of moods:
These vestiges of joy, thus blended with the holy mournfulness of the Church, tell us, in a most expressive way, that though she unites with the ancient people of God in praying for the coming of the Messias, she does not forget that the Emmanuel is already come to her, that he is in her, and that even before she has opened her lips to ask him to save her, she has been already redeemed and predestined to an eternal union with him. This is the reason why the Alleluia accompanies even her sighs, and why she seems to be at once joyous and sad, waiting for that coming of that holy night which will be brighter to her than the most sunny of days, and on which her joy will expel all her sorrow.
“Joyous and sad” captures it all quite well. There are, after all, different degrees of penitence.
Guéranger mentions the presence of the Alleluia in Advent, and this is a frequently noted feature in the liturgical commentaries of the medieval period. In those commentaries, this simple distinction between seasons speaks both to the distinction between the two penitential seasons of Advent and Lent and to the larger distinction between those seasons and the remainder of the (not formally penitential) part of the year.
The fact is that every time in this life should include both penitence and joy. Remember, if the Code’s formal “seasons” of penitence include every Friday of the year—not excluding even Easter Friday—we should already have some sense of what this looks like. The seasons of the Church calendar help us live that reality more richly through the annual cycle of feasts and fasts.
So if Advent is a time of penance, how should we practice it?
Holy Church largely leaves this to individual prudential judgment, but it’s not a bad start to think of it as a kind of “lesser Lent.” After all, nothing in Church law tells us we must “give up” something for Lent, or only for Lent, so nothing prevents us from taking up similar disciplines in Advent. The tradition gives us a wide variety of practices geared toward our sanctification, from candlelit Rorate masses to family Advent wreaths to extra works of charity. (On this last point, the secular holiday observances do provide many opportunities to care for those in need.) So make an extra sacrifice, start a new devotion, go to confession.
And, perhaps above all, make a real effort to distinguish Advent from Christmas. That doesn’t mean being a scrooge and trying to stop other people from celebrating Christmas a little too early (hello, decorations on November 1), but it may mean drawing some boundaries in our own family preparations so that when Christmas does at last come, instead of sighing with the exhaustion of something finally being over, we can celebrate the whole season—I recommend the long season that goes from December 25 to February 2—with sincere and holy joy.