Advent: Celebratory Penance

First Sunday of Advent (Year A)

It’s a chilly morning as I write this; a good excuse to wrap myself in sweaters and tweeds. Looking out my window I see more leaves on the ground than in the trees. The grass has stopped growing, and in some places has turned brown. The signs are clear: the year is coming to an end. That means we are entering “the Holiday Season.”

Thanksgiving may be the next holiday on the calendar, but the stores are already bringing in shipments of Christmas trees, lights, candy and decorations. One of my neighbors has already strung lights on her front porch. In the Church, however, we must pass through this curious season called Advent before embracing the full joy of Christmas.

How do we approach Advent? Like Lent, the sanctuary and ministers are draped in purple, the liturgical color of penance. Unlike Lent, there are no mandatory days of fasting or abstinence. Advent is not mentioned as a penitential season in Canon Law (canon 1250).

In Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year, Msgr. Peter Elliott says Advent “is not penitential. Advent is a season of preparation and reflection, hope and anticipation.” What we anticipate is the coming of Christ. And for those of us sinners — which is to say, all of us — preparing to receive Christ involves repenting of our sins. So even though it is not officially a season of penance, the Advent readings include the words of John the Baptist instructing us to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 3:1–12, 2nd Sunday of Advent, cycle A).

Advent is a season of repentance, of turning once more to Christ with renewed vigor. It is a time to prepare a place for the Lord in our heart, as we prepare our homes for the celebration of Christmas. What are some things we can do? We can choose one day a week for voluntary fasting. We can engage in sacred reading each day — I strongly recommend Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives for the Advent season. We can make a good examination of conscience and seek sacramental reconciliation. We can remember those who are facing the coming winter without proper clothing, food, or shelter by making donations or volunteering our time, seeing Christ in “the least of these” (Mt 25:40).

Advent is a gift. The Church gives us the time and space needed to prepare our souls for the coming celebration of the Incarnation, and the coming of Christ at the end of time. The world makes this a challenge, for the whole month of December is a time of secular celebration. It can be hard to fast when one is invited to countless parties. It can be hard to find time for additional prayer when there is so much pressure to “get ready for the holidays.” It can be hard to anticipate the Christmas feast when the world is already feasting.

Penance amidst celebration is a challenge. It sounds like a paradox. But isn’t that Catholicism? Isn’t our penance always mixed with celebration? Isn’t sorrow for our sins always mixed with joy over God’s forgiveness? Don’t we mourn with the hope of resurrection? Don’t we fast precisely so we can better enjoy the feast?

Celebrate this Advent. Celebrate and prepare. Repent and rejoice. The Lord is near.

Deacon Matt is on vacation this week. This was originally posted at on Nov. 21, 2016.