Around this time of year, people from a variety of cultures across the world are running around trying to prepare for Christmas. Some are getting their homes ready for guests. Some are getting stressed out with shopping. How do Christians, specifically Catholic Christians, prepare for Christmas? To many Catholics, the obvious answer is Advent.
However, if we were to ask the average Catholic on the street what this preparation for Christmas entailed, we might find the entire season reduced to lighting four candles, one of which is pink. Clearly, though, with two thousand years of tradition and development, the Catholic Church recognizes that this pre- Christmas season means much more than an Advent wreath. What we forget, often enough, is that the season of Advent is penitential in nature.
Now this is a bit different than saying that Advent is strictly a penitential season, like Lent, but we’ll see soon that this is about much more than semantics. While some would totally bury the penitential nature of the pre-Christmas season, it would do us well to explore what the universal Church, through her different liturgical rites, actually prescribes for the faithful. Preparation often entails penance, but in the season of Advent we experience a joyful penance and expectation of our Lord Jesus.
Drawing Closer to Christ’s Birth
It’s probably true that only a Christian could call penance joyful. Nevertheless, as we explore the history and rationale behind the pre-Christmas seasons of the Church, it will become quite clear how this can be so, and how we are able to merge a penitential nature with a cheerful expectation of our Lord’s First Coming in the manger.
It’s natural for Christians to surmise that what Lent is to Easter, Advent is to Christmas. This is true to an extent. For instance, the liturgical color for both seasons is purple, or violet. This is not insignificant. When a priest is hearing confessions, the stole that he wears is always purple. This is because, as Fr. William Saunders puts it, violet is “a sign of penance, sacrifice and preparation.” The violet color symbolizes that we are trying to get somewhere, that we are anticipating something. And in the case of both Lent and Advent, we are anticipating someone.
We joyfully expect the birth of the Savior for Christmas, and his Resurrection and triumph over death for Easter. Also, when it comes to liturgical colors, priests wear rose (or what we might call pink) vestments for Gaudete Sunday in Advent or Laetare Sunday in Lent. These come into play at the halfway point of each season, and the pinkish color represents a sign of joy as each holy day draws ever closer.
Is Advent Penitential in Nature?
So those are at least the surface level similarities between the Advent and Lenten seasons. But can we really call Advent a penitential season? It may be more accurate to say that Advent, or at least the time leading up to the celebration of Christmas, is penitential in nature. Here’s why. According to the Code of Canon Law:
“The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent” (Canon 1250).
Advent is obviously absent from this mention of “penitential times”. Very strictly speaking, Advent is not a penitential season. However, also note that Ember Days are not included here. Ember Days serve as a sort of quarterly “checkup” for Catholics of the Latin Rite, calling us to penitence at certain points throughout the year. Following the Second Vatican Council, the fasting and abstinence during Ember Days no longer was obligatory, and sadly it fell out of use by many Catholics all over the world.
There has been a revival of this penitential practice recently, particularly in the wake of the most recent sex abuse scandals, with the bishops of Pittsburgh and Madison both explicitly calling their flock to make it a point in observing the Ember Days this year. So, clearly, we can see that there are instances in the liturgical year, beyond that which is laid out in Canon 1250, that take on a penitential feature. As Gregory DiPippo, the editor of New Liturgical Movement, points out:
“The Church’s traditions are not comprehensively determined by or summed up in any Code of Canon Law, nor in any Missal or other liturgical book.”
In Anticipation of the Full Joy
We can look to the Sacred Liturgy for even more clues showing the penitential nature of Advent through our traditions. When going to Holy Mass on Sundays of Advent, you’ll notice that the Gloria is not said at all, just as it is in the Lenten season. Also, we see that the decoration of churches during Advent is strikingly similar to how churches are decorated during Lent. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), we see that the atmosphere is more subdued in Advent as it is in Lent:
“During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts” (GIRM 305).
Just a bit further below in the GIRM, it is also noted that:
“In Advent the use of the organ and other musical instruments should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord” (GIRM 313).
Downplaying the Value of Fasting
Given all this, there isn’t really anything wrong with calling Advent a penitential season, because historically, throughout the various rites of the Church, the penitential practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have all been present in the days leading up to Christmas Day. As we see in the Catholic Encyclopedia, popes and synods before the Council of Trent preached about the need for fasting during this time before Christmas. Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) even declared that black vestments should be used during Advent.
The preparation that the Christian undertook during the days before Christmas was to, at least in part, make the faithful “ready for [Jesus’] final coming as judge, at death and at the end of the world.” What better way to do this than through the three pillars of repentance? Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all integral parts of Christian living every day of the year. But as we prepare for major feasts, such as Easter and Christmas, Christians rightly find themselves “pommeling and subduing their bodies” as St. Paul did (1 Corinthians 9:27), lest they be disqualified of the beatific vision. For whatever reason, though, fasting during Advent has been greatly downplayed in the Latin Rite over the last several decades.
Traditions Outside the Latin Rite
On that note, it’s important to observe that we’ve thus far only mentioned the traditions of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. The universal Church is made up of a variety of liturgical traditions, all fully Catholic, which we call “rites”, and among these rites we see that there are many parallels to the Advent season. In looking at these parallel periods of time, it becomes clear that the preparation before Christmas has had a penitential dimension across cultures nearly from the start.
The Armenian Rite
For instance, in the Armenian Rite, the time before Christmas is called Heesnag. While this period does not function as a proper liturgical season, Heesnag does feature several days of fasting in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The Antiochene Rite
Similarly, in the Antiochene Rite (also known as the West Syrian Rite), we see the Fast of the Nativity. For Maronite Catholics, there are actually four periods of fasting, all of varying lengths. The Nativity Fast used to be one of the longest, starting on November 15, around the same time as the Armenians’ and Byzantines’. But as time went on, the fast became shorter, yet still an important part of the Maronite Catholic liturgical tradition.
Differing a bit from how Latin Catholics fast, Maronite Catholics traditionally do not eat anything from midnight until noon. Despite the differences between liturgical rites, we see an emerging pattern of the great emphasis put on penitential practices before Christmas.
The Byzantine Rite
Perhaps the clearest sign of this comes from the Pylypivka of the Byzantine Rite, more commonly known as “Philip’s Fast”. The fast is so named for St. Philip the Evangelist, on whose feast (November 14) the Pylypivka starts.
Instead of being a distinct liturgical season, the Philip’s Fast is exactly what it sounds like: a fast of forty days which prepares the soul to be open to God working through our lives. While each particular Church (i.e., Ukrainian Catholic, Romanian Catholic, Melkite Catholic, etc.) has their own custom, “the traditional Christmas fast [generally] calls for the faithful to observe strict abstinence (no meat, fish, dairy, or other animal product, wine or oil) on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays; and a lesser abstinence (no meat, fish, dairy or animal products) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fish is allowed on Saturdays and Sundays, but no other animal products.”
We Christians Live Differently
To us Roman Catholics, this might strike us as a bit intense. But if we step back for a moment, getting out of our comfort zones, we’ll see that there is some real merit in how Eastern Christians approach fasting. One Byzantine Catholic priest puts it like this:
“I know, I know. What kind of crazy religion asks you to fast for six weeks before Christmas? Why, with all the parties that we have to go to, all the presents to buy… why should the Church give us one more thing to worry about…
“But… imagine that we Christians lived differently. Imagine what would happen if we Christians spent the Nativity season becoming more deeply attached to reality rather than trying to escape it by indulging artificial desires? What if, instead of running away from the world we spent this time loving the world more deeply?”
A Way of Imploring Forgiveness
Fasting allows us to put things in perspective. It’s a real sacrifice to give up meals, meat, or other foods. It’s also a real sacrifice to give up other things like long showers, TV shows, or music in the car. All these things help us to share in the sufferings of Christ, making it readily apparent why all the various liturgical traditions of the Catholic Church embrace these practices. But as Latin Catholics, looking at what many of our Eastern Catholic and Orthodox brethren do during this time, we should have reason to put things into perspective.
Even though we are not required to fast or abstain from meat or other things during Advent, what’s keeping us from doing so? Why shouldn’t we make this Advent penitential? In light of the recent scandals in the Church, asking for God’s mercy, particularly in reparation for the sins committed, is something that should be at the forefront of our minds. In his Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God, Pope Francis made the following exhortation:
“Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change. The penitential dimension of fasting and prayer will help us as God’s People to come before the Lord and our wounded brothers and sisters as sinners imploring forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion.”
Let’s Prepare Our Hearts
So let’s not stop at lighting our Advent wreaths this season. It’s time to get deep into the trenches. If we here on earth make up the Church Militant, it’s time to prepare for battle. We have many tools in our arsenal as we walk toward greater perfection, and prayer and fasting are first among those tools.
When Satan is on the prowl for souls, as he certainly is now, we need to redouble our efforts. If Advent hasn’t had a penitential connotation for you in past years, make an effort to change that this year, even if it’s something small like not eating in between meals. Before you know it, Christmas will be here. Let’s use this time wisely, and truly prepare our hearts for the coming of the Savior in the best way possible.
Nicholas is a twenty-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, Christ Is Our Hope.