If You Want to Make the Most of Christmas, Do Penance in Advent

Just as we don’t confuse the wedding ceremony with the reception, we shouldn’t confuse Christmas with Advent.

Michael Rieser, “Joseph and Mary Seek Shelter in Bethlehem,” 1869
Michael Rieser, “Joseph and Mary Seek Shelter in Bethlehem,” 1869 (photo: Public Domain)

Year by year we see the commercial market claim Christmas as its own. In my own lifetime it’s gone from a day reserved for family, giving and laughter to a day people reserve theater tickets to the latest blockbuster. And each year Christmas inches its way backward on the calendar. In stores this year, holiday décor shared shelves with Halloween candy and masks.

A renewal is in order, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. This time of year, we see articles and listen to Catholic radio discussions about the differences between Advent and Christmas. I read clarion calls each year about the need to “take Christmas back” and the common suggestions are to wait to decorate, or preserve Christmas music for Christmas time, and make a bigger occasion of Epiphany.

All of these suggestions, and the ones I didn’t include, are great and worthwhile. But I think we need something more … sweeping. And I propose that we take back Christmas by returning penance to Advent. They might not teach it in CCD, but Advent and Lent are customarily known as the penitential seasons of the liturgical calendar.

I realize confusion immediately arises as to how Advent can be such a season when there is so much “Christmas in the air.” We watch Nativity movies, decorate our houses and  Christmas-shop to save time and money before the big day is here. That’s great. Those things are good — in measure. I’m encouraged in a special way when I see signs of Christmas, no matter the time of year, but we all know the value of waiting and the excitement of expecting. These are achieved in a superior way when we recognize the merit of penance.

Before modern liturgical reforms, Advent included days of fasting to show penance. Notwithstanding these reforms, the issue for many today is that they see Advent as the season of joy (that belongs to Christmas) and society in general does not value penance (and fasting) as a means of preparation. Yes, Advent is a season of anticipation, but anticipation is virtually empty if it does not include changes to our behavior. We see this in everyday occurrences: “Clean the house before the guests arrive.” “Arrive early if you want a good spot.” Nobody starts the reception before the wedding ceremony and successful cooks always pre-heat the oven.

Advent is our time to anticipate the newborn Christ child, a fulfilled prophecy we relive through the liturgy each year. But every prophecy has a double meaning, and the coming of Christ is no exception. In Advent, we also anticipate the Parousia, which is the Second Coming of Christ. Yes, we celebrate the wonderful coming of our king, Jesus Christ, the Word made Incarnate. But just as we look to the Resurrection of Jesus in tandem with the Resurrection of the Dead at Easter, we also took forward to the Parousia in Advent — the ultimate purpose of Christmas.

In this consideration of the Second Coming, believers are called to examine their lives, namely, their sin and the spiritual state of their souls. We ask ourselves if we are truly anticipating by being prepared. “Am I ready for the Second Coming?”

Our great hope is that we have spent our time worthily, to be ready for the Last Judgment, to be reconciled once and for all. For this, the famous Christmas hymn Hark! The Harald Angels Sing boldly proclaims “God and sinners, reconciled.” Because, at the bottom of it, Advent has high notes about penance. The emphasis on penance in Advent has only diminished as we have stretched Christmas backward on the calendar, because we want that mysterious joy we all see and hear and know to go well with the octave. When, really, if we want to make the most of Christmas, we’ll do penance in Advent.