Is Advent a Penitential Season?

We need to restore regular penance. And we need to recover Advent as a penitential season.

Following Advent Vespers and a Guadalupe procession through Taos, New Mexico, in December 1941, parishioners reenter the church for the conclusion of the ceremony.
Following Advent Vespers and a Guadalupe procession through Taos, New Mexico, in December 1941, parishioners reenter the church for the conclusion of the ceremony. (photo: Irving Rusinow, Department of Agriculture/National Archives and Records Administration)

Anna Abbott’s Dec. 19 blog, “Advent: The Other Penitential Season” stirred me to write this blog, which readers at another online journal had encouraged me two years ago to produce. Is Advent a “penitential season?”

Strictly, from the viewpoint of canon law: Canon 1250 is clear: the Church’s “penitential days and times” are Fridays year-round and Lent.

Liturgically, Advent looks penitential (e.g., priests use purple vestments) but the “Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar” speak of Advent as having a “twofold character:” preparing for Christmas, Jesus’ first coming, and the end of the world, his second. Advent is marked as “a period of devout and expectant delight” (no. 39). (Some liturgists tried to distinguish Advent from Lent by using blue vestments — a non-liturgical color — in Advent, but the Holy See has ruled them out.)

Catholics with long memories remember that Advent once contained fast days and, in some countries, Christmas Eve was a fast day (which is why the Polish Christmas Eve Wigilia supper is meatless). The Eastern Orthodox still begin Christmas preparation through a “pre-Christmas fast” that usually starts somewhere in November. But current Catholic canon law provides no basis for calling Advent penitential, nor do the reformed liturgical documents give that theme much support.

Perhaps we need a “reform of the reform.”

I would like to move from canon law and liturgics to a sounder basis for both: good theology.

To understand Advent requires understanding Christmas. Cur Deus homo? as St. Anselm once asked: why did God become man? The answer is simple. We proclaim it every week in the Creed: “for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” He came because we needed him to be saved.

Now there is some debate among theologians as to whether the Incarnation would have happened if man had not sinned, with some classical theologians saying yes, out of love for humanity. Perhaps.

But that’s an abstract question. Whether or not unfallen man would have enjoyed the miracle of the Incarnation is a theoretical question. Real man — fallen man — absolutely needed it. There was no other way for heaven to be opened to him. So we can bracket the question of “what might have been” in favor of “what we needed.”

But to become incarnate “for our salvation” meant we needed to be saved from something. From sin. From death.

So, if Christmas is to make any sense, we have to grapple with the “reason for the season.” That reason is, as Charles Wesley wrote back in 1739, was “God and sinners reconciled.” Which means that Christmas and the Christmas preparatory season — Advent — have to grapple with sin and conversion. Advent, therefore, deserves a penitential note.

The reform of the Roman Calendar in 1969 is, in some ways, also a product of the naïve optimism of the 1960s. I say “naïve” because, while it paid lip service to the tension between the “already” of Christ’s redemption, brought about at Christmas and Easter, and the “not yet” or incompleteness of that work before the end of the world, its “default” position tended toward the former.

So, even though Canon 1250 speaks of Fridays throughout the year as “penitential days,” we know that the decision of the American bishops to make mandatory Friday abstinence a choice for which other penitential practices might be substituted outside of Lent, the practical effect has been that Fridays throughout the year except for Lent have, for many Catholics, become non-penitential.

So, even though in theory the Roman Calendar still allows for Ember and Rogation Days (Universal Norms, nos. 45-47) — days that once upon a time introduced a quarterly note of repentance and penance into the Catholic year — in fact these observances have fallen into disuse (and the Roman Calendar only speaks of them in terms of intercession for “various needs,” again downplaying their penitential aspect).

So, even though once upon a time, parishes had missions, retreats, and extended hours for confessions during Advent, we now have “lessons and carols,” seasonal concerts, and “living nativity” plays. As a kid, I remember confessions through 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, with lines of penitents. Most contemporary priests would shudder in horror at that picture, cutting into what has become in many places a Christmas Eve Vigil Mass for kids. Indeed, just take a look around the area where you live to see how many parishes have any Christmas Eve confessions scheduled.

We pay lip service to the possibility of sin, but we quickly retreat to a “therapeutic Christianity” that focuses instead on forgiveness. That’s important — but if forgiveness is healing, you first have to become aware of the sickness.

And we’re not. We pay lip service to the theory of sin, but when is the last time you actually heard talk about sin that was not generic? Like “X is a sin.” Like “the Church teaches that Y is sinful.” Why have the particularities of sin become unspoken?

Is it because we have bought into the larger, secular vision of not knowing what is sinful? That there is “my wrong” or “your wrong” but not plain and simple “wrong?” Because we don’t want to be “judgmental?” Because it feels hypocritical to speak about sin — especially sexual sin — when the Church is roiling with the rancid, putrid and still unresolved filth of sexual abuse?

And how much of this is a result of bad 1960s theology that have gotten in some quarters a new lease on life, like an New York radio station used to put it when broadcasting music from the period, “playing the moldy oldies?” In the 1960s and 1970s, there were moral theologians who doubted that mortal sin was commonplace. Having embraced a theory of “fundamental option,” they believed that mortal sin was rarer than hens’ teeth. Some even went so far as to posit a “final option,” suggesting that the only “real” mortal sin might be a final choice, at the end of life, to reject God. That, of course, would lead to damnation, but we are today plagued with a flabby universalism that, in response to “dare we hope that all men be saved?” posits a kind of implicit, quasi-presumptuous “yup.”

Now, anybody who has followed anything of Church news in the past year, i.e., anybody not living under a rock, would recognize the flaccid stupidity of a theological theory that doubted the everyday reality of mortal sin.

That said, taking mortal sin seriously means taking the necessity of ongoing, permanent conversion seriously as part of the life of every Christian. Yes, mortal sin should not be part of the life of a committed Christian. But the most cursory survey of our world — including, unfortunately, our clergy — suggests it often is.

So — to my point about “naïve optimism” — perhaps we need to review our de-emphasis of penance and regular penitential practice. To stop pretending that the average Christian is so spiritually mature — so Kohlberg nos. 5 or 6 — that he can be trusted voluntarily and autonomously to cultivate spiritual discipline absent ecclesiological solidarity celebrated together at fixed and regular intervals? To know what “sin” is absent talking about it?

Advent — like every season and every day of our lives — is first and foremost about holiness. None of us ever has enough of holiness because all of us more often incline toward our demons than our angels: penance is therefore an ongoing and permanent feature of the Christian’s life. And, therefore, we need regular times to stop and recognize we are sinners in need of healing (and not just celebrate being healed). We need to restore the “not yet” side of our theology to our spirituality and our liturgy. We need to restore regular penance. And we need to recover Advent as a penitential season.