With first vespers of this evening, we enter the season of Advent. As usual, it’s hard to believe it’s already here!
The liturgical color of Advent is purple/violet, and this is because it is one of the penitential seasons of the year. This fact has largely been lost on us for a while now, and penance in many respects has been reduced from being a regular part of Catholic Culture to something we do during Lent (i.e. giving up chocolate or something not very heavy like that). Meanwhile, our consumeristic culture has pressed on full steam ahead and the season is anything but penitential, in terms of how we live out our community/social life. We don’t celebrate the 12 days of Christmas (meaning, the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany), but instead the month leading up to Christmas, with the Christmas celebration ending in many places more or less at the end of December. In other words, we don’t prepare spiritually for Christmas as much as just jump right into it, and then abruptly stop it, more or less returning to life as usual.
No, the Catholic vision of things – the vision that it really behooves us to recover – is a lot different. We always fast before we feast. In reality, this cycle that marks our liturgical observances is also a reflection of what this life on earth is in general. Our life here below is marked by sorrows, trials, sufferings, and difficulties, interspersed with joys and happiness. It is a preparation for the eternal feast of heaven, where there will be no more pain or sorrow. We have to prepare ourselves spiritually for this reality by denying ourselves here and now, so that we can enjoy more fully that which the Lord wishes to give us hereafter. Our denial is not absolute: we still celebrate (and quite often, really); but we also practice self-denial, so that we can grow in the love of the Lord and of our neighbor, becoming more detached from that which holds us back from giving of ourselves more fully.
In this regard it is useful for us to be reminded of the fact that while Advent may not have the heavier penitential character that Lent has (or should have), yet it is still a penitential season. It is a time of spiritual preparation for a great feast. We must each ask ourselves how we can grow closer to the Lord and more fully enter into the mysteries that we are celebrating.
The US Bishops published a statement on penitential practices wayyyy back in 1966, which they recently have been highlighting on a certain part of their web site. I copy below the section on Advent, with some emphasis added by me on certain points. Some things to think about – and act upon!
The following excerpt comes from the document, “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence”, available at this link.
5. Changing customs, especially in connection with preparation for Christmas, have diminished popular appreciation of the Advent season. Something of a holiday mood of Christmas appears now to bea nticipated in the days of the Advent season. As a result, this season has unfortunately lost in great measure the role of penitential preparation for Christmas that it once had.
6. Zealous Christians have striven to keep alive or to restore the spirit of Advent by resisting the trend away from the disciplines and austerities that once characterized the season among us. Perhaps their devout purpose will be better accomplished, and the point of Advent will be better fostered if we rely on the liturgical renewal and the new emphasis on the liturgy to restore its deeper understanding as a season of effective preparation for the mystery of the Nativity.
7. For these reasons, we, the shepherds of souls of this conference, call upon Catholics to make the Advent season, beginning with 1966, a time of meditation on the lessons taught by the liturgy and of increased participation in the liturgical rites by which the Advent mysteries are exemplified and their sanctifying effect is accomplished.
8. If in all Christian homes, churches, schools, retreats and other religious houses, liturgical observances are practiced with fresh fervor and fidelity to the penitential spirit of the liturgy, then Advent will again come into its own. Its spiritual purpose will again be clearly perceived.