Is Advent Penitential? Drawing Nearer to the Heart of Jesus
As autumn fades into the sleep of winter, I notice that I am ready. My heart has stilled after another long season of activity, and the waning hours of daylight remind me to quiet myself and my life for a time. Advent awakens something in me that has remained dormant the rest of the year, something vital. I always forget about it until Thanksgiving rolls around, and I am finishing up the dishwashing from our family feast.
While the world rushes to snag the best deals on toys and electronics, I am grateful for a lazy entry into the Friday after Thanksgiving. Because I have already begun the preparations for Christ in my heart. And I am turning toward Him again, ready to greet Him in some new, strange and unexpected way.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with our oldest daughter, now 11, that I learned of the penitential aspect of Advent. I’d always preferred Advent over Lent for obvious reasons – not as much fasting with ashes and sackcloth, it seemed – but to know that Advent wasn’t just about the celebration of Christ’s birth almost saddened me at first.
Advent is actually “a little Lent,” meaning that it is a shorter period of time with less intensity of sacrificial offerings and not as much fanfare as the “doing without” we are used to during the liturgical season of Lent. But there is still a portion of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that somehow gently nudges us out of our spiritual apathy and begins new work in us, perhaps even to prepare us for the greater sacrifices of Lent.
I think of how Advent begins the new Church year. It’s a strange time to begin something, especially what we consider to be time. The secularization of time has conditioned us to recalibrate on New Year’s Day – another holy day for us Catholics, to be sure (the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God). But Advent says to us, “While the world is bustling and jostling for the acquisition of things, you, little soul, can calm yourself and turn to God.”
It’s an odd thing to turn away from what everyone else is doing, from what everything around you is reminding you to do – shop, prepare the feast, bake those cookies, decorate – and instead turn towards the One most others have forgotten or neglected altogether – Jesus. I will say it’s been a challenge for me to shift away from the traditions centering around Christmas that I love. At the same time, it’s not an all-or-nothing celebration.
Advent fills our cups, as well as our hearts. It reignites in us the ability to fully love by making space for the Christ Child, and that means we are able to more fully enter into the Octave of Christmas with all its glorious feasting and merriment. It’s a both-and affair.
The scope of penitence during Advent is a more subdued version of Lent, in the sense that we do increase our almsgiving. For some, that might mean adopting a Christmas family. It can be a large year-end donation to your favorite charity. Volunteering at the local homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Baking cookies and delivering them to your elderly neighbor who lives alone.
I hesitate to write examples, because we’ve all heard these before. And yet we forget. I forget. Advent brings me back – a metanoia of sorts – to the Source of where my very existence and all I have been given resides. I think the almsgiving portion of Advent is meant to reinstate good habits that we can, and should, carry on throughout the rest of the year – the liturgical year.
We begin, as we always do, with the end in mind – Heaven. And if this is so, it is right and good to order and orient ourselves toward God. We do this with prayer, perhaps by candlelight on an Advent wreath, meditating on the Incarnation and the immense act of mercy of God-made-Flesh. We pray with greater gratitude and humility, with a desire to empty ourselves in order to make room for a manger in our hearts, where Jesus can be born in us on Christmas Day.
Birth, as with death, reminds us of the reality that everything that has an end also has a new beginning. Jesus’ birth is the greatest joy we can carry within us, because we have hope. Hope keeps us moving faithfully forward when we are in the midst of uncertainty, a crisis of health, or the suffering of a loved one. We might experience mini-crucifixions throughout our lifetime, but we will also be given countless resurrections, too.
Fasting during Advent sounds odd, but if we restrain ourselves from the pomp and glitz of celebrating with an abundance of rich foods and delightful sweets, we learn what it means to appreciate the feasting. We also grow in self-control, perhaps reverting to the adage of our youth to be patient and wait, because delayed gratification is a good thing. We don’t have to adopt the ascetic habit of consuming only broth and a few herbs. We simply wait. And waiting is the thematic element of Advent that builds the anticipation of the joy that is to come.
Living Advent is to live fully alive, to embrace our humanity as we reflect on God’s decision to become one of us. It means we accept our limitations, all of our sins and mistakes, too, as having the potential to benefit us – if only we choose to lay them at the foot of the manger, to place them beside the sleeping Infant, and to walk away, knowing that He has taken all of it, all of us, upon Himself. What power there is in the freedom of surrender.
This is a season that gently invites us to abandon ourselves into the care of a merciful and tender God. We approach the manger with all of our excesses, all of our frivolities and clutter. But we leave with empty hands that are eager and ready to do the work of God. When we learn to detach from the world while simultaneously drawing nearer to the Heart of Jesus, our hearts are always full and our lives are always satisfied.