The secular world knows what it’s doing right now: it’s celebrating its version of the “Christmas season.” The focus is on celebrating, feasting, and buying things. And as Christians, we’re hopefully resistant to that, recognizing it as out of sync with the spirit of Advent. But there’s a major hindrance: while we know that we are still in the period of Advent until December 25th, but often times, we don’t really know what that means. How should we be behaving during Advent? Is it a penitential season: a “little Lent,” as some have argued?
That’s actually not the way that the Church tends to speak about Advent. Can. 1250 of the Code of Canon Law specifies that “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.” You’ll note that Advent isn’t mentioned there. That’s not an oversight. Lent is a season of penance. Advent, on the other hand, is a season of joyful hope. The Church’s General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar explains:
39. Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.
The General Norms further specify that “the weekdays from 17 December to 24 December inclusive serve to prepare more directly for the Lord’s birth.” At the end of Ordinary Time, the Readings were focused on the end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ. The first half of Advent continues that theme. But then we turn our eyes in a special way towards Bethlehem.
So Advent is a season of preparation: to welcome Jesus at Christmas, and to prepare to meet Him when He returns. And that’s why it’s a season of “devout and joyful expectation.”
Having said that, is there room for penance in Advent? Absolutely! The Church recognizes, in Can. 1249, that in addition to the set aside times for penance (like Lent), the “divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way.” So you don’t have to wait for Lent or particular penitential days to make sacrifices for God, or to give alms, or to perform acts of penance. The call to conversion is a call we should be heeding at every moment of every day.
And there’s a way of doing that in Advent that’s particularly in keeping with the spirit of the season. If you’ve got a special and beloved guest coming over, you make an effort to tidy things up, to make sure that you and your home look nice for your honored guest. But hopefully, you do it joyfully: the work of cleaning up isn’t about punishing yourself for making a mess. It’s about ensuring that your guest, and your time together, is as pleasant and as joyful as possible. That’s one reason many dioceses have big Advent penance services: so we can “clean house” before Christmas.
So by all means, if you see parts of your life that need changing for you to be ready to meet Christ (be that at Christmas, in the Sacraments, at your death, or at the Last Judgment) then change those things! But if possible, change it with a joyful heart, remembering Who you’re changing for and why.
Think about it this way: Advent (from adventus, “coming”) is all about preparing for Jesus Christ’s arrival. And we experience that arrival in many ways. Two of those ways (Christmas and the Last Judgment) are referenced in the General Norms. But as St. Bernard of Clairvaux explains, there’s also a “middle coming” of Christ, between the Nativity and the Second Coming – His coming to us in our hearts:
In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.
This “middle” coming of Christ – welcoming Him into our hearts – is closely connected with the Sacramental Mysteries. We encounter Jesus in a special way in our Baptism, and even more directly in the Eucharist. Cardinal Dolan has described it this way:
“History – Mystery – Majesty.” You have heard those words before, have you not? They were made famous by the renowned liturgical scholar Pius Parsch in his meditation on this season of Advent, to describe the threefold coming of Christ: (1) in history, as the baby at Bethlehem; (2) in mystery, through grace; and (3) in majesty, as judge at the end of time.
This “middle coming,” as St. Bernard describes it, is a way of always living in a joyful spirit of Advent in our hearts. Then-Father Ratzinger captured that beautifully in an Advent homily that he gave:
The first thing we have to accept is, ever and again, the reality of an enduring Advent. If we do that, we shall begin to realize that the borderline between ‘before Christ’ and ‘after Christ’ does not run through historical time, in an outward sense, and cannot be drawn on any map; it runs through our own hearts. Insofar as we are living on a basis of selfishness, of egoism, then even today we are ‘before Christ’. But in this time of Advent, let us ask the Lord to grant that we may live less and less ‘before Christ’, and certainly not ’after Christ’, but truly with Christ and in Christ: with him who is indeed Christ yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). Amen.
So let us prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem, in our hearts, and in glory, but let us prepare for Him joyfully, remembering that the Judge of the World is also our Savior and our Friend.