Advent Penances?


The Three Wise Men, from a mosaic in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy (pre-526 A.D.)
The Three Wise Men, from a mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy (pre-526 A.D.)

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.



  1. I guess people get the idea from the Eastern Churches. They refer to the season as the Nativity Fast.
    And I think it may also have been celebrated that way in the West for at least a little while (see Pope St. Leo the Great’s homilies for “The Fast of the Tenth Month [December]”–“But there are three things which most belong to religious actions, namely prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in the exercising of which while every time is accepted, yet that ought to be more zealously observed, which we have received as hallowed by tradition from the apostles: even as this tenth month [December] brings round again to us the opportunity when according to the ancient practice we may give more diligent heed to those three things of which I have spoken. For by prayer we seek to propitiate God, by fasting we extinguish the lusts of the flesh, by alms we redeem our sins: and at the same time God’s image is throughout renewed in us, if we are always ready to praise Him, unfailingly intent on our purification and unceasingly active in cherishing our neighbor. This threefold round of duty, dearly beloved, brings all other virtues into action: it attains to God’s image and likeness and unites us inseparably with the Holy Spirit. Because in prayer faith remains steadfast, in fastings life remains innocent, in almsgiving the mind remains kind. On Wednesday and Friday therefore let us fast: and on Saturday let us keep vigil with the most blessed Apostle Peter, who will deign to aid our supplications and fast and alms with his own prayers through our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.” Sermon 12,iv)

  2. It might be useful to note the ancient practice of the Ember Days, which were three brief periods during the Church year used to prepare for the great feasts of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The Ember Days were a set of three days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) set aside to prepare spiritually for these feasts. And the method of preparation was fasting and prayer: abstinence from meat, and additional readings at Mass to help explain the feast. They help to highlight your point, Joe, that “penance” isn’t supposed to be beating myself up for sinning, but humble and earnest prayer that God heal me so that I may rejoice with Him, especially on the great feasts of our salvation.

  3. In trying to understand the Church’s liturgical practices throughout the last 2000 years, a consideration of the literacy level of Christians should be noted. As books were prohibitively expensive for most of this time, the liturgical calendar and all of it’s feasts, fasts and festivals, was the main tool used for the ongoing catechesis of the illiterate Catholic populations.

    Even today, with all of our internet resources and very cheap books also, the liturgy is still a most effective way to learn and meditate on the Gospel message of Christ. There is something about the communal reading of Sacred Scripture that is particularly edifying. It is not only the sacred text itself that is inspiring, but the spirituality and faith of the Lector and priests as well. The Lectors’ faith shines through during the reading of scripture which often provides an spiritual inspiration that was never discovered merely through private bible study at home. I’ve noted this many times at daily Mass in the past.

    So, the history of liturgy is a great part of our Catholic heritage, and is also something that I think both Protestants and Catholics also, don’t really understand or appreciate sufficiently. There is great wisdom found in the Catholic liturgy. It is a very great gift from God.

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