The penitential character of Advent has gradually eroded in recent centuries. Today, many are content to prepare for the birth of Our Lord merely in a material sense; preparing meals, buying gifts, decorating houses, traveling to family, etc. Few, however, undergo the penance and spiritual preparation fit for the arrival of the King of Kings. We make great efforts on what Americans call “Black Friday” to give the right gifts to our friends and family, but make little effort to give the right praise and honor to God. Sadly, Advent is not the only penance that has been lost.
Most Roman Catholics know that Lent is a season of penance. Under today’s laws, those ages 18-59 are bound under pain of mortal sin to observe fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as abstinence on Fridays. Most Catholics “give something up” for Lent, but this is technically not binding under pain of sin. Before the Second Vatican Council and the reforms that followed, Catholics were bound under pain of mortal sin to observe fasting and partial abstinence all days except Sunday, with complete abstinence on Fridays (before modern times, the fast was even more strict).
Throughout the year, very little penance is required by law. The only penance binding under pain of mortal sin is that Catholics give up meat on Fridays, or substitute some other penance instead of meat (in the case of the United States and other countries). Before Vatican II, there was at least some fasting, albeit reduced from the rigor of our fathers. We were at least bound to abstain from meat on Fridays, as well as observing Ember Days and vigils of major feasts. These are now optional.
Previously, in order to receive the Eucharist, one had to fast from all food and drink (even water and medicine) from midnight to the time of Communion. Priests were not allowed to offer mass unless they had fasted from midnight. In order to accommodate evening Masses, Pope Pius XII eliminated the fast from water and medicine in 1953, and reduced the fast to three hours in 1957, while encouraging those who were able to observe the midnight fast to do so. The fast has always been dispensed for those who are in danger of death. In 1964, Pope Paul VI shortened the Eucharistic fast to one hour, and dispensed certain workers and sick people from the fast entirely.
Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that the season of Advent is hardly treated as a season of penance. This lack of penance is expedited by our commercialized culture, which sees Advent (or basically any time after 12 AM on All Saints Day) as a time to celebrate Christmas. To keep Christ in Christmas, we must also keep Him in Advent.
With the First Sunday of Advent fast approaching, Catholics, especially traditional Catholics, have an opportunity to restore Advent as a penitential season. Every Advent, I’ve sworn I would do some serious penance, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe you fall into the same boat. Therefore, I’ve come up with five ways you can make this Advent penitential.
The Christmas Tree
First, keep your celebrations in line with the liturgical timeframe. More specifically, don’t put up (or at least don’t decorate) the tree until Christmas Eve. According to the Fatima Center, the “Christmas Tree” was not originally meant for Christmas, but for the Byzantine feast day of Sts. Adam and Eve, which is December 24th. The “Paradise Tree” would be decorated with apples to mimic the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The sequence of commemorating Adam and Eve before Christmas reminds us of why Christ came: to reunite mankind with God. Other decorations, such as the candle wreath and a nativity scene, are a great way to keep track of where we are in Advent.
Fasting and Abstinence
The most important penance is to increase fasting and abstinence. Go slow. On Fridays, try to observe fasting and complete abstinence from meat, and fasting with partial abstinence on Wednesdays, other than December 8th. In the Eastern rite, the fasting begins on November 15th, takes place on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and, depending on the day, consists of no meat, dairy, fish, oil, or alcohol. The vigils of St. Andrew, the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas, are great days to fast and abstain in preparation of major feasts, the last two being holy days of obligation. Additionally, try to observe the midnight Eucharistic fast, but at the very least, wait three hours before receiving Holy Communion.
Ember Days fall on December 15th, 17th and 18th. Wednesday and Saturday are days of fasting and partial abstinence, while Friday is also complete abstinence. These days are traditionally offered for bishops, priests and deacons. During the season of giving, we cannot forget to give this spiritual help to our priests. In the era of Traditionis Custodes, good priests are under attack, and we owe them our support.
The Ancient Roman Rite
Speaking of Traditionis Custodes, the third penance is to go exclusively to the Traditional Latin Mass, if you are not already doing so. Since the conciliar reforms, Holy Mass and Advent have suffered from the same defect: rather than being a sacrifice to God, they become centered around us. You will be amazed to see the drastic increase in prayers, gestures, reverence, and preparation to receive Our Lord, and will want to recover them all. If this requires a longer drive, offer it up as penance. When you can’t attend daily mass, do the daily readings from the traditional mass as a family.
The fourth penance is the Sacrament of Penance. No prayer or penance is meritorious for the soul in mortal sin, so before and throughout Advent, be sure to go to confession to prepare your soul for Christmas. Some parishes will have penance services, where many priests are available for confession. As Padre Pio once said, “I do not want souls to stay away from confession (for) more than a week. Even a clean and unoccupied room gathers dust; return after a week and you will see that it needs dusting again!”
The fifth penance is to stay close to Our Blessed Mother, as December is dedicated to her Immaculate Conception. Pray the Rosary daily, especially the Joyful Mysteries, which are assigned to Sunday, Monday and Thursday in Advent. The Angelus, traditionally prayed three times a day, is also a great way to call to mind Mary giving birth to Our Lord. During Advent, we celebrate her twice, with the feasts of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, and Our Lady of Guadalupe on the 12th, although Gaudete Sunday takes precedence this year. A goal of mine will be to pray all fifteen mysteries at least one day each week.
The fact that very little of Advent binds under pain of mortal sin should not be an excuse for not doing penance. Our Lord tells us that “unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish,” (Luke 13:3, Douay-Rheims). Given the crisis the Catholic Church is in, we need to do penance, now more than ever. Hopefully, following these tips will help us restore the penitential spirit to the season of Advent.