November 27, 2015

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Penance during Advent can lead to true joy

Sean GallagherFor a period in the past, Advent in the Church was looked upon almost exclusively as a penitential season, a kind of “mini-Lent.”

In recent decades, a more balanced and more historic view on Advent has come to the fore. It is still a time of preparation for Christmas. But it is marked more by the joy of anticipation than by any sad penances.

Nonetheless, there is still a penitential aspect to this four-week season. The violet vestments worn by clergy in liturgies bespeak of penance. And parishes traditionally sponsor penance services during Advent when many Catholics experience the mercy of God through the sacrament of reconciliation.

Any lack of joy in earlier Advents may have been due to a misunderstanding of penance at that time. True penance does not exclude joy from one’s life. It should foster it all the more.

A case can be made that an Advent marked by a true penitential preparation for the celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas and his second coming at the end of time would foster a deeper, longer-lasting and more authentic joy in the hearts of all believers.

But why should we do penance during Advent? No doubt, we should show sorrow for our sins like the Church invites us to do throughout the year. We can experience from that the great joy of experiencing God’s mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of penance—either during a penance service or at ordinary times of confession in a parish.

But we can, in a way, also show sorrow for the way in which Christmas has become increasingly detached from its spiritual meaning in our society.

I’m not advising manning the front lines in the “Christmas wars,” or showing disapproval of people who seem to forget about Advent and put up Christmas decorations immediately after Thanksgiving. There’s nothing joyful in such tactics.

What we can do, though, is live out an alternative vision for the weeks leading up to Christmas that opens our hearts more to the deep spiritual joy of the season and puts its current materialism off to the side.

My family and I do this especially at supper time during Advent. We’ll turn off the lights of our dining room at the start of the meal, and have it lit only by the candles of our Advent wreath while we pray our meal prayer and sing the opening verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

My sons also have fun taking turns during this ritual in opening a door of a homemade Advent calendar. This calendar isn’t filled with chocolates or sentimental wintertime drawings like the store-bought ones that I experienced as a kid. It instead focuses on the saints of the season, the “O” antiphons (which are the basis of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”) and the spiritual meaning of various symbols of the season, such as Christmas trees, lights and gifts.

On Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas, our boys will wake up to find small gifts in their shoes. They know the story of St. Nicholas, but they enjoy hearing it again.

The more we’re used to jumping with both feet into our culture’s commercialized and secularized vision of Christmas, the more pulling back from it to embrace the spiritual life of Advent can seem penitential.

Remember, though, that penance is not so much about punishment as it about purification. It cleanses us of the dross of this world, and lets shine like the sun the gold of truth and authentic joy.

Perhaps living out a more penitential Advent in this way can help us become more joyful witnesses to the coming of Christ for our family and all whom we meet in this season of grace. †

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