Dear Ambrose: Is Advent Penitential?

Dear Ambrose

In times past Advent was thought of as a penitential season and sometimes called “a little Lent.”  We don’t see much of that anymore.  When and why did that change? Signed, Expectant

Dear Expectant,

For many of us, the answer to that question is immediately, “Yes, of course it is.”  And yet when we take a closer look at the season of Advent, we see no call for penitence as we do in the season of Lent. For example, in the invitation to the observance of a holy Lent, the officiant says, “Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism (BCP, 264-265).” Clearly, Lent is a penitential season. However, we have no similar invitation in Advent. 

One might reply, “What about the Advent collects?” Indeed, they do tend to contain penitential themes.  For example, the collect for Advent I says, “Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness …” The collect for Advent II has a similar theme. “Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins …” Advent III continues with “because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us …” Finally, Advent IV exhorts, “We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation …” With these collects setting what certainly appears to be a penitential tone, we could get the impression that Advent is indeed a penitential season. However, we can also think of many other collects during the liturgical year that call us to repentance as that is a foundational theological theme in Christianity.

Furthermore, most liturgical scholars believe that the early origins of Advent were associated with the unitive feast of January 6th. The early church celebrated the birth of Christ, the epiphany and the baptism of Christ on a single day, January 6th. Like the Easter Vigil, this day was a day preferred for baptisms. Thus, a period of preparation for baptism developed before January 6th just as it did before the Easter Vigil, turning into what is now known as Lent. When the celebration of the nativity of Christ moved to December 25th in the West (remaining on January 6th in the East, however), so did this period of preparation and became Advent.

To further complicate matters, in the sixth to seventh centuries, Irish missionaries, known for their penitential preaching, influenced the church in Gaul such that the eschatological dimension of Advent took prominence. Because they were preaching that one must do penance to prepare for Christ’s second coming, the season of Advent took on a penitential tone. Eventually, this included the removal of the Gloria and the introduction of fasts. 

But is penance the only way for us to prepare for Christ’s return? Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers make an important statement about the character of Advent in their General Norms for the Liturgical Year. “The season of Advent has a twofold character. It is a time of preparation for Christmas when the first coming of God’s Son to men is recalled. It is also a season when minds are directed by this memorial to Christ’s second coming at the end of time. It is thus a season of joyful and spiritual expectation (no. 39).” Thus, it is wholly correct for us to consider Advent as a season of preparation. But is it a season of penitence?

Perhaps our famous Anglican adage might assist us once again when it comes to the question of Advent as a penitential season. “All may, none must, some should.” If spending the four weeks of Advent in penance will assist you in preparing your heart to receive Christ, then perhaps you should. If spending the four weeks of Advent in joyful expectation will prepare your heart to receive Christ, then perhaps you should. Advent is a liminal season as it closes one church year to begin another and thus it can hold in tension penance and joy as it holds in tension the first and second comings of Christ.

The Rev. Shawn Strout (for Bishop Ambrose)