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    Getting back to the season’s penitential roots

    by Gerald Korson 12/6/2019

    Advent is sometimes called “little Lent.” Like Lent, it is a season of preparation for a magnificent feast. And like Lent, it began as a season of penance.

    While Lent has retained its connection to penance and sacrifice, Advent has become associated with the joy of Christmas. Yet the purple vestments at Mass remind us of the season’s penitential roots, so you may want to introduce that spirit into your Advent season by making a good confession during Advent and doing little acts of penance and fasting along the way.

    Why penance and fasting? How do these relate to our preparation for Christmas which can be filled with gift lists and shopping lines?

    According to the Church’s norms, Advent – from a Latin term for “coming” – is about more than just the birth of Christ. Instead, it has a dual character involving both “comings” of Christ. The eight days leading up to Christmas, from December 17 to December 24, focus on preparations to celebrate Christ’s birth. The period from the First Sunday of Advent (which falls on December 1 this year) through December 16, however, directs our hearts and minds to the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time.

    (Photo by Getty Images)

    Keep that in mind as you listen to the Mass readings on the first two Sundays of Advent. In the Gospel for the first Sunday, Jesus urges us to stay awake and be prepared, “for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (see Matt 24:37-44). The Gospel for the second Sunday speaks of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord by preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins (see Matt 3:1-12).

    That’s why Advent “is a time of waiting, conversion and of hope,” according to a 2001 Vatican document. And conversion, just as in Lent, refers to a changing of our hearts, a turning away from sin and lukewarmness, a turning toward Christ.

    “Popular piety,” the Vatican document states, “intuitively understands that it is not possible coherently to celebrate the birth of him ‘who saves his people from their sins’ without some effort to overcome sin in one’s own life, while waiting vigilantly for Him who will return at the end of time.”

    The Church no longer imposes specific penitential practices during this season, but repentance remains an Advent theme. Our preparation for Christmas involves a certain spiritual purification, as it were, and that necessarily has a penitential aspect to it as we seek to purify ourselves of sin.

    Although the Church doesn’t require it, we still can – and ought to – do penance during Advent. That’s why many parishes offer increased hours for confessions and schedule communal celebrations of the Sacrament of Penance during December.

    So let’s commit ourselves anew to a daily examination of conscience, so that our Advent confession will be complete and more fruitful.

    Fasting can be especially challenging during a season often known for festive gatherings with rich foods and desserts, which only serves to increase the intensity of the penance involved. Fasting and its resultant physical hunger reminds us of our spiritual hunger for Christ.

    That spiritual hunger makes both fasting and the Sacrament of Penance highly appropriate and salutary practices as we anticipate the two “comings” of Christ during Advent.

    About the Author
    Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic journalist, is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Indiana.



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