When I first saw priests wearing purple for Advent, I suspected something penitential was going on. However, no one told me to fast, or give alms, or do anything other than prepare to pack on a few pounds from all the dessert I was about to consume. For many years, I lit candles on my Advent wreath, sang “O Come Emmanuel” at church, and felt like I wasn’t really celebrating anything.
I tried to compensate. No Christmas music until Christmas. We didn’t decorate our house until Christmas Eve Day. All the pieces of my Kirkland’s nativity set were scattered through the house, making a slow journey toward the area designated “the stable”. And I watched Father wear purple and continued to feel that I was missing something in my Advent.
My gut feeling was rather spot on.
Brief History of Advent
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, observance of Advent varied depending on locale, with some places like Spain observing a fast from November 11 to December 25. In fact, the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity wasn’t celebrated on the same day by everyone. Some celebrated it on December 25 while others celebrated it on January 6 (it wasn’t universally celebrated on Dec 25 until the fourth century).
It wasn’t until the 11th century that Pope St. Gregory VII (not Gregory the Great) established the four Sundays of Advent leading to December 25 that we observe today. And how we’ve observed it has changed over the centuries.
According to Taylor Marshall’s Podcast, Christians once fasted three times a week during Advent: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Eventually, such fasting was relaxed and dropped altogether. It became that the only time Catholics fasted during Advent was the Embertide…until Vatican II sliced it from the calendar like a hot knife through a Christmas pudding. In the end, Advent became the “we’re not celebrating Christmas yet but we’re still kind of celebrating Christmas” season.
Marshall, in fact, is calling for a return to the three-day-a-week fast. I can’t observe it for health reasons but it’s a marvelous idea. And you can “fast” from things other than food. Maybe not eat that second cookie or avoid the consumerism that has dominated the season by buying Christmas presents early. Or perhaps turn off the television and spend that time reading a good Advent book. Sophia Institute Press has a wonderful selection.
Don’t forget about almsgiving, either. There are a lot of people in need this time of year. How can you relieve another’s burden? Maybe your parish is in need of help with repairs or other projects? The collections have been thin for all parishes ever since the lockdowns began.
Celebrate Advent, Please
I thought about writing about Advent wreaths, and Jesse Trees, and maybe talk about the Ember Days. But there are plenty of articles out there about those things already.
What I want to put forward is a plea for us to celebrate Advent. Things are really awful right now. Lots of people are putting up their trees early, even Catholics who normally wouldn’t, just to bring some cheer. And I can’t blame them. Sometimes, we need the magic of Christmas lights to see in the darkness of despair.
But we also need Advent this year. In particular, we need a penitential Advent. Not an Advent that slaps on a purple robe and calls it a day but an Advent with teeth. Our Lord will be coming back one day. How we prepare for His arrival at the Nativity is a microcosm of how we’re preparing for His return at the end of our lives and at the end of all days.
And these days are dark indeed. There is much sin in the world. We need to do penance for that sin. We also need to do penance to ask the Good Lord to show us mercy.