Bar 5:1-9
Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
Phil 1:4-6, 8-11
Lk 3:1-6

Although Advent and Lent have a lot in common (the violet vestments with a smattering of pink, an emphasis on reconciliation, no Gloria), Advent, properly speaking, is not a penitential season. Unlike Lent, there is no obligation for the faithful to practice fasting and abstinence. The emphasis during Advent is joyful hope, rather than penance. The General Norms for the Liturgical Year note that

Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation (39).

The emphasis on waiting and preparation though, particularly the waiting and preparation for the Final Judgment, do give Advent a penitential feel. Our Gospel for this week also reminds us of the penitential quality of this liturgical season. John appears “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Our reading from Philippians also has a penitential tone. Paul writes,

How I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer:
that your love may increase ever more and more
. . .
so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness.

These readings remind us that Advent is not just a joyful waiting for the coming of Christmas, but also a more solemn preparation for Christ’s return and final judgment. Advent is characterized by the twofold exhortation to repent and to rejoice.

How easy it is to do the latter. Christmas is right around the corner. The stores play joyful tunes. There are endless streams of Christmas parties. It is all too easy in the bustle of the Christmas season to forget about the repentance that Advent requires.

What is repentance? It is a “radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed” (CCC 1431). Although the language used to describe repentance is internal and spiritual, as embodied beings, conversion demands concrete actions and deeds of penance. In the Christian tradition, ascetic practices provide the concrete manifestations of the actions that repentance requires. Ascetic practices are a means of training and ordering the flesh , not because the flesh is bad, but because it can too easily distract from spiritual realities.

While not required of the faithful, ascetic practices like fasting and abstinence can be excellent means of preparing for the coming of the Lord during the season of Advent. In the Eastern Churches, many of the faithful still observe “Philip’s fast” which begins on November 15 (the feast of the apostle Philip) and runs through Christmas Eve and includes abstinence from meat, eggs, and dairy. While such a fast would likely be excessive for most of us in the Western Church untrained in any harsher asceticism outside of no-meat Fridays during Lent, an Advent fast from meat, sweets, or alcohol can be a good way of manifesting the spirit of repentance and putting ourselves in ecumenical solidarity with our Eastern brethren.

Fasting during Advent can also be a way of preparing ourselves for the joy of Christmas. Many of us are familiar with the way in which Christmas can be a real downer. Because our consumerist culture celebrates Christmas for a whole month (if not more!), many of us are just ready for Christmas to be over by the time the 25th hits–no more carols, no more sweets, no more cheer. And yet the 25th is only the beginning of the Church’s celebration.

By denying ourselves some of the pleasures of Christmas during Advent, not only do we learn what it means to long for Christmas, but we can also relearn the joy of the Christmas season, and in turn, the joy of Advent.