Oh, and I'd like to point out that "Advent Penitential Services" are really unnecessary. I think it'd really be better if the pastor or priests at a parish just make confessions readily available REGULARLY (ie more than 1 hour a week) THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE YEAR, instead of only having an annual or semi-annual "penitential service." These things are not a part of our Catholic tradition. If you offer confession, they will come. Our priest, in a small parish in a small town, hears confessions at least an hour a day at least 6 days a week. And people actually come. And as for penitential services, general absolution is not allowed in these things, so if your priest or pastor does it, he is committing an abuse. Anyway, enough on that rant ... on with the traditional post:
A lot of people have been searching for this, so I am going to re-publish this post.
I'm also updating the post because of a little detail noticed over at The New Liturgical Movement. Saturday evening, at the 1st Vespers of Advent [last year], the pope wore the Penitential Papal Formale:
Looks like that hermeneutic of continuity is showing it's hand again.
You can read NLM's report about it here:
The penitential Papal Formale (it's back)
The following was originally posted 12/4/06.
Wow, ask a simple question ... and what a confusing journey on which you find yourself.
A friend and I wrote to Jimmy Akin asking whether he knew if Advent was penitential. He attempted to answer our emails in his post the next day. To summarize his post, he concludes,
"Bam. So Advent is not a penitential season, at least in the universal law of the Latin Church. Ya coulda fooled me!"
Now, on a technical level I understand his conclusion, and part of it is that the questions that my friend and I asked were different. Basically, my friend asked "legally what are we as the faithful bound to do during Advent?" as in comparison to Lent when we are legally (in Canon law) bound to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent.
So, I thought Jimmy wrong until I re-read and saw that his conclusion is based on the above question and that he did say, "at least in the universal law of the Latin Church." [emphasis mine]
However, my question was a bit more general and focused on the nature of Advent. "Is Advent penitential?" What raised this question for me was from my liturgical studies. In his book "Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year According to the Modern Roman Rite," Msgr. Peter Elliot says right off the bat in his section on Advent, "The season with which the liturgical year begins is not penitential." (p.34, #42).
This statement suprises me. I was raised with the understanding that Advent was sort of like a less rigid Lent. It wasn't as somber or rigorous as Lent, but nonetheless it had a penitential spirit about it. I mean, first off, there seem to be signs in the liturgy. Just as in Lent, the color of the vestments are violet, there is a week where rose may be worn (3rd Sunday of Advent and 4th Sunday of Lent), "the use of the organ and other musical instruments and the decorating of the altar with flowers should be done in a moderate manner, as is consonant with the character of the season, without anticipating the full joy of Christmas (Ceremonial of Bishops, #236), and there is no Gloria on Sundays of Advent. Even in regards to the celebration of Matrimony, "When a marriage is celebrated during Advent or Lent or other days of penance, the parish priest should advise the couple to take into consideration the special nature of these liturgical seasons." That makes it sound like Advent, Lent, and penitential days are pretty much in the same category.
Of course some will say that the violet used in advent is of a different hue, as even our diocesan ordo says "In order to distinguish between this season [of Advent] and the specifically penitential season of Lent, the bluer hues of violet may be used during Advent. Light blue vestments, however, are not authorized for use in the United States." So that statement seems to say that Advent is not specifically penitential as Lent is. However, it should also be noted that this distinction of hues is not a necessity either. The Generial Instruction on the Roman Missals just says that "violet" is to be used for Advent and Lent.
So, off the shelves come the liturgical books. At this point, I am wondering what is the nature of Advent? When did it start? How did it develop? Such a simple question should not be that hard to answer. So, in remembering that one of the reasons why I started this blog was that I was asked to share my liturgical knowledge, I dove into my personal library seeking out info on Advent.
The new "Compendium: Catechism of the Catholic Church" really only says about Advent,
"102. How did God prepare the world for the mystery of Christ? God prepared for the coming of his Son over the centuries. He awakened in the hearts of the pagans a dim expectation of this coming and he prepared for it specifically through the Old Testament, culminating with John the Baptist who was the last and greatest of the prophets. We relive this long period of expectancy in the annual liturgical celebration of the season of Advent.""
The Catechism of the Catholic Church" says:
"#524. When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes presen this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor's birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: "He must increase, but I must decrease."
Hmmm, not very helpful yet. The season of Advent really isn't dealt with on a technical level, so I have few books that deal with the subject.
"The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar" say this:
39. 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.
40. Advent begins with evening prayer I of the Sunday falling on or closest to 30 November and ends before evening prayer I of Christmas.
41. The Sundays of this season are named the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Sundays of Advent.
The weekdays from 17 December to 24 December inclusive serve to prepare more directly for the Lord's birth."
I think a key point here is that the coming of Christ is to be emphasized. Not only in celebrating His first coming when he was conceived and 9 months later born, but also His second coming, which will be the final judgement.
In "The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy" Fr. Adrian Fortesque says this about Advent when looking the how the Gloria developed in the Mass:
"Advent was not considered a penitential season till about the XIIIth century. In the XIIth century it was still kept with white vestments and the Gloria. The omission of the Gloira in Lent and Advent is natural enough from its joyful character."
Interesting. He says that the season developed into a more penitential season.
"The New Dictionary of the Liturgy" by Gerhard Podhradsky, has this for its entry on Advent:
"Advent. adventus=coming. Period of preparation before Christmas, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
I. Historical: As a result of eastern influences, a four to eight week period of preparation for Christmas was introduced, first of all in Ravenna about 450 then in regions using the Gallican liturgy, and finally in Rome under Gregory the Great (d. 604). In the early middle ages the Roman four week Advent became almost universal. The model would seem to be Lent, and the reason for its introduction the growing emphaisis on the incarnation (Christmas).
"II. Meaning: The twofold coming of Christ, in human flesh, and in judgement (emphasized by the readngs from Isaiah especially), form the theme of the Advent liturgy. Because the middle ages regarded the Last Day as above all a day of severe judgement, Advent took on a strictly penitential character, which was, however, mitigated by a note of joyous anticipation (hence purple vestments, limited use of the organ, restriction of floral decoration). Advent is designed chiefly, therefore, to keep the Church and its individual members in a state of vigilant readiness for Christ's return, and to keep Christian hope alive to the complete unfolding of the work of Christ ...
III. Customs: In the Roman liturgy, which finally superseded the special Gallican usages, Advent was never a strictly penitential season. Thus a wealth of customs was able to grow up within Advent."
So while it does have a penitential aspect to it, it is not "strictly" penitential as is Lent.
Finally, I scrounged around and from the back corner of my closet I found Father Josef Jungmann's "The Early Liturgy," which has an analysis of the early development of Advent. He says that
"in Gaul as early as the end of the fourth century, we find an Advent lasting three weeks. And by the end of the fith century this Advent has already developed into an Advent much more extensive and intensive than our present Advent - a second Quadragesima [Lent]."
He also says that the earliest records of Advent in Rome are from Saint Gregory the Great's four Advent sermons.
Here's a clue:
"The only thing we can ascertain regarding Rome before the age of Gregory [the Great] is a transformation of the Ember week that falls in the month of December, shortly before Christmas, into a sort of Christmas prelude. ... [Ember seasons] are among the most ancient institutions of the Roman liturgy ... during the months of June, September, and December one week was especially devoted to prayer and fasting."
He goes on to talk about the technicalities of Advent's development in Rome and in Gaul and the Gallic influence that came into Rome. He eventually continues:
"We can say, therefore, that the last weeks of the ecclesiastical year preceding our present Advent represent a sort of pre-Advent. In this pre-Advent period, the idea of the fianl coming of Our Lord, of the parousia, is predominant, as it is in Advent itself. By remembering this second and glorious advent, we prepare ourselves to celebrate the remembrance of the first advent. And this idea is being emphasized once more in our own time. For not only is the feast of All Saints celebrated in this period, but the feast of Christ the King, who is in gloria Dei Patris, is added as background, showing the depths of our hope and expectation."
And then finally! An answer:
"There is yet one more item of our present Roman Advent which we must trace to the Gallican tradition: its penitential character. According to the liturgical books of the early Middle Ages the Roman Advent was not a penitential season. It was simply a period of preparation for, and a joyful expectation of, Christmas. Therefore only the Sundays had the special characteristics of Advent. It was not until after the tenth century, when the Gallic Advent had exerted its influence on the Roman Advent, that it received its present penitental character. Now, however, the Gloria [is] omitted on the Sundays in Advent, purple vestments are worn just as in Lent, and a restriction is placed on the use of flowers and the organ. However, it never became - except in passing - a period of fasting. These are the influences of the old Gallic liturgy, of the ancient quadragesima S. Martini, on the Roman liturgy; it gave to our Advent and to our preparation for Christmas its more serious character."
So in conclusion, it does appear that Advent has a spirit of penance to it. Although it initially wasn't, through Gallic influences, the Roman practice adopted a more penitential practice which eventually became the universal form. This aspect of penance derives from the expectation of Christ's second coming, and thus finds the faithful joyfully preparing themselves for Our Lord's coming at the end of time and the final judgement. This also helps us to prepare for the commemoration of the Lord's first coming which we celebrate at Christmas. This penitential shift is reflected in the liturgical practices of the rite. However, this season is not strictly penitental and thus does not have required fasting as Lent does, but allows for other anticipatory customs as well. Thus, while there is no legal obligation upon the faithful as there is in Lent, if we are going to follow a true "hermeneutic of continuity" then in my opinion it is a penitential season.
Other Advent links:
The History of Advent at intermirifica
Advent in the Catholic Encyclopedia