Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is Advent Penitential?

I'm returning to a topic that I previously posted about--namely, what kind of season is advent?

I raise the question again for two reasons: 1) In my reading of The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister she specifically says "Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas but, unlike Lent, it is not a period of penance. It is a period that focuses us on joy." (66) 2) My recent discovery on how the vestments of Pope Benedict XVI for Advent sheds light on the topic.

After reading the comment by Chittister I went back to do a little more digging on the topic. She doesn't completely remove the idea of penance from Advent for she says that the second week of Advent "calls us with John the Baptist to repent." (67) But clearly she sees the dominant theme of Advent as one of joy more than penance.

Then I ran across an article which, among other comments, made reference to the Pope's wearing what is called the "Penitential Papal Formale. "Traditionally, the Sovereign Pontiff used three kinds of formalia: the precious one, used in the most solemn occasions, studded with gems; the ordinary one, shaped like a golden dove; and the penitential one, with three pinecones placed in a triangular pattern. The penitential one wasn't used since 1969, but the Holy Father has decided to restore its usage right for the first Sunday of Advent." So, if the Pope's vestment's are any indication of his thought's on the season of Advent he gives a strong indication to a time of penance.

The article from The Roman Sacristan is one of the best I've found on the subject and is well worth reading. It shows that originally the penitential idea was not that prevalent but that it developed later. He quotes from a book by Father Josef Jungmann entitled The Early Liturgy which says:

"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." (emphasis mine)

So where does that leave me? Who becomes the voice of authority on what Advent really means? The Orthodox Church has a 40 day period of fasting prior to Christmas but does not equate this with the Roman Catholic understanding of Advent. If the Catholic Church takes its lead from the Pope then it would seem to take on at least some sense of penance. Personally, (spoken like a true Protestant) I like the idea of joy and expectation but I see the importance of repentance as part of genuine preparation. When I see writers speak of Advent as a time of "preparation" and joy it is the "preparation" that is left undefined. What does this preparation look like? Is repentance limited to only week two or does it have a more prominent theme even amidst our joy and expectation?

As I continue to think on these things I feel very excited about starting Advent. I'm praying that God will open my eyes in new ways and prepare my heart from the coming Messiah. One thing that Chittister wrote I really like was this: "We begin now, in Advent, whether we realize it or not, to prepare for Easter--because Easter is the reason Christmas is important." (68-69)

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