We need the penitential character of Advent in order to prepare our hearts to receive the joy of Jesus Christ
Advent is upon us. It’s hard to fathom. Just at the moment the world seems to be racing headlong toward consummations of material desire, Advent slows the Christian down. Where did it come from? Why does it have this elongating effect on time? How should it work upon us?
In one sense, Advent is the most ancient of seasons. Perhaps even Adam and Eve, before the Fall, in contemplating the mystery of their marriage, had some veiled anticipation of the Lord coming to unite humanity to Himself anew. Certainly the Prophets await the coming of the Lord. Noah awaited the coming of the Lord’s judgment, and Moses glimpsed in the flames of the Burning Bush the glory of the One who is to come. All the prophets of Israel proclaim the coming of the Lord, the Messiah — and they often do so in sackcloth and ashes.
Beyond the prophets of Israel’s long-awaited hope for the coming of the Messiah, there is also the testimony of the Gentiles, such as the Sibylline Oracles, at which many of the early Church Fathers marveled. “Ever enduring, behold the King shall come through the ages, sent to be here in the flesh, and Judge at the last of the world,” writes a prophetess in ancient Greece who presided over the Apollonian oracle in Ionia. Whether Jew or Gentile, it can be said that Advent is as old as the world — it weighs something, it has depth, and dimension which can unfold in our hearts.
As a liturgical season, Advent can trace some of its roots back to the very ancient Christian practice of celebrating Ember Weeks which took place three times a year, in June, September, and December — a kind of retreat from the world, from time, from material desires. Christians would fast three of those days, on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Pope Leo the Great regarded these Ember seasons as apostolic in origin, and indeed, one could even go further and claim their apostolic origins are in continuity with Israel. The Prophet Zechariah speaks of “the fasts,” kept at three, six, and nine months of the year, suddenly becoming “joyful and glad.” (Zechariah 8:19) So already there were days of fasting in December, even before Christmas was elevated to a great festival, first in Jerusalem late into the fourth century, where the celebration of Epiphany — the Christmas Feast of the East — had spread out into a midnight mass on December 24th at the Grotto of the Nativity, where Constantine had built a basilica. The Christmas celebration was imitated in Rome at the same time, though without any Advent preparation, other than the Ember Week. To the north, however, in Gaul, by the end of the fourth century, the Gallic Church was observing three weeks of Advent. Pope Gregory the Great, in the middle of the sixth century, adds a fourth week.
So the December Ember Week became that ancient Advent of the Lord. The lectionary turned to the Prophet Isaiah, and to the Gospels of the Annunciation, Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, and to John, who is the last of the prophets to announce the coming of the Savior of the world. By the medieval period, the strongly penitential emphasis of the Gallic Advent liturgy had combined with the more joyful anticipation of the Roman Advent into a four-week harmony of penitential fasts and joyful feasts. This is for theological reasons since by this time it is clear that Advent refers not only to the Incarnation, but also to Christ’s Second Coming. As Blessed Jacobus de Voragine notes in the thirteenth-century Legenda Aurea, “the Advent fast is partly one of rejoicing, by reason of Christ’s coming in the flesh, and partly one of anxiety at the thought of the Judgment. To bring this to our minds the Church sings some of her joyful chants because of the coming of mercy and rejoicing, and puts aside some others because the Judgment will be very strict and prompts anxiety.”
The Advent season is thus ever ancient and ever new, it is about divine mercy and justice. It taps into the root of the whole of human history. It confronts us not only with the coming of the Lord in the flesh — O Come, O Come, Emmanuel — but it also confronts us with the Lord coming to our hearts. Astoundingly, Advent asks us to prepare our hearts for Jesus Christ, God Himself. Yet how can we prepare our hearts to receive the gift of God Himself?
This is a question that the Christian must constantly face — our unworthiness before the One who is to come. At Mass, we regularly acknowledge our unworthiness to receive the Lord. “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” The penitential and joyful aspects of Advent echo this beautiful part of the Mass. Like the prophets, we need the penitential character of Advent in order “to make straight the paths” for the Lord, in order to prepare our hearts to receive the joy of Jesus Christ who alone can sanctify our hearts by uniting us to Himself. We need to humbly acknowledge our unworthiness in penitence, and also rejoice that God stands at our door knocking — Advent bids us to let Him in.
As the world invites us to a thousand empty liturgies of consumption, Advent invites us to be consumed by the coming of the Lord — in our hearts, and in the Blessed Sacrament — so that our souls are prepared for that Last Day when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. For this Advent we were made.