Advent — a time of preparation, a time of penitence

Our King is coming. Now, how should we prepare our house?

This is the central question of Advent. How must we order our lives, our work, our communities, our faith and our society, in order to be pleasing to the King of kings?

Historically, this period of preparation and reflection looked much different from the noise, color and over-consumption of today’s secular celebrations leading up to Christmas.

As Fr. Thomas Newsom, of the US Old Catholic Church, pointed out this week, it was, and still is, customary for many Eastern Orthodox Christians to undergo a fast — from certain items, not from all food — beginning on Nov. 15 and ending with the Christmas Eve feast. Also called “Philip’s Fast,” this period of reflection and penitence begins after the feast of St. Philip the Apostle in the Byzantine calendar.

In the Western (Roman) Church, there was a separate fasting tradition surrounding Ember Days, which marked the quarterly changing of the seasons in the liturgical calendar, including three days of fasting after the Feast of St. Lucy, on Dec. 13 — a fast known as Advent Embertide.

These times of fasting led Christians to dub Advent a “little Lent,” referring to the longer, 40-day period of fasting and penitence leading up to Easter.

Fasting, penitence and inner-reflection, or meditation, may seem odd and out-of-step with our frenzied preparations for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. We’ll gladly suffer heartburn, put on a few extra pounds, work ourselves to death decorating, shopping and cooking, and spend way more than we can afford. But, spend an hour a day in prayer and reflection? That’s absurd!

Of course, if our priorities are in order, it isn’t absurd. If we put in all that work based on the expectations of family, neighbors and secular marketing, how much more should we put in based on the expectations of our King and Savior?

These fast four weeks of preparation — the first of which is almost spent — call us to step back from the flash and fervor of secular Christmas, and step into the quiet darkness of anticipation, where we seek out hope, faith, joy and peace — where we seek our King.

I’ll close this week with a prayer, borrowed from Fr. Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest, theologian and professor who dedicated the latter years of his life to serving the poor and disabled, where he found Christ.

Lord Jesus, master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas. We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day. We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us. We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom. We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence. We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!” Amen.

One thought on “Advent — a time of preparation, a time of penitence

  1. I used to write weekly reflections for our parish bulletin and one year for Advent, I suggested not putting up Christmas decorations until Christmas. I tried it (only bring out my Christmas mugs for my morning coffee), and it was pretty amazing to focus on the season of Advent–and then the season of Christmas. It is a very counter-cultural thing to do, though.

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