ASK FATHER: Some say Advent is not a penitential season.

From a reader…


I’m reaching out because I’m doing a bunch of research on Advent. I have been reading a number of things on Advent and about living liturgically in general and I’m trying to get a few things straight that I’m not totally clear on (and youtube isn’t helping). Fr Mike says it’s not penitential:

Another video that I found first said that based on the liturgy (but not canon law from 1983) it is penitential (vestments, church decorations, etc). Where does a new Catholic (with young children) start?

Yes, there is something to the issue that canon law does not prescribe additional penance for Advent.   However, liturgically Advent is clearly penitential.  “Fr Mike” is wrong.  He has points that are right, of course.  He’s not wrong in everything.  But, he’s wrong, I think, in saying that it is not penitential.

As far as what a new Catholic might do… I would definitely observe it as being penitential, if not to the extent that Lent might be.  “Fr Mike” did suggest not celebrating Christmas too soon.  He is right on that point, of course.  Let Advent be Advent.  Let Christmas be Christmas.   Let there be penance and then let there be celebration.

While there is an intimate connection between Cult (liturgy), Code (law) and Creed (doctrine), of all three we are our rites.   Our Catholic identity is most powerfully shaped by our rites.

Advent is a penitential season.  This is clear from the loss of the Gloria and the color of the vestments (violet).  Once upon a time we used black vestments for Advent and the season was longer.  This is partly why Advent dovetails so closely with the ending of the liturgical year.  The nature of our prayers and readings during Advent having to do with the Four Last Things.  Advent, in many ways, is more about the Second Coming of the Lord than the First Coming.  It’s about both, of course.   And let’s not forget that the Roman Rite has its traditional expression but also its… well, lightened and less complicated expression.  Moreover, according to rubrics, instrumental music is limited during Advent and there should be no flowers on the altar.  Just like Lent, a penitential season.

Yet, the tone of the shorter season of Advent is not like Lent.  I often describe Advent as a season of joyful penance, or penitential joy.  Lent is not against joy, by the way.   We don’t have to mope.

“Fr Mike” is also wrong about Advent not being about having a Merry Christmas.  Of course it’s also about having a Merry Christmas.  We Catholics fast before we feast.   In ancient Christian Rome, for example, people would cut back on their food on fast days (obviously), but they would also give the difference to the poor.  We traditionally deny ourselves things in a spirit of preparation and purification and, then in the right moment, we feast!   Even though Christmas is a comparative newcomer among the great feasts, we do what Catholics do.  First we fast and then we feast.  The lights are bright and the cheer cheerier because we have denied ourselves beforehand.

I will drop this now and let you readers chime in with your resources.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Man-o-words says:

    Catholic: Fast then feast
    World: Feast then fast, or at least get a gym membership.

    LOL, funny to see it that way. But I suppose it applies to our view vs. the world on a grander scale:

    Catholics: Suffer now, paradise later
    World: Paradise (ish) now, Suffer later (for a really long time)

    Its good to be Catholic. :)

  2. DD says:

    Clearly, then, I should pass on the bottles-of-wine Advent calendar.

  3. maternalView says:

    Thanks, Father. This was as I had come to understand it. It makes sense!

  4. For what it is worth, until the modern period, Advent had specific penitential practices legislated in the canons. Originally in the Latin West, Fridays and Saturdays were days of penance (abstinence and fast). In Advent, the older fast day, Wednesday was also observed. So there were three penitential days a week in Advent.

  5. NBW says:

    Dear reader, I am also trying to make Advent more penitent. So far this is what I have been doing the past few years and i has helped.

    Fish eaters site; They have an Advent overview, Christmas novena prayer that starts Nov. 30th, and avnet wreath & candles + prayers.

    Dom Gueranger’s Liturgical Year is very good.

    Rev. Fr. Leonard Geoffine’s the Church’s Year has a good explanation of Advent.

    Attend a Rorate Mass. And observe Ember Days :

    God Bless!

  6. cwillia1 says:

    Traditional foods for Christmas Eve, the practice of all the Eastern churches and the existence of the Christmas octave all suggest that fasting and abstinence is customary and appropriate in Advent for Western Catholics. There is also the feasting traditions for Christmas day. Why would we make it a practice to feast on meat at Christmas if we have not been fasting from something in the days leading up to it. And then there is the liturgy, both new and old, as well as the practice of making a confession in Advent. There is really little significance to the fact that we are not obliged by law to do this.

  7. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    I do wonder what “Father Mike” thinks violet vestments represent, from Lent to Advent to Ember Days to vigils to the confessional. Chances are, if you see violet, some level of penance is involved.

  8. mibethda says:

    To expand on what Father has said, according to Jungmann (The Early Liturgy), in the Roman church the feast of Christmas began to acquire an advent in the Sixth Century, shortly before the time of Gregory the Great. Except for the winter Ember Week (a time of fasting), which was encompassed within it, it was primarily a period of joyful expectation rather than a penitential season. The Gallican church, on the other hand, had begun to develop an advent period in the late Fourth Century. Since the Gallican church was strongly influenced by the Eastern churches liturgically, and since Epiphany was regarded there as the greater feast, advent in Gaul eventually extended forty days from the Feast of St. Martin ( Nov. 11) to Epiphany (both Saturdays and Sundays were excluded). Like Lent, the Gallican Advent also had a pre-Advent. Since Epiphany was originally a Baptismal feast like Easter, the Gallican Advent acquired a penitential nature. When this Advent was transferred to the period up to the Nativity in the Sixth Century, it continued to maintain its penitential character. Finally, in the Tenth Century, the Advent in the Roman Church acquired a penitential character as the Gallican Advent came to assert substantial influence upon it, though the Roman Advent still retained much of its original character as a time of joyful expectation and, unlike Lent, did not become a period of fasting and abstinence.
    After Advent in the Roman church acquired this penitential character in the Tenth Century, as Father indicates, the liturgical color for Advent – except for feast days – was black. According to Durandus (1230 – 1296):
    There be four principal colours wherewith the Church doth make distinction in her Sacred Vestments according to the propers of the seasons: namely, white, red, black and green.
    …The Roman Church useth also violet and yellow, as shall be noted hereafter.

    Black is worn upon the following:

    From Advent Sunday unto the Vigil of the Nativity.

    It is not unmeet to use Violet at those seasons whereunto black belongeth. Thus the Roman Church useth violet from the first Sunday of Advent unto Mass on the Vigil of the Nativity…

    Guilielmus Durandus, a Frenchman, was Bishop of Mende who served at the Papal Court under a number of Thirteenth Century Popes.

  9. Joy65 says:

    Since no one else is commenting I will. I have watched MANY of Father Mike’s videos and listened to MANY of his talks. I listen to his weekly homilies as well as his weekly short Catholic lesson videos on You Tube. I also check here daily quite a few times to see what is new and what I can learn about my Catholic Faith. I listen to other Priests as well online.

    Let’s say I am the average Catholic and I am a Parishioner of either Father Mike’s or Father Z’s. Let’s say I didn’t go on the internet or research about my Catholic Faith or Church but pretty much took my Priest’s word for what he says. If Father Mike said what he did in the video in a Homily and Father Z said what he did in a homily and that’s all I knew (what ONE of them said) HOW WOULD I KNOW what the truth was? Both are good, holy, devout Priests in our Catholic Church and both know and share their Faith with their flock. SO if I followed what my Priest said HOW WOULD I KNOW what the TRUTH was?
    *************NOW I WANT TO MAKE THIS VERY VERY CLEAR——-Father Mike and Father Z HAVE NOT NOT NOT DONE THIS************, but this is what worries me so much when I hear OFTEN people say our Priest said this, our Priest said that and it is FLAT OUT WRONG and against Church teaching. It just hurts my heart, makes me sad, makes me angry and really scares me because if the Priest who is supposed to lead and shepherd his flock won’t even stick to the truth how can a struggling, searching, learning Catholic who doesn’t research ask, find, follow and practice the TRUTH in their Faith? Again this is NOT aimed at Father Mike or Father Z because I KNOW they are good devout holy men of God who don’t lead their parishioners astray. But what if some (many today) do? I ask my own Priest MANY MANY MANY spiritual questions because I trust his wisdom and I trust that he will not lead me astray in my Faith but I pray for the Catholics or searching Christians out there who don’t have Priests who will tell them the truth but their own opinions. PRAYING for ALL clergy, Religious Brothers & Sisters, Deacons, Seminarians and all discerning vocations to and preparing for the Priesthood and Religious life.

  10. In the Eastern Rites, Advent is referred to as the “Little Lent”, clearly indicating it is a penitential season, but not to the same level as Lent itself.

  11. Alice says:

    I like to think of Advent as a penetential period where we go from darkness into light. Lent is the opposite. It gets progressively darker until the blackness and despair of death is suddenly broken by the Resurrection.

    Some people claim that they are too busy doing Advent to send Christmas cards or do Christmas baking until the Christmas season (after Christmas). That’s fine, if it works, but it makes for a stressful Christmas season for our family. Instead, we use Advent to prepare for Christmas and relax and enjoy each other during the Christmas season.

    For new Catholics with children, I’d suggest getting into the Advent season for the adults with daily Mass or at least reading the Mass readings for the day. For the children, I’d suggest doing the Bible stories for the Jesse Tree. You should be able to find printable ornaments, etc. online. Since we’re short on space, I use a Christmas tree as my tree, but there’s no right or wrong way to do it. What is important is that my kids to get a quick outline of Salvation History every year. We also set up our creche slowly and put up our decorations. Some families put a straw in the creche for every good deed they do so that Baby Jesus can have a soft bed. What is important to me is that we watch and prepare for the Coming of Christ. Once He came as a baby at midnight, but someday He will come, perhaps like a thief in the night, and Advent should serve as a reminder that we should always be ready.

  12. jazzclass says:

    Advent is the season of a suffering Jerusalem, which has been overthrown countless times, and at this point has not had a prophet for 500 years (since Malachi). Hence, in the Brevarium Romanum we get those beautiful “O” antiphons, which in and of themselves make up a beautiful poem of the need that Israel has for salvation. These are put into a more poetic fashion in the “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” hymn.

    Beginning on December 17th we hear .”O Wisdom… come and teach us prudence!”

    Then the language becomes more explicitly about salvation, “Come, save us and do not delay!”

    Then it becomes even more explicit, “Come and deliver him from the chains of prison who sits in the darkness and in the shadow of death!”

    And finally on the 23rd we hear those final sweet words, “O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of nations and their Savior. Come and save us, O Lord our God.”

    This pining for our God is potent in these prayers. The Church manifests her need for Christ to be in the world in a way that mirrors the pining of the Church for Her salvation during lent. And that idea that without Christ and His sacrifice we are but mere wanderers in a forsaken land is the root of the prayers throughout those two seasons. Likewise, it should be the root of our fasting, praying, and almsgiving. Without Christ, I am a peregrinus, a man who lacks that which truly nourishes and truly saves.

    The rest is well stated in your post.

  13. rtjl says:

    One strong piece of evidence that Advent is a penitential season can be found in the very beautiful and traditional Advent hymn “Rorate Caeili”

    You can search for videos yourself – or you can start here

    An English translation of the text can be found here –

    That’s convincing enough for me.

  14. APX says:

    Someone beat me to the former three day Advent Fast.

    I watched the video and I think it’s a case of defining our terms, specifically penitential. He basically goes on to explain everything that denotes it as being a season penance to prepare ourselves, to say no to ourselves, etc.

    I literally just looked up Advent in Tanquerey’s Treatise on the Spiritual Life and right next to it it says, “a time of penance”.

    I personally like to find some vice to work on during Advent. This year it’s breaking up with my phone. I found a book with a practical four week guide to creating boundaries with your phone usage. Another year that was quite helpful was when my spiritual director/confessor took out a sheet of paper and just started writing down everything I wasn’t allowed to consume during Advent (basically everything that’s unhealthy and then, the hardest ones, coffee and white bread).

  15. JudithMaria says:

    Where does a new Catholic with young children start? Try this: A Continual Feast.

  16. JudithMaria says:

    Remember to buy through Fr Z’s Amazon link.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  17. Sawyer says:

    One thing that makes it difficult for intentional Catholics in our post-Christian society is that the culture begins celebrating Christmas — ahem, the “Holidays” — in mid-November. For the pagans, the “Holidays” have a decidedly consumerist, party, food, and social emphasis. Christmas itself has faded into the background as the “Holidays” have become a vague time of year for purchasing, partying, and celebrating good cheer. Very difficult for intentional Catholics to celebrate Advent properly as Advent when the surrounding culture is celebrating the “Holidays” in full-swing for the six weeks prior to Christmas.

    Part of the penance of Advent nowadays is having to listen to secularists wish me “Happy Holidays” and reading all the civic and merchant signage that express “Season’s Greetings” and vague “Joy” without specific reference, and in general experiencing people fumble to avoid saying the word “Christmas” while they pretend that there’s some general and known reason to celebrate at this time of year without acknowledging that the whole reason for the season is Christmas and all that Christian Faith celebrates in the Nativity.

    More and more Christmas in America is empty as the society becomes more “diverse” and secular.

  18. Joy65 says:

    Father Mike responds very humbly on Twitter. He is a humble man & priest by the grace of God!

    “I defer to @fatherz in virtually everything he says about the liturgy (and many other things as well). He is a good and wise priest!”

  19. Discerning Altar Boy says:

    A rare miss for Fr. Mike, who preaches well and uncompromisingly to both his collegiate flock and the rest of the world.

    [If this were archery, it was not so much a miss as it was, perhaps, a less than solid hit.]

  20. JohnE says:

    Around the 5:00 mark, Fr. Mike talks about saying no to yourself in order to make room for Jesus. Is this not also penitential? And since we are preparing for Christ’s second coming, isn’t it also an appropriate season to be penitential?

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