Catholics may find some similarities between the season of Advent and the season of Lent.
For a start, both seasons employ the use of purple vestments, a “rose” Sunday (Gaudete in Advent and Laetare in Lent), and the elimination of the Gloria in Mass – all identifying them as “penitential seasons”.
The seasons in fact lead up to an important Solemnity of the Lord (Christmas and Easter) and that’s the reason why they are “penitential seasons”.
So, what’s the difference? During the penitential season of Lent, we recognise our sinfulness, our “fallenness”, both individually and as a community. Lent is a time of repentance, a time of penance to strive to cooperate with the graces to reform our lives.
Lent is a season when we take the opportunity to forsake ourselves and instead join ourselves to Christ by participating in His redemptive sufferings. It leads up to the Resurrection, a time of incredible joy. But we must first pass through Holy Week, a time of intense remembrance of the Lord’s passion. Thus, Lent is a more subdued and sombre season.
However, although Advent also is a time of penance, the focus on Advent “penance” is directed to preparation and readiness. This contrasts with expiation and redemptive suffering in Lent.
Advent is anticipatory of Christ’s coming and we use penance to be ready and waiting for Him.
Though Advent doesn’t have the penitential pull of Lent – where people give something up for 40 days or do something extra – that doesn’t mean the season should slip by without opportunities for spiritual growth.
Our joyful Advent “penance” is primarily focused on removing anything that blocks Jesus from entering the door of our hearts. In fact, the Code of Canon Law does not list Advent as a penitential season.
Canon 1250 states that “the penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent”.
Although local authorities can establish additional penitential days, this is a complete listing of the penitential days and times of the Latin Church as a whole, and Advent is not one of them.
During Advent, the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. This is outlined in The General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM 305].
During Lent, it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities and Feasts.
Thus, unlike retail stores, shopping centres, public buildings and homes that start gearing up for Christmas earliest by November (or September for Filipino families), churches are advised to appear sombre during the entire season of Advent, with the exception of an Advent wreath (which is also a decoration).
This sobriety offers us the chance to be a little “out of sync” or a little counter-cultural which may not be a bad thing.
The experience of “being out of sync” could be a “catechetical moment”. In a way this could be a helpful moment to teach us something about our faith. The dissonance between how the Church and society at large celebrates Christmas is that the Church celebration begins, not ends, on Dec 25.
The shopping season and Christian Church calendar overlap, but don’t connect.
By the same token, it should not be restricted to completely avoid listening to Christmas music until Dec 24 either.
What are Carols?
The word “carol” actually means dance or a song of praise and joy.
The root of the word lies in dance. In Old French, “carole” means “kind of dance”. In Latin, “choraula” means “a dance to the flute,” and in Greek, “choraules” means “flute player who accompanies the choral dance”.
Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago. Although there were some carols centring around religion, the songs were originally secular – up-tempo melodies with alternating choruses and verses associated with traditional dances.
They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year, usually taking place around Dec 22) or interstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles.
Early Christians took over the pagan solstice/interstice celebrations in preparation for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones.
Incidentally the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a revered carol inspired by the O Antiphons which is sung from Dec 17 in accordance with the Liturgy of the Hours.
Fr Ignatius is a lecturer at the St Francis Xavier Seminary and CTIS.