Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
In the Congregational church I grew up in, Advent marked the start of the Christmas season. We hung the greens on the first Sunday of Advent, and sang Christmas carols until Christmas Day. So it was a shock to me when I arrived in the Episcopal church, and found Advent marked with the purple colors of Lent, somber music, and an emphasis on penitence! It was not a change I embraced wholeheartedly.
Advent, though, is much more than just a “little Lent.” As I’ve learned more about Catholic and Anglican tradition, I’ve discovered that this is a season with many characteristics. The somber, penitential mood I first noted is just one aspect of Advent. The practice of keeping a fast during Advent originated in France, Spain, and Germany, where it was intended as a spiritual preparation for keeping one of the church’s primary Feasts, the Feast of the Nativity. In Rome, however, the season before Christmas was a festive time. There was no established fast, and the season was considered a joyful one. Eventually, the church harmonized its liturgies and its seasonal celebrations, and the result was a season that combined features of both traditions – a penitential character in a season that also looks forward with joy.
Still, it does sound rather contradictory, doesn’t it? How can one be penitent and joyful at the same time? It wasn’t until the Advent when I was nine months pregnant with my daughter, who was born on Dec. 26, that I really began to grasp the spirit of the season.
Late pregnancy is a time of a many strong emotions. There is joyful anticipation as you eagerly wait to for the new life you are carrying to enter the world. There’s anxiety and even a little fear as you contemplate the difficulty and pain of labor. There’s a certain amount of surrender, as late pregnancy’s demands on your body means you are no longer fully in control of it. And finally, there is preparation for an event that will turn your life upside down in ways you know you cannot fully imagine.
I think this is a good way to think of Advent. We are joyfully anticipating the coming of the Light into the world, and the return of Christ in glory. There may be some anxiety, because we know from the Gospels that the passage from our current age into the Kingdom of God will not be without pain. We surrender to God, recognizing that we cannot fully control what happens in our lives or in the world, and trusting that God will see us through this passage. And we prepare our hearts for an event that will surely turn our lives upside down in ways we cannot fully imagine.
Penitence in Advent is all about preparing our hearts for Christ’s coming, much the way we prepare the nursery for a new baby. Pausing to remember and confess our sins allows us to move them out of our hearts, to leave them at the foot of the cross, so that we have space to receive the forgiveness and love of God offered to us through a child in a manger. And I think that’s something worth celebrating.