We had our Advent Communal Penance Service here at the Hermitage Tuesday night. Besides the fact that our Constitutions call for us to do those twice a year, I just love the fact that we do it. We do one on the Wednesday before Holy Thursday as we are about to enter the “strongest” liturgical days of the year, the Triduum. And we do it on December 16th, the evening before we begin that last strong period of Advent with the singing of the O Antiphons. They are like that little moment before the Sprinkling Rite each evening when we pause and do an examination of our conscience: I think it is good that we take seriously the call to conversion, ongoing conversion.
I got most of my formation in liturgy during the 1980s when there was a strong push to downplay the penitential aspect of Advent. Some of the reasoning behind that was good––to differentiate Advent from Lent. Hence why we even try to use a different shade of color during Advent, a violet or purple more touching blue than red. But part of the reason, I suspect, was plain and simply because many folks just didn’t like the penitential aspect of Advent, or the penitential aspect of religion in general. I can see both sides. The Catholicism I grew up with (with my Irish Catholic mother, God rest her soul!) I think emphasized the negative fear-based aspects of religion way too much. But at the same time, it seems like a mark of healthy mature spirituality, not to mention psychology, to be able to admit from time to time that we are wrong, that we are not perfect, and to strive for greater integrity, purity of heart, and single-mindedness. Besides that, when you look through the liturgical readings and prayers for Advent, it’s unavoidable: there is a lot of talk about sin and repentance and conversion.
Still it’s valid to differentiate this season from Lent, and I would say it this way… I speak often about positive and negative asceticism. By negative asceticism I mean more of a focus on actual wrongdoing, unhealthy, sinful, willful behavior. In some way that was the purpose of Lent from the beginning: those who were about to be baptized were catechized and asked to forsake their old ways; and on a parallel path those who had committed grave sins were allowed a once-only chance at doing public penance during the same period, called exomologesis. There is a whole lot of dying going on in Lent, preparing ourselves for the big death of Baptism, immersion into the death of Jesus. During Advent there is something a little different going on, I like to think of it as positive asceticism.
A couple of images come to my mind. When someone is coming to my house for dinner or even just for a cup of tea, I clean the place up! I might run the vacuum, change the towels, dust, and wash the dishes to welcome the guest. It’s all totally positive. I’m not focusing on how horrible I am; I’m focusing on cleaning my house up for my guest. I like the hymn “People Look East”: “Make your house fair as you are able, / trim the hearth and set the table. / People look East and sing today: / Love the Guest is on the Way.”
So our penitential attitude in Advent has that veneer about it, getting ready for the guest; and (the line I love so much that I believe comes from Teresa of Avila) making pleasant shelter for Jesus to dwell. “Love, the guest, is on the way.” Another image that comes to my mind is my sister before her wedding. She was bound and determined to fit into this beautiful form fitting dress for her wedding. And she ate so carefully (only spinach and tuna for a while) and she exercised every day, and she did look radiant on her wedding day (though I must admit she is a beautiful woman no matter). And many brides, and grooms, too, do the same thing: they want to look their absolute best for that special day, and also for their special someone. And so they do hard things and they discipline themselves doing what others might consider kind of like ascetical practices like diet and exercise, but for totally positive reasons, to be their absolute best selves. And we too are waiting for the Beloved, for the bridegroom, and we are making ourselves ready. We want to be our absolute best selves, not because we are bad or ugly or unlovable, but because we have yet to realize or manifest our own beauty and dignity. “Love the guest is on the way!”
Finally, I have a more and more visceral image of this the older I get: we want the Word to make a home in our hearts, we want the Word to take root in the deepest part of us and become something in us, like it became something in Mary. (And I’m gonna sit here until that happens!) And in order to do that we gotta clear out a lot of garbage. We want to empty ourselves completely. We have to make a pathway through the wilderness of our hearts that are so crowded with selfishness and cynicism, with bitterness and apathy, insecurity and neediness, even with fatigue and despair. We come to the sacrament of reconciliation with all that too and ask God through the church to cut a path in the wilderness of our inmost being so that we can experience this birth of God in our souls and bring Christ to the world anew, a world so in need of mercy, a world so in need of peace, so in need of us to be beacons of light, so in need of someone to be filled with hope, to shine on those who dwell in the shadow of death and to guide our feet on the way of peace. Let’s be that for each other and for the world. Let’s believe once again that the Word can take root in our hearts and become something in us if we but empty ourselves of all that is not godly, if we “make our house fair” and make pleasant shelter for Jesus to dwell.