While it is difficult to keep in mind in the midst of holiday celebrations, shopping, lights and decorations, and joyful carols, Advent is actually intended to be a season of fasting, much like Lent. It probably doesn’t feel that way, but any time the Church asks us to prepare for something, there’s an element of penance that goes along with that preparation.
There’s something very appropriate about penance in this holy season of waiting. Because we spend time reflecting on the violence and evil in the world, we beg God to change things, to make things right, to “put death’s dark shadows to flight.” Advent is a time of longing: our exile in the present means that we’re looking forward to going home, to our own exodus into the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God. And our own sinfulness and need for grace lead us to pray for the Holy Spirit to renew its work in helping us grow into the image of Christ.
Toward the goal “that Christ may live in me,” two of our most beloved saints (who were also popes) wrote pastoral, insightful treatises on modern persons' need for penance in order to fully live the Christian calling. St. John Paul II wrote the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance, and St. John XXIII wrote the encyclical letter Paenitentiam Agere.
Although the power of penance may be the Church's best-kept (or most-ignored) secret, in the 21st century we are only required to fast on two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. As we noted earlier, one of the “pillars” of the ancient Church, along with prayer and almsgiving, was fasting. Jesus never said “if you fast”—he said “when you fast.” We’ve fallen out of the practice, and it’s very possible that we’ve lost something very powerful in that process.
Yet there is nothing that says we cannot do more. In the middle ages, Advent was as penitential a season as Lent, and a 40-day serious fast began on November 12th. (The third Sunday of Advent, when we use the pink candle, was called Rejoice Sunday, and there really was a reason to rejoice, because the fast was relaxed for that one Sunday!) But these days, any fasting is looked upon as excessive—when in fact it may be the abundance of food that we in the developed world take for granted that may be excessive.
“Perhaps it is a good illustration of how our abundance enslaves us. The more we get, the more we want. And the more we want the more we think we can’t live without. To some degree or another we are so easily owned by what we claim to own, we are enslaved by our abundance and we experience little freedom to go without.” (Msgr. Charles Pope)
Imagine that: the “freedom to go without.” Let’s face it: being hungry is uncomfortable. Your body is reminding you all the time that its needs are not being met. And that hunger brings with it a heightened awareness. It makes you aware of your body and its demands. It makes you aware of the many people in the world who don’t have enough to eat. And it brings you back to your dependence on God and on the tremendous gift, the gift of his Son, that you are about to receive.
By reviving the tradition of repentance during Advent, we can better appreciate Christmas (and its feasts!) when it arrives. We can see the contrast between the waiting for Christ and the coming of Christ. And we can understand better how our journey begins and ends at the manger.
How do you fast? You might consider the same kinds of things that you may already do during Lent: abstaining from meat (especially on Fridays), restricting the amount of food you eat (skipping a meal, or refusing second helpings), and not eating between meals.
“Advent is the time when we wait in the darkness, wait in the days of oppression, wait in the times of broken-heartedness, wait in the age of antebellum—the days before the light, the days of faith, the days of perseverance—before the fight.” (Lisa Sharon Harper)
In these days of waiting, does it make sense to do what we always do? To ignore the light that’s coming closer every day, to engage instead in a mindless round of feasting, of consumption, of excess? Is this really what God is calling us to do?
This is your year to make a change. To eat less, and pray more. To give up a meal every week and donate what you would have spent on it to a food bank or a homeless shelter. To connect the dots that the early Church knew so well: Prayer. Fasting. Almsgiving.
To take Jesus at his word, and wait true anticipation of his coming.
Remember to download our free Put Jesus First: Advent & Christmas Planning Guide filled with even more ideas for putting Jesus first.