The Church celebrates Advent as a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. It is not as old as Lent, the great fast to prepare for Easter and the initiation of new converts at the vigil, but arose at least by the fifth century. The logic of Advent and Lent is that major events take preparation and in this case we are preparing our souls to receive the grace of the great feasts of the Church.
Already in a few days, I’ve heard it a few times: Advent is not like Lent; it is not a time of penance. In fact, Advent arose as a mini-Lent – a time of preparation that included fasting and penance. Every major feast traditionally had a period of time, or at least a day, of abstinence and penance to prepare for it. If we hold that Advent is not a time of penance we close our eyes to the past.
Unlike Lent, the Church does not require us to do penance in Advent. Nonetheless, the original purpose of Advent was to increase penance and prayer to prepare for Christmas. Ven. Prosper Guéranger explains the history of Advent in detail in his great work, The Liturgical Year:
The name Advent [from the Latin word Adventus, which signifies a coming] is applied, in the Latin Church, to that period of the year, during which the Church requires the faithful to prepare for the celebration of the feast of Christmas, the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. The mystery of that great day had every right to the honour of being prepared for by prayer and works of penance. . . . We must look upon Advent in two different lights: first, as a time of preparation, properly so called, for the birth of our Saviour, by works of penance; and secondly, as a series of ecclesiastical Offices drawn up for the same purpose.
Advent is a time of extra prayer and penance for the faithful, as well as a liturgical season which guides us in our preparation.
Eastern Catholic Rites, and the Orthodox Church, have maintained officially the penitential character of Advent, calling it the Nativity Fast. It is also called the St. Martin Fast, as it runs for 40 days from November 15, the feast of St. Martin of Tours.
The penitential character of Advent is a historical fact, but throughout the history of the Western Church there has been no consistent practice on its length (forty days, five weeks for Gregory the Great, or our current four weeks) and amount of fasting. Some held to a fast every day, while others only two or three days a week. Eventually, fasting fell off as a standard practice in the West.
What can we learn from our Eastern brethren who still keep the Nativity Fast? The commercialization of the Christmas season tempts us to celebrate throughout Advent. Simply withholding the partying until the Christmas season would be a great penance in itself! If we took the preparation of Advent more seriously, it would radically transform our experience of Christmas and would be a great opportunity for spiritual renewal.
If we say “no” to our desires a little more and take some extra time for prayer, we can recapture the original purpose of Advent: to take a step back and withdraw from our attachments so that we can receive the gift that the Lord wants to give us at His Nativity.