Friday, December 09, 2016

Yes, Advent IS a Penitential Season

It seems that the start of every new liturgical year brings forth at least one article in the Catholic parts of the web “explaining” that Advent is not a penitential season. The Code of Canon Law is generally cited, since Advent is not included in the “official” list of penitential days and seasons, along with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which describes it as a period of “devout and joyful expectation,” with no mention of penance.

The reality of the matter is more complex. The Church’s traditions are not comprehensively determined by or summed up in any Code of Canon Law, nor in any Missal or other liturgical book. It is true that Advent is not a fasting season, and has not been so in the West for a very long time. On the other hand, fasting in Lent, the most ancient and universal sign of that season’s penitential nature, has been reduced to a risible two days, and the many references to “fasting” have either been removed or changed to “abstinence” in the prayers and hymns of the Lenten liturgy. And yet no one would claim that Lent is therefore not a penitential season.

Gaudete Sunday at Our Lady of the Rosary in Blackfen, England, 2013. 
Historically, Advent and Lent have a great deal in common liturgically, and that has actually not changed very much in the post-Conciliar rite. The liturgical colors of the season, violet and rose, remain the same. (More on this below.) From very ancient times, the vestments which symbolize the joy of a feast day, the dalmatic and tunicle, were replaced in both seasons by folded chasubles, which were then (inexplicably) abolished tout court, not just for Advent. (In churches which did not have them, the deacon and subdeacon served in albs, the former with a stole.) In the new rite, the dalmatic may be left off “for necessity’s sake, or because of a lesser degree of solemnity.” (GIRM 338) Since no indication is given as to what constitutes “a lesser degree of solemnity,” one is perfectly free to regard the Sundays of Advent as less solemn than the festivities of the Christmas season, and leave the dalmatics off. (The vagueness of this rubric has, unfortunately but inevitably, lead in many places to the abuse of deacons never wearing a dalmatic, but rather the penitential arrangement of alb and stole, even on the greatest solemnities.)

In the Mass, the Gloria in excelsis is omitted on Sunday in both Forms of the Roman Rite. On the ferial days of Advent, the Alleluia is traditionally omitted before the Gospel; this is optional in the Novus Ordo, which is to say, a perfectly licit way of continuing to observe the Church’s historical custom. Traditionally, Advent and Lent also both saw the removal of flowers from the altar, and the silencing of the organ. In the post-Conciliar liturgy, this has been slightly modified; flowers and the organ are forbidden in Lent (not merely discouraged), but may be used in Advent “with that moderation which is fitting for the nature of this season.” (GIRM 305 and 313) Again, the rubrics’ vagueness leaves one perfectly free to decide that they are best left off altogether.

The exceptions to the traditional rule about flowers and organ music are Gaudete and Laetare Sundays, on which they may be used as they would be on other Sundays and feasts, along with the characteristic rose-colored vestments, which were created as a mitigation of the penitential violet. The continued existence of Gaudete Sunday in the middle of Advent is the clearest sign that the season’s penitential character endures.

And If It Isn’t, It Should Be

Laying all this aside, when the time comes to Reform the Reform, (as it certainly will, even though we know not the day nor the hour,) it will have to be admitted that “devout and joyful expectation” has been a failure, and should be redressed as such. It does not seem to have achieved anything at all by way of restraining the orgy of consumerism that passes for Christmas in much of the world. The spectacle of “Black Friday” shopping on the day after Thanksgiving is fortunately limited to the United States, (where, however, Catholics are the single largest Christian denomination by an enormous margin.) The restoration of some degree of fasting and penance in Advent, already practiced by many on a private level, would provide a powerful Catholic witness to the “reason for the season.”

While videos of Black Friday are often a very sad thing to watch, personally I have always found it even sadder to see how many Christmas trees are out on the sidewalk with the trash by the evening of the 26th. This is one of many common signs that, rather than being kept as a season of expectation, joyful or otherwise, Advent has become in many places a backwards version of the Christmas and Epiphany octaves. Pastorally, the Church should encourage the faithful to bear witness to the importance of the birth of Christ by keeping the whole of the Christmas season, with the very ancient and important feasts that follow, as the great prolonged festival it traditionally was; reestablishing a formally penitential character for Advent would certainly help us to do that, as Lent does for Easter.

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