Advent Vs Lent
Fr Gavan Jennings
Christmas vs Easter.
While Easter, not Christmas, lies at the heart of the whole mystery of salvation and is therefore the most important of all Christian celebrations, at the same time Christmas is, of course, inextricably linked to Easter. Initially Easter alone had a preparatory season assigned to it: Lent, but eventually Christmas developed its own, similar, preparatory season: Advent.
Similarities and differences.
Today the similarities between Advent and Lent are plain to see: the liturgical colour is violet, the Glory is omitted at Sunday Masses, and both have a joyful Sunday a little over half-way through — Gaudete Sunday in Advent and Laetare Sunday in Lent. On these days, rose-coloured vestments may be worn in place of violet and the theme of joy appears in the liturgy.
Where flowers and joyful music are absent in Lent, their use is moderated in Advent (1). An early version of Advent even had the same seven-week length as Lent — this was called the “Lent of St Martin” because it began on the feast of St Martin of Tours on November 11 (2). Our current form of Advent, however, begins on the Sunday nearest to the feast of St Andrew on November 30 and ends on Christmas Eve.
Advent does have a greater feel of joyful expectation about it than Lent. As someone put it: Lent is the time to make ready for Christ to die for us, but Advent is the time to make ready for Christ to live with us. In Advent the Church “makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah” (3) and so is “a period of devout and expectant delight” (4) whereas Lent is one of the “intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice” (5).
Penitential dimension of Advent.
At the same time, we cannot disregard the penitential dimension of Advent, as suggested by its liturgical colour violet — the colour of penance — which marks the whole period.
Traditionally some kind of fasting (or else abstinence from meat) has had some presence in Advent. This makes sense to us, as we are instinctively aware that the great feast of Christmas cannot be approached without serious preparation. As a Vatican document states:
“Popular piety intuitively understands that it is not possible coherently to celebrate the birth of him ‘who saves his people from their sins’ without some effort to overcome sin in one’s own life, while waiting vigilantly for Him who will return at the end of time.”
— Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, #105.
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh captures this truth about Advent in these evocative lines from his poem “Advent”:
We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
(1) General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 305.
(2) In the sixth century, St Gregory of Tours mentions a penitential period lasting from November 11 to Christmas, during which people fasted three days a week; this is the period that would later be called “St Martin’s Lent”. In the sixth century, the tendency was to make Advent as long as Lent. We should recall that in Merovingian Gaul, Advent was thought of as “St Martin’s Lent”. The Bobbio Missal contains a special Mass for St Martin.
(3) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 534.
(4) Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the General Roman Calendar, no. 39.
(5) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1438.