I’ve often heard Episcopalians emphatically say that Advent is not a penitential season. Thinking of Advent in penitential terms, they say, represents an “older” (i.e., defunct) theology from earlier times and earlier Prayer Books. By contrast, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer takes a strikingly different view of things. Now we focus on themes such as watching and waiting, preparing, pregnancy and birthing. Advent is not Lent – not even a mini-Lent. So away with the color purple, on with the blue, and leave all of that focus on sin and repentance for its proper season: Lent.
It’s certainly true that each season of the liturgical calendar year has its own unique themes and integrity. But it’s also true that themes of one season can and often do overlap or intersect with themes from other times of the year. Lent, for example, is not just a penitential season. Here’s what liturgical scholar Leonel Mitchell says about the fullness of Lent:
“Penitence … is not the only Lenten theme. As we have seen, the second lenten eucharistic preface speaks of Lent as a time to ‘prepare with joy for the Paschal feast’ (BCP: 379). Joy, love and renewal are as much lenten themes as are penitence, fasting and self-denial: and we need to remember that it is within the context of preparation for our participation in the Feast of feasts that the lenten penitence is expressed. Our penitence is not the penitence of those who have no hope of forgiveness, but of those who have been redeemed by the dying and rising of Jesus the Lord” [Leonel L. Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse Publishing, 1985), p. 29].
If we sometimes miss the themes of joy, love, and renewal in Lent, then perhaps we also sometimes miss the themes of sin and repentance in Advent. True, there’s a great deal of emphasis placed upon watching and waiting. The 1st Sunday of Advent focuses on the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the consummation of God’s purposes for the world. And the 4th Sunday of Advent centers on the pregnant virgin Mary, mother of our Lord.
[Sidebar: I think it’s especially noteworthy that, in contrast to much of the pop theology about the “End Times,” the Eucharistic preface for Advent affirms that, because Jesus Christ has redeemed us from sin and death, and made us heirs of everlasting life, “we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP, p. 378). What a refreshing antidote to the fear-mongering, shame-based theology found in the “Left Behind” series!]
In addition to other themes, and directly contrary to what many now say about the season, Advent shares much in common with Lent. Consider, for example, the collect appointed for the 1st Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 211):
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Written for inclusion in the 1549 Prayer Book, the language of “cast[ing] away the works of darkness” alludes to a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans assigned in both the 1979 Prayer Book and the Revised Common lectionaries as the epistle lesson for Advent I in Year A:
“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:11-14 RSV).
One striking feature of this collect’s allusion to Romans is its focus on very specific sins which Paul – and the Episcopal Church – call us to “cast away.” It’s hard to imagine a clearer thematic focus on sin and repentance than this. And if liturgical scholar Marion Hatchett is right, this collect’s call is not just for one Sunday in Advent. “From 1662 until the current  revision,” Hatchett writes, “this collect was to be repeated daily throughout the Advent season” [Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (HarperCollins, 1995), p. 166; emphasis added]. In other words, since the 1662 Prayer Book, the intention behind the inclusion of this collect is to put our need to repent of specific sins front and center from Advent I through Christmas Eve. That sure sounds like a penitential season to me.
But there’s more. Consider the collect appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 211):
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Taken in conjunction with the appointed gospel readings – which, in all three years of the Sunday lectionary cycle, focus on John the Baptist, with particular emphasis on his fiery preaching of impending judgment for sin in year A of the RCL – this constitutes as clear a thematic focus on sin and repentance as anything found in Lent.
Then there’s the collect for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 212):
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The RCL readings are less emphatic about sin for this Sunday, but the collect puts us right in our place before God: we are powerless to do anything to save ourselves, seeing as “we are sorely hindered by our sins.” And so the themes of watching and waiting are here intimately connected to our sinfulness and our need for redemption.
Now here’s the collect appointed for the 4th Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 212):
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
It’s only on this, the 4th Sunday of Advent, that the gospel readings shift our attention to the coming nativity of Jesus with a focus on Mary. But notice that even on this day, the collect suggests that we need God to purify our conscience. It’s not heavy-handed, but in a subtle and beautiful way it connects the Advent themes of preparation and repentance – as though we can only have room in our hearts and souls for the coming of the Christ child only after we’ve cast away (with God's help) the works of darkness.
To sum up, the first two Sundays of Advent include a major emphasis on sin, repentance, and the need for redemption. This emphasis remains, but lets up a bit, on the third Sunday and even more so by the fourth Sunday. But the themes of sin and repentance are present throughout the entire Advent season. This suggests that it’s only after we’ve done the work of repentance for three Sundays that we are finally ready to shift the focus to Mary, not because pregnancy is a sin, but because we won’t have room in our hearts and souls to receive the gloriously good news that God is coming to us as a baby through her womb until we’ve “cleaned house.”
Is Advent a penitential season? That’s like asking if Lent is a season of “joy, love and renewal” (Lee Mitchell). While it’s not as ominous as The Great Litany or the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the answer is “Yes, Advent is a penitential season. And it's also a season about watching, waiting, judgment, consummation, pregnancy and giving birth.” The penitential dimension of this season can be clearly seen in the collects and lections appointed for the Sundays of Advent.
Why, then, do we sometimes hear clergy and laypersons so emphatically deny that these themes are an intrinsic part of the Advent season? I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s because we are increasingly uncomfortable with theological concepts like “sin” and “repentance,” and perhaps especially at a time of the year when our consumer culture is in high “feel good” gear. It's just so much easier (and more fun) to go with the path of least resistance and join the party. By contrast, themes of sin and repentance convey the clear message that we need to change, that we need transformation in order to be ready for Christmas, that we need to wait for the celebration in God's time, and that it’s inappropriate and even unfaithful to jump the gun by celebrating too early without doing the hard work of repentance in the light of God's grace.
That’s a strikingly counter-cultural message for a time when many churches are all too eager to embrace in part if not in whole the consumer culture’s Advent-trumping version of Christmas. But the message is right there in our Prayer Book.