Franciscan Fanfare: Living penance in Advent


The question is often asked, “Is Advent a penitential season (like Lent)?” The answer is a bit tricky. On the negative, the “Code of Canon Law is clear that it is not: “The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent” (Canon 1250). At the same time, there is abundant evidence to point to Advent as a season penitential in nature.  

Besides the liturgical cues that give visible evidence to a penitential call (omission of the Gloria at Mass, simple decoration of churches during the season, moderation in liturgical music), there is a long tradition in the history of the church of the call to penance in a particular way during the season of Advent. The precepts of a penitential life — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — have been present in the days leading up to Christmas Day. These become a means of preparation for the two comings we anticipate in this beautiful season — Jesus’ final coming to judge at death and at the end of the world and the celebration of Jesus’ coming as the incarnate Son of God.  

But how can we understand penance in a deeper way? What does penance mean for us as a Catholic and at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the patron of which (St. Francis of Assisi) described himself as living a life of penance? 

Here is a brief history of penance in order to see what it means and how it relates to the Franciscan tradition in a particular way. The notion of penance spans the breadth of the tradition, beginning with the Israelites of the Old Covenant. The Old Testament stresses from the patriarchs to the prophets to the kings the call to penance. In Hebrew, the word was shub, and it meant a turning, often a turning away from idols back to the true God. It was the constant call of the prophets. It became the call of John the Baptist, and we will hear it this call to penance (repent and believe in the Gospel) in the Gospel proclaimed on the second Sunday of Advent. 

Penance, or “metanoia” as it is known in the writings of St. Paul, takes on a meaning of not only a turning but a transformation and a renewal of the person (be transformed by the renewal of your mind…). Penance is a turning of the mind and heart to God.  

St. Francis of Assisi, a great emulator of John the Baptist and a man influenced by the words of St. Paul, could not help but seek to live this conversion. For Francis, penance was a realization of two realities: First, it was a recognition of his own sinfulness and unworthiness, and second, it was a recognition of God’s goodness as Father. Ultimately, Francis’ doing of penance was a response to the gift of God’s love. The turning for him became a turning away from self-centeredness and a radical redirecting of his life after the example of Jesus.  

For Francis of Assisi and for each of us, penance must begin in the heart (love of God and love of neighbor) and flow into our external lives (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, voluntary acts of mortification, works of mercy). In Advent, we seek to live ongoing conversion (another word for penance) in anticipation of the comings of the Lord.  

To prepare for Christmas, Advent invites us to recognize our need for conversion, our powerlessness to save ourselves. And yet, in precisely this powerlessness we find a God who has surprised the world by saving it through what seems to be powerless — a child!  

So, what might this mean practically for us?