“But except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish.”
My childhood hero was Bishop Ignatius Kung.
We were told of his heroic suffering as a prisoner. The Chinese Communists (the same ones who recently gifted us with a man-made virus), permitted him to leave his solitary confinement of thirty years if he would only renounce his allegiance to Rome.
As a little boy, and later as a college student, I felt humbled and strengthened knowing that he was suffering a white martyrdom. I was proud that one of our own leaders understood so well what configuration with Christ meant and lived it out to its ultimate consequences. Little could I imagine that, as a young seminarian, I would meet him shortly after his release. He was grateful to President Reagan, who worked his release. He was grateful to John Paul II, who had made him a cardinal in pectore.
Nonetheless, given the inner and exterior life of the Church that he discovered upon his release—mainly the Novus Ordo Mass, the rampant relativism and heresy touted in seminaries by many who should (and did) know better, and the almost wholesale jettisoning of the cross of asceticism throughout the Church—he found that he was happier in prison.
At least there, he said, he was under the impression that he was being supported by the entire Catholic Church that fasted during various times of the liturgical year—Advent, Lent, and on Ember days, amongst others—that he was mystically supported by the millions of Catholics abstaining from meat and denying themselves all sorts of legitimate goods in the name of the only One who is Good. That used to be the rhythm that marked our strong liturgical seasons, including the joyous but austere time of Advent.
If we believe in the doctrine of the Mystical Body and all that it implies, then we know that the virtues of one member help us all. We also know that the sins of any of us are never kept in a vacuum but affect everyone else. Perhaps it was rather Cardinal Kung’s gift of sacrifice that was supporting us when we decided that the cross of Christ was either an embarrassment or simply too heavy. After all, we had been carrying it for just over 1,960 years, and he was only in prison for 30. Right?
Ostensibly, Advent retains some vestiges of the penitential spirit: the liturgical colors, certain liturgical modifications, and liturgical sobriety, but little else. Nonetheless, to quote our Savior, in the beginning, it was not so.
The Western Church’s penitential approach to Advent was never very uniform. Some local churches, following closer to the Eastern Churches’ practice, made it a time of complete abstinence from fish and meat starting on November 11 (St. Martin’s Fast), save Christmas Eve when fish was permitted.
Consequently, to this day, carp is traditional Christmas Eve fare in Middle Europe. In the early sixth century, a synod in Gaul made Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays of Advent obligatory fast days. In the late nineteenth century, the American bishops decreed that all Fridays of Advent were fast days, while their English, Australian, Irish, and Canadian counterparts added Wednesdays as fast days along with Advent Fridays.
Regardless of the disparity of disciplines throughout the Church, there was a general understanding (and praxis!) that Advent was primarily a penitential season that prepared one for the joyous coming of the Savior, even if not as strict as the full Lenten program.
Since we dropped the Advent preparation for the Nativity of the one to be born as the propitiation for sin, figuratively dropping the cross of Christ, in the West, can we really claim we’re a stronger Church? Are any of us under the impression that the Church is more of a sign of contradiction now than before the council? Do we believe the devil has a harder time influencing Catholics of today in comparison with those of a century ago?
And since we’re asking questions, we might ask ourselves why we naively deluded ourselves that a less penitential Advent would be a better Church. Yet a more fundamental question is: why do any penance at all?
Saint John of the Cross gives us an answer: “A soul that must overcome the devil’s strength will be unable to do so without prayer, nor will it be able to understand his deceits without mortification and humility. St. Paul counsels the faithful: Put on the armor of God that you may be able to resist the wiles of the devil, for this struggle is not against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:11–12). By blood he means the world, and by the armor of God, prayer and the cross of Christ, in which are found the humility and mortification we mentioned.”
In other words, as long as we refuse to deny ourselves, we will never realize how intimately entwined and enmeshed our psychologies are with the devil’s. His influence need not yet be subtle. Who is the pilot and who is the copilot alters from time to time because the concupiscent man gets along quite well with the spirit of the world and the evil intelligence who drives it progressively towards perdition.
Saint Paul says, “Wherein in time past you walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of this air, of the spirit that now worketh on the children of unbelief: In which also we all conversed in time past, in the desires of our flesh” (Eph 2:2–3).
The Council of Trent tells us, “Nevertheless, let those who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall, and, with fear and trembling work out their salvation, in labors, in watchings, in almsdeeds, in prayers and oblations, in fastings and chastity; for, knowing that they are born again unto a hope of glory, but not as yet unto glory, they ought to fear for the combat which yet remains with the flesh, with the world, with the devil, wherein they cannot be victorious, unless they be with God’s grace, obedient to the Apostle, who says, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh; for if you live according to the flesh, you shall die; but if by the spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live” (Sixth Session).
The traditional Advent modes of fasting and abstinence vary for Catholics. In its most minimalist expression, abstinence means avoiding meat. With regard to fasting, some take only bread and water. Others will have one or two collations; while others have a small meal. The broadest usage of the term allows for one meal and two small collations.
A few principles might be in order here: however one chooses to fast for Advent, one ought to be able to function and it ought not harm one’s health. There are many courses one might take, but the important thing is to begin to become ascetical in the rhythm of one’s life. Wherever one is at in one’s ascetical life, it ought to be considered a starting point with an eye to growth and advancement. After all, each day, we begin with a decision for it or against it. If we choose it each day, then the next logical choice is its quality.
By taking to the path of asceticism, we discover many things that had been heretofore hidden to us—namely, how deep and focused our prayer has become, how resilient we can truly be, what role excess of every sort has played all along, and, most interestingly, what a constant companion the devil has turned out to be. It’s something akin to doing touch-up painting on a white wall only to discover that the entire wall has turned grey and smokey and the whole thing needs a going over. Only when we are committed to penance and effectively live it out do these things come to light.
After developing a habit of mental prayer and mortification, the devil’s work doesn’t cease; rather, it evolves. What used to work for him is no longer effective as we become wise to his stratagems; he has to come at us with a more subtle presentation. The more faithfully we respond to grace, thanks to our increased mental prayer and ability to live penance, the more easily do we recognize his presence and influence.
Living the ascetical demands of the regular liturgical cycle reveals to us the wise mother we had in the Church who taught us that penance and mortification, even during Advent, were necessary conditions for following Christ, not because the Church wants to spoil our joyous anticipation of the Nativity, but because the Church knows the devil wants to spoil everything. This spoilation quickly comes by separating Christ from the cross or the cross from Christ.
Taking up one’s penitential cross, the condition for following Christ, is not contradicted by Christ’s other teaching that His yoke is easy and burden light. He doesn’t set us up for failure but rather gives us this Advent gift that we might more perfectly give ourselves to Him. He is with us always and prepares us as He prepares the world for His coming. Christ fits us to Himself by the crosses that He gives, which are well fitting to us, thus light and easy. If the Church decided, all of a sudden, that the yoke was not easy and the burden was anything but light, perhaps we weren’t carrying the cross correctly.
Continually turning towards the face of Christ and walking towards Him during Advent doesn’t mean we drop the cross but rather that asceticism has a purpose. In fact, when the weight of our Advent penitential cross grows heavy upon us, the burden of its carrying reminds us all the more of our Beloved and becomes a source of joy and increased longing for His nativity. The burden becomes light in its bearing, not in its weight.
 John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 3.9.
Used with permission from the author.