“So, what are you giving up for Advent?” It’s the question that’s never asked. For many believers, the penitential nature of Advent is not even on their radars. Some might even ask: Why would someone give up something for Advent? Isn’t that more of a Lent thing?

The connection between the two penitential seasons of the Latin Church has been blurred and nearly forgotten. Lent struggles to survive and retain its spiritual identity, rather than being absorbed by the culture of self-improvement. Advent has been nearly lost for some time, a casualty of secular Christmas. Other than maybe an Advent wreath, many believers are not conscious of Advent and it’s claims to our discipleship.

As the human family continues to struggle and slowly recover from a worldwide pandemic, it’s a good time for believers to reevaluate Advent, and to see it as an opportunity to assess their lives, examine their discipleship, and look for ascetical ways to draw closer to the Lord Jesus and cooperate with his grace.

As its own liturgical season, Advent reminds us of the Lord presence and of his coming to every man and woman. As Pope Saint John Paul II taught us: “Christianity lives the mystery of the real coming of God to man, and constantly throbs and pulsates with this reality. It is simply the very life of Christianity.”

Advent, therefore, has a three-fold focus as a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord Jesus. The historical coming of the Lord at Bethlehem serves as a foundation and backdrop for Advent. The worthy reception of the sacraments is also a focal point of Advent, as we are reminded that the Lord Jesus comes to us through these mysteries of our faith.

With strong emphasis, the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus looms large in the Advent season as we are retaught that the Lord Jesus will come again. We will meet him either in the Second Coming, or in our particular judgment, if we should die before he returns. Either way, Advent places before our hearts the reality that the Lord will come and we must be ready.

Pope Saint John Paul II further taught us: “The exhortation to be watchful resounds many times in the liturgy, especially in Advent, a season of preparation not only for Christmas, but also for Christ’s definitive and glorious coming at the end of time. It therefore has a distinctly eschatological meaning and invites the believer to spend every day and every moment in the presence of the One ‘who is and who was and who is come,’ to whom the future of the world and of man belongs.”

In the hope we have of the Lord’s coming, therefore, Advent is best lived as a penitential season. It summons us to wait for the Lord, to pause, to reflect, to ask hard questions of ourselves, and to place first things first. As such, the season calls for asceticism. It provokes us to reorient our lives and to once again place Jesus Christ at the center of our hearts.

Where have we swayed? What have we compromised? How is our life of prayer? When was our last sacramental Confession? How have we served the sick and poor?

The Christian faith is filled with challenges and opportunities to encounter the Lord, to die to ourselves, and to serve those around us in the Lord’s name. None of us is perfect. We are all works in progress. Advent should not overwhelm us. We should not fall prey to self-hatred or shame. We must, however, ask sincere questions. We must be sober and honest in the examination of our discipleship. We must make strong resolutions to be with the Lord and prepare for his coming. We must become comfortable with the challenges of Advent.

In the midst of the twists and turns of life, as gifts are bought and decorations are hung this month, we cannot allow the distinct season of Advent to be lost to a secular, pre-celebration of the Christmas season. We must be attentive to the still small voice that calls us to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We must have open hearts to the movements of God that seek to mold and shape us into his own likeness, as we are called out of ourselves and to a vibrant encounter with him and with our neighbor.

And so, what are you giving up for Advent?

Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby