Why you should participate in a penance service

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year C Mi 5:1-4a; Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45


There are certain traditions that we associate with Advent – Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, the Jesse Tree and gradually decorating for Christmas. Catholics celebrate another Advent tradition – the Advent penance service.

There are many Catholics who have made it a practice to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation more often, i.e., weekly or monthly. I have often suggested to parishioners that a minimum use of the sacrament would be at least four times a year – winter, spring, summer and fall. But many Catholics regularly celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation at their parish’s Advent and Lenten penance services.

You might ask, “I understand why a penance service makes sense in Lent, but why Advent? Is it more than clearing the decks for the celebration of Christmas?”

The answer, of course, is yes, there is an intimate connection with the mystery of the Incarnation and our preparation for that celebration.

Pay attention this week to our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. It lays out the mission of Jesus, the reason for the incarnation, in clear language: “Behold, I come to do your will.”

The Father’s will is that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, become the definitive sacrifice that would set us free from our sins and open up our way to sharing the life of God.

Because Jesus came to do the Father’s will, it is now possible for us to do the same with the help of the Holy Spirit. It is now possible for us to follow the example of our Blessed Mother, who answered the angel Gabriel’s announcement with the words, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

A handmaid was a humble servant whose vocation was to follow the will of her Lord. Because Jesus did the will of his Father, Jesus’ mother was given the grace from the very first moment of her existence to do the same. Because Jesus took on our nature, it is now possible for us, united with him, to conform our lives with the will of the Father.

Yet, that has not always been our path in this life. More often than not, we want to do our own will rather than the will of the Father, and in doing our will, we diminish ourselves by our disobedience to the Father’s love. But Jesus has given us a path to re-conform our lives with his.

Therefore, in preparing for the celebration of his nativity, it is fitting that we use the sacrament of reconciliation to conform our will once again with the will of Jesus Christ who perfectly conforms his will to the will of his Father.

There are certain traditions that are more than traditions. There are traditions that connect us with the essence of the feasts we celebrate. Have a traditional Advent this year. Participate in your parish’s Advent penance service.

Msgr. Timothy Keeney is pastor of Incarnation, Charlottesville.

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