I've been scrambling to understand Advent this year because the Catholic Church celebrates it differently than what I've been exposed to...and secular culture provides absolutely no clues on how to live the Advent season. This is my second Advent as a Catholic, but I don't know where my head was last year. I remember my husband telling me that Advent was a season of penance, but I didn't really understand. All my ideas of Christmas were joyful ones--'penitential' had not entered my consciousness.
I've been doing research online on Advent, but where better to answer my questions than the Catechism? "When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour's first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor's birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: "He must increase, but I must decrease." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 525)
Of course Advent is a season of penance, then: whenever I anticipate Jesus' second coming, I am humbled because I fear I am not ready to meet him face to face... or at least as ready as I'd like to be. The other thing that has been made clear to me is that Advent is NOT the 'Christmas season'. Traditionally, Christmas starts on Dec. 25th and goes until Epiphany on Jan. 6th. Yes, Christmas is celebrated for 12 days! But not until it's actually Christmas. I've noticed that Catholic churches usually do not decorate their sanctuaries until the 3rd Sunday in Advent (which is a joyful day), or they wait until Christmas Eve. Now I understand. How am I supposed to be in penitential mode when everything has a strictly festive air?
Most American Christians seem to have lost the tradition of Advent being a time of penance; instead 'anticipation' of Christmas is stressed during Advent, or it isn't celebrated at all. So it's been a little hard to find out what Advent has meant traditionally, but I want to understand it because Advent is a liturgical season and I have loved living by the liturgical calendar since I became Catholic. To me, the liturgical calendar beautifully unfolds the drama of the story of God's love for man each year. The Catechism says "...the Church, especially during Advent and Lent and above all at the Easter Vigil, re-reads and re-lives the great events of salvation history in the "today" of her liturgy"(CCC 1195). Doing this carves out specific ways to participate in the 'history' of salvation. There are times dedicated to fasting and self-examination, there are times of joyful celebration. Living by the liturgical calendar is a wonderful way to be deliberate about living a well-rounded spirituality, and Advent is a part of this.