Many times over the years I’ve heard Episcopalians insist that Advent is not a penitential season. Thinking of Advent in penitential terms, they say, represents a defunct theology from earlier prayer books. By contrast, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer takes a strikingly different view. Now we focus on themes such as watching and waiting, preparing, pregnancy, and birthing. Advent is not Lent — not even a mini-Lent. So away with the color purple, on with the blue, and leave all of that focus on sin and repentance for its proper season: Lent.
It’s certainly true that each season of the liturgical calendar year has its own unique themes and integrity. But the themes of one season can intersect with themes from other times of the year. Lent, for example, is not just a penitential season. Here’s what liturgical scholar Leonel Mitchell says about the fullness of Lent:
Penitence … is not the only Lenten theme. As we have seen, the second lenten eucharistic preface speaks of Lent as a time to “prepare with joy for the Paschal feast” (BCP: 379). Joy, love, and renewal are as much lenten themes as are penitence, fasting and self-denial: and we need to remember that it is within the context of preparation for our participation in the Feast of feasts that the lenten penitence is expressed. Our penitence is not the penitence of those who have no hope of forgiveness, but of those who have been redeemed by the dying and rising of Jesus the Lord.
If we sometimes miss the themes of joy, love, and renewal in Lent, then perhaps we also sometimes miss the themes of sin and repentance in Advent. True, there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on watching and waiting. The First Sunday of Advent focuses on the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the consummation of God’s purposes for the world. And the Fourth Sunday of Advent centers on the Holy Family and the pregnant Virgin Mary, mother of our Lord.
In addition to other themes, and directly contrary to what some now say about the season, Advent shares much in common with Lent. Consider, for example, the collect appointed for the First Sunday of Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us with great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (1979 BCP, p. 211)
Written for inclusion in the 1549 Prayer Book, the language of “cast[ing] away the works of darkness” alludes to a passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans assigned in both the 1979 prayer book and the revised common lectionaries as the epistle lesson for Advent 1 in Year A:
Besides this, you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the armor of the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Rom. 13:11-14 RSV).
One noteworthy feature of the allusion to this Romans passage in Advent 1’s collect is its focus on very specific sins which the Church calls us to “cast away.” It’s hard to imagine a clearer thematic focus on sin and repentance than this. And if liturgical scholar Marion Hatchett is right, this collect’s call is not just for one Sunday in Advent. “From 1662 until the current  revision,” Hatchett writes, “this collect was to be repeated daily throughout the Advent season.” Since the 1662 prayer book, the intention behind the inclusion of this collect is to put our need to repent of specific sins front and center from Advent 1 through Christmas Eve.
Consider as well the collect appointed for the Second Sunday of Advent:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (1979 BCP, p. 211)
Taken in conjunction with the appointed gospel readings — which, in all three years of the Sunday lectionary cycle, focus on John the Baptist, with particular emphasis on his fiery preaching of impending judgement for sin in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary — this constitutes as clear a thematic focus on sin and repentance as anything found in Lent.
Then there’s the collect for the Third Sunday of Advent:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen. (1979 BCP, p. 212)
The Revised Common Lectionary readings for Advent 3 are less emphatic about sin, but the collect puts us right in our place before God: we are powerless to do anything to save ourselves, seeing as “we are sorely hindered by our sins.” And so the themes of watching and waiting are here intimately connected to our sinfulness and our need for redemption.
Now here’s the collect appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Advent:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (1979 BCP, p. 212)
Only on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, do our gospel readings shift our attention to the coming nativity of Jesus with a focus on the Virgin Mary. But even on this Sunday the collect suggests that we need God to purify our conscience. It’s not heavy-handed, but in a subtle and beautiful way this collect connects the Advent themes of preparation and repentance — as though we can have room in our hearts and souls for the coming of the Christ child only after we’ve cast away the works of darkness.
To sum up: the first two Sundays of Advent include a major emphasis on sin, repentance, and the need for redemption. This emphasis remains, but lets up a bit, on the third Sunday of Advent and even more so by the fourth Sunday of Advent. But the themes of sin and repentance are present throughout the entire Advent season. This suggests that we are only ready for the coming of Christ after we have “cleaned house” by doing the work of repentance.
Is Advent a penitential season? That’s like asking if Lent is a season of “joy, love and renewal.” While it’s not as stark as the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the answer is, Yes, Advent is a penitential season. And it’s also a season about watching, waiting, judgment, consummation, pregnancy, and giving birth. The penitential dimension of Advent can be clearly seen in the collects and lectionary readings assigned for the season.
At a time of year when our consumer culture is in high “feel good” gear, it’s easy to go with the path of least resistance and join the party. By contrast, the Advent themes of sin and repentance convey the clear message that we need to change, that we need transformation in order to be ready for Christmas, and that we need to wait for the celebration in God’s time.
That’s a strikingly countercultural message for time when many are all too eager to embrace the consumer culture’s Advent-trumping version of Christmas. But the message is right there in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
 Leonel L. Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse Publishing, 1985), p. 29.
 Sidebar: I think it’s especially noteworthy that, in contrast to much of the pop theology about the “End Times,” the eucharistic preface for Advent affirms that, because Jesus Christ has redeemed us from sin and death, and made us heirs of everlasting life, “we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 378). What a refreshing antidote to the fear-mongering, shame-based theology found in places like the Left Behind series.
 Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (HarperCollins, 1995), p. 166; emphasis added.
 Mitchell, ibid.