Mailbag Question!

Q: I’ve heard people talk about Advent and Lent both being seasons of penance during the liturgical year. Can you help me understand how to explain the differences in the seasons to my family, and how to observe them in the home?

A: Ooh, good question! As I was first starting out on my liturgical living in the home journey, it took some time to figure out how to create the right atmosphere for the different liturgical seasons. And even exactly what the difference between the seasons of Advent and Lent IS. Here’s how I see it, and the focus we try to keep in our home for each.

TLDR: Advent = Preparation, Lent = Penance. Original sources below, if you’re into that sort of thing, or, just scroll past the italics to get to what this looks like in our home.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (524) says of Advent: 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 Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming.

In preparation, we are encouraged to “humble ourselves and become little.”

The USCCB says: The Advent season is a time of preparation that directs our hearts and minds to Christ’s second coming at the end of time and also to the anniversary of the Lord’s birth on Christmas.

Of Lent, on the other hand, the Catechism (1438) says: The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).

And (540): By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.

The USCCB says: Lent has had a different history than Advent among us. Beginning with the powerful lesson of Ash Wednesday, it has retained its ancient appeal to the penitential spirit of our people. It has also acquired elements of popular piety which we bishops would wish to encourage. Accordingly, while appealing for greater development of the understanding of the Lenten liturgy, as that of Advent, we hope that the observance of Lent as the principal season of penance in the Christian year will be intensified.

So, we can see that while both seasons have a character of both preparation and penance, Advent is PREDOMINANTLY preparation, and Lent is PREDOMINANTLY penance.

In my home and heart, I want Advent to feel like a building up, and Lent to feel like a tearing down. I want Advent to feel like a sturdy foundation upon which I can set the Christmas season. But I want Lent to feel more like a clearing away of brush and sticks and old dwellings, so Easter can stand, alone and radiant. That’s how I want my kids to experience the seasons.

This is reflected in our decorating. In Advent, we slowly add elements in, one or two at a time. Slow and steady. For our nativity set, we set up the stable first, and add the animals and shepherds, then Mary and Joseph, then the baby Jesus and the angel on Christmas, and finally the wise men on Epiphany. Ideally, something comes out each day, homemade or from our collection, of books, Santa mugs, wreaths and garland, paper snowflakes, and eventually, our stockings and the Christmas tree.

Then all those decorations that went up during Advent STAY UP for the entire Christmas season. (At a minimum through Epiphany. Sometimes through the Baptism of the Lord. Maybe even until Candlemas.)

Lent, however, has an entirely different feel and focus than Easter. We decorate our home for Lent on Ash Wednesday — well, usually just the mantle or dining table — with purple and/or burlap cloth, some rocks, very big nails from the hardware store, maybe a potted cactus or succulent, or a crown of thorns.

The only change to our decorations during Lent is that on the 5th Sunday, we also veil our living room crucifix (many churches veil all statues and religious images).

Then, on Holy Saturday, ALL the Lent decorations get cleared away, and replaced with flowers and eggs and bunnies for Easter.

Both seasons involve waiting, and when there is waiting + children there will be MANY questions as to when the waiting will be over. So I like to have a Lent calendar, in addition to the more familiar Advent calendar.

Our Advent calendar builds UP to something. It’s a quilted stuffed tree that hangs on the wall. Each day of Advent, we add one ornament, and by Christmas day it’s filled and stays on the wall as a Christmas decoration. You can kinda see it in the back of this photo. (A similar version is available here.)

But our Lent calendar gets printed and cut and goes up on a wall or door on Ash Wednesday, and each day, one piece gets taken down. On Holy Saturday, the last day’s piece is removed, and we crumple up the rest and toss it! (The set is available here.) It gets replaced for Easter with a poster that says, “We are an Easter people, and hallelujah is our song.” (Get it free here!)

I’ve also got a simple, one page version here, where you just cross off days.

There are other differences, of course, between Lent and Advent, notably fasting and voluntary Lenten disciplines. But, figuring out THIS particular distinction, was helpful to me as I was starting to try to observe some liturgical living in the home. I hope it’s helpful to you