An Advent programme

Tomorrow I am off to Cologne for a few days seeing sights and enjoying a friend’s company. So quietness will reign here a few days. But Advent is upon us and it seems a lax thing not to acknowledge it.

The character of Advent can be a subject for debate. I have heard some adamantly declare that Advent is not a time of penance like Lent, and should not be seen as a sort of “little Lent”. Lent prepares us for the commemoration of the Passion and Death of Jesus, and so is rightly marked by works of penance in preparation for it. Advent is, some argue, rather a time of preparation for the joyful feast of the Nativity of Jesus and so any penitential character is out of place.

Anyone who listens to the readings of Advent cannot but notice that not only are we looking back to the Nativity and Jesus’ first coming, we are looking forward to his second coming, and to judgment. Who among us is ready to be judged by the Lord? Are we ready for him to come like a thief in the night and catch us unawares, in the full flush of our sin and sloth?

The symbols are there if we look – the purple of penance and preparation and the quietened organ. It was once a universal Christian practice to fast in Advent, and the Orthodox and eastern-rite Catholics still do. Advent seems to cry out for prayer, fasting and almsgiving as the ideal preparation for both Christmas and judgment. It would be good if the witness of fasting and penance in Advent were revived more zealously in the western Church, if only to counteract the secular tendency in this period to see preparation for Christmas as being nothing more than extra shopping and increased consumption. So many compete, it seems, to buy a present that exceeds last year’s, as though extravagance and a hefty price tag were the true marks of love. How incongruous when we are celebrating, or meant to be, the birth of our Saviour into relative poverty and lowliness.

So while it would be a great gift to the Church and to the world if we were all to start renewing the practice of penance in Advent, it would be as great a gift if we were to make sure we did not invest it with the showiness and excess that marks the secular pre-Christmas. Rather, maybe we should follow Blessed John Henry Newman’s Short Road to Perfection. It is not an arduous journey he proposes. Instead he encourages us to make the daily round of our lives perfect by being conscientious, and by keeping our minds more surely fixed on God. If we follow this Short Road we will find ourselves indeed readier for Christmas, and readier for judgment.

It is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well. A short road to perfection—short, not because easy, but because pertinent and intelligible. There are no short ways to perfection, but there are sure ones.


We must bear in mind what is meant by perfection. It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way, or especially heroic—not all have the opportunity of heroic acts, of sufferings—but it means what the word perfection ordinarily means. By perfect we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound—we mean the opposite to imperfect. As we know well what imperfection in religious service means, we know by the contrast what is meant by perfection.

He, then, is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day.

I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.

September 27, 1856, Meditations and Devotions.

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