Faith & Life


Catholics Mark Advent with Restraint, Penance and Good Works

By Cathi Douglas     11/30/2018

Have you ever wondered why the liturgical color for Advent is purple, just like Lent? Or why Catholics don’t sing Christmas carols in church during Advent? 

Both are seasons of preparation for great feast days, so Advent, like Lent, is a solemn season of prayer and penance. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says Advent includes an element of penance “in the sense of preparing, quieting and disciplining our hearts for the full joy of Christmas. This penitential dimension is expressed through the color purple, but also through the restrained manner of decorating the church and altar.”  

Restrained use of music and musical instruments is part of a long Church tradition of Advent understatement. Quoted in a Catholic News Service story by Carol Zimmerman published last December, Timothy Brunk, a Villanova associate professor of theology and religious studies, notes that even though Advent doesn’t have the penitential pull of Lent, the season is a good time to spiritually prepare. 

Such actions – including sharing a penance service, serving meals to the homeless, making charitable gifts or meditating on the rosary – offer a welcome reprieve from the crazy bustle of the shopping season. They force us to focus on preparing to joyfully celebrate the birth of Jesus. Here are two more ways to prepare. 


Advent wreaths 

Advent wreaths are constructed of a circle of evergreen branches into which four candles are inserted, representing the four weeks of Advent. Ideally, three candles are purple, and one is rose, but white candles can also be used, says the USCCB. The progressive lighting of the candles symbolizes the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s first coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming. 

The purple candles symbolize the prayer, penance, and preparatory sacrifices and good works undertaken at this time. The rose candle is lit on the third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, when the priest also wears rose vestments at Mass. Gaudete Sunday is the Sunday of rejoicing, because the faithful have arrived at the midpoint of Advent and they are close to Christmas. 

The family Advent wreath should be prepared, and the first candle lit at suppertime on the first Sunday of Advent. A parent should bless the wreath; a blessing can be found at 


Blessing of the Christmas tree 

Christmas trees are thought to originate in medieval mystery plays that depicted the tree of paradise and the candle that symbolized Christ, the light of the world. Many families keep the tree in place until Epiphany. The lights are illuminated after the tree is blessed. A Christmas tree blessing can be found at the USCCB website. It concludes with this prayer: 

“Lord our God, 

we praise you for the light of creation: 

the sun, the moon, and the stars of the night. 

We praise you for the light of Israel: 

the Law, the prophets, and the wisdom of the Scriptures. 

We praise you for Jesus Christ, your Son: 

he is Emmanuel, God-with-us, the Prince of Peace, 

who fills us with the wonder of your love. 

“Lord God, 

let your blessing come upon us 

as we illumine this tree. 

May the light and cheer it gives 

be a sign of the joy that fills our hearts. 

May all who delight in this tree 

come to the knowledge and joy of salvation. 

We ask this through Christ our Lord.