Advent is a good time for penance. But Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord into my life. It is a time to prepare myself for the "advent" of the One I love, Who is a priority in my life – a priority above and beyond all priorities.
Why speak about repentance or penance at all? Penance reminds me of purple and black, abstinence from sweets during the old-time Lent, of statues covered with purple cloth; of purple vestments and purple everything. Everything, in fact, had a strict, monastic, becowled discipline about Advent and Lent.
Why do we need Penance?
But then, you ask why? The reason for penance is simply that there can be no love without it? "Say that again, slowly", I hear people ask. All of us, at this point in our lives, know what love is. Not infatuation. Not "engouement (infatuation)" as the French would say colorfully. But real, genuine, tested, affection for another human being.
There can be absolutely none of that without penance. If someone cannot do without, he or she cannot love. Cultivating a relationship with another person, maintaining friendly rapports with that person always involves awesome self-denial. The investment in time alone involves much sacrifice and renunciation. People you love make insistent demands upon you, sometimes without realizing it.
The Challenge of Love
Father Andrew M. Greeley, referring to a sociological survey he had conducted with parents and family writes:
"When we are young, most of us are victims of the easy romanticism which says that once you've fallen in love, everything will work itself out. Later we find that no human intimacy – not even the most satisfying and the most rewarding – can endure without a lot of hard work. We also discover that when we are willing to put in such effort, the outcome is extremely rewarding, even if the effort never becomes easy."
The same truth would apply to a community – be it that of our family, or parish community, or other groups. Even if there is no question of intimacy. Community does make demands. Demands on privacy, on time. The psychic energy dispensed in overlooking certain character traits, in glossing over irritating habits, in exercising patience, the effort spent in trying to understand, to make allowances for, to say nothing of forgiveness and reconciliation, can be nothing less than enormous. This is surely not in the same league as doing without sweets. This is, really, a professional undertaking.
Our Need for Industrial Strength Penance
Loving a community, becoming part of it, always entails industrial strength penance. People in community have to cope with occasional unfairness and injustice, with the unpleasant prospect of being ignored or forgotten and overlooked.
To love in spite of the inevitable inequities of this life demands reinforced self-denial. The rewards of Community life are splendid and constant. The willingness to begin voluntary penance during this time of Advent will say much for our desire to live a genuine community life in Christ.