February 17; Ash Wednesday; Year B

ash wed 20 21Penance and Redemption

Everything about today’s liturgy screams of “penance,” from the ashes which you would be imposing on each other, to the readings which speak of the penitential practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. The entire liturgy is so penitential that the Church omits the penitential rite at the beginning of today’s Mass. I guess to a non-Catholic observer, our Catholic “obsession” with penance seems morbidly strange. Why would anyone relish the thought of denying yourself something pleasurable and make a celebration of it?
Penance comes from a Latin word, ‘paenitentia’ which derives from a Latin noun, meaning repentance, and ultimately derives from the Greek noun ποινή (poine). The original Greek word seems more austere than the Latin and English. It’s practically “blood money” – the price you pay as compensation for taking the life of another. For the uninitiated, mortification and penances in the Catholic context do not involve any form of blood-letting. Thank God for that. You do not have to cut your wrist or mutilate yourself or even pay an exorbitant price as compensation for the harm that you have done to another. But someone had to pay the price and someone did. Someone was mutilated for our crime. Someone had to exchange His life for ours, He took the punishment which was our due, He died so that we might live. You know who it is – it’s Jesus Christ. Because of what the Lord did for us, the word “penance” now takes on a broader meaning – it now involves “recompense, reward, redemption, or release.”

Penances have varied extraordinarily over time. In the early Church, a ‘penitent’ would have to go through several years of public penance before absolution, and it was usual for this to be a once in a life-time event. Gradually, by way of Irish monastic practices and the invention of the confessional box, this evolved into the modern way of celebrating the sacrament where absolution is given (usually) before the penance is performed, and where penances have been reduced to the perfunctory ‘say one Our Father and one Hail Mary.’

But today, Holy Mother Church in her wisdom demands very little in the ministry of the sacrament of penance: contrition, confession, and satisfaction – we are to be sorry for our sins, truly to confess them, and to make satisfaction for them. It is in the third element, making satisfaction, that the whole notion of penance is seen in a concrete way.

So, what is penance about? I think that we are called to one way of penance and tempted to do another. There is a dangerous tendency, like the Greeks, to see penance as the paying off of sin by suffering in the face of an angry God. But this is contrary to our Christian faith. God is not so petulant that He would sulk like a little child until we succeed in appeasing Him with our penances. Another dangerous view of penances is to imagine that penance is an outmoded concept, that we are not expected to make any effort to put things right, since our Lord Jesus has already done it all for us. But both these views of penance are both inaccurate and dangerous. They reduce penances to performative acts – either playing to the crowd or to God.

Today’s readings recover the correct view of penances. Penances are the means by which we right our relations both individually and collectively with God, our neighbour and ourselves. It is seen as the antidote or cure to the three-fold wreck of sin. This three-fold movement is a theme that is revisited again and again in the scripture. We see a disintegration of man’s personal integrity, his relationship with others and with God, at the Fall. This same movement appears again in our Lord’s three-fold temptation – to worship Satan instead of God, to seek approval instead of basing one’s relationship on truth, to prefer material comfort to one’s spiritual good. In our Lord’s public ministry, the temptations come again and again – He hungers and thirsts, though He is able to make food out of nothing; the people wish to make Him King, and He evades them; the demons proclaim Him as the Holy One of God, and He silences them. This three-fold patterning continues in the Passion: in the agony in the Garden, in the trial before His accusers, in the three-fold denial of Saint Peter, in falling three times according to tradition, and from the cross He rejects the sedation of the wine (material comfort), the physical comfort of passers-by and finally, even experiences the desolation of being forsaken by God.

What does this mean for us? It means that the temptations that assail us on a daily basis are also the means by which God uses to strengthen us. Therefore, the penitential practices which we undertake are not to appease a God who has distanced Himself from our trials and sufferings. We can never accuse God of this because of what our Lord Jesus had to endure. Rather, our penitential practices are meant to unite us with our Lord who redeemed our pains and sufferings through His own. Fasting, Almsgiving and prayer are the three means by which we conform ourselves to this three-fold patterning – By fasting we reject bodily comfort, by almsgiving we turn away from temporal power and the need to please the crowds, and by prayer we acknowledge the primacy of God. But in order to do this we should first earnestly seek the assistance of the sacrament of penance, confession, lest our spiritual exercise be subverted by pride. Penitential acts, when done without true humility and repentance, will ultimately become performative. And when our acts become performative, God is not honoured, only man.

The goal of Christian penitence is not to pay the ransom, our Lord has already done that. The purpose of our penitence is to participate in the joy of the redeemed, as returning prodigal sons and daughters to receive the cloak and ring and banquet from the One by Whose stripes we have been healed. Through our penances, done with humility and love, we regain what we have lost, we receive healing for what is wounded, we restore what has been damaged by sin. As we begin this Holy Season of Penance, let us be assured of the abundant graces of mercy which our Lord has poured out and continues to pour on us from the cross.