The meaning of Lenten penance

This is the sermon that I gave on Sunday at Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen on the 9th Sunday of Year A, or Quinquagesima Sunday (usus antiquior). After reading James Preece's post Do we no longer believe in the spiritual? I thought it might be worth posting here.

"Mercifully hear our prayers O Lord we pray, and, absolved from the bonds of our sins, guard us from every adversity" (Collect)

As Lent begins this week, we consider what penances we might do as part of our traditional preparation for Easter. First of all we should understand why we do penance.

Obviously we don’t fast in order to lose weight, or give up things in order to lead a (physically healthy) lifestyle. Those results may come about incidentally and that would all be jolly good, but the Lenten penance is a spiritual exercise.

Even here, there can be a reluctance to face up to what Lent is really about. We can talk of being open to God, taking stock of the spiritual life, re-charging the batteries or becoming more rounded human beings: these are all good things but they miss the main point of penance.

The primary purpose of doing penance during Lent, or at any other time, is to make reparation for our sins. Let us even use the dreaded word “punishment.” In human affairs, punishment can be inflicted unfairly, it can be merciless, given to satisfy someone’s anger or in various other disordered ways. We tend therefore to think that all punishment is bad, and to think that it doesn’t fit in with our idea of a nice God.

Sometimes indeed, people think of God’s punishment in a pagan way, as though God inflicted arbitrary suffering out of all proportion to a person’s sin. If we suffer a tragic loss or there is some natural disaster, it is wrong to seek around for a “reason” beyond natural causes and think of God as inflicting it deliberately to make us suffer.

A good punishment is one that is salutary, that saves a person and leads them to a better life. So a father might punish his son for stealing because he wants to prevent him from embarking on a life of crime, so that he grows instead to become a good and upright man. As adults, we may be punished for committing a crime (or even a speeding offence) in order to protect others as well as to modify our own behaviour. Sadly we do not succeed very well in our penal system but that is another question.

God our Father gives us, through the Church, an entirely wholesome punishment. When we go to Confession, we are usually asked to say some prayers – not a difficult thing and an exercise that will help us to be better.

The season of Lent was once the time when public sinners prepared to be readmitted to Holy Communion at Easter after completing a lengthy penance for a serious sin. The exercise of Lenten penance is given to us so that we impose our own punishment for sin. Our heavenly Father accepts our efforts with great love. By analogy, we might think of how a good earthly father who loves his son would be delighted if the son repented and voluntarily chose in various ways to make up for his misdeeds.

A common mistake when talking about Lent is to say that we should do something positive rather than give things up for Lent. In fact, both are important. Positively we should attend to our life of prayer, remedying any lack that we are aware of. We are also called to almsgiving. This may be in the form of giving money to charity or of making acts of charity in daily life.

The practice of giving something up for Lent is in continuity with the ancient discipline of penance in which we fast, or otherwise renounce something good (and created by God) in order to participate in the sacrifice of Christ who takes our sins away. The Stations of the Cross during Lent are an excellent way to prepare for the great ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter. We should also make sure to celebrate the sacrament of Penance during Lent, especially if it is some time since we last went.

Lent is a time when we have a strong sense of common life as Catholics. We join together to repent of our sins, to do penance, and to engage in the spiritual battle anew. As a result, we pray that we may not only be more “open to God” but actually increase in grace and holiness.

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