AS WE embark on the climax of Lent — Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem followed swiftly by His Passion and death — it is time to look at the third strand in our journey through this time of self-denial: Penance.
Like fasting and mortification, penance has fallen out of favour in recent times (if ‘favour’ can be said to be the right word).Even what used to be termed the Sacrament of Penance has been renamed the Sacrament of Reconciliation and while true sorrow for our sins will always bring about a reconciliation with God we have down-played the fact that simply saying sorry and promising not to do it again only partly wipes the slate clean.
Just as a mother forgives her child’s wrongdoing because of her love for the child so God forgives us our sins because of His infinite love for us and just as there us a price to be paid by the child who offends so there is a price to be paid by the sinner who offends. By whatever name you care to call it it is a penance, a punishment due for having offended as a means of reparation, a practical rather than a simply verbal apology.
In 1077 The Holy Roman Emperor Henry, having been excommunicated the previous year by Pope Gregory VII was made to wait three days in a snowstorm wearing only a hair shirt and fasting the while before the Pope admitted him to the castle at Canossa and lifted the excommunication. You can read the story here. As a penance it makes ‘Three Hail Marys’ or a decade of the Rosary look very small beer!
But we must remember that God as well as being infinitely loving and infinitely merciful is also infinitely just. What Confession has done is to restore us to God’s favour and to restore sanctifying grace to our souls. We are once more fit to enter heaven but still there is a punishment due for the offence. That punishment can be paid in this life through acts of penance (which brings us back to things like fasting and mortification — all tied in together, you see!) or they will be paid in Purgatory.
There are those who argue that Purgatory is an unnecessary complication introduced by the Catholic Church or that since Christ has already paid the penalty for mankind’s sins there is no reason for us to abase ourselves in this way but that argument makes little sense. Our redemption and our right once more to enter heaven was certainly won by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross but our salvation is much more in our own hands than that. Our redemption has not changed our nature. We are still sinners and constantly in need of God’s mercy and goodness. If we choose to turn our backs on Him He will not prevent us from so doing.
Life continues to be a constant battle with Satan and even though we have the inestimable comfort of knowing that there is a place in Heaven marked out for us — with our name on it, so to speak — God has still left us with the free will to refuse that place by turning our back on His love and goodness.
And turn our backs on Him we do, a dozen times a day. Mostly in small matters where we put our comfort higher than our love for Him or where we act in ways which themselves may be only marginally sinful but which are acts of habit or laziness or pride. Sometimes we sin more seriously knowing that God through his Commandments and Christ through the Gospels has enjoined on us not to behave in that way and the Church has made it clear that such action, unforgiven, can lead to a permanent separation from God’s love.
For those we need Confession and absolution and penance and for the others the graces of Confession are there also and the resolve to behave differently in the future. And that resolve and those efforts to change our behaviour and make our lives God-centred are in themselves a form of penance since they go against the grain of our human nature.