Why Penance in Lent?

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By Father Jean Joseph Brice

On Ash Wednesday, if a stranger had visited our world for the first time, he would have noticed something saliently striking. Young, old, men, women, office and street workers had a dark sign of the cross on their forehead. If the curious visitor asks what this signifies, he would be told, among other things, that it is the beginning of Lent — the season of penance for Christians. He would probably ask, why do penance? Three reasons could be given to him.

First, it is a time for Christians to focus on the fundamentals of their spiritual life. To be a Christian is to be a soldier for Christ. Jesus was like a general training his officers for battle. Like a baseball coach who compels even the most experienced players to relearn the basics of the game every spring, in Lent the church invites the faithful to revisit the basics. We can never rest assured that we have mastered them. As soldiers or players, Lent reminds us not to let our praying knees get lazy, through fasting not to let our deepest hunger of the heart to emerge, and through meditation to feed our soul with imperishable food. Now, the question we must pose to ourselves is: If that same stranger visited our world in the middle of Lent, would we look as if we are going through a season of penance, or would it still be business as usual? You can answer that for yourself.

Secondly, Lent is an invitation to be a little counter-cultural. See Christ’s ways. In a world where might makes right, Jesus became vulnerable and weak (remember the manger and the cross). In a world where the poor were marginalized, he became one with the poorest of the poor (he washed his disciples’ feet, and spent countless hours with unimportant people like Thomas, lepers, the Samaritan woman, etc.). In a world where peace is achieved through violence, he showed us the power of nonviolence, and that violence dries up when it is met by a love willing to give itself away. In a world where being on top meant crushing the little, he became a little man although he was God. Lent reminds us to strive for the same, but not the manner of the world, but Christ’s.

Finally, Lent tells us that it is through suffering we most resemble our Lord. We are built for comfort. Naturally, we flee from suffering as much as we can. The season of Lent, however, is a time when we consciously seek to unite ourselves to our Lord in suffering; we seek to have a taste of the bitter suffering our savior had endured on the cross for our salvation. Suffering is the privileged way of being conformed and configured to him.

When we take the time to survey the lives of the saints, it is unambiguously clear that the more they welcomed and embraced suffering the more they radiated Christ. Let’s take St. Francis of Assisi for example. He fasted nine times a year on bread and water for a month-and-a-half at times. He went barefoot almost everywhere. He spent countless hours in prayer begging the Lord for the gifts of humility, obedience and joy. The more he fasted the more did the Franciscan Order thrive. The more miracles he wrought, the more effective was his preaching, and the more souls did he convert. He became so deeply united to our Lord in suffering that he was privileged to receive the sublime mark of the stigmata. St. Francis has achieved the deepest union with Christ precisely because he had suffered so much.

The more suffering one experiences, the more intimacy they have with Christ ! Lent tells us that the premier way to achieve this is through penance. So buckle up, will you?

“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers. Have a question? Ask the Newly Ordained! Readers may submit questions by sending them to Editor@thericatholic.com.