Last week, Brandon wrote about the idea of revival and Lent, and this week it’s my turn. One of the things that has been coming up for me a lot lately, largely because I’ve been teaching classes on Confession, is penance. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about penance is, what it’s for, and why it’s important.
The Lenten season is called a penitential season, and a lot of people have connected some dots. In Lent, we tend to prepare for Easter by focusing on Good Friday. There is a lot of focus on the death of Jesus, which leads to a very solemn, somber season. So, if Lent is solemn and somber, and also a penitential season, then penance must be a very solemn and somber thing, right? Well, let’s not be too quick to make that connection.
Penance can be, to be sure, a very solemn and serious matter, but it can also be incredibly joyful. At the most basic level, penance is just an attempt to show that we want to make right some wrong we’ve done. It, like so many sacramental realities, is intended to be an outward demonstration of an inner disposition. It’s our way to show our sincerity. If I borrowed something from you and broke it, of course I should apologize. If all I do is apologize, though, and make no attempt to repair or replace what I’ve broken, there would be some real question as to how sorry I really was.
In the context of sin and salvation, though, it’s important to think about who our penance is actually for. God doesn’t need it, quite frankly, to know our sincerity. He who sees into our hearts is, in no way, dependent on our outward actions. He knows full well whether we regret our sins and how committed we are to avoiding sin in the future. So then, why ask for it? For our sake, not His. Our acts of penance not only demonstrate our sincerity, but are intended to be our first steps away from the sin itself. Simple acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving serve as a way, not only of moving away from our sin, but of building the good habits to replace the bad.
During this Lent, let’s make sure that we take our penance seriously, not because God needs it from us, but because He wants it for us.
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