By Father Woods
Aside from the necessity of receiving the Sacrament of Penance frequently, the Church encourages us to embrace other forms of voluntary penance during Lent. Some of these are recommended to us in the form of law: the disciplines of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent. From the time most of us were small we remember “giving up something” during Lent – and these practices continue to be praiseworthy and good.
Many people, however, do not understand why penance is a necessity for Christians. Jesus echoed the prophets when He called people to a true conversion of heart and not merely performing outward works. Such penances remain sterile and false unless an interior conversion motivates us to visible signs, gestures and works of penance. Conversion is difficult and is only possible with God’s grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of His grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a pain and sadness which the Fathers called affliction of the spirit and repentance of heart. ( 1431)
Conversion is tough stuff. It means the pain of leaving behind our sinful habits and actions. And let’s face it, as much as we would like to deny it, we love our sins. That’s the only reason we continue doing them. They’re attractive and satisfying to us, as evil and poisonous as they are.
Leaving them behind entails sacrifice and determination, humility and grace. Only when I honestly admit that my sins damage God, me and others will I really set my mind and heart to working on them. We long to make restitution and to reach out to God in gratitude for His calling me to repent, His forgiveness, and His mercy.
The ancient disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are recommended to us by the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. These three express conversion in relation to ourselves (bodily fasting), to God (in prayer), and to others (through charity or almsgiving.) Turning away from sin means turning toward God and neighbor with freedom and abandon. Free from sin, we are free to live Jesus’ Gospel and give ourselves completely in service to God and others. Our hearts no longer find sinful things attractive, but instead find satisfaction in the life of holiness and grace.
Life still entails struggle; the cross is always present. Sin won’t want to be discarded and absent from our lives. Satan will use all kinds of persuasive techniques to lure us back to self-destruction and self-deception. Of course, Satan only has as much power over us as we freely give him. The remedy is to cling tighter to Jesus and the Lenten disciplines. Prayer, penance, and charity will always aid us in our fight against evil.
Continue to embrace penances of every kind during this holy season, motivated only by love and thanksgiving for redemption and salvation. All of us will then indeed be holier when Holy Week arrives.