Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Days of Penance

First, a paradox. Today is, of course, Ash Wednesday, the day when Catholics (and, I suppose some non-Catholics) mark the beginning of Lent by receiving ashes on their foreheads. The Gospel for the Ash Wednesday mass has Jesus telling his disciples that when they are doing penance, they shouldn’t let anyone else know. So what do we do? We get a black smudge on our forehead that we wear for the rest of the day to let everyone know that we’re doing penance!

I know, I know. The ashes are a sign (as is so much in our liturgies) that points to a greater reality, and Jesus was really speaking about doing penance for the right reasons (objectively good actions, done with the wrong intentions, can be morally evil). I am definitely not suggesting that we shouldn’t receive ashes. I’m just complaining that, as in so many things, the explanation can be complicated.

I find my thoughts today flitting back and forth between the idea of repentance and penance for my personal sins and the idea that we, as a nation or as a Church, must repent and do penance for our corporate sins.

My personal sins I can deal with, at least conceptually. I am directly culpable for my failings “in my thoughts and in my words; in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” I am acutely aware of my sinfulness. Every time that I think that I’m making progress, I find myself seeking forgiveness yet again. The words of Psalm 103 are comforting:

The Lord is compassion and love,
slow to anger and rich in mercy.
His wrath will come to an end;
he will not be angry for ever.
He does not treat us according to our sins
nor repay us according to our faults.

For as the heavensw are high above the earth
so strong is his love for those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west
so far does he remove our sins.

As a father has compassion on his sons,
the Lord has pity on those who fear him;
for he knows of what we are made,
he remembers that we are dust.

When we receive the ashes, we hear the words, “Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a time for us to shed our hubris and pride, to acknowledge that we are dependent upon God’s grace. Sin separates us from the font of life-giving water. Separated from God, our souls wither. Once again, through this season of penance, I try to tear the focus of attention away from myself and place it where it should be.

Corporate sin and penance has always been a harder concept for me to wrap my mind around. Perhaps I should say that it’s been a harder concept for me to wrap my heart around. This Lent, I find myself feeling (though I hate to use that word) that we, as a nation, are facing a great chastisement. I don’t look forward to it. If I were more emotionally sensitive, I would weep for those who will suffer. The two images that occupy my mind are those of Abraham bartering with God over the fate of Sodom and the repentance of the Ninevites after Jonah’s warning. I feel (there’s that word again!) helpless before the oncoming storm, and yet I know that all God is calling me to is fidelity and trust. Have faith, yes, but do penance! Not just for yourself and the sins that you’ve personally committed. Not just to discipline your own will. Do penance to make reparation for the sins of your people.

Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The unwritten answer is yes.

When we were confirmed, we became soldiers of Christ. In an older age, the rite include a slap from the bishop. Our enemies, of course, are spiritual. Our weapons are prayer and fasting. Our armor is the sacraments and good works. Just as our soldiers fight on foreign soil to protect a sometimes ungrateful and unaware citizenry, so must we engage the enemy this Lent. The concluding prayer from today’s Office of Readings is appropriate:

protect us in our struggle against evil.
As we begin the discipline of Lent,
make this day holy by our self-denial.

Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sister Mary Martha answered the Ash question very well also.