What is Lenten penance all about? The readings from Mass today help us understand.
The first reading, from the prophet Joel, sets the tone. “Even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.” We tend to focus on the fasting, but let’s pause to think about the “weeping and mourning.”
Weeping for our sins is an interesting place. We mourn for a good that we love but don’t possess, or for something we had but lost. On the one hand, if everything were fine, we would have nothing to be sad about. On the other hand, we wouldn’t be sad about sin unless we did in fact love God.
We live in what they call the “already, not yet.” We already love God. We do, or we wouldn’t be here: wouldn’t be at Mass, wouldn’t be listening to his Word, wouldn’t be entering into the fast of Lent. But we also recognize that we don’t “yet” love God as much as we should – don’t love the people around us as much as we should.
It’s parallel to the situation I imagine all of us parents experience. I love my children enough to wish I loved them a whole lot better. Like Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” I say, “you make me want to be a better man.” (The title of the film is ironic: I am not as good as it gets. I wish I were. He wishes he were.)
The heart of Lent is not fasting or hurting ourselves. The heart of Lent is “weeping and mourning.” Weeping and mourning because we love enough to wish we loved more. That’s why we fast: because we love enough to want to be better.
Joel gives us another really interesting angle: “Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly.” Doesn’t that sound festive? Lent is festive. Ironically, Ash Wednesday, along with Lenten self-denial, is one of Catholicism’s most beloved customs.
Lent should be festive. It’s exciting to try to do better, just like New Year’s resolutions are exciting, and fun – even though what any resolution essentially says is that I have not been as good as I should be. Lent is a happy season, because penance is a happy thing. And penance is a happy thing because it is about love. It is about loving enough to try to love better.
The short reading from Second Corinthians simply tells us that Jesus is with us. He “appeals to” us, “implores” us. We hear that imploring because we do love him, we do listen to his voice. But he needs to call to us because we still don’t hear his voice enough.
He appeals to us “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” That is, we have received God’s grace. His love is in us. Stir it up into flame!
This reading, too, contains the bizarre words, some of the most bizarre in the New Testament, “he made him to be sin who did not know sin.” Christ did not sin, but he suffered the penalty of sin, he did penance for sin: he died on the Cross for sin.
Here’s another way to put it: Jesus himself has come to the festive assembly of Lent. He joins us in our efforts to be better. We pick up the cross of penance, we set off to be better – and beside us is Jesus himself. He didn’t die on the Cross to impose on us a new burden, or to make us feel bad. He died on the Cross because we still have a lot of work to do in our spiritual lives, and he wanted to be with us, to help us carry our crosses.
Finally, in the Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the fundamental dynamic of penance: “they have received their reward . . . . And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
The question, always, is what do we live for? Do we long for applause, for human respect? Do we want to eat lots of ice cream and watch television? Fine, God will let us have that . . . though he made us too wonderful ever to be satisfied with those “rewards.”
Or do we long to know the Father: “show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” If we seek him, he will give us what we seek.
This Lent, let us set out to know him better, to let love – of God and of neighbor – be all in all in our lives. That’s what fasting is really all about: focus.
How do you experience already loving God, but not yet fully? How does penance help you in that place?