“I Promise to do Penance”: Lenten Observances

Did Ash Wednesday seem to pop up on you unexpectedly? The beginning of a penitential season to a people who are unaccustomed to penance can seem more sudden than it actually is. Modern western society has come to expect convenience and comfort — it is our way of life. Penitential observances can sometimes seem contrived and out of place for us, but if we look more deeply into the purpose of penance, we see why it is necessary for growth in holiness.

The Purpose of Lent

Lent commemorates the 40 days and 40 nights that Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his public ministry. We cannot understand Lent and the nature of its penitential prescriptions unless we understand this event. After Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he was moved by the Spirit into the desert to confront the weakness and failings of the entire human race and to overcome them on our behalf. Jesus took on a human nature so that humanity could be joined to the perfect acts of love that can only proceed from God Himself. When he entered the desert in human flesh, he took us with him to confront our failings and Satan’s temptations. Satan tempted Jesus with food, recalling the complaining of Old Testament Israel in their hunger after being delivered from slavery in Egypt. Jesus responded, “One does not live by bread alone.” He tempted Jesus with worldly power if he would just worship Satan recalling Israel’s idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf. Jesus responded, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone shall you serve.” Finally, Satan tempted Jesus with a mocking demand for Jesus to throw himself off the parapet of the Temple to see if God would save him recalling the event in which the people of Israel held a council against Moses in Meribah when they ran short on water. God provided water even though his people had tested his patience. Jesus responded, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

All of these particular temptations were aspects of a bigger temptation, to seek the kingdom of God without self-offering. Satan knew that self-offering — that is, love — was the key to liberating humanity and creating a New Israel, so he tempted Jesus toward an earthly fulfillment of his mission in which all the land and all the earthly power lost to Israel would be returned and Israel would be restored. Jesus knew that it was not land or earthly power that would restore Israel but the conquering of sin through love. The salvation of a New Israel would not come about through worldly means alone, but through the offering of all possessions, especially possession of self, to God in love. This is only accomplished through a mutual offering with Christ, who by taking on our nature unites his offering to ours empowering our penitential acts.

The Minimum Standards

If Lent is about self-offering, then it is not suited to a minimalist approach that treats the Church’s penitential practices as jumping through arbitrary hoops. This approach may offer some natural benefit, but it will just as likely backfire and cause Catholics to resent seasonal penances. Let’s review the minimum Lenten penances: Catholics 14 and older abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Fridays throughout Lent, and on Good Friday. Catholics 18-59 add to this a meager fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Most Catholics observe the pious custom of giving something up for Lent, usually chocolate, candy, soft drinks, or desserts. While these are all worthy practices, they are still only the minimum prescribed by the Church.

How then are we to increase our penance beyond the minimum? Should we add more bodily penances, more deprivations? Maybe, but we might be better off simply putting more of our heart into existing penances. The prophet Joel told us in the Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday Mass, “Rend your hearts not your garments.” We deepen our penance by deepening the love with which we offer it.

Sin is the enemy of love, so the first obligation of penitents in the season of Lent is to seek forgiveness and repent of sin. It is a common but paradoxical habit of Catholics to give up something like desserts for Lent but persist in serious sins and strident rebellion against the Church’s teaching authority. A real examination of conscience is more in the spirit of the Lenten Season. Have we given up lust, hatred, gossip, calumny, neglect of family, materialism, and prayerlessness for Lent?

Integral Penance

Fasting is a means of offering oneself to God and training one’s will to be obedient to the rational dictates of a true conscience.  It is not a form of self-punishment.  We do not fast in order to throw off the fetters of an intrinsically evil nature, because our nature–our bodies and their needs–are not evil.  Penance is not predicated on the dualistic belief that only spiritual things are good while our flesh is an inherent evil that needs to be suppressed.  The things we do in the body may sometimes be evil, but our humanity has been created and restored with marvelous dignity.

Though Catholics may sometimes portray a guilt-ridden, brooding disposition during Lent, this is not the aim of penance.  The Gospel tells us, “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,” because we are called to integrate our penances.  In other words, penance is a seamless part of a joyful life, not a compartmentalized flagellation arising from guilt over being human.  We are integral beings of body and spirit, so when, in a state of grace, our heart is united to our bodily penances, we offer our whole person just as Jesus offered his whole person in his life, death, and resurrection.  In this light penance is the same kind of self-offering as praise and apostolic works and ought to be a cause of joy.  While going without food for a time or foregoing some other pleasure may deprive us of momentary enjoyment, it should never deprive us of joy.

A joyful and fruitful Lent to all.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage