Saturday, February 20, 2010
Penance a Christian Duty: Lent 1
The goal of this homily is neat and simple. I would like to convince you of one fact, and to invite you to act on it.
Here’s the fact: penance is not an option for any Christian.
I’m not going to argue the point, at least not today, because the popes have declared it with authority. The shortest statement comes from Paul VI, who declared “By divine law all the faithful are required to do penance” (Apostolic constitution Paenitemini, I. 1).
The fact that the duty to do penance is God’s law, not just the Church’s, is clear enough in the Scriptures. Jesus tells us to pick up the cross and follow him, and gives us an example of penance by his fast of forty days recounted in today’s gospel.
The essential character of penance is also stated in the Catechism, which teaches that the People of God can extend Christ’s reign only by way of penance and renewal, the way of the cross (n. 853).
But somewhere along the way we’ve suffered a disconnect. We’ve put penance in the category of ‘optional extras,’ partly by connecting it exclusively to the Lenten season. I’ll be honest with you if you’ll be honest with yourselves: I do very little penance outside of Lent and not enough during Lent.
A young parishioner asked me on Thursday what I thought he should do for Lent. Since there was another young adult standing close by, I turned and asked him what he was doing this Lent. He answered very simply “I gave up red meat, hot showers, and I am doing good to my roommate without being detected.”
I very quickly said a prayer: “Dear Lord, please don’t let him ask me what I’m doing!”
The reason I’m not doing enough penance is probably the same reason you’re not doing enough penance: I didn't quite make the jump from the practices of my childhood to adult self-denial.When the Church stopped telling us exactly what penance to do, sometime in the sixties, many weren’t quite ready to take on the responsibility. We interpreted the end of mandatory abstinence from meat as the end of Friday penance; the end of legislated fasting meant no fasting at all.
No-one’s to blame for all this—the change in the law was a serious invitation for Catholics to grow in personal responsibility. But the results are obvious. Even the most devout people think nothing of heading to the Keg for a steak on Friday, and meaningful Lenten penances are seen as something rather quaint.
I can’t turn this around in a single sermon. I said at the beginning that my goal was simple: to convince you that penance is a duty of each and every Christian, and to invite you to act on that.
I’d like to make that invitation concrete by suggesting that everyone who hasn’t chosen a meaningful Lenten penance should choose one before leaving church today.
There are many forms of penance. Certainly one must admire those who undertake tough penances like that committed young man. A parishioner closer to my own age practices a form of self-denial that I admire even more than giving up hot showers: he abstains from both coffee and alcohol, and buys nothing at all for himself during Lent. I could manage two out of three, but I almost shudder at giving up coffee.
And for some people, prayerfully accepting present trials or health problems, uniting them to the sufferings of Christ, is more than sufficient penance.
Penance is therefore very personal—indeed, the Code of Canon Law adds something to those words I’ve quoted from Pope Paul. Canon 1249 states that “The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way.”
But I would like to offer one specific choice for those who want to take the divine command seriously, but who can’t quite figure out what’s too much—and we can indeed do too much penance, although it’s not been a problem for me!—or too little.
I’m going to propose a Lenten resolution that involves all of the three most traditional ways that Christians have used to express their spirit of penitence: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Ideally, a Lenten program should involve all three of them, because fasting helps convert us in relation to ourselves, prayer in relation to God, and almsgiving in relation to others (see CCC 1434).
Here’s the proposal. Every Friday for the rest of Lent, do these three things: observe a simple fast, pray the Stations of the Cross, and give a small sum of money to the poor.
And here’s how it could work some Fridays: Eat your usual breakfast and a slightly smaller than usual lunch. Then join us around 6:15 for “Soup and Silence,” a hearty meal of soup and bread served by members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Believe it or not, that’s all that fasting demands—eating at three meals what we would usually eat at two. The “Soup and Silence” fare is extremely tasty, but it’s modest enough to fit into a Friday fast, without undue hunger.
“Soup and Silence” is free of charge, but the St. Vincent de Paul Society provides an opportunity to make an offering to the poor. That, of course, is almsgiving.
The meal is followed by the Stations of the Cross, the most popular of all Lenten devotions. Obviously, it’s a real time of prayer.
How much simpler could it get? Fasting, prayer and almsgiving—on Fridays, the most penitential of days. All rooted deeply in Catholic tradition.
You’re a traveler or otherwise unable to spend an hour at the church on Fridays? No problem. Fasting is never out of reach when it is understood in this moderate sense of eating a normal meal plus two smaller than usual ones. We have Stations of the Cross prayer booklets you can buy for a dollar or two, allowing you a truly Lenten time of prayer wherever you are. And almsgiving is never out of reach for anyone, rich or poor.
I hope you’re convinced: penance is a Christian duty, year-round. And Lent’s the perfect time to take that duty seriously, with a serious but simple plan.
Next week I’ll try to say a bit more about fasting, the most ancient of our penitential practices. Unless, of course, I decide to turn off the hot water instead!