Penance and Self-denial are Necessary for Christians

8th Sunday of Ordinary Time

All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides
. Mt 6:32-33

In just a few days now we will begin a new season of Lent.  On Ash Wednesday the Church will once again call us to embrace this holy season of self-denial and penance in preparation for the far greater celebration of the Sacred Triduum, from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday. The Triduum solemnly recalls and celebrates the Paschal Mystery from which we were reborn unto Eternal Life; first, the death of our sins in Christ’s sacrificial death and, second, our rising to Eternal Life in Christ’s resurrection.

It is this two-fold gift of remission of sin and rebirth to Life which is the source and cause of our unquenchable joy at Easter. For twenty centuries, Catholic faithful have faithfully begun this holy season of Lent by receiving the sacramental rite of ashes which reminds us of two things; first, the inevitability of death, and , second, the necessity of our doing penance and works of self-denial as the preparation necessary for entering into final possession of that glory which awaits us in the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is a most salutary reminder for us to receive these ashes, and the Season of Lent is a most salutary time for us,  if we actually spend this holy season according to its true spirit represented by this sacramental rite that begins it.  Lent is supposed to be forty days of preparation for the Triduum and for eternity, a special time for more intense prayer, for sincere works of penance, and for greater generosity in our works of charity.  All three of these Lenten practices, prayer, penance and charitable works are specifically mentioned in the New Testament as privileged means to help us overcome our sins, the sins for which Jesus generously died to save us.  These Lenten practices are integral for helping is to “carry our cross,” which we must be willing to do if we are to follow our Savior and if we wish to share His Glory.  Lent, then, is surely a special time of Grace for us all since it renews in us the very basics of our spiritual life.

While most of us recognize the importance of prayer in our Christian life – even if we often recognize it only in the breach – and while most of us also likely recognize the importance of charitable works such as almsgiving for making us better and more generous Christians, few Christians today seem to recognize the true indispensability of regular works of penance and self-denial, that is, their indispensability not just in Lent but throughout the year.

Perhaps we in the West are simply too tied to our material comforts to appreciate the role that frequent acts of  self-denial have in bringing us to maturity in  the spiritual life.  We spend so much of our time and energy in securing our very comfortable style of life, often in contradiction to the extensive teaching on the spiritual dangers of an affluent life style summed up in this spiritual aphorism, “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

Penance and self-denial can seem like a denial that all our worldly effort has any ultimate value. To avoid becoming tied to out things as the purpose of life, we all need to ask ourselves regularly, “does my way of life truly reflect a genuine Christian attitude toward the things of this world as expressed by Jesus, when he says “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Certainly these basic things have importance, and Jesus recognizes this when he says, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” But the issue here is how do we effectively relate to the providence of God, that is, do we really trust that he has our needs at heart, and do we truly entrust ourselves to His care and more intently seek the much greater and more permanent goods of His Kingdom rather than our earthly goods?

The general attitude of our affluent culture is that such deliberate acts of penance and self-denial are simply too negative and that they debase the person’s dignity. These practices are seen today to be spiritual leftovers from another less enlightened age in which Christians often tended to despise the body and to hate the world in general. Today, many Christians have come to believe that they are far wiser than previous ages in that we now prefer to limit ourselves to the more positive Lenten practices of increased prayer and almsgiving and omit that old negative way of penance.

But then how does one explain the Son of God, who came into this world sinless and lived all his life without sin, freely choosing to fast for 40 days at the beginning of his public life and mission and then going without food and water many other times, living a public life of self-denial?  If the sinless one, who was nonetheless a true member of our race, living in a sinful world and beset by the temptations of the devil, subjected his sinless humanity to such discipline, will we sinners be so bold as to think his command to do the same was  meant only for some people in  living in a primitive age but not for us modern sinful human beings?  Jesus was, by virtue of his divine dignity, absolutely impeccable, and yet he did not choose to bypass the discipline of fasting and other works of self-denial as necessary means for to resisting all temptations.  Will we, then, dare to think that such “negative” means are not necessary for us who have fallen into sin so many times and live in times of abundance with all the temptation such a culture brings? And will we deny that these works are necessary not only to resist temptation in the future but to purge the remains of our own sins of the past, these very real “remains of sin” that make us so vulnerable to the further onslaughts of the world, the flesh and the devil?

Jesus did not teach his followers, by his words and example, to adopt this 3-fold way of the cross and self-denial simply because some of us might benefit from these practices, even if others didn’t need them. It’s very instructive that the best Christians, the saints we honor, were men and women who followed the way of the cross most intensively. Perhaps that is because they were Christian realists who understood the frailty of their humanity, while we who are far more prone to sin live in a fantasy world where we have no need to resort to such extremes to be holy men and women.

Sometimes I wonder whether people are perhaps misled as to the need to practice penance by the merciful penances they receive in the Sacrament of Penance. It’s realistic for us to understand that these merciful penances are simply tokens of our willingness to practice regular penance throughout our lives, as Christ commands, both to make amends for our sins and to strengthen our wills against inevitable temptations. Surely we do not think that whatever penance we are given in confession can always remit the full temporal punishment due to our sins.  We must understand that our compassionate, holy Mother Church does not want to make regular Confession a burden, and so the penances we are given are meant to be but tokens, based upon our genuine sorrow, the acceptance of which signals our willingness to do all that is necessary in terms of penance, firstly, to overcome the remains of sin in us, secondly, to satisfy for whatever temporal punishment is due in justice for our sins, and thirdly to build up resistance to temptations.

In what seems to be a clear reference to Purgatory and the need to do real penance for our sins, the Lord once spoke of settling with our opponent along the way before we reach the Judge, or, he said, we will be thrown into prison and we will not get our until the last penny is paid. Our life on earth is truly a journey toward the final judgment that Paul speaks about in the second reading today, the judgment that will reveal our whole life and in which God “will manifest the motives of our hearts” and especially our hatred of our sins and our great desire to overcome them by the works of penance and self-denial. This is how we “settle accounts” before we reach the Judge, and hopefully avoid the purifying fires of Purgatory. For it is absolutely true that we will not enter into Heaven until we have “paid the last penny,” that is, been totally purified from all the temporal punishment which remains for our sins after our confessions. So how can it be, then, that we do so little penance here on earth?  Are we without spiritual wisdom when it comes to the things of the Spirit?

Holy Mother Church, thus, gives us this holy season of Lent each year for our spiritual welfare.  She only specifies two penitential practices during this whole holy season as legally required, fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstaining from all meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent.  But once again, these are but tokens, things to get us started, the minimum to remind us that much more is required for our own personal good, and we are allowed to choose the penances for the other days of this season.

Lent is indeed a grace-filled season for all of us, a beaytiful gift from our Holy Mother, th Church.  Those who take Lent seriously each year will never be taken in by the world and its empty life of show in any significant way.  They may fall for this world’s lies for a brief while, but each year this holy season comes around to remind them what their life is really all about.  The words of today’s Gospel will find a resonance in the hearts of those who take Lent seriously: they will not serve money, but God; they will not worry about food and drink because they will freely deny themselves even these necessities of life during 40 days each year.  They will not worry about the needs of tomorrow because they developed the habit of entrusting the needs of today to our Father in Heaven.  That is what a good Lent can do for all of us, but only our willingness to make the effort will make it really good.

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Categories: Homilies

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