To respond to Love
The meaning of penance
Friday night ---July 30, 2004
Let us ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for us. Open my heart and lips to speak the words that her Son wishes for me to speak and to open your hearts and ears to hear the words He wishes for you to hear.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen
When we think about Penance, just to set the tone for everything else that we will talk about, it really begins by having the proper essence of who we are. Most people when they think of penance think of something negative. That’s why most Americans don’t want to do it, because it’s negative. It’s about giving things up, it’s about doing hard things, it’s about suffering, and it’s about all these things that we don’t like to do. But when you look at the way that many people do penance, even those that have chosen to do it, they will look at it and say things like, ‘well, when I consider my sins, I realize just how much penance I have to do. I see how badly I have offended Our Lord and therefore I owe it to Him to do this.’
Sometimes, people look at it slightly differently than that. They will look at it, even in a completely selfish way and they’ll say, ‘well, I’m going to fast because I need to loose weight.’ It has nothing at all to do with the Lord. In their generosity they’ll say, ‘I’ll offer my hunger pains to Our Lord for others, but the real reason for their penance is the self. It’s focused on the self and therefore, it is focused negatively. It’s because of what I have done, or it’s because of what I have to do, but it’s not about God. And the reason that it is not about God is because ultimately because they do not recognize who they are and that is the first point of penance that we really have to consider.
Who am I? Why should I be doing penance? Because if we don’t understand that point, everything else is going to be focused on the self. We have to recognize our dignity before we can do anything else that is of any value. You are a person made in the image and likeness of God. God is love. And what does St. John say regarding that love? “Love consists of this: Not that we have loved God but that He has loved us and that He has sent His Son into the world as the expiation for our sins.” And then he follows that up by saying “If God has loved us so, we must love one another.” So if we unpack that a little bit, first of all we recognize that love has to come from God.
It is not something which we can do by ourselves. All we can do is respond to love. God has to give the love first. He puts the love into our hearts and then we can respond to that love. So first of all, we can’t take credit for any of it. Other than to say that by His grace we have been able to cooperate. We’ve been able to say ‘yes’, but beyond that there is not a single thing that we can take credit for. It’s His grace. It’s His love.
And then he tells us, that that love is demonstrated to us by God sending His Son into the world to be the expiation for our sins. In other words, love is demonstrated most perfectly on the cross. And then St. John says, if God has loved us so, so must we love one another. That means that we love one another through the cross. Love is demonstrated only in suffering and perseverance. Most people think that love is this gushy feeling you have when you are infatuated with somebody. Any one who has been married for more than a couple of months knows that that’s not what love is really all about. But, somehow we still have this odd romantic idea in the back of our heads that’s what love is. It has nothing to do with emotion. There are emotions that come with love but love is not an emotion. It is a virtue. It is the virtue of charity and that is the essence of penance, is charity. And each one of us because we are made in the image and likeness of God is therefore made to love and to be loved. And so charity is the very nature of our being. It is the essence of who we are and therefore it is the essence of what we are called to do.
Now when we look at original sin, if you look back at Genesis chapter three, we see that the punishment for sin is that everything was turned backwards. The relationship between male and female was turned backwards. Everything is mixed up. The order that God created has now become chaos. But, we cannot live that way because we have been redeemed in Jesus Christ. And we have been baptized into Jesus Christ and therefore we have become members of a new covenant. And this is exactly what St. Paul speaks of.
All the times that we think about God, we think that we are so completely unworthy that we back away. But St. Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews, in chapter twelve says ‘you have drawn near to Mt. Zion, to the city of the living God. To myriads of festal of angels gathered in festal way and so on, to God the judge of all and to Jesus. To the blood which is more eloquent than the blood of Abel. And he goes on…. You have drawn near to God! Therefore, you do not have to go away but you have to draw nearer. And how do you draw near to God but to do it in the same way that He drew near to us. There are two methods by which He drew near to us: One, His mother. Two, His cross. And on Calvary you will find both, His Mother and the Cross. We are not going to get away for we have drawn near. We have drawn near to the mountain of the crucifixion. We have drawn near to all of the angels who are gathered around our blessed Lord. In the Blessed Sacrament, but in His sacrifice on Calvary. In the Old Testament when the covenant was made, God told the people that they could not come near and if anyone touched the mountain, even an animal, they had to be stoned to death. Everything was at an arms distance. They were the people of God, they were incorporated into the covenant but, they were not to draw too near. You have been made a member of Jesus Christ. You have breath and brought into the very heart of God Himself. And therefore, your dignity as a human person and as a Christian person requires that you will do exactly as Jesus said. Take up your cross and follow in His footsteps. Once again, it’s not an option. He said, if anyone would be my disciple he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.
St. Peter says that the Lord has left you an example to follow in His footsteps. That is our call. That is our dignity. And so we have to be able to understand that point. First and foremost. It is a fine distinction that we make and that we must make. Because on one level of course we recognized our sinfulness. We recognized how unworthy we are to be called to such a dignified state. We recognize that we should be banished to hell for all eternity because of what it is that we have done. We recognize how badly we have violated our Lord. Now, we can look at that, totally in the negative, or we can look at it in the positive.
We are unworthy but the Lord makes us worthy. We should be banished but God forgives us. We should be pushed far away but He has drawn us near. You see, it is all Him. It is not us. He is the one who makes us worthy because by ourselves we are not. And so it is a question of looking at it and saying are we talking about unredeemed humanity or are we talking about redeemed humanity. If we are unredeemed humanity that means that we are rejecting our baptism, we are not accepting our dignity as members of Christ, and we are staying away and we live in a sinful way. With no hope.
But if we live as redeemed humanity, that means that we can live as Christ. He is our example, our model, our exemplar, but it’s more than just that. For us, it’s more than just looking at Jesus from a distance and saying that’s the way He lived his life. He gave us that example and we need to follow. But, rather as St. Francis would tell us…you are the hands, and the feet and the mouth of our Lord. St. Paul would tell us …it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.
Therefore since the Lord dwells within, if we are in the state of grace, the goal of penance is perfect conformity to Jesus Christ. It is to allow Jesus to live His life in us and through us. And what does Isaiah say of Jesus? He was a man of sorrows acquainted with suffering. Read Isaiah 53. It starts actually in 52 and all of 53. That’s what we are called to be. Think about the words that are in there. Like a lamb, He was lead to the shearer. Like a sheep, He was silent and He opened not His mouth. By His wounds, we are healed. These are things that we have the privilege to share in. But, it tells us the way that we have to do it. It has to be for the Lord because it says in Isaiah …it pleased the Lord to lay on Him the iniquity of us all.
Imagine that….it PLEASED the Lord to do that. That doesn’t sound like something most of us would ever come up with, when we look at what they did to Jesus. And yet, in prayer, in suffering we understand it perfectly. And it is only when you can understand HOW that can be pleasing to God that you can actually accept in your life a share in His cross. That is your dignity! That you are called to unite yourself with Jesus Christ crucified. We’ll talk much more about that tomorrow but it has to start with recognizing who you are. Start out by looking back in Genesis. In Genesis chapter one at the creation account of what God says about you. The first five and a half days of creation God looked at what He made and saw that it was good. The fifth day, the sixth day really, five and a half days so the sixth day was the only day that He stopped half way through to look at what He made. He had made the animals at the beginning of the sixth day and He saw that it was good. Then He made us. The ONLY thing that he made on the last half of the sixth day and He looked at what He made and scripture says Behold it was VERY good. VERY GOOD!
Do you see yourself that way? Or do you see yourself as a nothing? Worthless, rotten, junk. That’s not how God sees you. So good in fact are you, Jesus Christ Himself, the second person of the Holy Trinity, took your nature to Himself. He doesn’t see you as being worthless and rotten. But He took our human nature which was already very good and He raised it to a divine level. Uniting it substantially to His own divinity. And He incorporated you into Himself. When we think about the dignity of who He is, we certainly understand and we recognize and we kneel before Him and so we should.
In fact even more when you read the book of Ezra. When they found the book of Deuteronomy in the temple. The people who had been in exile had never heard the book of Deuteronomy before because it was lost. It was buried by the priests when they went into exile. They came back and they found the book buried there after seventy years. And they called all the people together and they read the book. And we are told in scripture that the people bowed with their faces to the ground. That was before the divinely inspired word of God. Before the sacred scriptures they bowed with their faces to the ground. We have THE word of God right here. The One that inspired the scriptures. The One of whom the scriptures are all about. If the people of the Old Testament put their faces to the ground before the scriptures, what should be our attitude as we come before the Lord?
Now when you recognize His dignity and the reverence that we have to have in His presence, now just stop and think about the truth and the reality of the fact that He has incorporated you into Himself. You are a member of Jesus Christ. That is not your doing, it is His. Remember His words…You did not choose me, I chose you. And so that is where it has to begin.
The recognition of who we are in Jesus Christ and the focus must be on Jesus Christ. The problem with penance in too many people’s lives is that the focus is on themselves. That is not what penance is about. Now mind you, it is going to start that way. I have no misconceptions about that. Most of us don’t enter the spiritual life in any kind of great shape. But, we need to allow ourselves to be changed. To be transformed. That’s exactly again what St. Paul says. Do not conform yourselves to this age but, allow yourself to be transformed by the transformation of your mind. You are to take on the very mind of Jesus Christ. You are to have the Will of Jesus Christ. You are to live the life of Jesus Christ. And therefore the focus must be on Jesus. Not on the self. That is the key. You have drawn near to Jesus Christ. St. Paul said in his letter to the Hebrews ‘You are not far away, you are not at an arms distance. He dwells in you and you dwell in Him and therefore He has made you worthy in the redemption of your soul and of your body He has made you worthy to share in His cross. And so it is not merely a negative way of looking at things to say that I am such a rotten sinner that this is what I have to do but it is rather to look at it positively and say out of love for God this is what I have the privilege to do.
We can do the exact same things externally. We can fast, we can give things up, we can afflict ourselves, we can do all the things but there is an entire difference in the disposition of one who is doing so in an unredeemed way and one who is doing so in a redeemed way. One who is focused on the self. About how horrible and rotten they are and how worthless they are and somehow they have this odd idea that if they do enough penance they can actually earn their salvation. They can earn the love of God somehow if they do this well enough.
St. Paul reminds us that while we were yet enemies with God, He died for us sinful men. We didn’t earn it, we didn’t deserve it. It was never because we were so good but rather because we were sinners. And so it’s not because of our own worthiness, our own inherent goodness, it’s not because we have done anything to deserve such a gift, but rather it is simply a gift. The nature of the gift is that it is gratuitous, that you didn’t earn it. If you earned it, then it’s a reward, not a gift. And so the point of this whole thing is to first of all recognize who you are and to do penance not on the self but on the Lord.
So again, the essence of penance is charity. It is the love of God and it is the love of neighbor. It is not about the self. It is not about simply making up for sin, it does that. Again we need to be very clear but it’s making the distinctions. Penance will repair for sin but that is not the reason why we should be doing it. If we’re doing it that way, again it’s focusing on the self. Look at what I have done and therefore look at what I need to do to make up for it. It’s all about me. Christian penance is about Jesus Christ. It is about loving Him and He has shown us the way to love and it is the cross. He is the expiation for our sins.
St. John said, that is the love of God shown to us in human form and yours is a privilege and a gift to be able to share in that love. To be able to look at the example of love and to be able to accept it. To embrace it and even to rejoice in it. That is our call. It is not an easy one but it is the most privileged on of all. Now if Jesus is going to be the focus of our penance that reminds us that there is something else that is truly necessary if we are going to do penance as a Christian person and that is prayer.
Anybody can look at themselves and say I need to lose some weight, I’ll fast. I did something wrong, I will afflict myself. I want to live according to the ways of simplicity rather than the ways of the world. I will detach. Even pagans can see that there is garbage and filth on TV and throw the stupid thing away. And so, it doesn’t require somebody to be a good Catholic to get rid of his or her stupid TV set or to fast or to do penance of any variety. The question is HOW we are doing it and why we are doing it. And the only way that we are going to keep the focus proper is if we pray because we must keep our focus on Jesus Christ. If He is not the focus of our penance then there is only one other person that can be. That’s the self. The choice is ours. One is truly Christian, the other is not. One is a Christian person who happens to be suffering and one is another who is suffering as a Christian person. One who suffers as a Christian person suffers in Christ and suffers with Christ. It is not a matter of looking at it negatively but it’s a matter of looking at it positively.
It is a Protestant idea that if we suffer it is because God is angry and we are being punished. It is a very Catholic idea to be able to say that we are sharing in the suffering of Jesus Christ. The single most dignified act in the history of humanity took place on the hill of Calvary 2000 years ago. While on the natural level would look like the most undignified thing that ever happened we as Christian people recognize as the most dignified thing that ever occurred. Not what we did to Him but what He did for us. That again is that distinction. From which perspective are we going to look at it? Are we going to look at it from His perspective or from our own? If we recognize that we have been incorporated into Christ and therefore we can share in the Passion. In the Crucifixion. In the most dignified thing that has ever happened. Or we can stand apart from the cross and we can say … look at what I did to Him, I deserve to suffer for it. Either way we are going to suffer. One has dignity, the other lacks it greatly.
And so as the way to begin this retreat we have to make sure that our focus is proper. That our disposition is correct. That the way that we are looking at penance is positive rather than negative. That we can see that this is a gift. It is a privilege rather than a punishment. It is not something that we should be forced into kicking and screaming but rather it is something that we should embrace in love. After St. Peter had denied our Lord three times, Jesus after the Resurrection asked Peter three times if he loved him. In the Greek it is made very clear there are two different words that are used. In English we only have one word to translate them, and so Jesus asked Peter “Do you love me as I love you?” The word in Hebrew is ‘agape’ the highest kind of love, the love of God. And Peter said Lord; you know that I love you, as a friend. The word that’s there is ‘filius”.
Jesus asked him again…Peter do you love me with agape love? Peter said again, Lord, you KNOW that I love you with felius love. So then Jesus said again…do you love me with filius love? He said Lord you know EVERYTHING…you know that I love you with filius love. And then the Lord said to him, when you were a young man you came and went as you pleased. When you are older they will bind you up and lead you away against your will. And St. John says…this was to state how he was going to glorify God in his death. Peter was not able to love Jesus as Jesus loved him, and so Jesus came down to Peter’s level and then raised Peter up to His level.
Our goal is union with Jesus. He looks at each one of us tonight and says ‘DO YOU LOVE ME , as I love you? Well that’s what He told us, that’s his commandment. Love one another as I have loved you…with agape love. With the highest, most perfect kind of charity. With the love of God. In other words, in a completely selfless manner. If all that we can do is muster out to say Lord you know that I’m your friend…He will accept that. And He will say to you that even if you take up your penance in a selfish way, I will help you. I will transform you through the penance so that you will learn to love as you have been loved.
Most of us are like Peter, I suspect. Perhaps not even that far. But the question then that our Lord will ask us is ‘are you willing, are you willing to try, are you willing to give yourself to Christ? Are you willing to do your best to take the focus off of yourself and put it on Him? If you are willing to try , He will come to you and He will lift you up to Himself. It is through the prayer and the penance that you will then be able to love as you have been loved. And it is when you can do that, that that love will be perfect.
When we think about penance again in our selfish way we are afraid. We’re afraid of the suffering, we’re afraid of the pain, we’re afraid of the difficulty whatever it might be. St. John says…perfect love casts out all fear. When it is true love for God and neighbor there will be no fear.
For those of you who have children…all you have to do is ask yourself…what would I sacrifice for my kids. If my child was in the way of an oncoming car would I stand on the corner and say…move. Or would I throw myself out in front of the car so that the child will live. We’re willing to sacrifice anything for someone that we love. Jesus loved us so much that He sacrificed everything. How much do we love Him? If we love Him, there is nothing to fear in penance at all. Because it is not seen as ‘what’s this going to do to me, how much is this going to cost me, what kind of pain might I be in, what kind of discomfort might I be in’, but rather it is seen in love. And when you love somebody you don’t count the cost, you don’t feel the pain. Sure it’s painful at the time, our Lord even talks about that. John 16 When a woman’s time has come, she’s not happy because of the pain. But when the child has been born into the world, she no longer remembers the pain for the joy of the child being born.
So what does St. Paul say of our Lord? For the joy, for the sake of the joy that lay before Him, He accepted the cross, heedless of it’s shame. It didn’t matter to Him, how much it cost, it didn’t matter how much it hurt, it didn’t matter what He was going to have to do because He did it in love and it was for joy. For the joy that your soul would be redeemed and would be able to go to heaven. That’s what He saw and that’s what we need to see as well. Penance is not about me. Penance is about love of God and love of neighbor. And when our focus is correct it will not be a problem. When the focus is on the self, we’re going to quit very quickly because it hurts too much. Or even if we persevere it’s with gritted teeth and it’s not a joyful thing.
So, we will talk more about that tomorrow as well. But at least for tonight to get the focus right, prayer must be supported by penance. Penance is impossible without prayer. The two go hand in hand. You cannot truly have one without the other. Prayer will keep us focused on our Lord. Penance will keep the focus off the self and the two together will teach us how to love as we have been loved, so that like Peter, one day we will be able to love with that perfect love and we will glorify God. Perhaps not necessarily with our death but at least with the dying to self because that is exactly what our Lord told us we have to do. He who would save his life will lose it. He will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it. We are called to die to self in order to live for God and others and the only way to do that is prayer and penance.
Let us turn to Our Lady once again and ask her intercession for each of us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen