Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is he,
slow to anger, rich in kindness,
and relenting in punishment.
Today, March 2, 2022, is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent.
When we think of Lent, we think of doing penance, outward signs that express sorrow for our sins and a desire to be reconciled with God. This is a good thing. But, of course, those outward signs need to be accompanied by an inner transformation. The point of penance isn’t to appease an angry God, as if we could give an eternal Being something He lacked that satisfied some desire He had. “Forgive me, Lord, and I’ll do such and such! That should make you happy!” Please. God is happiness. God is goodness. God lacks nothing, so what could we possibly give Him that would somehow satisfy the justice we owe for our sins? Nothing!
The justice owed to God for our sins could not possibly be satisfied by us. God is infinite. We are finite. How could mortal beings satisfy the justice owed to an immortal, eternal God? This is how much God loves us … that He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. The eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity did for us what we could not do for ourselves. There is nothing here about appeasing an angry God. This is all about God’s love for us, that He took upon Himself the justice we owed Him. Even though it was we who turned from Him, He is the one who did the hard work of reconciliation, offering His own Son that we might be reconciled with Him. We need only turn to Him and embrace the grace He extends to us through His Son.
So why do we do penance, if not to satisfy God? Penance is our way of participating in the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus offered Himself, His very life in suffering and death. Our penance, the small sufferings we take onto ourselves, is our way of participating in the suffering and death of Jesus. This is how we rend our hearts. This is how we transform our inner selves, not merely our outer selves, more perfectly into the image of Jesus. The outward sign signifies an inner transformation. If the inner transformation, the rending of our hearts, is not accomplished, the outward sign is of no value.
Our Father is patient with us. Slow to anger, rich in kindness, gracious and merciful. Our penances sometimes seem to us so little and their effect in our lives of little notice. We try and fail. We try and return to our old habits. What’s the point?
We must remember that our finite penances, our meager efforts, are joined to the infinite sacrifice of Christ and the overflowing merits of His cross. It is not our poor efforts that merit grace. It is our uniting our efforts to the grace-filled, efficacious sacrifice of Christ that gives them their value and, ultimately (if slowly!) transforms our hearts to better reflect Him. St. Paul says (in the second reading for Ash Wednesday) “do not receive the grace of God in vain.” God’s grace is given. It is for us to embrace that grace and submit to its transforming power. The transformation of lives to better reflect Christ is the clearest sign of the movement of God’s grace, of the movement of His Holy Spirit. Our penance speaks of our desire to be reconciled to the Father by embracing the grace won for us by Jesus on the cross.
This Lent may our penance truly speak of our desire to be one with Christ and reconciled with the Father. May we recognize that the efforts we make to speak our love to God are only a shadow of the great love He has spoken to us from the cross and from the throne. May we embrace the grace, the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit this Lent and all year round.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.