During Lent, many of us agonize over what we should sacrifice during this holy period in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Chocolate seems to be the most common “expiatory lamb.”
I’ve always wondered how giving up chocolate is a real penance. I realize that for some people, chocolate is addictive, as is smoking for others. But is the idea of penance to make ourselves miserable for misery’s sake or is the idea of penance to offer God something in atonement for our sins?
If we look at the Old Testament, David dressed in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of atonement and
was excoriated by Nathan. But it was a sign. His atonement included much more than making a fashion statement. David fasted. He dealt more justly with his people, especially those whom he had offended. He offered the animal sacrifice prescribed in the law. Above all, he prayed. Many of the psalms are the product of David’s intense life of penitential prayer. David has become the model penitential man for the Jewish and Christian people.
Another personality that jumps out at us as a model penitent is John the Baptist. The New Testament tells us that he came dressed in animal skins and ate bugs. Yuck! He preached conversion from sin. His fight against sin cost him his head when he pointed out that Herod was living in an adulterous relationship with his sister-in-law. David and John are still relevant penitent models.
David teaches us that atonement for sin goes beyond, “I’m sorry.” There are consequences that the responsibly contrite person must assume. This was the king who walked through his kingdom in sackcloth and ashes, dressed as a pauper instead of royal robes. This was the king who humbled himself before his people admitting that he had sinned against God and against man. He tried to do something to make it up to both God and man. David understood and taught that true penance must cost us something and that it should offer a gift to God and man; but it had to be a gift that came from the penitent’s heart, not from his wallet.
John, on the other hand, had no sin for which to atone. But he knew that many people around him needed to atone for sin. He did penance for those who didn’t do penance for themselves. Essential to a penitent life is to bear witness to the Truth. John proclaims,
“Behold the Lamb of God, and I must decrease so that he can increase.” By decreasing, John, like David before him, surrenders the glory that comes from attention and admiration and directs it to God.
Our life should be an on-going Lent. But during the Great Lent, 40 days before Easter, let us be truly sorry for our sins. David and John are our models of penance. We must present ourselves to the world, not in the best possible light, but as we really are, men and women who struggle with human weakness and sin, one hour at a time. True penance reaches out to those around us, especially those who are most in need of our compassion, the man and woman involved in abortion, the adolescent who is rebelling out of control, the neighbor who has lost a loved one, lost a job or is in deep financial crisis. The person whom we fear is also worthy of our love and prayer, especially those who engage in acts of terrorism, those who molest children, or those who abuse their spouses.
In our family, there is always the one person who is the thorn in the side. We must have the courage of
John and denounce his or her sin. But we must also have the humility of David and admit that we too are sinners. Finally, let us not forget to proclaim the Truth. God forgives and embraces a humble man. Humility is being who we are in the sight of God. Nothing else.