Throughout the forty days of Lent, the Church invites us to practice penance by praying, fasting, and giving alms. As the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday (see Matt 6:1-6, 16-18) reminds us, that penance is not meant to be a matter of merely external observances, but is to proceed from a true conversion of heart that our outward observances are meant to express. Conversion of heart leads us to joy and the fulfillment of God’s loving purpose for our lives. For sinners like ourselves, however, conversion of heart also involves suffering. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Conversion of heart is accompanied by salutary pain and sadness” (CCC 1431). That is because, “It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending God by sin and being separated from him” (CCC 1432). It is that interior suffering that we express outwardly in our penitential practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Acts of penance express the sorrow for sin that is the fruit of the conversion of our hearts. Acts of penance are also ways that we seek to make satisfaction for our sins, to make amends for the ways in which our sins have caused harm to others and to ourselves. Making satisfaction for sin through penance, however, is not something we do by ourselves. Jesus is the one who has atoned for the sins of the world and our acts of penance are only efficacious through his grace and in union with his sacrifice on the cross.
Jesus’ saving sacrifice is all sufficient for the redemption of the world and the atonement of the world’s sin. The only thing that is lacking in the suffering of Christ is our participation in it. It is in this way that we are to understand the words of Saint Paul: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). It is not as though Jesus needs our suffering because his suffering wasn’t enough; it is that Jesus invites us to suffer with him so that we can participate in his work of salvation.
Penance is a way in which we share in Jesus’ own sorrow for our sins and the sins of the world. Recall Jesus’ words in the garden of Gethsemane: “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me” (Matt 26:38). Jesus suffered agony as he prepared to take upon himself the weight of the world’s sin and he invited his disciples to share that agony with him. When we do penance, that’s what we are doing. We are sharing in Jesus’ suffering. What is more, we are sharing in the purpose of Jesus’ suffering: the redemption and expiation of sin that Jesus accomplished for the sake of his body, which is the Church. By our penance, we participate in the saving sacrifice of Jesus that atones for our sins and the sins of the world.
The penitential practices that we adopt in the season of Lent are voluntary acts of self-denial. They help to unite us with Christ and with his saving passion. But they are not the most important forms of penance. More important than the penances we willingly impose upon ourselves are the sufferings that are imposed on us against our will, but which we willingly accept and offer to God as penance. Penance, as the Catechism says, “can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear” (CCC 1460).
In the hospitals served by Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York, I frequently hear the confessions of patients who are suffering from serious illnesses, invasive surgeries, and aggressive treatments. The celebration of that sacrament includes the imposition of a penance. And while I may ask patients to say an “Our Father” or “Hail Mary” when they have a moment of peace, I always tell them that the most meaningful penance that they will be doing is to endure their suffering patiently in union with Christ.
In our observance of the season of Lent, we are invited to do the same: to endure the suffering and pain that comes our way and to make of it a penitential offering to God together with Jesus, who suffered torture and death for the forgiveness of our sins. Whatever sorrow is ours to bear, let us bear it as an expression of our sorrow for our sins, offering it in union with Christ, who, for our sake, was “sorrowful even to death.” Not least, let us remember our brothers and sisters who suffer physical pain and mental anguish that is often far beyond the measure of our own suffering. Let us pray for them and practice works of penance on their behalf. Let us pray that their suffering may be alleviated and that the suffering that they must endure they may endure with patience and with Jesus. In his name and through his cross, may the sorrow and suffering that is theirs and ours “produce good fruit as evidence of repentance” (Luke 3:8).