Penance

By Sr Tamsin Mary o.p.  A talk given at Blackfriars Cambridge UK, Lent 2017

"It behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead the third day: and that penance and remission of sins should be preached in His name unto all nations."(Luke 24:46-47)

This talk will focus upon the concept of penance, which is a very rum one if you think about it closely.  The word penance comes from a Latin one, ‘paenitentia’ which derives from a Latin noun, meaning repentance, or penitence, ultimately deriving  from ποινή, a Greek word which means   ‘quit-money for blood spilt, a price paid, satisfaction, retribution, requital, penalty, or alternatively the personified pagan godess of vengeance.’ Eventually, by extension the word also came to mean ‘recompense, reward, redemption, or release.’ In modern ‘Church speak’ similarly there is a wide variety of meanings attaching to the concept of penance.  On the one hand there is ‘the sacrament of penance – confession.  There is the ‘penance’ that the priest metes out, and there is the ‘penitential action’ which is generally conceived as something unpleasing.  Finally there is the ‘penitential season’ which we are now in, where the ‘Lenten penances’ taken up, broadly under the heading of ‘prayer fasting and almsgiving’ are seen variously as spiritual chores, spiritual goals, or in the case of many in our secular environment as something akin to New Year’s resolutions, where the spiritual end is entirely lost sight of, and the end is simply some kind of self-seeking self-mastery. 

Penances have varied extraordinarily over time.  In the early Church a ‘penitent’ would have to go through several years of  public penance before absolution, and it was usual for this to be a once in a life-time event.   Gradually, by  way of Celtic monastic practices and the invention of the confessional box, this evolved into the modern way of celebrating the sacrament where absolution is given (usually) before the penance is performed, and there has developed the ‘unjust steward’ approach of most of our pastors ‘say one Hail Mary.’ On the other hand there are still things like  the extreme grimness of the pilgrimage to Loch Derg, which involves three days of fasting and prayer, walking barefoot over rocks and a certain level of sleep deprivation, or the climbing of the Scala Sancta in Rome, which is acutely painful to all but the very young, not to mention more esoteric practices which one hears of in other continents…

Holy Mother Church in her wisdom demands very little in the ministry of the sacrament of penance:   contrition, confession, and satisfaction – we are to be sorry for our sins, truly to confess them, and to make satisfaction for them.  It is in the third element, making satisfaction, that the whole notion of penance comes in in a concrete way.    

So what is penance about?  I think that we are called to one way of penance and tempted to another.  There is a dangerous tendency to a kind of worship of the pagan deity of ποινή, to see penance as the paying off of sin by suffering in the face of an angry God.  But this is contrary to the Christian mind.  God is not in a real sense ‘angry – though if we stray from the right path we may experience our relationship to Him as being like anger – God is angry by analogy, but it is not of His intrinsic nature to be angry in the way that it is of His nature to be Love, or truth.  It is also rather easy to go off on another tack – to imagine that penance is an outmoded concept, that we need not expect to make any effort to put things right, since Jesus has already done it all for us.  In this sort of context people get strangely angry when asked to abstain from meat on Friday or to make acts of reparation by praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament on behalf of other people’s sins, as if either thing could possibly hurt them in any way.

Penance is the means by which we right our relations both individually and collectively with God, our neighbour and ourselves.  This three-fold movement is a theme that is revisited again and again in the scripture.  Last Sunday we were presented with the Gospel passage describing Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, in which Our Lord re-capitulated and overcame both the primeval temptations of Adam and Eve, and the temptations faced by the people of Israel in the wilderness.  As St Gregory says. ‘The old enemy tempted the first man through his belly, when he persuaded him to eat of the forbidden fruit; through ambition when he said, You shall be as gods; through covetousness when he said, Knowing good and evil; for there is a covetousness not only of money, but of greatness, when a high estate above our measure is sought.’  In the desert the whole nation of Israel is tempted and overcome in the same manner – they crave the fleshpots of Egypt, they turn to false gods, and they mistrust the God Who has saved them.  However ‘By the same method in which he had overcome the first Adam, in that same was he overcome when he tempted the second Adam. He tempted through the belly when he said, Command that these stones become loaves; through ambition when he said, If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down from here; through covetousness of lofty condition in the words, All these things will I give you’ 

This three-fold temptation of the Lord continues throughout His earthly life, and has been resisted by Him even as a tiny infant – He Who could have been had every luxury, been born in a palace, worshipped as the True Messiah instead is born in absolute poverty, in a stable, as one soon to be driven into exile in a foreign land.  In His public ministry the temptations come again and again – He hungers and thirsts, though He is able to make food out of nothing; the people wish to make Him King, and He evades them; the demons proclaim Him as the Holy One of God, and He silences them.

Again in the Garden of Gethsemane the theme is revisited:  Christ is in an agony, such that He sweats blood and, and prays that the Cup of suffering pass Him by.  He is abandoned and betrayed by His friends who should be with Him to strengthen and defend Him, and He is arrested by soldiers when He could summon legions of Angels to destroy them. Theophyllus comments that the devil ‘having tempted Him in the desert with pleasure… retires from Him until the crucifixion, when he was about to tempt Him with sorrow.’

Augustine comments on the three-fold prayer in Gethsemane that there is a relationship with the temptation of Adam and Eve and the trials Our Lord is about to face: ‘To the temptation of curiosity is opposed the fear of death; for as the one is a yearning for the knowledge of things, so the other is the fear of losing such knowledge. To the desire of honour or applause is opposed the dread of disgrace and insult. To the desire of pleasure is opposed the fear of pain.’

Jesus goes through three trials – The Jewish authorities condemn Him for blasphemy and Pilate on the ground of expediency and political advantage, Herod as a rival king.  Each legal entity inflicts their particular form of torture and humiliation upon Him – The roughing up by the Jewish soldiers, the mockery of His Kingship, and the judicial beating.  As Augustine has it: ‘That they did spit in his face, signifies those who reject His proffered grace. They likewise buffet Him who prefer their own honour to Him; and they smite Him on the face, who, blinded with unbelief, affirm that He is not yet come, disowning and rejecting His person.’

There is a three-fold denial by Peter, which corresponds to these levels of temptation – the seeking of the fire leading to the first denial; the second denial when confronted; the third with an oath are brought to a swift end by the crowing of the cock – upon which Pseudo-Jerome comments ‘Who is the cock, the harbinger of day, but the Holy Ghost? by whose voice in prophecy, and in the Apostles, we are roused from our threefold denial, to most bitter tears after our fall, for we have thought evil of God, spoken evil of our neighbours, and done evil to ourselves.’

This three-fold patterning continues in the Passion:  Our Lord on the Way is forced to carry the means of His own death, driven to such weakness that the soldiers get Him the unwilling assistance of a passer-by, and stripped of His garments.

On the Cross again the pattern repeats – He is offered wine mixed with Myrrh, which modern commentators think was a kind of pain-killer, so He was rejecting any kind of physical comfort; the passers-by promise belief if He will only come down from the Cross, and He reaches the point of desolation which wrings from Him the cry ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’

In death he is given the sketchiest sort of preparation for the tomb; The tomb itself is a favour granted by the political leader who condemned Him and the religious leaders who refused to acknowledge Him publicly; and yet His power is still feared, and the tomb is under guard, in the wise foolishness and courageous cowardice of those who set a lock on a tomb and a guard over a man dead.

What does this mean for us?  It means that the temptations that assail us on a daily basis, to pleasure at the expense of our own dignity or that of others, to controlling others, and to pride in all its many-facetted manifestations, are part of the process that nailed Our Lord to the Cross – but they are also thereby healed and forgiven, things which need no longer tie us down.  If we fear the pain of denying our desires, of humiliation, of loss of control, we should know He has been there before us, and is with us to hold and sustain us in our weakest and lowest moments.  And if we fear that at the end of Lent we will have failed, that as vines we have produced only bitterness, we should remember that though He refused the wine and the myrrh, Our Lord accepted the vinegar.

Fasting, Almsgiving and prayer are the three means by which traditionally we conform ourselves to this three-fold patterning – By fasting we reject bodily comfort, by almsgiving we turn away from temporal power, and by prayer we acknowledge the primacy of our creator.  But in order to do this we should first earnestly seek the assistance of the sacrament of penance, lest our spiritual exercise be subverted by pride.

If we see penance as a kind of punishment in the face of God’s wrath, it might for some act as a disincentive to going to Confession.  Whereas in this picture the hard graft has been done by Our Lord, again and again, and what we are seeking in doing penance is conformity with it and with Him.  We have been bought and paid for.   The ‘poine’ of Christian penitence is not to pay the ransom, but to participate in the joy of the redeemed,as returning prodigals to receive the cloak and  ring and banquet from the One by Whose stripes we have been healed.

As it says in the Byzantine Liturgy of Confession ‘ the same God, who through the Prophet Nathan forgave David when he confessed his sins, who forgave Peter when he wept bitterly, the prostitute when she washed his feet with her tears, the Pharisee, and the prodigal son,’ through the action of the priest, also a sinner, forgives ‘you both in this life and in the next and enables you to appear before his awe-inspiring tribunal without condemnation, he who is blessed for ever and ever. Amen."

To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.