Embracing with love our Lenten penance
Lent is one of the strong seasons in the liturgical calendar. It couldn’t be different: We begin by recalling in a tangible way that dust we are and to dust we shall return, and we have like a lighthouse and destination on the horizon the cross in Calvary. To take seriously the beginning of this spiritual journey, as well as its destination, is reason to tremble. No matter how brave or pious we believe we are, realizing that one day we will die is scary.
Jesus’ cross on Good Friday, at the end of this journey, is paradoxically glorious. It is the supreme manifestation of the love of the Son of God, yet a cruel and merciless expression in which the One who is love is brutally scourged, unmercifully crowned with thorns, ruthlessly nailed to a cross to die — not from the excruciating pain that runs through muscles and tendons like an electric shock, nor the heavy bleeding, nor the dehydration under the scourging sun, but from the distressing asphyxia that plunders his last breath.
Standing before the cross on Good Friday and contemplating it as it is, without the artistic beauty of those crucifixes behind the altars, requires courage and determination, or we inevitably look away. How can I look Jesus in the eye as he agonizes for my salvation when I very well know the kind of life I have lived thus far? How can I see his blood pouring from his forehead, his hands, his feet and his back while I never stop complaining about the sorrows that afflict me that are nothing compared to this cross?
The true cross is threatening and scary. But this cross that horrifies us is the condition of being a Christian: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) The cross is heavy, painful and intimidating; it makes us feel ashamed and knocks us down. Taking it up is a true penance.
At the dawn of the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John XXIII called the church to “give the true and effective penance its proper place in accordance to the vocation and state of life of each of us. … Only then, under this light, man is able to discover himself, comes to realize his arduous and unpostponable duties, and resolves to practice with generosity that penance, understanding it as love for the cross.”
It is in the practice of penance that we discover ourselves. It is in confronting whatever becomes a heavy load, whatever makes us feel ashamed, whatever hurts us, even whatever steals our life away, that we find out who we are in reality: clay vessels. Even the word human means someone made out of dust. We are made of a fragile clay that breaks once and again.
But we shall not forget that our vessel was modeled by the Divine Potter. Just as paradoxical as the cross at the end of the journey is the beginning. We are dust and to dust we shall return. But it is the dust the Potter used to create us. It’s the dust he uses to repair the cracks in our soul. It’s the dust he uses to fill in the holes through which our life escapes when our vessel breaks. It’s the dust where God can blow in his Spirit to give us life, to give us love, to make us in his image and likeness, and which makes it possible that the cross can put an end to our earthly life, but not an end to our story — for the death on a cross is the end of the journey, but not the end of the story. Three days later, we will find an empty sepulcher and the resurrection to eternal life.
Throughout this Lent, following St. John XXIII’s advice, let us embrace with passion our penance, understanding it as our love to the cross. May it be said of each of us in the words of Francisco de Quevedo, “ashes shall they become, but they will make sense; dust shall they become, but dust that has fallen in love.”
Be passionate about our faith!
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - March 2019