Our Savior go before us on the holy path of Lent. He has borne all its fatigues and hardships, that so we, when called upon to tread the narrow way of our Lenten Penance, might have His example wherewith to silence the excuses, and sophisms, and repugnances, of self-love and pride. The lesson is here too plainly given not to be understood; the law of doing penance for sin is here too clearly shown, and we cannot plead ignorance;- let us honestly accept the teaching and practice it. Jesus leaves the Desert where he had spent the Forty Days, and begins his preaching with these words, which he addresses to all men: Do penance, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. Let us not harden our hearts to this invitation, lest there be fulfilled in us the terrible threat contained in those other words of our Redeemer: Unless ye shall do penance, ye shall perish.
Now, Penance consists in contrition of the soul, and in mortification of the body; these two parts are essential to it. The soul has willed the sin; the body has frequently co-operated in its commission. Moreover, man is composed of both Soul and Body; both, then, should pay homage to their Creator. The Body is to share with the Soul, either the delights of heaven, or the torments of hell; there cannot, therefore, be any thorough Christian life, or any earnest penance, where the Body does not take part, in both, with the Soul.
But it is the Soul that gives reality to Penance. The Gospel teaches this by the examples it holds out to us of the Prodigal Son, of Magdalene, of Zacheus, and of St. Peter. The Soul, then, must be resolved to give up every sin; she must heartily grieve over those she has committed; she must hate sin; she must shun the occasions of sin. The Sacred Scriptures have a word for this inward disposition, which has been adopted by the Christian world, and admirably expresses the state of the Soul that has turned away from her sins: this word is, Conversion. The Christian should, therefore, during Lent, study to excite himself to this repentance of heart, and look upon it as the essential foundation of all his Lenten exercises. Nevertheless, he must remember that this spiritual penance would be a mere delusion, were he not to practice mortification of the Body. Let him study the example given him by his Savior, who grieves, indeed, and weeps over our sins; but he also expiates them by his bodily sufferings. Hence it is, that the Church, the infallible interpreter of her Divine Master’s will, tells us, that the repentance of our heart will not be accepted by God, unless it be accompanied by fasting and abstinence.
How great, then, is the illusion of those Christians, who forget their past sins, or compare themselves with others whose lives they take to have been worse than their own; and thus satisfied with themselves, can see no harm or danger in the easy life they intend to pass for the rest of their days! They will tell you, that there can be no need of their thinking of their past sins, for they have made a good Confession! Is not the life they have led since that time a sufficient proof of their solid piety? And why should any one speak to them about God’s Justice and Mortification? – Accordingly, as soon as Lent approaches, they must get all manner of Dispensations. Abstinence is an inconvenience: Fasting has an effect upon their health, it would interfere with their occupations, it is such a change from their ordinary way of living: besides, there are so many people who are better than themselves, and yet who never fast or abstain: and, as the idea never enters their minds of supplying for the penances prescribed by the Church with other penitential exercises, such persons as these, gradually and unsuspectingly, lose the Christian spirit.
And of those who went to Jesus’ crib, there were many who, like the poor Shepherds of Bethlehem, might be called simple, at least in this sense, that they did not sufficiently realize, either the holiness of their Incarnate God, or the misery and guilt of their own conscience. But now that this Son of the Eternal God has entered the path of penance; now that we are about to see him a victim to every humiliation, and suffering even a death upon a Cross; the Church does not spare us; she rouses us from our ignorance and our self-satisfaction. She bids us strike our breasts, have compunction in our souls, mortify our bodies, because we are sinners. Our whole life ought to be one of penance; fervent souls are ever doing penance; could anything be more just or necessary, than that we should do some penance during these days, when our Jesus is fasting in the desert, and is to die on Calvary? There is a sentence of this our Redeemer, which he spoke to the daughters of Jerusalem, on the day of his Passion; let us apply it to ourselves: If in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry? Oh! what a revelation is here! and yet, by the mercy of the Jesus who speaks it, the dry wood may become the green, and so, not be burned.
The Church hopes, nay her whole energy is laboring, that this may be; therefore, she bids us bear the yoke; she gives us a Lent. Let us only courageously tread the way of penance, and the Light will gradually beam upon us. If we are now far off from our God by the sins that are upon us, this holy Season will be to us what the Saints call the Purgative Life, and will give us that purity, which will enable us to see our Lord in the glory of his victory over death. If, on the contrary, we are already living the Illuminative Life; if, during the three weeks of Septuagesima, we have bravely sounded the depth of our miseries, our Lent will give us a clearer view of Him who is our Light; and if we could acknowledge Him as our God when we saw him as the Babe of Bethlehem, our soul’s eye will not fail to recognize him in the divine Penitent of the Desert, or in the bleeding Victim of Calvary.