The Purpose of Penance
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: purpose, invite, invitation, penance
The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, Paris
February 26, 2020 + Ash Wednesday (Noon service)
Isaiah 58:5: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?”
We have set before us today an invitation—not a demand, not a requirement, but an invitation. Like all invitations, it places before us a choice.
We make our choices about invitations by balancing a number of considerations all at once. Will we enjoy what it is we are being invited to? Do we have the time free on our calendars? Is there something else we could be doing with the time that would be more enjoyable, or more profitable? And above all—who else is likely to be there?
Holy mother church does not insist that we accept her offer of this invitation; and, like the wedding banquet Jesus taught about, most of those who are invited decide they have other things to do. Long ago, in a different day, before you could just click a button to decline your digital invite, when we turned down a formal invitation we were expected to write a note expressing our regrets at not being able to accept the consideration extended to us.
I wonder what the regrets notes for not accepting the church’s invitation to this season of penance might say.
“Dear church: I regret that I am unable to accept your kind invitation to Lent. These days the children are involved in so many things, and it is just impossible for us to find even five minutes each day to make some quiet for ourselves.”
“Dear church: Thank you so much for your thoughtful invitation to spend forty days with you. I think perhaps you meant to write you were going to be in Penzance? I am not quite certain where Penance is, and in any case it is difficult for me to be away from my usual routine for that long.... Perhaps I could drop in for three or for days while you are there?”
“Dear church: We are unable to accept your invitation to join you for what you describe as a ‘season of penance.’ While we are sure the intention is a good one, our family feels strongly that our spiritual lives are a matter only for us, and we are creating individualized traditions for each of our children that celebrate their unique personalities.”
We know from our own experience that not every invitation is accepted. Not even, it turns out, the invitations gently offered by the church.
We are, after all, very purpose-oriented people. We are hesitant to give our energies, much less any of our time, to any cause, any institution, any organization, any idea unless we can be persuaded that the purpose is not just a good one, but one that will benefit us.
So most of the world receives this tender invitation of the church to a season of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial, the vast majority of the people receiving that invitation immediately ask: What is the purpose of this? What is the purpose of self-examination and repentance? Prayer I can sort of get; is the purpose of fasting a kind of religious dieting? And are you serious that self-denial has an actual purpose?
Now, if you are the sort of person who comes to church in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, then you probably already have some fairly well-thought-out answers to those questions. These ideas, these practices, do in fact have a purpose for you.
The question is—are the purposes we have in view for this season the purposes for which the church has given us this invitation? What are the purposes of penance, when you see it from the perspective of the church?
We get an answer to that question in the words of Isaiah today, and they are hardly about mortification, or humiliation, or self-scourging. In fact, Isaiah’s answer about the purpose of penance has very little to do with ourselves at all.
Instead, Isaiah teaches us that penance is meant to get us out of ourselves—out of our self-obsessions, out of our self-awareness, out of our self-orientation.
Penance is meant to open ourselves to our society. Penance is meant to make us prayerful, purposeful actors for God’s justice and mercy in the world outside ourselves, outside the church, outside our places of comfort.
Let’s face it, even self-examination is more comfortable for us than the risk of actually engaging as fellow-humans with the hungry, the homeless, the oppressed.
Of course, there is a deeper reasoning at work here. It is what the church understands in inviting us, maybe even beguiling us, into this season. Because the church, for all of its faults and failures, understands this simple, subtle truth: The more bravely, the more rigorously we take stock of ourselves, the more deeper will become our awareness of our need for God’s mercy; and the deeper our awareness of our own need for God’s mercy, the more urgency we will feel in sharing that mercy with the rest of humanity.
If we loose the bonds of injustice, we do so because we have been spared from being unfairly judged by God.
If we undo the thongs of the yoke that our consumerist culture places on human dignity, we do so because we have been made free from the burden of thinking our wealth has anything to do with our worth.
If we let the oppressed go free, it is because we have become more deeply aware of our liberty from sin through Christ’s love for us.
If we share our bread, it is because we have found sustenance for our souls at God’s table.
And if we welcome the homeless into this house, it is because we ourselves were once without a home, or a community, or a place to belong.
God does not call us today to yesterday’s tasks. God calls us today to prepare ourselves for the tasks of tomorrow. Our tasks are nothing short of repairing a broken world; nothing short of restoring for people who walk by this place every day a sense of the possibility of the sacred, not just within these walls but within their lives.
It is high and worthy work we are called to. It is urgent and decisive work we are called to. Others may do it for their own purposes; we will do it for God’s purposes.
And so it is to a time of being prepared for that work that the church now invites us. It will only take forty days—hardly much time at all, when you consider the scale of the work before us, and the weight of the glory prepared for us.
“Dear church: We are pleased to accept your invitation to spend time with you, and we look forward with eagerness and wonder to our time together. Please let us know if we can bring anything—other than our whole selves.” Amen.