Lent is coming (sigh). Unlike really holy people, part of me starts to dread Lent as soon as the Christmas season ends. It’s the dark cloud on the horizon, the looming test for which I didn’t study. But once I refocus on the incredible value of sacrificing bourbon, coffee, and other “necessities” of life, some of the pain is assuaged.
The goal of this life is to conform ourselves to Christ, the Christ who gave of himself for our salvation. Voluntary penance conquers our fleshly desires. It prevents them from mastering us so that we are more in control, so that we have possession of ourselves. And that’s the key. As St. John Paul II taught, you have to possess yourself before you can give yourself away. Why? Because you can’t give away what you don’t own. If we’re ruled by our passions, then we aren’t free to give of ourselves completely like Christ. That’s why penance is so powerful. It’s all about freedom and self-gift. The bourbon, coffee, and chocolate we give up in Lent are means to an end, and the end is self-donation.
Ultimately, when we practice penance, we’re giving up something good for something better. We’re sacrificing the temporal goods of this world for the eternal “greats” of the next. By voluntarily taming our own wants and desires, we free our eyes to look to heaven and humbly identify with the actions of Our Lord. That’s the power of penance. It detaches us from the things of this world so that we can act out of heavenly love…even if we don’t yet love Lent.
Matthew Leonard is Vice President at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and host of “The Art of Catholic” podcast on iTunes. His website is MatthewSLeonard.com.
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