Ash Wednesday 2017
In this most austere of
chapters (Holy Rule of St Benedict 49), there are two mentions of joy. Penance, for our holy Father
St Benedict, is not a sad business.
We offer “of our own free will in the joy of the Holy Spirit”; and while
we deprive ourselves of food, talk and so on, we do it with the joy of Easter
in our sights. From joy towards joy.
What lies behind the joy of ascesis? For one thing, it is bound up closely with
gratitude. Our Lenten penances are an
expression of gratitude, of our satisfaction, so to speak, with our Redeemer
and His work of our redemption, in all its gratuitousness. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for
Biblical history continually proclaims the gifts of God;
life and breath in the first instance, His kindness apparent in creation and
providence, His unfailing protection.
All are given freely, without measure.
Israel’s response is a joyous recognition and admiration of God’s
goodness. He is “enthroned upon the
praises of Israel” (Ps 21/22). “It
is good to give thanks to the Lord” (Ps 91/92). “Give thanks for He is good”
If gratitude or thanksgiving in the Old Alliance is a
reaction to the wonderful interventions of God, it has even higher relief in
the New; it becomes, as it were, a crescendo, for the fullness of revelation
has appeared in Jesus Christ. It has
been said that “thanksgiving keeps step with revelation; it is like an echo of
revelation in the heart” (Dict Bibl Theol).
Thus, it is man’s personal response to the truth of God Himself,
revealed in the Son.
If in Christ we have the revelation of perfect grace, we
see also in Him perfect thanksgiving to the Father. His whole life is a thanksgiving, a
glorification, especially through His miracles and Passion and Death. He does not refuse to suffer; indeed, He
longs for His Hour, His cup. His
thanksgiving flows from His oneness with the Father in love and from His
knowledge of His infinite goodness. It
impels Him to consecrate His life to the Father, so that He might sanctify
us. As baptised Christians, we are
caught up into that great movement of thanksgiving and consecration, especially
in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
How exactly does penance reflect this movement of
gratitude? Put simply, it is difficult
to look upon the humiliated Face of Christ without gratitude for what He
suffered for us. Compunction, its tears
and its joy, is the fundamental reaction of the redeemed sinner to the
undeserved love of the Saviour. It turns
quickly to thanksgiving and adoration; and this, in turn, makes heaven rejoice,
gives joy to the Heart of Christ. He
would have suffered more for us, if he could, He tells Julian of Norwich. All that He asks of us is an answering love;
to know that we appreciate (in the sense of the Latin appretiare “to value at a price”), that we put a fitting estimation
on His redeeming sacrifice, concur in it, appropriate it. It is as if he wishes us to do nothing more
than thank Him from the heart.
There is, however, something more we can do. That, too, is a gift, this permission to
share, even a little, in His sufferings, out of gratitude. “In the heart of the Church”, writes von
Balthasar, “there is the small company whose numbers cannot look at the
sufferings of the crucified God without asking not to be totally excluded from
them.” In Lent, we ask to be of that
company. In the Acts we read: the
Apostles “left the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they were counted
worthy to suffer dishonour for the name” (5:41). In the same vein, St Thomas says that
gratitude makes us recognise the good things we have received from another and
desire to give payment in return, to imitate oneself the goodness of the other
(II,IIae,34). Evidently, we shall never
be able to complete the measure poured out by Christ, since His charity is
infinite; but the Church, following Christ’s precepts, permits us, invites us,
to use the three principal means of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, by which we
share in Christ’s redeeming work. When
we fast, we make satisfaction for sin, our own and that of others, thus
purifying our minds as He is pure; we raise our hearts to God and obtain an
increase in strength and reward (Pref 4).
When we give alms, we seek to relieve suffering and show solidarity with
the poor and afflicted. We imitate the
gratuitousness of God’s giving. When we
pray, we enter into Christ’s own prayer to the Father in praise of His glory
and in supplication for the world. In
the Mass, we are even united substantially with His glorified Body, which still
has the marks of the wounds he bore for us.
of Christ in these well-tried ways springs, as we saw, from our gratitude; and
our gratitude from that wondering recognition of Christ’s sacrificial
love. Gratitude, in turn, leads us to
take joy in pleasing the Father in union with Christ; brings us a peaceful
knowledge that the Father delights in our poor offerings, because they are
united with the Son’s unique sacrifice.
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