The term and the very concept of penance are very complex.
Exactly right. What is the Biblical witness to it? What did Jesus tell us?
If we link penance with the metanoia which the synoptics refer to, it means the inmost change of heart under the influence of the word of God and in the perspective of the kingdom.(Cf Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15) But penance also means changing one’s life in harmony with the change of heart, and in this sense doing penance is completed by bringing forth fruits worthy of penance:(Cf Luke 3:8) It is one’s whole existence that becomes penitential, that is to say, directed toward a continuous striving for what is better. But doing penance is something authentic and effective only if it is translated into deeds and acts of penance.
A bit of caution here, and a reminder this remains a complex encounter. Pope John Paul II seems to suggest we need to “practice” the kind of life–the better life–we are seeking. It’s not that the actions define our lives as holy. Good deeds and acts of penance do not transform the believer; they signal a person’s willingness to be changed, to receive grace.
More witness from the Christian Scriptures:
In this sense penance means, in the Christian theological and spiritual vocabulary, asceticism, that is to say, the concrete daily effort of a person, supported by God’s lose his or her own life for Christ as the only means of gaining it;(Cf Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 8:34-36; Luke 9:23-25) an effort to put off the old man and put on the new;(Cf Ephesians 4:23f) an effort to overcome in oneself what is of the flesh in order that what is spiritual(Cf 1 Corinthians 3:1-20) may prevail; a continual effort to rise from the things of here below to the things of above, where Christ is.(Cf Colossians 3:1f) Penance is therefore a conversion that passes from the heart to deeds and then to the Christian’s whole life.
This strikes me as a parallel to the penitent’s sacramental experience:
- we feel contrition for doing wrong,
- we make a conscious choice to repent,
- we go to a confessor
- we are assigned an act of satisfaction; in other words, a penance.
In each of these meanings penance is closely connected with reconciliation, for reconciliation with God, with oneself and with others implies overcoming that radical break which is sin. And this is achieved only through the interior transformation or conversion which bears fruit in a person’s life through acts of penance.
The long-term goal moves the believer beyond the juridical exchange of confession with the return of forgiveness. The ultimate goal is loftier: the sanctity of the human being.
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