John the Baptist, Titian, 1540
This morning’s Gospel tells us something important about the ancient world. Their approach to timekeeping and dating events was very different from that of modern Americans. Just about any device we might carry around with us puts a precise date and time on any note we might create. I say precise, because the date and time are derived from the digital network that unites all of us users.
As Saint Luke did, ancient writers dated by referring to the people who were in power at the moment: the emperor, the governor, the high priest of the Temple, and so forth. Sometime the reference is to a widely known event. The prophets Amos and Zacharias both date an event by saying it took place “after the earthquake.” You can tell from the context that they were both writing about the same event—but you can easily see how such dating could be misleading. It would be like Floridians saying that something happened “after the hurricane”—not particularly precise for us in the digital age.
So, this is the time when John the Baptist, the son of the priest Zachary “came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching the baptism of penance for the remission of sins.” In some Catholic translations of the Bible, the word is “repentance,” rather than “penance.” The two words do not mean precisely the same thing, but the ambiguity helps us to understand just what is required for the forgiveness of sin. One must first repent of sin before one make up for sin.
Modern Catholics tend to think of “penance” being some small number of prayers assigned by the priest after our Confession. Most are unaware that years ago penance for serious sins could have been a long‑term affair; perhaps the entire season of Lent—or maybe even a lifetime affair; someone who succumbed to persecution and worshipped the pagan “gods” might have been readmitted to the Sacraments only on his deathbed! This approach made people more aware of the seriousness of sin, but the Church has decided that it is important to allow people to live in the state of grace, with more simple penances.
So, what do we mean by penance?
The Catechism of Trent distinguishes between interior and exterior penance. The latter—exterior penance—is simply the Catechism’s name for Sacramental Confession. “Interior penance” is a little more complicated, and is what is necessary for a good Confession. The Catechism tells us:
Interior penance consists in turning to God sincerely and from the heart, and in hating and detesting our past transgressions, with a firm resolution of amendment of life, hoping to obtain pardon through the divine mercy. Accompanying this penance, like an inseparable companion of detestation for sin, is a sorrow and sadness, which is a certain agitation and disturbance of the soul, and is called by many a passion. Hence many of the Fathers define penance as an anguish of soul.
“… turning to God sincerely and from the heart, and in hating and detesting our past transgressions….” As I mentioned a week or two ago, we must try to see our behavior from God’s point of view. Sin is repugnant to God, and should be repugnant to us as well. Satan tempts us to sin by making us think it something good for us—we have to look beyond his false promises to recognize that all sin is a perversion of the good things with which God has endowed us.
“… with a firm resolution of amendment of life….” There can be no forgiveness if we propose to go on committing the same sins that we are confessing! It is impossible to say “I am sorry” if I plan to continue my bad behavior.
“ … hoping to obtain pardon through the divine mercy….” Only God’s mercy absolves us in Confession.
“…an inseparable companion of detestation for sin, is a sorrow and sadness.” We should literally be sorrowful, for in sinning we have let God down—we should be saddened by the fact that He does so much for us, yet we repeatedly fail to do even the minimum He expects of us. We should be ashamed of our weakness.
“…many of the Fathers define penance as an anguish of soul.” If we do the things necessary to make a good Confession we should feel a bit uncomfortable. A good examination of conscience will be like seeing ourselves as God sees us—and whatever penance we perform will be embarrassingly little when we realize the greatness of the One we have offended.
As I said earlier, repentance and penance are not identical but they are essentially linked. And now is the time for both of them, as we approach the joyous feast of our Savior’s birth. A good Confession is the only way we can resemble the Blessed Virgin Mary—the only way we can truly rejoice with her over the birth of her Divine Son!
 Gospel: Luke 3:1-6 http://www.drbo.org/x/d?b=drl&bk=49&ch=3&l=1-#x
 Amos 1:1 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drl&bk=35&ch=1&l=1#x ; Zacharias 14:5 http://www.drbo.org/cgi-bin/d?b=drl&bk=43&ch=14&l=5#x
 The Roman Catechism: “The Sacrament of Penance” http://www.cin.org/users/james/ebooks/master/trent/tsacr-p.htm