How to Practice Penance in the 21st Century -

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Try tossing out the word "penance" and see how others define this venerable word. Chances are the definition will include "punishment." Exactly what penance is not.

Penance or putting penance into action (repentance) is instead a turning from.... a growth into (something else).... a building of a new mindset or way of life.

On Ash Wednesday, we hear the ancient words of the Prophet Joel, calling us to flue penance and repentance. In the day’s first reading at Mass, we hear the Word of God: "Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God." (Joel 2:13).

The second reading looks to St. Paul for good advice on penance. As usual, he minces no words. St. Paul reminds us that all the baptized are "ambassadors for Christ, God as it were, appealing through us." Keep it in mind, he urges, and then get going.

For Christians are called to "become the very holiness of God." Achieving such a goal and call will be a lifelong process, so St. Paul implores us to get going, now. For today "is the day of salvation!" Urgently, he adds:

"We implore you, in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God!" (2Cor 5, 20:6,2).

In the Liturgy of the Hours for Ash Wednesday, the Office of Readings calls on the Prophet Isaiah. His text, in an almost angry voice, denounces the dramatic "exhibits" so many people mistakenly display in the name of "keeping a day of penance." Things like penitential clothing as a mere display or bragging about harsh fasting practices. rather, God declares, "the fasting that I wish" is:

• releasing those bound unjustly;

• setting free the oppressed; sharing your bread with the hungry;

• sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;

• not turning your back on your own.

High on the list of these positive suggestions: being kind instead of oppressive.., giving food to the hungry from our own provisions.., looking at what it takes to "satisfy the afflicted," and then acting on it.

Clearly implied: we need to act in community; no one person could possibly bring about such reconciliation on such a large scale (Isaiah 58:1-12).

We recognize these same commendations in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, the commands which Jesus made so central to the Gospel message. And like the effort needed to put the "Works" into practice, penance and reconciliation in any form will build on discipline, commitment and determination. Not a one-time "show" for all the world to see (rending of garments. well publicized charitable donations, etc).

Moreover, putting penance into practice will be as varied a task as there are individuals. Try just one example: Watch your words for the six weeks. That can mean a number of "Don’ts" but with a very positive end in mind:

• Don’t speak that hasty word because we know words can be as lethal as knives; they can wound or diminish the other person to a depth you can never realize.

* Don’t be quick to condemn.

• Don’t give in to the surging flare up of anger.

• Don’t Gossip.

Practicing such a penance can be rewarding. Practice begets habit. And habits pave the way to virtue moving closer to a happy, healthy life here on earth and in the hereafter.