Kindly Penance: A Homily for Lent IV

Several weeks ago when we followed Jesus out into the wilderness, we thought we knew where he was leading us. For we had followed this route many times before, year after year. But perhaps it became too familiar. Perhaps we took for granted that He would lead us in the same way as before. Or perhaps we had simply become complacent.

But this year, the way is different. This year, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, the route is more challenging than usual, and a little more difficult.

That should not surprise us. For every year during Lent, in our morning prayers, we sing these words:

Spare not, we pray, to send us here
Some penance kindly but severe.

A “penance kindly but severe.”

Kindly. And yet also a severity suited to us, to what we can bear. For while we chafe at not being with each other, we can still reach out to each other—and we should! And while we are exasperated about being deprived of our usual comforts, we are not denied of our basic needs. And while we may long to receive Holy Communion, we will not be deprived of the Eucharist for this year.

Unlike our brothers and sisters before us, we are not being tortured for our beliefs. We are not isolated or quarantined in a camp or arena or gulag for the crime of being Christian and gathering as Church.

This year’s penance is tough, but not brutal. Inconvenient, but not debilitating. Full of anxiety and frustration, but not filled with unending agony.

So it is kindly. Yet also severe enough, so that we do not take for granted our Easter joy, our gathering as community, our built-in need not just to chat but to talk face to face, and most of all not just to see but to be—with each other.

The severity is just hard enough so that our appetites might be re-adjusted—so that we may itch less for momentary diversions, and long much more for the one thing needful, the thing that truly makes for our enduring peace. So that we truly hunger and thirst for the Righteous One, as He gives Himself into our bodies in the Eucharist; and thereby hunger and thirst to be righteous, and just, in our dealings with others.

In this Lent, we are more and more like the multitude in today’s Gospel. They also follow Jesus into the wilderness. They follow because they trust He will not lead them astray. They follow because long to receive whatever He chooses to give.

They were without food in the wilderness. Not by their choice, but because Our Lord leads them there. Yet they were sustained by being with Our Lord, being hearing His teaching, by receiving His grace.

No doubt, Our Lord is letting us live through this time in order to give us the opportunity to find our true shelter in Him. And to acknowledge that, on the big things, we are not in control. That we need to turn our eyes, our minds, and our hearts not inward but outward and upward, knowing that, in the end, all we have and all we are comes from His gracious hand.

This crowd of more than 5000 show us how to live this kindly penance. Their appetites are whetted by their hunger; and ours by this uncommon means of penance. Yet they teach us to live in hope; to live knowing that Our Lord, as He always does, will come through.

As Pascha approached for these folks, as their hearts and minds were more and more attuned to the coming feast, Our Lord determined to feed them. And with more than enough. But it’s not about food. It’s about the bread. The Bread from Heaven, the Living Bread, which is Our Lord.

  • Who does not disappoint us in our hope.
  • Who satisfies our longing.
  • Who renews our life.
  • Who increases our joy.

That happens, most clearly, in the Holy Eucharist. But our hope, our life, and our joy is also fed, especially during these strange days, when we immerse ourselves more and more in prayer. When we draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. When we, in earnest prayer, draw near to God so that He may draw near to us.

Drawing near to God, and God drawing near to us: that is what must feed us now.

Not next Sunday, perhaps not this Easter, but soon this kindly penance will lift. And if we use this time rightly, if we take advantage of this long Lent, then we will relish the prayer we sing each morning:

Soon will that day, thy day, appear
And all things with its brightness cheer:
We will rejoice in it, as we
Return thereby to grace and thee.