The Order of Penitents

Today we begin one of Holy Mother Church’s most ancient observances, the solemn fast of Lent. The ashes that we receive today are a relic of what in the early days of the Church was called the order of penitents. Before the sacrament of confession because widely available in the Middle Ages, it was only possible to receive forgiveness for one’s sins after Baptism once or twice, and sins had to be confessed publicly to the bishop. The bishop would then place the person seeking forgiveness in the order of penitents for one to three years. The penitents would sit outside the church begging for alms, wearing itchy sackcloth and covering their heads with ashes. Today, something of that ancient order of the penitents remains, as we are all initiated as penitents as we begin the solemn fast of Lent.

In ancient times, the penitents were set aside from the rest of the Church community. This was not so much to point out their failures to everyone else, as it was to make obvious to them their need for conversion, their need to grow closer to Christ. This Lent is a time for us to set ourselves aside, and by the spiritual disciples of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to draw closer to Christ. Make sure that you are setting yourself aside from daily life this Lent. Your sacrifices and alms should lead you to a greater spirit of prayer, to greater friendship with Christ.

Ash Wednesday is a very popular day to come to Mass. In some places, it is estimated that more people come to Mass on Ash Wednesday than even on Christmas or Easter. Why is this so? There is a deep need in the human soul to acknowledge our imperfections. We spend so much time trying to justify ourselves, so afraid of being judged – that modern slogan, “Don’t judge me!” that has become so popular, but this leaves us feeling empty. We know that all of our justifications can never add up to the kind of person we know that we ought to be, and so we desire, at least once a year, to leave self-justification behind in order to acknowledge the degree to which we fail to measure up.

Today, then, we acknowledge that we are sinners, we acknowledge how imperfect we are, we publicly state it by the ashes on our foreheads. But if this acknowledgment does not do anything else, if it does not move us closer to God, then we are the hypocrites decried by our Lord, who take on the appearance of penance merely to receive the approval of other people. Instead we should heed the words of the prophet Joel that we heard in the first reading: “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.” And also the words of St. Paul in the second reading: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

The ancient order of penitents, into which we are initiated today, sought that reconciliation with God through the forgiveness of their sins. Today, of course, it is possible for us to seek the Lord’s forgiveness in confession not just once or twice in a lifetime as our forefathers in the faith did, but even every day of the year – and we should especially take advantage of this opportunity during Lent for frequent confession! It would be a great Lenten resolution, for example, to go to confession once a week during Lent. And at the very least, Holy Mother Church pleads with us to go to confession at least once every Lenten season. This is the point of what we do today, this is why we acknowledge that we are sinners – so that we can be forgiven.

I will leave you today with the words of a beautiful and ancient Lenten hymn that gets to the heart of what Lent is all about:

The fast, as taught by holy lore,
we keep in solemn course once more:
the fast to all men known, and bound
in forty days of yearly round.

The law and seers that were of old
in divers ways this Lent foretold,
which Christ, all seasons’ King and guide,
in after ages sanctified.

More sparing therefore let us make
the words we speak, the food we take,
our sleep and mirth, -and closer barred
be every sense in holy guard:

Avoid the evil thoughts that roll
like waters o’er the heedless soul;
nor let the foe occasion find
our souls in slavery to bind.

In prayer together let us fall,
and cry for mercy, one and all,
and weep before the Judge’s feet,
and His avenging wrath entreat.

Thy grace have we offended sore,
by sins, O God, which we deplore;
but pour upon us from on high,
o pardoning One, Thy clemency.

Remember Thou, though frail we be,
that yet Thine handiwork are we;
nor let the honor of Thy Name
be by another put to shame.

Forgive the sin that we have wrought;
increase the good that we have sought:
that we at length, our wanderings o’er,
may please Thee here and evermore.

Blest Three in One, and One in Three,
Almighty God, we pray to Thee,
that this our fast of forty days
may work our profit and Thy praise. Amen.

(Ex more docti mystico, trans. J. Neal)