Fourth Sunday in Advent
The Necessity of the Virtue of Penance

By Rev. Ferdinand Heckman, O.F.M.


The time, in which the redemption of fallen mankind was to be accomplished, had come.  The Redeemer had already been born in a humble stable at Bethlehem.  He had already spent the days of His childhood, boyhood, and youth and had passed into the years of vigorous manhood.  Now the hour was at hand, in which He as to manifest Himself to the world in order to proclaim the good tidings of His Gospel of joy, peace and happiness.  Then there appeared in Judea a man who caused a great stir and commotion among the people.  For it had been prophesied of him that he would be great before the Lord; that he would drink no wine nor strong drink; that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb; that he would convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God; that he would go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he might turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just; to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.  He came out of the desert, where he had spent many years in the performance of hard work of penance.  His feet were bare and his head uncovered, and he was clothed with camel’s hair and a leather girdle about his loins, and his meat was locusts and wild honey.  “And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching the Baptism of penance for the remission of sins; as it was written in the book of the sayings of Isaiah the prophet: A voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.  Every valley shall be filled; and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight; and the rough ways plain; and all flesh shall see the Salvation of God” (Luke iii, 3-6).  “Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about the Jordan.”  And he said to them: “Do penance: for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”  And seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them: “Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bring forth, therefore, fruit worthy of penance.  For now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that doeth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire” (Mat. iii, 5,2,7,8,10).  These, his words, like a two-edged sword, penetrated the hearts of his hearers, and many struck their breasts and shed tears of repentance, “and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. iii, 6).

This great preacher of penance was St. John the Baptist, the precursor of our Lord.  The baptism of penance which he preached, was not the Sacrament of Baptism, nor the Sacrament of Penance, instituted by our Lord for the remission of sins, but the Virtue of Penance, the necessity of bringing forth worthy fruits of penance for the sins that have been committed, in order to make due satisfaction to God’s outraged majesty and justice.  This virtue of penance, the performance of works of penance for the sins we have committed, is as necessary to us now, as it was to the Jews in the days of John the Baptist.  We must perform works of penance by reason of our faith, and of our sinfulness.

What do we understand by the virtue of penance?  Penance is a supernatural, moral virtue whereby the sinner is disposed to hatred of his sins as an offence against God, and to a firm purpose of amendment and of due satisfaction for them.  The principal act in the exercise of this virtue, is the detestation of one’s own sins.  The motive of this detestation must be that sin offends God.  To regret sin on account of the mental or physical suffering, the social loss or human punishment which it entails, is natural, and such a sorrow does not suffice for the exercise of the virtue of penance.  On the other hand, the resolve to amend, while certainly necessary, is not sufficient without hatred of sin, already committed, and due satisfaction for it by the performance of works of penance.  Such a resolve would profess obedience to God’s law in the future, but would disregard the claims of God’s justice for past transgressions.  “Be converted to Me,” says God through the mouth of his prophet Joel, “with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning.  And rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord our God: for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of evil” (Joel ii, 12, 13)  And the prophet Jeremiah says of God: “I attended, and hearkened; no man speaks what is good, there is none that doth penance for his sin, saying: What have I done?  They are all turned to their own course, as a horse rushing to the battle” (Jer. viii, 6).

Our Divine Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, after fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert and singly defeating Satan in his threefold temptation, began his missionary life with the same exhortation to penance as His precursor.  “From that time,” says the Evangelist of Him, “Jesus began to preach, and to say: do penance, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Mat. iv, 17).  And how often did He not repeat the same exhortation in His Gospel of penance.  Contempt of the world, self-denial, mortification of the spirit and flesh, and the Cross, are the quintessence of His teaching.  “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mat xvi,24).  In the parables of the Prodigal Son and of the Publican, He proclaims the same doctrine of the necessity of penance and repentance for sins committed, and He has held up for all coming ages Mary Magdalen, who “washed out her sins with her tears” of sorrow, as the true type of a repentant sinner.  In the present order of Divine Providence, God Himself cannot, and will not forgive sin, if there be no real penance and repentance.  In the Old Law eternal life is denied to the man who does iniquity.  “But if a man turn himself away from his justice,” says the prophet “and do iniquity according to all the abominations which the wicked man uses to work, shall he live?  All his justices which he hath done, shall not be remembered: in the prevarication, by which he hath prevaricated, and in his sin which he hath committed, in them he shall die.  And when the wicked turns himself away from his wickedness, which he hath wrought, and does judgment, and justice, i.e. judges himself and does penance according to his guilt, he shall save his soul” (Ezekiel. xviii, 24,27).  And Christ but restates this doctrine of the Old Law, when He says: “Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke xiii,3).  In the New Law, therefore, penance and repentance is as necessary as it was in the Old Law; a penance and repentance that includes reformation of life, grief for sin, and willingness to make satisfaction for it by works of penance.

Jesus Christ has confirmed His words by His example.  Although, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and made higher than the heavens, He practiced the severest penance.  From the Manger to the Cross His Life was one of continual prayer and fasting, of privation, suffering and humiliation.

When St. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, preached to the multitude that had gathered about the home in which the Holy Ghost in the form of fiery tongues had descended upon the Apostles, he so moved them to repentance that when they had heard his words, “they had compunction in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the Apostles: What shall we do men and brethren?  But Peter said to them: Do penance, and be baptized every one of your in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins” (Acts ii, 37,38).  St. Paul, speaking to the Athenians, said: “And God, indeed, having winked at the times of this ignorance, now declared unto men, that all should everywhere do penance, because He hath appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world in equity by the man whom He hath appointed; giving faith to all, by raising him up from the dead” (Acts. xvii, 30, 31).  The Apostles also practiced what they preached.  St. Peter so bewailed his threefold denial of our Lord that from the constant flow of his tears furrows appeared upon his cheeks, and St. Paul tells us that, “in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from his own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the cities, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren, in labor and painfulness, in much watching, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness,” he did preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In another passage he says: “I do all things for the Gospel’s sake: that I may be made partaker thereof.  Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receives the prize?  So, run that you may obtain.  And every one that strives for the mastery, restrains himself from all things: and they, indeed, that they may receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible one.  I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty.  I so fight, not as one beating the air; but I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway” (1 Cor. ix, 23-27).

Our holy Mother the Church teaches that all who wish to save their soul, must subdue and conquer their passions and inclinations to evil, and must lead an humble and mortified life; that he who has fallen into mortal sin, can cleanse himself from it only by bringing forth worthy fruits of penance.  “For the sorrow which is according to God,” says the Apostle, “worketh penance unto Salvation which is lasting” (II. Cor. vii, 10).  “Be penitent, therefore, and be converted, St. Peter admonishes us, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts iii, 19).  This doctrine the Church has received from her Divine Founder, proclaimed in her councils, defended against heretics, taught in her schools. And from her pulpits, and applied in her confessionals, without penance, the Church, the pillar and foundation of truth tells us, there is and can be no Salvation, but there remains only the expectation of eternal damnation.

If then our faith is founded upon penance, and has always considered penance necessary for Salvation, the practice of the virtue of penance cannot be a matter of choice with us, left to our own discretion, but is a  stern duty which we cannot shirk.  Therefore, St. Augustine says that man, although not conscious of any sin, should not dare to depart from this life without having done penance.

We are born in sin and are liable to fall so easily into sin.  One of the pernicious consequences of original sin is that it established the domination of concupiscence in man, the domination of the law of the members which battles against the law of the mind.  “The imagination and thought of man’s heart are prone to evil from his youth,” ways Holy Writ.  “Every man,” says St. James, “is tempted by his own concupiscence, being drawn away and allured.  Then when concupiscence hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin.  But sin, when is it completed, begets sin? (James I, 14,15).  This concupiscence is not sinful, but it entices and allures us into sin.  Since man is weak, he often succumbs to temptation.  For this reason, sin is so frequently committed by man that, as the Scriptures tell us, all men, without exception are sinners.  “There is no man who sins not.” Says a wise man.  And again: “who can say: My heart is clean, I am pure from sin (Prov.xx,9).  “For there is no just man upon earth, that doth good and sins not” (Eccles. vii, 21).  “There is not any man just,” says St. Paul.  “All have turned out of the way; they are become unprofitable together: there is none that doth good, there is not so much as one” (Rom, iii, 10,12).  “If we say,” says St. John, “that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not is us” (1 John I,8).  If we examine our past life, must we not truthfully say that we have sinned, that we have offended God by transgressing His commandments?  Even those who lead a pure and holy life are not altogether free from sin.  “For a just man shall fall seven times.” Says Holy Scripture (Prov. xxiv, 16).  Every one of us must, therefore, confess with David: “I have sinned against the Lord” (II Kings xii, 13).  “My iniquities are gone over my head: and as a heavy burden are heavy upon me” (Ps. xxxvii, 5).

For every sin, mortal or venial, we must make satisfaction to God.  To understand the doctrine of satisfaction, we must remember that every sin has two evil consequences, the guilt or stain which sin leaves on the soul, and the debt of punishment, i.e., the satisfaction which must be rendered to God in atonement for the outrage and insult offered to Him by sin.   The guilt of sin is blotted out by sincere repentance in the Sacrament of Penance, or by an act of contrition, perfect or imperfect according as the sin is mortal or venial, if the Sacrament of Penance cannot be received.  To the perfect contrition for mortal sin must in such a case necessarily be joined the desire of receiving the Sacrament of Penance.  When God pardons the sin, He always remits the eternal punishment due to it, and at least a part of the temporal punishment.  But God, after the sin has been forgiven, generally requires some temporal punishment or satisfaction for sin which either He Himself imposes upon man by sending him temporal afflictions, or which man must impose upon himself and which consists in voluntary acts of mortification and penance.  We have examples of this in Holy Writ.  Moses for the sin of diffidence which he committed in striking the rock twice, was punished by Almighty God, even after his sin had been forgiven, by not being allowed to enter into the Promised Land.  Although God forgave the sin of our first parents in paradise, He nevertheless inflicted on them severe temporal punishments, and continues still to inflict them upon all His posterity.  David’s sin of vanity in numbering the people was punished, even after he repented, by the destruction of 70,000 of his subjects through a pestilence.

These examples of holy Writ show that God does not pardon our sins, except on condition that we do penance for them.  Hence the sinners of the Old Testament, when begging of God to pardon their sins, never asked to be entirely exempted from punishment, but only not to be chastised according to the full rigor of Divine Justice.  “Rebuke me not, O Lord, in Thy indignation,” said the royal prophet, “nor chastise me in thy wrath,” but he declared himself ready to do penance for his sins: “I am ready for scourges.” “There is no doubt,” says St. Eucherius, “that God pardons sin, when the sinner repents of it; but He does not leave it unpunished, for either the sinner must punish himself or God will have to punish him.  “We satisfy, therefore, divine justice for sin committed, either by patiently bearing the crosses, trials and sufferings that God sends us, or by performing voluntary acts of mortification and penance in this life, else we will have to endure long and indescribable pains in purgatory. David had committed the grievous sins of murder and adultery.  He repented of his sin with so much contrition that God sent the prophet Nathan to him with the message; “The Lord hath taken away thy sin, thou shalt not die.  Nevertheless, because thou hast given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, for this thing, the child that is born to thee shall surely die.  The sword shall never depart from thy house, because thou hast despised me” (II, Kings xii, 10, 13, 13,).  Such was the penance imposed on him by Almighty God, after his sin had been forgiven.  But David was not satisfied with this penance and hence performed other penitential works.  “I am ready for scourges,” he says, “and my sorrow is continually before me.  For I will declare my iniquity, and I will think of my sin” (Ps. xxxvii, 18,19).  “Every night I will wash my bed: I will water my couch with my tears” (Ps. vi.7).  His fasting was so severe that ashes were hood and tears of contrition his drink.  “I did eat ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping” (Ps. ci, 10).  To confess our sins, therefore, and to perform the light penance imposed upon us by the confessor is not sufficient to atone for the outrage and insult offered by sin to Almighty God, but voluntary acts of mortification and penance should justly follow the performance of the slight penance enjoined on us in the confessional.  Unless we atone for our sins by self-imposed acts of penance in this world, we will have to render involuntary satisfaction for them in the next world, in a prison out of which we shall not be delivered till we have paid the last farthing of our debt.

Let us, then, take the safer and easier part, and anticipate the Divine punishments by voluntary mortifications and penances.  “What you have done,” says St. Augustine, “cannot remain unpunished; and wherein a man has sinned, he shall also be chastised; so that you must either punish yourself, or God will punish you.”  Prudence teaches us to choose the lesser of these two evils.  If you wish, therefore, to avoid the Divine chastisements, chastise yourselves in this world, for in the next world punishment will be meted out to you in all the fullness and severity of Divine Justice.  The slight voluntary penances and mortifications that we impose upon ourselves in this life, are of more value in the sight of God than the longest and severest sufferings endured against our will in the other life.  “That we may not be punished in the other world,” says St. John Chrysostom, “let us chastise ourselves with tears of contrition, with fasting, and other bodily mortification.”  ”For as you have yielded your members,” writes St. Paul to the Romans, “to serve uncleanness and iniquity unto iniquity, so now yield your members to serve justice unto sanctification” (Rom. vi, 19).  “Be converted to me with all your heart,” God admonishes us through the mouth of His prophet.  Cleanse, therefore, your souls from the stains of sin in the Blood of the Lamb in the Sacrament of Penance.  A good Confession is the foundation and first requisite of a life of penance.  But be not satisfied with going to Confession and performing the slight penance imposed on you, but “make your ways and your doings good.”  Your thoughts, desires, words and actions must become pleasing in the sight of God.  Bring forth worthy fruits of penance.  It is not an easy thing to lead a penitential life, but its fruits are precious and enduring.  It will reconcile us with God and avert from us his punishments, it will console us in the hour of death and open to us the gates of the heavenly paradise.  There are only two roads that lead to this heavenly paradise: the road of innocence and the road of penance.  If, then, we have left the former, we must walk the latter.  But, unless we do penance for our sins, we shall all likewise perish.  Amen.