Penance is an expression of love and gratitude to God for the gift of forgiveness. This is why we put on ashes on Ash Wednesday. It is a sign of the love that is supposed to be alive in our hearts, a reality which we must live out in our lives, an effort that must really cost us -- or our gratitude will not mean all that much.
Why do we need to give costly public expression to our effort to live a converted life? Because we were redeemed at an even greater price by One who willingly bore every humiliation that was necessary that we might not perish. Those who have contemplated how far God has gone to forgive our trespasses carry deep within themselves a sense of how sin dehumanizes and the conviction that no human power can repair the wounds sin causes. They know this because the love of God discloses a partial glimpse of the wounds they have caused to the dignity of others by their sins -- and the even deeper wounds they have caused themselves. This is the political dimension of sin -- it has consequences we do not intend. It is humble to see this and courageous to dare by divine assistance to address it.
On this score, we feel the burden of guilt, a burden so great we know no power of our own can relieve it. Even if in our cleverness we have found ways so that those we have hurt cannot hold us accountable, even if in our own self-defeating genius we will not hold ourselves accountable for our own actions, there is Someone else who will not be deceived and who does demand an account. The voice of the One who fashioned our inmost being, who knows the truth about who we are and whom we are meant to be - this Voice not only admonishes us, even more He grieves for us. His cry echoes in the labyrinthine passages of our own heart in crucified anguish. The real horror of our own lack of humanity, our indifference, our selfishness - this is always before us if we dare to look in the direction of the cry, into the eyes of the One who gazes on us even now in unspeakable love. And it is only when we dare to look, only when we stand firm and listen, that our healing can begin, that the burden can be lifted.
Because sin has a political consequence, so does forgiveness. God's healing love reaches past our own failures and the One crucified by love does not fail to embrace those our hostility to Him has most wounded. Such is the greatness of Divine Mercy, the Ocean of Mercy which torrents forth from the Cross, the inexhaustible wellspring when our trust in Him unleashes. Broken relationships can be restored by the Blood of the Lamb. Reconciliation can be achieved because the power of the Cross is greater than the enmity that separates us. All strife can be overcome by such love and all manner of contention baptized in peace.
Penance is the attempt to respond to this incalculable love unleashed in the world by our faith. It is the effort to say "thank you" to the One who has released us from our debt in such a wonderful way. His love rebuilds what we have destroyed. We feel the need do make a gesture of gratitude, to assist if even in the smallest of ways in the restitution that God has made possible.
If we feel the need to pour ourselves out in this effort of gratitude, it is because we realize the great debt God has forgiven and we are pierced to the heart by the extent He has gone to redeem us. Besides the deeply personal things that are privately known, He has also forgiven us of so many social things -- all kinds of failure to take care of or speak out for the most vulnerable: the unborn, the aged, the dying, the poor, the sick and the hungry. Surely, our gratitude for the incalculable gift God has lavished on us in his Son extends to the plight of those most in need? As we pray about how we are to express our thanksgiving for the wondrous gift of forgiveness, He provides new wisdom on how to approach failures in these areas with an invincible hope so that the dignity of those who rely on us might be restored.
Because forgiveness has political dimensions, so does penance. This gratitude to the Lord must live in the Church as a visible, concrete, tangible reality. Penitential love knows it is not enough to love those God gives to us -- they need to feel the warmth of His love through us. Such penance is cultivated best in the intimate relationships of our family. Yet no genuine community of faith lasts long without this concrete disclosure of conversion of heart. It expresses itself in words like "Please forgive me" and in tears and in tenderness and in real changes of behavior. This loving response to the gift of forgiveness must extend out from our closest relationships and into the broader society in which we live. When it does, penance makes possible a culture of life and civilization of love.
If we are hated for our faith, our faith forbids us to continue to hate in return. More than that, in the face of the exceeding Mercy of the Father, it is not enough for us to wish our enemies well in our imagination or to think good thoughts about our persecutors in our heads. We must constantly reach out to those who hate us in love even more. If we must speak the truth those who hate us do not want to hear, we must not be discouraged by their rejection and we must never give up hope in them. We must extend the hand of friendship to them whenever they permit us to, and above all we must lavish them with kindness at every opportunity -- because this is how we have been loved.
The man who knows he has been loved uncommonly never runs out of uncommon ways to love those the Lord brings his way, even when those the Lord brings appear in the difficult disguise of a brutal enemy or a hostile political foe. This is because penance is oriented not to a naive hope. Instead our gratitude to God directs us to a real solidarity which the Lord himself makes possible even when it seems impossible to achieve, even in the face of the anti-thesis of the hope we have inside. Such the penance and politics that flow from the Cross: those who stand firm in their faith at this threshold, even if they falter, will not be overcome.