Christ the Penitent par excellence
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
Dear friends of the Cross, for the first Sunday of Lent, the Sacred Scriptures present Our Lord both as a penitent and as a warrior. Christ, the penitent par excellence, teaches us how to fast and pray well during this battle of forty days. As a warrior, trampling the “lion and the dragon” (Psalm 91), Christ our Captain teaches us how to do battle with the serpent. As the Prince of Peace meets the Prince of Darkness, Christ repels the wicked attacks of the devil and is victorious.
Now, we rightly claim Christ’s victory for our own. But no one who claims victory with Christ can exempt himself from the battle. Therefore, every Christian must be a soldier in the army of Christ the King. You have chosen to live in the world, and so you must be bold defenders of the faith in your own battlefields—at school, at work, and in your community. When people speak out against our Catholic faith, when people attack Our Lord and the teachings of our holy Mother the Church, rise up and proudly profess your faith! And if you suffer for it, or I should say, when you suffer for it—blessed are you.
Bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and seminarians, who have been set apart by the Church, must also war against the principalities and powers of darkness; we are not exempt. I assure you that the rectory, the seminary, the monastery, and the convent are not spiritual safety-zones. Hardly! For the closer we draw near to Christ, we who vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience, the sneakier are the devils' tactics.
If then all of us are to do battle in the army of Christ the King, what should we expect on the battlefield? Psalm 91 tells us that arrows of temptation will fly at us, serpents will strike our heels, and lions will prowl about looking to devour the weak. Satan’s minions, in their contempt for your baptismal promises, will tempt you. So, when the temptations come, dress yourself in armor for the battle.
First, perhaps, the evil tempter will lead you to become obsessed with getting worldly goods and pleasures. So, when your Christian spirit of poverty is under attack, dress yourself in the garment of charity and give alms to the poor. If Satan cannot trap you by obsession with worldly goods, his evil cohorts, regardless of your state in life, will tempt you to unchastity. When this happens put on the waistband of fasting, for if we mortify our flesh, if we “trample upon the lion and the dragon,” Satan will flee.
If you are not yet caught by these two snares, Satan will not forget his favorite trap—pride. And when Satan tempts you to pride, pick up your third weapon, the helmet of prayer. Call on the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, and Satan will flee from us like a weakling. Accompanied by the weapons of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the weapon par excellence is the Sacrament of Confession, for there the sinner finds the sole antidote for his soul diseased by sin: God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness through sacramental absolution.
If penitents need a patron of penance, they can look to St. Damien of Molokai, the Leper. St. Damien had a special pastoral ministry in the Church, living for over a decade among lepers on one of the Hawaiian Islands. As a physician of souls, this priest sacrificed his own health to minister to these poor afflicted people. Father Damien did not have access to the Sacrament of Confession himself, as he was the only priest there among the lepers.
When his Bishop came by ship to visit him, the ship’s captain, fearful of bringing leprosy back to the ship, forbade the Bishop to go ashore. Undeterred, Father Damien rowed his boat into the middle of the sea, his battlefield, as it were, toward the boat where the Bishop stood on deck, and from his little boat, Father Damien knelt down and yelled out his confession in French. Everyone heard his confession. How many understood French? We do not know. But a reverent hush fell over the crowd as he told his sins, asking for the Lord’s forgiveness. All crowded the deck in curiosity. As the brave pastor of Molokai received his absolution, all, in silent and respectful wonder, learned the chief lesson of this Holy Sacrament: Confession must be humble.
Are you prepared for the forty-day battle of Lent? Before you leave this church today, put on your spiritual armor. Crown yourself with the helmet of prayer and resolve to call on the names of Jesus and Mary in moments of temptation; fasten yourself with the waistband of fasting, and drive out the temptations of the flesh. Then cover yourself with the garment of charity by giving alms to the poor. Lastly, take up your penitential weapon, par excellence, the sword of the great Sacrament of Confession, and then follow Christ the King onto the battlefield where with Christ our, Paschal King, you “shall trample down the lion and the dragon.” Amen.