I started my training for the Priesthood at a college seminary program in Cleveland, Ohio. Six times a year I would make the trek between my home in Nashville and our seminary campus in the middle of the snow belt on the east side of Cleveland. In January 1982, I left home to return to school after Christmas vacation. With my car packed to the gills, I set out on what started as a cold, rainy day in Nashville. By the time I reached Louisville, Kentucky, the rain had started to freeze. By Columbus, snow was falling hard on Interstate 71 and visibility was starting to drop dramatically. The final 160 miles to Cleveland were harrowing. As afternoon passed into evening and I drove into the darkness, I began to realize that my headlights didn’t seem to be working. I remember pulling off to the side of the highway to check them and I was surprised to discover that they were working just fine. They had been covered with snow, slush and debris that had frozen solid, cutting off the light. Taking my ice scraper, I got out of the warm car, waded through the muck to the front of the car, cut the stuff off the headlights and, after being pelted with slush from a passing 18-wheeler, headed off north for school. About every 50 miles or so I would have to repeat the procedure again, stopping and scraping, stopping and scraping, so that the headlights could do their job. When I saw the stories of the mid-western blizzards this year, it reminded me of this experience and I also realized that this was a good metaphor for what our experience of Lent might be.
Each year during the 40 days of Lent, we prepare ourselves in a special way for the great Feast, the Pasch, the celebration of Easter, just as Christians have done for 2,000 years. In ancient times, the Church would prepare to baptize its initiates. As the season of Lent developed, it became the custom for those who were already believers to perform penances, special acts of self-denial, in order to prepare their hearts for Easter and to remind themselves that their true home was not to be found in perishable human flesh, but in the glorious kingdom of God.
This desire to mortify the flesh in penance has led to some pretty strange beliefs, the most common of which is that God somehow benefits and we benefit in His eyes through our penances, our little sacrifices. But a little thought should show the folly of this. After all, God has no need of our penance. God is all-sufficient unto Himself. So why do it? Why give up coffee, or TV, or why say extra prayers? Why make any sacrifice if it is ultimately useless to God?
Maybe the answer lies not in God, but in us and our relationship with Him. Perhaps my trip to Cleveland in 1982 can shed some light on the question of why we need penance and sacrifice. If we think of ourselves as being on a journey toward God, we start out full of fuel and clean from Baptism. The light of Christ burns brightly in us and guides us on our way. As we head up the road, we encounter sins, difficulties, and doubts, all of which, like the ice and slush of the Interstate, cloud the light and freeze and harden on the glass making it impossible to find the way, a way which was so clearly visible before. Lent is the time when we stop by the side of the road, and we brave the rain and the cold, and we clean off our spiritual headlights so that the light of Christ can clearly guide us again. Our penance is like the ice scraper and it benefits not God, but us, in that it allows us to see the way clearly again.
So, as we prepare for Easter, let’s make our sacrifices, let’s do our penances. Let’s the clean the glass of our spiritual lamps, the lamps that are “the light of the world.” Let us walk together in holiness and penance during this coming Lent, so that the new Light of Christ which comes this Easter may ever shine in our hearts.