2018-02-16 / Worship


Paying Penance

Last year I celebrated Lent for the first time. The churches in which I grew up seemed to skip from dolling out Christmas cookies to cutting the Easter ham with hardly a pause to reflect on the passion of Christ leading up to the pivotal moment of our faith. I fasted one meal a day, which caused me to pause every morning I gave up breakfast to thank God for all Christ gave up for me.

This year my husband, Dana, decided to join me. Wanting to pursue a healthier physical life as well as a healthier spiritual life, we decided to give up wheat, milk products, and sugar for the 40-day season, which this year began on Valentine’s Day.

Forgoing the traditional gift of sweets, Dana took me out for breakfast.

No sooner had I emptied two creamers into my coffee, which I don’t normally drink, than I noticed Dana looking at me funny.

“Uh-oh!” I gasped, realizing my mistake.

“Bless me Mother, for I have creamed,” he quipped.

“But what can I do?” I said. “I can’t throw it out. We need a penance system. For each infraction, let’s put $1 in a jar. Then we can donate it to a charity.”

“I’ll just put $50 in and call it good,” he said.

We laughed, realizing how ridiculous that would be. But isn’t that how we often act regarding Christ’s sacrifice as well. The price for my wrongdoing is paid. The penance jar is stuffed full. It’s good. So I can live however I want. Yet even those of us who desire to live in a way that honors God, regularly fall short. Once we start paying attention to rules, it’s easier to see just how short we fall.

Like catsup.

“How specific do you want to be?” I asked Dana when the waitress delivered our omelets and homefries. “Catsup has sugar, but do we really have to count condiments? Then again, what do you do about jelly? Jelly definitely counts as sugar.”

This was the same conundrum in which the ancient Israelites found themselves, heirs of the Ten Commandments. To keep God’s commands, they invented “fence laws” to prevent people from straying close enough to a sinful situation to accidentally break the law. In other words, we shouldn’t just stay away from catsup. We should stay away from all squeezable tomato products so that we don’t accidentally eat sugar-containing catsup too.

All this goes to show how easy it is to get sidetracked from the original intention of honoring the death and resurrection of Christ to obsessing over sugar. Or worse, tomatoes. Which is one reason why so many Christians ignore Lent and skip right to the ham dinner — the tradition of eating ham to honor an observant Jewish rabbi being the subject for another day. Jesus himself said that unless our righteousness exceeded that of the most law abiding leaders, “You will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:20 ESV).

Thank God, Jesus himself paid the price for our shortcomings — not so that we would go on sinning, but to rescue us from the power of sin. Observing Lent reminds us just how pervasive sin is — like the cream in my coffee or the sugar in catsup or the mouth-watering cheese I’d failed to recall filled my veggie omelet. One more dollar for the jar.

Meadow Rue Merrill, the author of “Redeeming Ruth: Everything Life Takes, Love Restores,” writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of Midcoast Maine. Connect at meadowrue.com.

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