According to this week's readings, we have sinned. What we deserve is punishment. What God offers, instead, is mercy and compassion.
But what are the qualities of mercy and compassion? When we hope for them what exactly are we hoping for? The more we know that, the more we'll know what our Lenten journey is about.
Certainly, we hope for forgiveness. As the Psalm for Monday pleads: "Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins." But do we hope that God will forgive us without changing us?
Martin Luther used an image for our relationship with God. He saw a dung heap and watched as it was gradually covered with snow. That, he said, is like our relationship with God: He covers our sins.
I think it's an unfortunate image. We don't want to remain a dung heap and just have God cover the bad parts. The Gospel vision is that, by God's grace, we will actually become different. Jesus calls for a real transformation and promises to work with us to bring it about. That transformation is an essential part of our hope.
God's mercy and compassion start with forgiveness but they don't end there. The sacrament of penance reinforces this. Each of its four parts — contrition, confession, absolution and penance — is an essential step forward, but each also calls forth the next step until the process is completed.
First there has to be contrition, because an apology without genuine sorrow is just empty words.
But sorrow is not enough. Interior states call for external expression. True love expresses itself; so does true sorrow. While the feeling of sorrow is essential, it's cheap repentance if there's no outward expression of sorrow.
So inward contrition needs to be combined with outward confession. When it is, it meets God's first step: absolution. God meets our sin with forgiveness every time.
But forgiveness isn't the end. After absolution comes our penance. When we do our penance we respond to the grace of forgiveness. We attempt to rebuild, in some fashion, what we've damaged by sin.
Through these four steps of the sacrament, we actually begin to change. We're not just a dung heap covered with snow. By cooperating with God's grace we're actually becoming a new creature.
So the structure of the sacrament of penance teaches us something important about God's mercy and compassion.
Salvation history teaches the same lesson. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. The gift of forgiveness was offered before any change in who or what we are. As St. Paul says: "Christ died for us while we were still sinners." But the story doesn't end there. Jesus also sent the Holy Spirit to transform us. Gradually, as we cooperate more and more deeply with the Spirit, we are changed.
So salvation history teaches us something about the nature of God's mercy and compassion.
Psalm 103 tells us that the Lord is kind and merciful. But it's worth pondering what His mercy is like. It starts with pardon for the sinner. But it doesn't end there. It's not just pardon, it's also healing. Our Lenten journey, like our hope, is about both.