Josh and I screamed through the wet streets of Chicago on our bikes. Rain was dumping from the heavens. Not a pesky little misting, but the kind of weighty drops that punch your skin in a warm and refreshing way. The kind of rain that hits your head and runs down your nose and drips into your mouth whenever it opens.
It was the Thursday after Easter a few years ago and I was wrapping up college in Chicago.
We rode up north and jumped into the lake. Then we rode down south and jumped into the lake. People stared at us as we pedaled by, confused by my lack of shirt and Josh’s lack of pants. And we yelled as loud as we could everywhere we went.
Then we biked to the Loop, the absolute center of downtown Chicago. We landed in Daley plaza, which is basically the center of the Loop, and the rain continued pounding us. It was the kind of rain that runs down your head and drips off your eyelashes so you can’t see clearly. It was the kind of rain that pommeled the pavement so hard mist rose up from the streets.
Everything was gray and nothing was dry.
When we rolled into Daley plaza, we found a huge painting of Jesus standing in the middle of the expanse, with a giant cross several feet away from it. Since it was shortly after Easter, I was not surprised to see religious imagery still hanging around the city.
What really stood out, however, was the man on the other side of the painting.
Josh and I walked around the painting (it was Jesus with red and white lights shooting out of His hand, symbolizing water and blood) and saw an older man on his knees. He was about thirty feet from the painting, wearing sackcloth and staring at the painting.
As we walked our bikes closer, I was able to read his sackcloth shirt, which had two bold words printed on it in red: DO PENANCE.
It’s an image that won’t soon leave my head.
This man was probably in his 50’s or 60’s. On both knees before a painting of Jesus. In the pouring rain. In the center of Chicago.
He was cycling the rosary through his soaking fingers as he prayed, whispering holy words to the Creator of the universe.
Once he finished, I tried to speak to him, but he barely knew English. In a thick Eastern European accent, he simply said, “Pray to God. Ask him to forgive your sins.”
Then he said, “I have to go. My parking meter is almost up.”
There are few scenes like that in my life that stand out as moments I will always look back on with some sort of transcendent curiosity. That man earnestly loved the Lord and sought to please Him. I know nothing about that man other than what I wrote above. I never will. I couldn’t pick him out of a two-man lineup at this point.
But the vivid image of a man in the rain praying to Jesus. That will stick with me.
To be sure of what I’m writing, like any good scholar, I Googled the definition of penance:
n. voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong.
It seems to line up exactly with what the man was doing. While Josh and I were out in the rain to intentionally have a blast (I love being in the rain, in case you haven’t noticed…), this man went out to punish himself. To atone for his sins. To beg for mercy.
Many have whipped themselves raw to make up for their transgressions. Many have forgone food, sleep or other comforts to earn a rightness before God. Brennan Manning even voluntarily locked himself away in a Swiss prison to try to earn his forgiveness.
As beautiful as these actions can sometimes be as raw expressions of worship, they neglect the One who has already been whipped raw for our transgressions. We forget that someone has already been striped that we may be cured (Isaiah 53:5).
We don’t need to punish ourselves because the Penitent One has already come and taken the punishment.
Throughout the Bible, we see the consistent image of the grape being smashed to create wine. Wine, a symbol of joy, necessitates that something be crushed for its existence. We believe this too.
We believe in the One who was crushed for our joy.
But if we think we need to take some of the punishment for our sins, we are telling Jesus that He is not strong enough to carry them Himself. It’s a subtle way of saying to Him, “Yah, your crucifixion was pretty good, but it could still use my help…”
How arrogant are we to suggest to the Creator of the Universe that He needs our help?
Now, none of this is to suggest that spiritual disciplines like fasting and vigils do not have their place; nothing could be further from the truth! But the purpose behind them is never to take upon ourselves the punishment we deserve. It’s to create spaces for hunger and satisfaction in the presence of God. It’s to find our pleasure in Him above all else, not to suffer because we are trying to ‘make it up to God.’
Later in his life, Brennan Manning came to the conclusion that the only possible end of all things was the grace of God. Without this all-encompassing grace, no amount of his own pathetic penance would suffice. He wrote,
God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be. It is the message of grace…A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five…A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party no ifs, ands, or buts…This grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us…Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough…Jesus is enough.
Do you truly believe that Jesus suffered enough that you don’t have to, or are you still trying to earn His mercy with your church attendance or Bible-reading record? Are you willing to cast yourself into the net of His grace, or do you still think you could be doing more to absolve yourself?
If you’re not sure, ask yourself: Do you feel like the man in the rain in Chicago is somehow more right with God than you are? There are no levels of forgiveness or rightness with God; the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
Let us be people who repent and turn away from our sins without feeling a need for extra penance. May we not whip ourselves raw because we believe in the One who was whipped raw for us; the One who took our sins against Him and destroyed them on a hill in Jerusalem.
Once and for all.