COLUMN: Lincoln and Lent

Published 8:00 am Sunday, March 17, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Maximilian Watner
Guest Columnist

On Aug./ 12, 1861, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation. “… (W)hen our own beloved country, once, by the blessing of God, united, prosperous, and happy, is now afflicted with faction and civil war, it is peculiarly fit for us to recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation, and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals to humble ourselves before Him and to pray for His mercy…. Therefore I, Abraham Lincoln,… appoint… a day of humiliation, prayer, and fasting for all the people….”

There is a striking correlation between our own lives and what was happening to the United States when Lincoln wrote this. Before Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, we were indeed once “united, prosperous, and happy,” and then sin entered the world. Our own souls are, like Lincoln’s America, “afflicted with faction,” afflicted with this division that St. Paul wrote of when he said that there were two laws fighting within him (his fallen nature tending to sin, and the grace of Christ urging him to virtue (Romans 7:23). The solution for our souls is, in part, the same solution that Lincoln called upon his fellow Americans to implement for their country: prayer and fasting.

The King James Version of Luke 13:3 reads, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Repenting means more than just saying we are sorry, though; it means doing penance. We can see this in the Catholic translation of the same Bible verse: “Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish.” If we say we are sorry for a sin but are not willing to give up some comforts in order to share in the pain Christ suffered for that sin, and to train our will to self-denial so it doesn’t happen again, we can hardly say we have truly repented.

This penance requires an interior spirit of love, of course, and also an outward manifestation, the penance itself. That’s why Catholics (and some others) are signed with a cross of ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, and also why they are supposed to fast during Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter.

When is the last time we skipped part of a meal simply to do penance, to suffer a little voluntarily and to acknowledge that we are sinners? Without Lent, most of us would have to admit, “Never.” Giving up food isn’t the only penance, though. Perhaps, this Lent, we could donate money anonymously, turn off the TV for a while, reduce unnecessary time on our phones, or visit an elderly person. If we do these types of penances with a prayerful attitude, with an effort to recognize our sins and what they mean to the suffering Christ, then at Easter, our hearts will be better prepared to celebrate His resurrection, because we will have shared in the darkness of suffering that led to His triumph.

BROTHER MAXIMILIAN WATNER is on the staff at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Buckingham County. He can be reached at