Psalm 51: We Begin Again

We’re in the middle of winter, it’s still pretty dark in the morning when I get up to get ready for work, Mother Nature is still sound asleep, hibernating in the cold pre-spring weather, but suddenly it’s Lent again. Lent throws us a curve, changes the cadence of our predictable pattern, and invites us to move in a different direction than the one we’re unconsciously moving in. For most of the year we Christians follow our North American culture, we listen to the same news, watch the same movies, read the same bestsellers, buy the same consumer goods. And then Lent comes along. The culture asks us, “How do you look today? How do you feel today? Not too good? Well, we can change that. So thanks to Rogaine, Viagra, tummy tucks, health clubs, tax-free investments, retirement, Colts football and, of course, taking our vitamin supplements we hope to hang onto our earthly lives a bit longer.
But Lent, on the other hand, sits quietly in the background, inviting us to enter into Psalm 51. Lent doesn’t care how we look, it wants to know how things are with our soul. Beyond the hair coloring and tanning sessions, how are we tending to our spiritual nature?
I remember even as a small boy, growing up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the solemnity and seriousness of Ash Wednesday. I don’t remember the hymns sung, the homilies given, but I do remember the feeling every time I received the ashes. Catholics don’t do “altar calls” , so the invitation to come forward and express my own desire to follow Christ more faithfully, more authentically, was something I always took seriously.
After the sermon, a hymn was sung, and the priest would mark my forehead with the ashes. Each time I felt like I had that cross burned into my head, like a permanent marker that would never wash off. And I didn’t want it to wash off because it connected me with everyone else in the church, young and old. And everywhere I went that day, I would encounter other people with the black smudge on her or his face, and often we would exchange knowing smiles at each other. I came to realize that the followers of Jesus were everywhere—downtown in the banks, at Walgreen’s, at the corner diner, at the park, and throughout my school. I observed the small black cross of ashes on handsome men and pretty women, on young babies and foreheads that were wrinkled with many years of worry. People everywhere, custodians, waitresses, store owners, professors, rich people and poor people who walked down Main Street. And I felt that together we shared a common experience, a shared moment of faith. We were brothers and sisters sharing a moment, reminding each other of our mortality, and that even though we had all obviously made mistakes in our lives, we still belonged to God, and everything was going to be okay.
Then, as now, the words of Psalm 51 were part of every Ash Wednesday. I appreciate this psalm because it is honest in a gutsy way—no b.s., no pretty words to hide the truth. If we want to enter into conversation with God through Psalm 51, we, too, have to be totally honest about the choices we have made and we have to come to terms with the word, “sin.” Now, some of us have been bullied by our theologies into taking needless blame onto ourselves, taking responsibility for things unnecessarily. And for their part, religious institutions don’t mind one bit if they can control their members by using guilt as a weapon. That’s not what God means by “sin”.
If you do a little research on what sin is in the Hebrew tradition, here is what it entails. To sin, is to miss the bull’s eye of an archery target. That’s what one of the Hebrew words for sin is defined as: missing the bull’s eye of God’s will for our lives. To fail to live up to the fullest expression of God’s dream for us.
Another Hebrew word for sin described it as not doing what we should’ve and doing what we shouldn’t have. These were the sins that were believed to not only injure the individual, but they also had disastrous effects on the entire community. Suspicion, envy, gossip, mistrust of other—think of how those things undermine a sense of community. The history of the Christian Church with its endless fracturing, fighting, condemnations and judgments should be enough to convince us all that that kind of sinning is a disease that is as fatal as it is contagious.
Yet another Hebrew word describes sin as being unfaithful to the covenant between neighbor and God. All life is upheld by covenant; when we attend a wedding, we are watching covenant-making in action. When we worship on a Sunday morning, there is an unwritten covenant between us and God that we honor. To break covenant is to sin, because we are breaking the covenant we made with God. Every time we come to that part in the Lord’s prayer where we say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” we’re praying for forgiveness of this kind of sin, for breaking our promises to God and neighbor.
Finally, the ancients had a word to describe the kind of sin that gets front page coverage in the newspaper–deeds that are so violent, senseless and destructive, that even other sinners are shocked. So, what’s the deal with all these different words to describe sin?
Behind every word to denote “sin” was the belief that sin alienates the soul. Sin is related to the chaos that predated Creation itself, and therefore, sin diminishes the appearance of the Divine Image within us. And because we don’t live in a vacuum, each of our own individual sins has a direct impact on everyone else. It literally creates the world in which we find ourselves.
I want to suggest three things that we can do today that will empower us to nourish ourselves, instead of further fragmenting our soul. First, be honest with God. The ashes we will receive in a few minutes remind us that we are all in need of some repair.
Second, remember that the ashes remind us that we are made from dust and to dust we will return. On our tombstone will be two dates separated by a simple dash. The dates don’t matter, but the dash—the things we do between the dates—is of utmost importance.
Third, Psalm 51 and the ashes of Lent remind us not only that we are off the mark, that we will return to the earth from which we were taken, but that we are precious in God’s sight. If we weren’t beloved of God, if we didn’t hold within ourselves the promise of co-creating the world as living Christs, there would be no reason for this kind of repentance and renewal of spirit. Our confessions and God’s forgiveness begin the healing process in our soul. Ashes in the form of the cross remind us that we’re not only God’s property, we’re God’s emissaries.
So as we leave this place this evening, let’s agree to pray Psalm 51 over the next few days. Find the words of the psalmist, “Create in me a Clean Heart O God”, and pray that in a deep way, over and over. Let that prayer become like a gentle rain that permeates the hardened soil of your life to this point. And let your transfiguration in Christ begain again. Amen.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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