Tuesday of the fourth week in Lent

Cease striving, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
                                           Psalm 46 [45]: 10-11

.        .        .

I admit that these two verses are not among those set for the reading of this psalm today at Mass. But they strike me as particularly apt for this point in Lent. “Cease striving,” the psalmist says (many translations have “be still”). Yet I don’t think about Lent as a time of rest. What place does rest have in a penitential season? Here I am, giving up and taking on (and not doing a stellar job of either, truth be told). Is the psalmist telling me to stop it?

Somehow I don’t think so. I think, rather, that the psalmist is reminding me (in these two verses and those to be read in Mass today) that all the abstinence and action that make up my Lenten observance aim for this end precisely: rest in God. To give up something I enjoy has a double effect: a certain suffering that comes from a want left unsatisfied, and the possibility for refreshment from another source, from God. And what have I taken on, but more time for reflection, more frequent attendance at daily Mass? This is a recipe for resting in God for me.

Because that is, after all, what God desires of us. Cease striving, says the Lord: I am God, I will be God, and I will be exalted. You can sit back and enjoy my strength; you can rely on my saving help. We see our need for that strength and saving help better, perhaps, when our Lenten discipline makes us want. How much more ready, then, will we be to enjoy the good things that God gives us–and to recognise their source–come Easter?

Deo gratias.

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Tuesday of the second week in Lent

You do this, and I should keep silence?
    Do you think that I am like you?
A sacrifice of thanksgiving honours me,
   and I will show God’s salvation to the upright.
                                            Psalm 49 [50]: 21, 23

.        .       .

‘Do you think that I am like you?’ Too often, yes, I do think exactly that–that God is like me, like a human being. I mistake God for a finite being, whose love has limits, who can be offended in a way that makes forgiveness difficult. But God isn’t like that. As one translation of the Benedictus has it, ‘through the bottomless mercy of our God / one born on high will visit us’.

I like that. God isn’t like us. God’s mercy is ‘bottomless’–an inexhaustible reservoir of love and forgiveness. In my finitude, I run out. I run out of patience; my will to forgive fails. Bitterness creeps in, and resentment, too. But God has none of that: only love, and mercy, and patience, and compassion. I bring my failings and disappointments to God, and receive in return grace, and delight, and joy.

That doesn’t sound very Lenten. But all the penitential practices of Lent aim precisely at this goal: to make space for that joy and delight that should fill our hearts at Easter.

Ash Wednesday

Have mercy on me, O God,
  according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy,
  blot out my transgressions.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
  and done that which is evil in your sight,
So that you are justified in your sentence,
  and blameless in your judgement.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
  and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
  and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

O Lord, open my lips,
  and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

                                              Psalm 51 [50]

.         .          .

Today we begin Lent, with ashes and penitence; we undertake practices that will, with the help of the Holy Spirit, turn us back to God. Today I acknowledge that, however satisfactory I think my Christian life is, I still need God to give me a clean heart, and a new and right (or steadfast, as some translations have it) spirit within me.

Psalm 51 is a psalm of David, the one that dates from his famous fall: his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. I can look back on my life since last Easter and see nothing quite so vicious in my own life. And yet–I know my transgressions, I know the dark and cold places in my own heart. I know that ‘I have greatly sinned, in thought and word, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.’ My inattention to the Holy Spirit bears fruit of impatience and anger, envy and despair and resentment.

And so I pray with David, ‘Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation’. However much penance I might undertake this Lent, however carefully I might scrutinize my conscience, I cannot do what needs to be done for myself. I can only empty myself to welcome the risen Lord, who himself will give the clean heart that will receive him at Easter.