Friday after Ash Wednesday

Is this not the fast which I choose, 
To loosen the bonds of wickedness, 
To undo the bands of the yoke, 
And to let the oppressed go free 
And break every yoke? 
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry 
And bring the homeless poor into the house; 
When you see the naked, to cover him; 
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 
                                        Isaiah 58:6, 7 (NASB)

Against You, You only, I have sinned 
And done what is evil in Your sight, 
So that You are justified when You speak 
And blameless when You judge. 
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; 
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, 
You will not despise.
                                        Psalms 51 [50]:4, 17 (NASB)


.          .         .

What does the Lord ask of us? The passage from Isaiah emphasises ‘do justice, love mercy’; Psalm 51 reminds us to ‘walk humbly with God’.  Isaiah calls for love of neighbour and care for the poor–which King David failed to exhibit towards Uriah. 

Is that why David describes his sin in this way? ‘Against you, you only, I have sinned’ strikes me as somewhat mistaken. Surely David’s sin is against Bathsheba and Uriah also, maybe even in the first place. But no. God takes responsibility for the care of the poor and the oppressed, and calls us to participate in his love and compassion, and to show his mercy and consolation. Failing to live according to God’s statutes can have a devastating impact on others, and yet our sin is always against God as much as against our fellow human beings. 

Upon being convicted of his great sin, David was perhaps a bit stuck. Although he was king, he had no power to put right what he had done wrong: Uriah was dead, and David was to blame. If forgiveness had to come first from the human victim of his sin, David could not receive forgiveness. Only God, who has the power to create and redeem, can cover our sins. 

I confess I do not particularly like this implication. My instinct about Psalm 51.4 is that it misses the very real and tragic horizontal consequences of our sin. Very often, when we sin, we hurt other people. To those people, I think, we owe an apology. But that is not all: I think we ought to try to make amends. I am the one who is mistaken, though, if I believe that our efforts at restitution actually make anything ‘right’. Absolution for us and healing for those we have hurt both come from God, from God alone. However fully we can pardon, and however generously we make restitution, we cannot fix what our sins have broken. Only God can do that: pardon and restitution are our participation in God’s redemption, not the redemption itself. Even if we do all that Isaiah urges us to do, the light that breaks forth–‘our’ light–is God’s light breaking forth in us. 

And that light shines even in the darkest darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Deo gratias

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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.