If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger,
and speaking of wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry,
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness,
And your gloom will become like midday.
And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water
whose waters do not fail.
Isaiah 58:9-11 (NASB)
Incline your ear, O Lord,
and answer me;
For I am afflicted and needy.
Do preserve my soul,
for I am a godly man;
O my God, save your servant
who trusts in you.
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
For to you I cry all day long.
Make glad the soul of your servant,
For to you O Lord,
I lift up my soul.
Psalm 86: 1- 4 (NASB)
Isaiah 58 is so beautiful that I almost want just to type it over again, and more of it. What can I possibly say in addition to ‘the mouth of the Lord’? Or I might just add the passage from Matthew’s gospel that tells of the calling of Levi, and concludes with Jesus’ explanation that he came ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Today’s Mass readings are rich, and in some ways quite straightforward: God calls us to receive his mercy. Sinners need it, and the psalmist prays for it. God also calls us to be merciful. So Isaiah reminds us, in the loveliest prose.
That might, though, leave us thinking that we receive mercy and then give it. Maybe (I am sure sometimes this is my unconscious supposition) we should be full before we give–satisfied by God’s mercy, we show that mercy to others. But Isaiah suggests that it doesn’t work that way. Isaiah calls us to ‘satisfy the desire of the afflicted’ from the discomfort of our ‘scorched places’ and in the frailty of our weak bones. The ‘spring of water’ is not what we are before we attend to the needy, but is what God makes in us as we do.
I find this a very hard saying. With four young children–including a toddler and a girl with Down Syndrome who’s just about to enter adolescence–and a challenging job as a lecturer in a theological college, I often feel stretched pretty thin. Usually I feel more like an empty pail than a spring of water. Can I refuse to meditate on my emptiness, and look for the ‘hungry’ and the ‘afflicted’ (‘look out … for the interests of others’ says Philippians 2.4!)? Maybe. Maybe that is what it is, concretely, to ‘lift up my soul’ to the Lord, to trust in God for my help, my strength, and my satisfaction.
Whether I find myself able or not, it seems like Lent is a good time to try.
The readings for Thursday after Ash Wednesday are quite a set. (You can find today’s readings at Universalis.) I intended to focus my reflections on the psalm for the day, but these three passages of Scripture are so fascinating I can’t help but take them together. Today’s psalm (Psalm 1) is sandwiched between a reading from Deuteronomy that centres on the injunction, ‘Choose life’, and the gospel passage in which Jesus says that whoever seeks to save her life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for the sake of Jesus and his gospel will save it.
This business of choosing life must be more complicated than I thought. I remember when I first read this passage from Deuteronomy, when I was maybe 20. I was amused–who needs to be told to choose life? Well. I think that perhaps choosing life is less obvious, and sometimes (often?) less pleasant than it might appear. ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me’ hardly sounds like the same instruction as ‘choose life’. Yet that is precisely it, isn’t it? To choose life is to follow Jesus, whose own path involved entering willingly into suffering and death for our sake.
Psalm 1 makes it–choosing life–seem so attractive: to be like a tree planted beside flowing waters sounds delightful. Who wants to hang out with sinners or scoffers, anyway? Especially not when the alternative is presented in such beautiful imagery. I find it very easy to forget that scoffing or expressing disdain is not so far from ordinary, garden-variety sarcasm–all it takes is the right object. It is a pretty short step from there to ‘sinner’.
Lent is about taking up the cross; it is about choosing life. It is about taking the path that leads to the well-watered garden, a path that runs right through the valley of the shadow of death. It is a time to find Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and to follow him as he chooses life–our life–and gains it for us. Forgoing chocolate seems like a pretty paltry penance compared to our Lord’s passion. But as we follow in his footsteps, it is never about us and what we do: it is always about the imitatio Christi. Our imitation is always and only ever a pale reflection; it is a faint glow that comes not from our will to shine, but from our unwavering focus on the Light.
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 
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.