Tuesday, March 8, 2011
The Necessity of Penitence
The Penitential Psalm for Ash Wednesday – Psalm 51:1-17 (Meserere me, Deus)
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone have I sinned,
and done what was evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore, teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O LORD, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering,
you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
Lent is a season of self-denial and fasting, and of spiritual disciplines. It is a pilgrimage with Christ to suffering and death, and involves discipline and self-denial. If we expect to rise with Christ in newness of life on Easter day, we must first die with Christ. Lent is a time of learning to die to self, and before we rejoice, we must mourn; before we live we must die.
This seems to be a difficult and unwelcome undertaking for many Protestants, and therefore the necessity of penitence is simply ignored because it makes people uncomfortable and unsure of their faith. The sense of being a sinner has not been taught in many churches, which results in a lack of understanding of the meaning of salvation.
For example: Many congregations do not include a confession of sin in Sunday worship, and therefore there is no absolution, or at least an assurance of God’s pardon. If there is no confession, how then are people able to come to the Lord’s Table to receive his Body and Blood? Modern liturgical practice has all but eliminated confession of sin and rejects the understanding being impenitent. In the older liturgies there are solemn warnings about the practice of impenitent sinners who “eat and drink judgment to themselves; not because they are sinners, but because they are impenitent sinners; not because they are unworthy, but because they eat and drink unworthily, not discerning the Lord’s Body.” (Book of Worship, Evangelical and Reformed Church)
Penitence is more than saying “I’m sorry.” It is a confessing of our sins that turns us away from those sins toward a merciful and loving God who offers us forgiveness and new life in his Son, which brings us to a genuine humility of Spirit.
It is evident, however, than many see humility as some sort of weakness not to be cultivated because it would impede the acquisition of position, power, and control in all aspects of living.
One of my favorite writers is Charles Dickens, and in many of his books he creates characters who cultivate a false persona, such as the overtly humble Uriah Heap in “David Copperfield,” or the obsequious Mr. Pecksniff in “Martin Chuzzlewit.” Their false personas mask evil intent, but eventually they come to a just end.
Being penitent leads us from a false self-serving persona to a spirit that is humble before God whose love and mercy is evident to us in Christ Jesus. This true humility is what brings us joy in our lives because we have shed the burden of sin, which we have taken upon ourselves. This is why penitence is necessary
The Church provides us with the sacrament of Holy Eucharist which is “the joyous feast of the people of God,” so that we can “come to eat and drink worthily” of the Body and Blood of our Lord who died that our sins may be forgiven.
Finally, I urge those congregations that do not offer imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday to do so. I suggest that this simple sign of penitence can help bring us to the humility required of us by God, who wants us to be penitent.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of you, God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)
Richard Hammond Price, OCC ©March 2011
(Liturgy for Ash Wednesday available
upon request firstname.lastname@example.org)