Dust and Ashes
I hear the psalmist cry "Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight." Confession, apology, remorse, repentance are powerful words--sometimes frightening words. Ash Wednesday is the day in the church year, when more than any other day, we are called to come to terms with ourselves before God.
Psalm 51, the Psalm of ALL Ash Wednesday's, is a masterpiece of self-knowledge. " I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother's womb I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me."
He doesn't make a defensive statement, nor does he place blame on others-- as Adam and Eve did when they said, "The devil made me do it;" or as some do when they lay the blame on their parents. Maybe the devil was involved, maybe we are all born of imperfect parents or living in our garden with an imperfect spouse--whatever the transgression or the sin, we come on this Ash Wednesday to acknowledge that WE have missed the mark and WE are here to ask for God's mercy.
"Against you (God) only have I sinned." It's an odd verse. Doesn't sin hurt everybody? I believe that the psalmist is saying here that the recognition of sin comes only when we are confronted with the reality of God--the holiness of God. Sin is not just an ethical issue, but a thought or an action against, or separation from the author of all goodness--the One who calls us to repentance when we are out of relationship.
Jesus calls us to repent not as a threat, but as a call to pardon. The threat comes when we refuse to believe that we are forgiven and live out our lives as "miserable sinners" and unforgivable, rather than to accept His forgiveness and live our lives as God's beloved.
Our concept of God is too small. It is only when we can see that our offense is against God that we can begin to understand that it is only by His goodness that our sin is lifted away. It is in these moments that we see God as the one who is ready to extend mercy, as St. Paul tells us in Romans, "even while we are yet sinners." This Psalm is the prayer of one who knows there is hope and mercy from a God Who loves extravagantly--one who is full of compassion. This person, like us, seems to know of God's grace and it is this knowledge that precedes his confession.
This is Ash Wednesday, a day designated and set apart for self inventory before God. We do not need to hide or surround ourselves with defenses and barricades or live out exhausting pretenses. If instead, we allow the liturgical season of Lent to carry us, we may discover that the season ushers us into a movement that is not so clearly ordered. We may see that it is not a leisurely walk to an appointed goal, rather it's to a kind of disequilibrium--a kind of dying that is essential to the formation of new life.
For sure Lent is about change: of heart, of perspective, of focus and of the death that precedes new life. We hear the sound of the trumpet on Ash Wednesday and we receive the imposition of ashes. Not an obligatory service, but a service that is habitually filled. The sign of the cross is made with ashes on our foreheads to remind us that we are human: "Remember you are human From dust you came and to dust you will return."
in mind that the repentance to which we are called to is not all about
grief and gloom. While it is a day when we confess that we "have
followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts," it's
also about looking toward the joy of transformation. If we consider the
phrase in Eucharistic Prayer C: "Deliver us from the presumption
of coming to this Table for solace alone, and not for strength; for pardon
only, and not for renewal," then we can better understand and express
our own hope as we pray the words of the psalmist, "Create in me
a clean heart, O God,
Copyright 2002 Calvary Episcopal Church