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ALPB => On-line Articles => Topic started by: Richard Johnson on March 01, 2006, 11:40:23 AM

Title: Have Mercy on Me, O God: Ash Wednesday Reflection
Post by: Richard Johnson on March 01, 2006, 11:40:23 AM
Have Mercy On Me, O God: An Ash Wednesday Reflection
by Richard O. Johnson
Copyright 2006 ALPB

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness.” As we begin our Lenten journey, David’s Psalm of confession is always the starting point. It is a Psalm that holds an endless attraction for us—in part, I suppose, because it is one the few Psalms for which we are given a specific and concrete situation as its context. “A Psalm of David,” the heading says, “when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” This story of David’s guilt—not just of adultery but of murder—is one of the most sobering in the Bible, as it reveals the sins of even the greatest of saints. And so this prayer of confession is precious to us, and it becomes our prayer when we, like David, are brought face to face with our own sin.

However familiar a Psalm might be, there are still things to be discovered. Over the last few days, I’ve been reading St. Augustine’s commentary on this Psalm, and I have found an insight into a verse that has really always slid right past me. It is verse 8 of the Psalm—actually verse 9 of the version in our bulletin: “Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.”  It is perhaps a little strange, when you think about it, that David can speak of “joy and gladness” in the context of such a remorseful prayer of confession. So much of the Psalm is self-abasing. “I have been wicked from my birth . . . I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” How, in the face of that awareness of his own sin, can David presume to speak of joy and gladness?

C. S. Lewis, author of the currently popular "Chronicles of Narnia," became a Christian in adulthood. In a recent biography of Lewis, Alan Jacobs notes that Lewis, before his conversion was not particularly interesting and not particularly likeable. He was a rather grumpy professor with a pretty sharp tongue. When he confessed Christ, he did an honest and comprehensive review of his own life—something, of course, that faithful Christians do often. He was appalled by what he found. He described this process in his autobiography; he recognized, he wrote, that his life was “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” Well, sin doesn’t change much over the centuries, does it? Those phrases could also describe King David, and they could describe me. I imagine they could describe you. Facing up to our sins is never a comfortable task.

The title of his autobiography is "Surprised by Joy." There’s that word again: joy. The Christian life is rooted in an honest acknowledgement that we have sinned, sinned against God in thought, word and deed, by things done and things left undone. But that confession does not permit us to wallow in despair; rather it is the first step to joy—a joy which, as Lewis says, comes as a wonderful surprise.

Now back to Augustine. “Make me hear of joy and gladness,” David prays. Augustine suggests that our problem when we think about our sins is that we want to justify ourselves. We want to explain to God why we did what we did. We want to put ourselves in the best possible light. We want to make the case that it isn’t really as bad as all that. We want to plead that plenty of other people have done as we have done, and worse. We want to defend ourselves.

Augustine puts it this way: “You have sinned; why try to defend yourself? You want to do the talking; but let it be, listen, allow God to get a word in . . . You have committed the sin; there is no point in trying to defend it. Let it come out as confession, not self-justification. If you engage yourself as counsel for the defense you will lose your case. . . God is prepared to grant you forgiveness, but you are shutting the door in your own face; he is prepared to give, so do not put up a barrier of defense, but open your whole self by confession.”

So David prays, “Make me hear of joy and gladness.” We could paraphrase it something like this: “Make me stop talking, and listen. Make me stop trying to defend my sins, and listen to God’s word of forgiveness.”

Continued on the next post  
Title: Have Mercy on Me, O God (cont.)
Post by: Richard Johnson on March 01, 2006, 11:41:59 AM
You see, sorrow and joy are integrally connected in this Psalm; they are closely connected in any prayer of confession. Confession means embracing an honest sorrow for our sins. It means being utterly honest with God, calling our sin what it is, refusing to nurse our fears and fondle our hatreds but exposing them all—exposing our deepest failings—before God. But then it means, having done that, simply shutting up and listening to God’s response, believing God’s response. And God’s response, of course, is to blot out our sins, and to create in us a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within us. That’s the joy and the gladness for which the Psalmist prays, and for which we pray.

Augustine offers one other fascinating thought. David prays, “Hide your face from my sins.”

“If you do not turn your own face from your sin,” Augustine suggests, “then you can ask God to turn his away from it. . . But if you thrust your sin behind your back, God fixes his gaze upon it. Switch your sin to a position before your face, if you want God to turn his face away from it.”

That’s really it, isn’t it? The paradox is that when we keep our sin before us—that is, when we continue to examine our lives with honesty and humility—then God hides his face from our sins. When we try to hide them ourselves, however, we always fail—like Adam and Eve, trying to hide in the Garden, thinking that if they can just stay out of sight, then God won’t know what they have done. Of course God sees them, despite their foolish and self-conscious efforts.

“If we say we have no sins, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The words are from the first letter of John, and we hear them often in our liturgy on Sunday mornings. David’s Psalm teaches the same thing. And the wonderful grace and truth is that this honest confession, as difficult as it can be, is precisely the pathway to joy and gladness. It is not so unlike the journey of Lent, which begins in sorrow and confession and ends with resurrection. May God bless that journey for us.

Richard O. Johnson
Copyright 2006 ALPB
Title: Re: Have Mercy on Me, O God: Ash Wednesday Reflect
Post by: bajaye on March 02, 2006, 06:33:13 AM
As the Western Church enters Lent on this most holy Ash Wednesday I thought I might include here a brief description, written by Frederica Mathewes-Green (used with permission!) , of the Eastern Church’s entry into Lent.  May we learn from each other, and give thanks for one another, as we again journey together towards the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.       Brian

On Sunday night I am going to have to apologize to someone. I am going to have to apologize to about a hundred people, in fact--one at a time, face to face. I'm looking forward to it.
For Orthodox Christians, Lent begins differently than it does for Protestants and Catholics. The observance of Ash Wednesday is dramatic and beautiful, but is not in the Eastern tradition. For us, Lent comes in gradually over a period of weeks, like a cello line subtly weaving itself into our lives.
    Ten Sundays before Easter (or, as we call it, Pascha) we hear the Gospel lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee; before we begin the season of self-denial, we recall that it is futile to boast of self-denial. The Publican's model of heartbroken repentance is instead our aim. To reinforce that lesson, during the following week there is no fasting. The Orthodox pattern is to abstain from meat, fish, and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays year round, but this is one of the few weeks that is suspended and feasting is the rule.
    The next Sunday we hear the Gospel of the Prodigal Son, perhaps the most beloved parable in the Bible. The icon of this scene shows the son in worn, torn clothing and his feet wrapped in rags; he cradles his sorry head in one hand while reaching the other out tentatively toward Jesus. There is nothing tentative about Jesus' response-he is running toward the son, his arms open to embrace, and a scroll tumbles from his hand: "For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
    Orthodox confess their sins in the presence of a priest year round, as their consciences prompt them, but everyone must make a confession in Lent before receiving the Eucharist on Pascha. This icon reminds us of the sharp paradox of making confession. The awkward pain and embarrassment of admitting our wrongs is the necessary condition for release and joy. Being thoroughly known, yet loved anyway, is life's greatest joy. But it lies on the other side of this thorny divide: you must allow yourself to be thoroughly known. Blessed are those who take that risk voluntarily and early, without having to reach the state of the Prodigal Son.
    By the third Sunday, a watershed is reached. The Gospel readings concern the Last Judgement, and no punches are pulled. Here is the choice: humility like that of the Publican or Prodigal Son, which opens our hearts to receive divine love--or the cataclysmic rewards of stubborn pride. This Sunday is also called "Meatfare Sunday," and as the name suggests, you eat meat this day, because you won't be eating any for a long time to come.
During all of Lent, Orthodox strive to abstain from eating certain foods. This is not a matter of ritual purity; on Pascha the tables will groan with beef, pork, and fowl. If these foods were unclean, we wouldn't dig into them with gusto on the holiest day of the year. Nor does our refraining from these foods somehow benefit God or make him like us more. Fasting is a form of self-discipline, like lifting weights or jogging. It builds the muscle of self-control, one useful in many situations besides eating. If we can master the temptation to reach for a cheeseburger, we can resist other daily temptations as they come along. As with athletic training, everyone acknowledges a common standard, but adjusts it to their own health and spiritual needs. Some would find this fast so taxing that it would sour them spiritually, and they must do less; perhaps they can build up to it in time. Others find it not stringent enough. No one is to judge any one else's fast, or even notice it. But it helps that we all look to a common standard. Since we all fast from the same things at the same time, we can support each other, trade recipes, and, when necessary, commiserate.

- continued on the next post -
Title: Re: Have Mercy on Me, O God: Ash Wednesday Reflect
Post by: bajaye on March 02, 2006, 06:33:57 AM
      With the following Sunday, seven weeks before Pascha, Lent begins in earnest. This is called "Cheesefare Sunday," and from now until Pascha we will abstain from meat, fish, dairy products, wine and olive oil. At the evening Vespers service we trade the bright chant melodies for more sober ones, and say for the first time the prayer of Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth century hermit. We will recite this over and over throughout Lent:
"O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faith-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk."
     If you were in our church on this Sunday evening you would see us do something surprising. We fall to our knees and then place the palms of our hands on the floor, and touch our foreheads down between our hands. This is called "making a prostration." You may have seen Muslims worshipping this way toward Mecca. This traditional middle-eastern physical expression of worship was used by Christians for centuries before the founding of Islam, and of course the Hebrew scriptures are full of references to people "falling on their faces" before God.
We stand up again, and recite the next passage of the prayer:

"But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant." Here we do another prostration.
"Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother: for Thou are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen." Then comes a final prostration.
    At last we reach the Rite of Forgiveness. As vespers comes to a close, the members of the church form a large circle. At the end nearest the altar the two ends overlap, as a subdeacon turns to face my husband, the priest. He bows to touch the ground, honoring the image of God in this person, then stands to say, "Forgive me, my brother, for anyway I have offended you." After the subdeacon says "I forgive you," he too bows to the ground, and asks for and receives the same forgiveness, and then the two embrace. Each of them then moves over to the next person in line. Over the course of an hour or so, every single person in the church will stand face-to-face with every other person. Each will bow to the ground and ask for forgiveness; each will bestow forgiveness on the other.
    As my husband says, "When we do this, we do something the devil hates." Teenaged brothers and sisters forgive each other. Small children solemnly tell their mothers, "I forgive you." Folks who have been arguing about the church budget for months embrace with tears.
    In fact, tears are the common coin of the evening. Some weep hard as they look in each face and think how they have slighted, ignored, or resented this person during the year-a person now revealed as bearing the face of Christ. Some weep as they are forgiven, over and over, in a nearly-overwhelming rush of love and acceptance. Some weep and hug so much they hold up the line, but no one minds. A toddler is ignoring the line and going on his own steam from person to person, tugging on a skirt hem or trouser leg and looking up to ask, "Forgive?"
    This is how Lent begins for us. It's an exhilarating kick start for a time that will get much harder. The number of services during Lent increase dramatically-during Holy Week there are eleven-and they get longer as well. Food simultaneously gets shorter. Old knees don't like prostrations. In all this, though, we rejoice; we look forward to Lent as a time that is invigorating and challenging. In the company of our friends we can run this race. It is good that it begins with forgiveness.

Frederica Mathewes-Green