Meditation 1: Psalm 51.1-17 (Ash Wednesday)

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 is 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.

Psalm 51.1-17

Psalm 51 is one of the seven Penitential Psalms. The seven most powerful expressions of sorrow for sin in the book of Psalms.

We all like to think that we lead ‘good’ lives. Few of us intentionally do wrong or do harm to others, or so we like to think.

However, if we look at the traditional form of the Lord’s Prayer, we will find a hint at how easy it is for us to sin, that is to distance ourselves from God.

In its traditional form the Lord’s Prayer speaks of trespasses, while in its more modern incarnation it speaks of ‘sins’. I find the concept of ‘trespasses’ more powerful and less compromising, less open to personal interpretation.

When we ‘trespass’ we cross a boundary. There is no room for us to justify our words and actions by defining them as being, in some way, ‘minor’. We have trespassed, and that is it. We have gone where we should not have gone. We have entered an area that sees us distanced from God.

Our propensity for self-justification has led us to invent linguistic get-outs for our sinful behaviour. We speak of ‘minor’ sins and we speak of ‘white’ lies. However, the reality is far starker than we like to admit. A sin is a sin and a lie is a lie. Both need forgiveness. Forgiveness from those amongst whom we live and, more importantly, forgiveness from God.

Psalm 51 is a prayer in which the psalmist is asking for cleansing from the taint of sin, and for forgiveness.

Psalm 51 addresses our human propensity to sin (to cross boundaries set by God) head on.

We, like the psalmist, need to acknowledge our weakness, our sin, and then to make the journey into the arms of our loving and forgiving God.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our pilgrimage through Lent.

Our annual Lenten journey is the time in which we are called to emulate Christ’s resisting of the temptations in the wilderness.

On Ash Wednesday, we receive a visible sign that we have embarked upon our Lenten pilgrimage in the form of a mark in Ash upon our foreheads. When that ash is applied the priest says: Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

With those words ringing in our ears, let us read Psalm 51 again.

May it be our constant prayer as we step along the Lenten road of repentance.