Psalm 51: A ‘theme song’ for Lent

Q: Ash Wednesday is February 14. How about a bit of a warm-up for Lent?

A: OK! “Be merciful, Lord, for we have sinned,” we plead with the psalmist on Ash Wednesday. Yes, there’s no doubt about it. All of us have sinned, and that is why the refrain for Ash Wednesday’s responsorial psalm, Psalm 51, is phrased in the first-person plural: we have sinned.

And yet, the verses of this classic penitential psalm are in the first-person singular: “Have mercy on me, O God…,” “wipe out my offense,” and 14 more instances of “me,” “my” and “I.”

Isn’t there something wrong about this jumping between singular and plural? No, there’s something profoundly right about it. For in this arrangement, in this blend of individual and communal pleas for mercy, we have an admirable reminder: Lent is for each member of the church and for all the members together.

This year Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the penitential season of Lent, is Feb. 14. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

Psalm 51 has become what we might call the church’s “theme song” for its Lenten observance. But do we really find it easy to own the feelings of the ancient penitent who prayed these words?

Deep-rooted in the modern mind lies the idea of human supremacy over all areas of life. How easy it is for us to believe that we are smart enough and powerful enough to decide what is right and wrong — quite apart from God. How difficult it is for us to confess our human sinfulness before God. The psalmist was more honest: He saw that all particular sins point to humanity’s addiction to selfishness and self-exaltation. That is why we need to say at the beginning of Lent: “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

But each of us has sinned as well. Just as there is an “I” in the middle of the word “sin,” so there is an “I” at the heart of my own sin. In fact, sin results from the fact that there is too much “I,” too much “me,” too much “my” in my life.

St. Benedict, whose Rule for monks the members of my abbey follow, wrote: “If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself, but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge” (“RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English,” ed. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. et al. [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1982], 4:42-43).

I am responsible for my sin. It is not my parents’ fault, or my spouse’s, or my neighbor’s. My sin is not the result of my genetic makeup or my environment or the stars. My sin is my fault, mine, and mine to acknowledge. That is why each of us needs to say, in the words of Psalm 51: “…my sin is before me always, Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.”

But how refreshing is God’s Lenten invitation to acknowledge our sinfulness and walk the way of repentance with other repentant sinners! That is why Psalm 51 is so helpful as we begin Lent: It highlights our own personal sinfulness and our communal sinfulness. It is a good theme song for the church’s 40-day journey of personal and communal repentance.

If we are to overcome our own sinfulness as individuals and as the People of God, we cannot do so by means of our own efforts. We can observe a good Lent only with the help of a steadfast spirit given to each of us by God. God’s forgiveness in Jesus is the source of all our seeking and all our finding of God’s mercy.

But where God is at work, there the matter does not end with our individual experience. Each of us is called to be a companion and helper for others on the way to repentance. The ashes that we receive on Ash Wednesday mark us as fellow travelers to Easter glory.

Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at mkwatera@csbsju.edu or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.

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