A Pastoral Perspective of Psalm 51:1-17

It is no coincidence that Psalm 51 is appointed for Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. The psalmist’s words encapsulate the depth of the meaning of the forty days leading up to Easter. Lent is a time of self-reflection and penitence, a time to acknowledge our sinfulness and need for God’s mercy.
Psalm 51 is a plea to God, a prayer for forgiveness. The psalmist displays a painful awareness of his sins: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (v. 3). Not only has he committed evil; he also laments that he has been a sinner since he was born (vv. 4-5).
In addition to lamenting his sins, the psalmist is clear that deliverance from them comes from God alone. He wastes no time getting to his point; he begins, “Have mercy on me, O God” (v. 1). Then the psalmist invokes powerful images of being cleansed. He implores God, using descriptive verbs like “blot out,” “wash,” and “purge.”
This psalm reflects our own reality as Christians. We are sinners. We do things, whether big or small, that draw us away from God, and we do things that hurt others. Christians in many churches regularly say a confession, asking God for forgiveness for the times that they have sinned against God and against others. The season of Lent is, in part, a more deliberate time of reflection and penitence. Like the psalmist who acknowledges his sins, we are called to confess the ways that “we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Part of the process of repentance is recognizing our utter dependence on God. Just as the psalmist pleads to God for deliverance (v. 14), we must realize our own need for God’s mercy.
There is a great church camp skit that reflects this Christian reality. Peter is seated at the pearly gates, and a woman approaches. “Tell me why I should let you in,” Peter says. “I have gone to church my whole life,” the woman says. Then Peter reminds her that she had been unkind to some of the members of the church. “Well,” she says defensively, “I brought groceries every week to my elderly neighbor.”
Peter points out that she often used the neighbor’s money to buy a few things for herself as well. The conversation continues like this, and the woman becomes more and more defensive and distraught, clearly beginning to panic at the thought that she might not be allowed in to heaven. Finally, she falls to her knees in tears and desperation and says, “Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned.” Immediately, the pearly gates swing wide open and Peter says, “Welcome home, my child.”
This simple skit illustrates that we are sinners who are utterly dependent upon God for forgiveness and salvation. This is not the end of the story, however. There is a promise inherent in the psalm, one of recreation and redemption, recognizing that God not only saves us from our sins, but also gives us new life. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me,” the psalmist prays. “Restore me to the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (vv. 10a, 12).
The intentionality of focus on our sins and our dependence on God during Lent allows us to recommit ourselves to living as the people we were created to be. The Christian writer Frederick Buechner writes: “After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”
The basic questions and truths of the Christian experience that are expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 51 are enacted in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. In many traditions, the liturgy includes the recitation of Psalm 51, as well as a Litany of Penitence. The litany leads worshipers through an explicit confession of ways we have separated ourselves from God and one another, including petitions about “our self-indulgent appetites and ways,” “our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts,” and “our blindness to human need and suffering.”
One of the most moving parts of the Ash Wednesday liturgy is the imposition of ashes when the presiding minister makes the sign of the cross with ashes on worshipers’ foreheads, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This ritual is not intended to be morbid. Rather, it is a visible sign of what the psalmist was so aware of: we are wholly dependent on God. The prayer over the ashes says, “Grant that these ashes may be a sign to us … that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.”
The person who wrote Psalm 51 was, of course, writing long before the life, birth, and death of Jesus Christ, yet his lament of his sins and his awareness of his need for God’s deliverance make this psalm so appropriate for Ash Wednesday. As we begin the season of self-examination and repentance, we follow the psalmist’s example by focusing on how we are failing to live as God calls us to live and how we are in need of the salvation and redemption that comes from God alone. As Frederick Buechner says, “It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”
Andrea Wigodsky

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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