I Have Sinned: A Word for Ash Wednesday
Psalm 51:1-5 (NRSV)
To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 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 judgement.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
Ash Wednesday is a day of introspection, reflection, and repentance. Marked with ash, we are reminded that we are sinners in need of forgiveness.
Psalm 51, which is traditionally attributed to David, a man known to be close to the heart of God, reflects upon David's own transgressions. In this Psalm David cries out to God "I am a sinner" after Nathan rebukes him for his affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:1-7). In this back story to the Psalm, David spies out Bathsheba, begins an affair that leads to a pregnancy, and finally to the death of Bathsheba's husband -- because he is too honorable to sleep with his wife while his troops are at the front. Nathan confronts David with his transgressions, telling a parable of two men, one rich and one poor. The rich man, who has many lambs, takes the poor man's one lamb and slaughters it to put on a feast for his friends. David is furious, and then Nathan says to him: "You are the man!" This revelation leads to David's act of repentance, an act of repentance that is expressed through this Psalm (even if David likely didn't write it).
David's cry of repentance is very different from those we're used to seeing on television from politicians and preachers. This is no maudlin confession like the one given by Jimmy Swaggart, which was more show than anything. In this psalm we see an expression of deep anguish and repentance. It also reflects the realization that it is almost impossible to escape from sin's hold on our lives. The 5th verse says it clearly: "indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me." Lest we get caught up in debates about whether sin is a genetic defect or not (as St. Augustine essentially taught the church), the focus is on the reality of our own sinfulness -- whatever the cause. We're all tainted.
Although the chosen passage ends with the confession that sin conditions one's life, the prayer itself begins with a different confession. In this is the good news. Even as the penitent cries out, seeking God's mercy, the person making this confession roots the request in God's steadfast love. Biblical commentator James Luther Mays writes:
Confession of Sin is already on the way to justification because it is first of all a response to grace. It is the act in which we humans acknowledge what we are before God and what God is for us. We are sinners; God is gracious. (James Luther Mays, Psalms: Interpretation Commentary, WJK, 1994, p. 199).
As we begin the Lenten journey, we do so knowing that while we are all sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness, "God is gracious." Without this knowledge we might fall into despair. With this knowledge, we have the confidence to continue the journey, knowing that God's steadfast love is ever present with us.
(Amended version of reflection published in the 2011 Lenten Devotional of Central Woodward Christian Church, edited by John McCauslin).