Read Psalm 51:1-18

from William Flewelling, Proctor, West Virginia

Contrition is not a popular word any more.  Quickly comes to mind a flippant comment salted in one movie about “getting guilt”, and in a comic strip the manipulative use of applied guilt returns again and again to set up gag lines.  We hear of guilty feelings – but not often has the word come out as wallowing in guilt, fully aware of personal iniquity.  We read of a broken and contrite heart – which God does not despise – but it is not very often that we honestly encounter one.  Broken spirits are seen in the company of despair and failure, where the last thing in anyone’s mind is that such a travesty would be acceptable anywhere, even in God’s sight.  And yet this Psalm 51, a Lenten reflection lifted for us, pines on a broken spirit and a contrite heart, confesses sin as a condition of life for which we beg cleansing.

Cleansing – a good bath for the soul – is seen as a parallel to deliverance from sin, from evil, from disaster.  In such a mood, long teaching on baptism talks of cleansing in the waters of baptism, as in the Jordan under the hand of John the Baptist.  Only the cleansing is for conscience and for soul – not for the body.  Cleanse us, O God: blot out transgressions, clean up iniquity, bathe away sin.  It sounds like a good Lenten troll in the quagmire of personal unsettlement.  We want this from God, this cleansing and deliverance, this lifting out of the muck of want we normally don’t wish to discuss.  Confessing the subtle and agonizing failures to live up, in little ways, even to your own ideals – well, what is that in the view of less discrete and more lurid misdeeds?

I delight in the listing of this Psalm, given (as it is) through verse 18.  One would think that we would be satisfied, in Lent at least, with verse 17.  But we continue almost to the end, and include verse 18 which ends (in RSV) in a comma after a plea for God to “rebuild the walls of Jerusalem”.  Well, in the day, with proper walls in place, Jerusalem would be a proper city, an adequate home to the Temple and a safehold from the past disaster that had raked Israel badly.  Jerusalem would then not be like a village, unwalled for its greatness, and the offerings and sacrifices could be done correctly.  We would move past Lenten needs – but, in fact, we are still in the midst of the open calling upon God to set us free.

Our God, in your exquisite mercy, refresh us unto the new creation in Christ Jesus for which we so long to be readied.  Amen.

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