Psalm 51: 3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14, 17
For Ash Wednesday, our responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 51, one of the most familiar of the seven Penitential Psalms (the others are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143). This Christian designation dates from the 7th century AD for psalms suitable to express repentance.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.
The passage begins with a plea for mercy, appealing to God’s covenant dispositions: goodness (hesed) and compassion or womb-love, the kind of attachment a mother has to the child she has carried in her womb (rahămîm).
The first refers to the steadfast love that characterizes that relationship between covenant partners; the second is the attitude God has toward those who have violated the covenant bond.
The psalmist probably appeals to these dispositions of divine graciousness in order to set the context for the confession of sin and for prayer for transformation.
For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always: “Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.”
Three different words are used to characterize the sinfulness of the psalmist. The word used here for “evil” (ra‘) is a very general term and can refer simply to behavior that is unacceptable.
The word used for “sin” (hattā’â) is a much more technical term. It comes from the verb that means “miss the mark” and it connotes transgression of some law or statute.
The word for “offense” (pesha‘) denotes rebellion of the gravest nature, such as a violation of the covenant bond.
A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Realizing that the seriousness of the offenses calls for a thorough transformation, the psalmist prays for a clean heart and a spirit that will not falter (see Ezekiel 11:19). The technical term for “create” (bārā’) is used, indicating that the psalmist is asking for a radical transformation and acknowledging that only God can effect it.
Where there is divine creation, there is a new order of existence. It is this for which the psalmist prays.
Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.
The prayer is cast in negative terms as well: do not cast me from your presence, do not take your Spirit from me. Instead, restore the joy of salvation that I forfeited, and instill in me a spirit that will freely accept the responsibilities of this new relationship.
Having previously rebelled and violated the covenant bond, the psalmist now begs for an intimate connection with God.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
The passage ends with a prayer that the psalmist might be empowered by God to praise God. This request shows that the covenant relationship, forgiveness of sin, transformation of heart, and the ability to praise God are all gifts of grace from God.