Psalm for Ash Wednesday (ABC)

Psalm 51: 3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14, 17

For Ash Wednesday, our responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 51, the best known 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.

Although it is considered a lament, it also contains elements of a confession and prayer for forgiveness. Christians often use this psalm to pray for God’s forgiveness and petition him for inner renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. 

The passage begins with a plea for mercy in the face of his guilt, 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.

Of the three words used for sin in this psalm, “offense” (pesha’) is the word that implies a breach in relationship. The term itself is a collective, denoting the sum of misdeeds and rebellion of the gravest nature, such as a violation of the covenant bond.

Appealing to these dispositions of divine graciousness sets the context for the confession of sin and for prayer for transformation that follows.

Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.

“Guilt” (‘āwōn) denotes twisted behavior or perversion. It too has a collective connotation, meaning that this is not merely one infraction but a manner of behavior.

The third term, hattā’â, is the most commonly used word for “sin” and is a much more technical term. It comes from the verb that means “miss the mark” and it connotes violation of some law or statute. The failure involved is usually deliberate, not accidental.

The psalmist uses three very dynamic verbs when asking for forgiveness:

  • “wipe out,” which suggests vigorous erasing,
  • “wash,” which implies the treading or pounding that was involved in washing clothes, and
  • “cleanse,” which indicates a deep cleansing of dross from metal or disease from the body.

The very language shows that the admission of guilt and the plea for forgiveness are profound and comprehensive.

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.”

All that man can do is go to God and admit his sin. There is no getting away from the fact that it is an offense against God.

The word used here for “evil” (ra‘) is a very general term and can refer simply to behavior that is unacceptable, versus hattā’â and pesha‘, which recur here and have already been discussed.

A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.

Realizing that the seriousness of sin 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 by way of God’s transcendent power as Creator of the universe.

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 the restoration of his 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.

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