Every Ash Wednesday, we read Psalm 51 together. This Psalm perfectly outlines the heart of why we gather together every year and marks the beginning of Lent the way we do.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; In your great compassion blot out my offenses.
All of us have many fine qualities. We are loving, giving people. But all of us also have not-so-great qualities. All of us—dare I say it—sin. None of us live the Christian virtues perfectly, no matter how mature we are. While we may strive to live lives of love, patience, faithfulness, joy, goodness, gentleness, self-control and kindness the human condition is such that we just can’t.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.
And while we may run around like crazy trying to deny that about ourselves 364 days a year, today, Ash Wednesday we can name these things about ourselves in this space, before God.
For I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
How freeing to be able to be honest about ourselves! I’ve mentioned before about how dinner parties in Princeton can sometimes feel like a competitive recitation of CVs and awards accoladed. What a treat to get to say, “Guess what, world! I’m not perfect! My house is a mess and I’m sometimes impatient with my coworkers and I don’t always find children cute! I like a good piece of gossip and most of the time I’d rather watch TV than pray and I haven’t brushed my dog’s teeth in six months!”
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.
The trick, of course, is that Ash Wednesday is not just about confession. We aren’t meant to just offload and then walk out the door unchanged. No, Ash Wednesday is about repentance. One of the commentaries I read to prepare for today put it this way.
Imagine you have a dog and a cat. You are making steak for dinner, so you lay it out to get to room temperature and when you get back to the kitchen you see the dog and cat eating up the last little bits of your delicious dinner. Now the dog knows he is in trouble, so he comes up to you with his big eyes and his tail between his legs and begs you to please, please still love him. The cat on the other hand looks at you as if he’s thinking, “Is there a problem here?” But neither the dog nor the cat have repented in any way! If you left the steak out the very next day, the outcome would be exactly the same!
We do the same thing with God and with each other. Sometimes we sin and we feel TERRIBLE about it, but we do not do anything to change our behavior. That is not repentance. Repenting means we are going to change the behavior, not just feel badly about it.
On the other hand, we may need God’s help to actually feel bad about our behavior. We may be more like the cat in our story. We may be so self-important that we do not think we are capable of sin. If we believe we are good people, then the things we do are good, right? Wrong!
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me and I shall be clean indeed.
Our time on this earth is short. We’ll be reminded today that we have come from dust and we will return to dust. We don’t have time to fool around with any false illusions about who we are. We must examine ourselves honestly and bring that account before God.
Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.
The good news is that the God before which we present ourselves is the same God who chose to so identify with our broken selves that he sent his Son to become fully human. And that son loved us, empathized with us, and healed us. He also defeated death, by experiencing death and then rising again, so we might have an eternity of life with God.
Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
This Ash Wednesday, God invites you to come before him, and bring him your whole heart, as twisted and dusty as it might be.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
 Hoare, Geoffrey M. St. J. “Psalm 51:1-17 Pastoral Perspective”, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol 2, 2008, p. 8.