Editors' note: Every day of Lent Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill will be providing audio reflections on the Psalms of the day as part of America's “The Word” podcast.
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion, wipe out my offenses. ~ Ps 51:.3
On this Ash Wednesday, which by a whim of the calendar is also Valentine’s Day, we are called to turn from the sweet delights of the world to the dust and ashes of the penitential season. We are reminded in today’s liturgy of our mortality and of our profound human capacity for wrongdoing. Yet the note that the psalmist sounds at the beginning of Lent is not sin, but forgiveness.
The psalmist sounds at the beginning of Lent is not sin, but forgiveness.
“Have mercy,” is the first phrase we hear, in Hebrew a single word that occurs nearly thirty times in the Psalter. Kyrie eleison, we cry in Greek at the beginning of the Mass; miserere nobis, we plead later, in Latin. Whatever language we use to call for mercy, we are reaching for God, extending our hands upward from the mire and mess of our lives in the hope of obtaining God’s compassion (note that the Hebrew for compassion is derived from the word for “womb,” lending a maternal undertone to God’s graciousness). And we will come to know, if we do not already, that the abundance of God’s mercy will always surpass the magnitude of human transgression.
Yes, we must use these 40 days and 40 nights to look unsparingly inward, past the polish and the facade that we show the world every day, to examine the grimy, neglected interior of our souls. But we do so in the knowledge that God’s goodness and compassion are at the center of our lives (just as they occupy the center of our verse). On this Ash Wednesday-cum-Valentine’s Day, God looks at his sin-stained creatures, and out of his abundant love and infinite mercy, he gently says: BE MINE.
Gracious, merciful God, Shower me with your compassionate love throughout the next forty days, unworthy though I am. Amen.