The season of Lent is a time to prepare ourselves to embrace the totality of the gift we are given in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Part of this preparation comes in the form of penitence and repentance—we acknowledge our brokenness, our sinfulness, our error and we turn, we re-turn to God.
Some of the language we use in confessing our sins and brokenness can be challenging to the ears of our culture. The confession of sin that is part of our weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist (Rite I—BCP 331; Rite II—BCP 360) is unsettling to some. As a culture, I believe we have a lot of baggage around the church and sin. Somehow the message of our sinfulness has been heard much louder than the message of God’s love for us and forgiveness of us.
In the first week of our Lenten Study, as we worked through the Ash Wednesday liturgy, many of us were challenged by the language of Psalm 51 (BCP 266 or bcponline.org proper liturgies for special days, Ash Wednesday). This psalm is read after the imposition of the ashes, after we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We read it aloud in the first person—speaking the words as our own: Have mercy on me, God. Blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.
Proclaiming ourselves to have done “evil,” describing ourselves as “wicked,” understanding newborn babies (and ourselves) as “wicked from our births”, “a sinner” from our mother’s womb… is challenging. These words are not used in our culture the way they used to be. They are reserved for Halloween characters—ghosts, goblins, and witches —and perhaps for those who have committed unthinkable atrocities (but even that use makes some of us uncomfortable).
After Psalm 51, comes the litany of penitence (BCP 267). As our Lenten Study group read this form of confession, the feeling in the room changed. There was an almost visible exhale. It is a simple, yet lengthy, confession, admission, of where we’ve fallen short, where we’ve messed up, where we could have done better.
We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven… We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives… Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people… Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves…Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us… Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty…for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us…For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us…
As I read each of these statements aloud to the group, internally I thought, “check!” yup, I’ve done that. And others at the study echoed the same experience. Sure, yes, most of us are impatient, get angry at our frustration, are envious of those who have more, are not as committed in prayer and worship as we could be, have uncharitable thoughts, our lives pollute this planet—we know these things, they are not hard to admit.
I have chosen this Lent to use this litany of penitence at the beginning of our Sunday services. I hope its language gives you a new window into our practice of confessing our brokenness and returning to God. I hope that parts of it resonate with you, that you are able to feel its truth. I hope this not because I believe you are an awful person, but because it is in acknowledging our brokenness that we are able to receive God’s gift of forgiveness and love and wholeness.
This does not mean that we were not created “good” in the beginning, as the book of Genesis says we were. We were created good and we can feel and know that truth. But we can also feel and know that we are not perfect, that we and our world contain brokenness and pain. This is the truth we confess. I encourage you to search for words that help you declare this truth and then to let these words inform and reinterpret the words that challenge you.
I wish you a blessed Lenten journey of confession and repentance as we travel toward receiving the gifts of life and love,