by Donna B. Becton
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of those who are penitent: create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This is the collect for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a time of self-examination and repentance. Until I met my husband 32 years ago, I had never heard of the Episcopal Church, much less a collect. I sure didn’t know what Lent was. But there it is. A prayer for Ash Wednesday. At first glance, it seems to be a short and succinct prayer. Taken apart – there is much to be pondered.
The prayer starts out “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made”. That alone could start a small war. There are so many issues in the news today where people take sides and presume to know what God loves or doesn’t love. The most important thing to remember is “Love God, love your neighbor. Judge not.” God hates nothing he has made. God made us all.
And then there’s the end of that sentence which goes on to say “and dost forgive the sins of those who are penitent.” Wow! Forgives the sins of those who are penitent. So when we kneel to confess our sins against God and our neighbor, we better mean it. Sometimes it seems we say the prayer of confession because it comes next in the service. But do we really have a penitent heart? Are we really sorry that those harsh words flew out of our mouths and we didn’t stop and apologize? Are we really sorry that we passed along that little juicy tidbit of gossip we heard that might have made us feel a little bit superior to the one about whom it was being told? God forgives those with a penitent heart.
“Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness”. Really! Are we genuinely asking to be given a new heart? “Lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness.” That’s hard stuff. Do I really lament my sins? Have I ever really acknowledged to myself, much less anyone else, my wretchedness? Because it is there. In all of us. It only takes a moment for me to look back over the day or week and see where I have been wretched. That’s a harsh word not many people would use to describe themselves. But we all have some wretchedness in us just like we have goodness in us. For some the goodness comes a little easier. My father had goodness. He seemed to love and respect everyone he met. Dogs and children were his favorite. But he didn’t care who you were, how much money you had or didn’t have, he treated everyone the way he wanted to be treated.
Then we get to the good part where we “may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” This is where all that pondering pays off. If we truly are penitent, and we lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness, we are forgiven. Then, and only then, can we be in true fellowship with God and our neighbors. God is a God of mercy. Being in relationship with God is a peaceful place to be. It’s like being in a good place in our relationship with our spouses. Yes, it’s hard to apologize and ask forgiveness when we have been unkind or untruthful. But when we put our egos aside and do it, the rewards are great. The relationship is in balance. Part of being in relationship with God is forgiving others as we have been forgiven.
After the Collect of the Day, the priest invites us to the observance of a Holy Lent by self-examination and repentance. I don’t have any problem repenting of my sins. I have a serious problem with self-examination. If only we could see ourselves as others see us. How much easier it would be to look in the mirror and change the things we need to change in order to have less to repent. But God didn’t make us that way. Self-examination is work. Examination of any kind takes serious thought and honesty. And it’s hard to be honest with ourselves. What is our own agenda that we don’t even realize? What wounds and scars have molded us into the person we are today? Lent is a perfect time to ask those questions of ourselves. Lent is a perfect time to work on those places where we fall short of loving our neighbor.
The Litany of Penitence seems to go on forever listing specifically those things for which we need forgiveness: we have sinned by our own thought, word and deeds, have not loved our neighbors, have not forgiven as we have been forgiven, have been deaf to your call to serve. We have to confess pride, hypocrisy and impatience, self-indulgence, exploitation of others, anger, envy, and negligence in prayer and worship. The list goes on. But reading that list and responding “We confess to you, Lord.” is humbling. I always pause when we get to the part where it says “we have been deaf to your call to serve.” I struggle with what God wants me to do vs. what I want to do. Discerning the difference is hard. If I’ve not been negligent in prayer and worship, the path seems a little more clear.
Lent reminds us we only have today. There is work to be done in the world and in ourselves. The Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday being with Jesus warning us not to practice our piety before others. Lent is a time for personal work and reflection.
We are not promised tomorrow. “Remember, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Donna Becton is an Episcopalian, web designer, musician, and recent graduate of Education for Ministry. I love that on any given Sunday, Episcopalians around the world are praying the same prayers I pray. There is power in that. My husband and I live on a small piece of land with two cats and a whole herd of deer who visit nightly.