#15 of a Series on Psalm 50 “Wash Me, And I shall be whiter than snow…”
Often, we hear our friends, particularly those from Great Britain use the term ‘brilliant’ colloquially as an explanation of just about anything that impresses – especially an event or a thought. That word carries our theme of the day – the brilliance conveyed in holy repentance that is a result of the spiritual washing from sin, experienced by the Prophet David and those like him who truly repent of their sins of thought and deed. In the ninth reflection we have already discussed the importance of the some of the many dimensions of washing as it is perfectly realized in the sacred washing of Holy Baptism and made mention of the baptismal garment and we’ll revisit that theme today. This verse also introduces another visual image[i] for us, revealing the spiritual effects of the baptismal washing. Not only does a person become clean, but much more. David describes the effects of God’s washing of the penitent,’ whiter than snow!’
Perhaps you’ve experienced the amazing beauty of a deep, fresh snowfall on a winter day. There is something transcendent in it – a freshness and beauty where the created world has been blanketed in white light. It conveys something of a new birth and renewal of creation – if but for a time before the forces of nature change the landscape again. But for that initial period, everything is filled with a kind of perfection and light.
David describes it as even whiter than snow. Here he sees how the grace of the God’s mercy and forgiveness is so transformative, changing him – his very outlook. His sin in its ugliness has been washed with the purity of God’s mercy and lovingkindness.
How wonderful it is to be able to see ourselves in this way – when forgiven our sins! His ‘I’ – his Self psychologically has been restored. Perhaps this is one of the greatest hidden graces of sacramental forgiveness that remains unknown to those who have never experienced it – in sacramental Baptism or in the Second Baptism of Repentance[ii] through Confession. So many people today invoke the ‘self-positive’ thinking of our age, but this restoration of Self[iii] from repentance is different. As the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2Cor.5:17) This newness of life is not just a hiding of sin which continues to have its power over the soul, through the accusation of the Devil – ever reminding us of our past sins, failings, corruption and darkness.
St. Paul finds an excellent opportunity to offer strong pastoral counsel to husbands in the Epistle to the Ephesians, describing the Church as the Bride of Christ. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a glorious church, without stain or wrinkle or any such blemish, but holy and blameless.” Here St. Paul brings the imagery of the beauty of a bride – glorious and spotless – which is an image of the Church, the Bride of Christ. Key to this beauty is that the Church, and her believers, must be ‘without stain or wrinkle or any such blemish, but holy and blameless.” So here is David’s imagery of light and purity revisited through St. Paul’s imagery.
The Scriptures have several other helpful passage describing this ‘white light’ imagery. For example, at the Transfiguration, St. Mark describe the brilliance of the uncreated Light of Jesus in these words, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” In the very person of Jesus, this light emanates – not a reflected light, but a light which is beyond description, dazzling the apostles Peter, James and John, who cannot even look at it, but are ‘starstruck’. The holy Eastern ascetic fathers frequently spoke of this, particularly in the hesychastic tradition, where the Christian walking in Christ is a ‘partaker of the divine nature’ and hence reflecting the divine grace of God as a type of light. A simple reminder to us over the centuries has been the halo that is portrayed in iconography surrounding the saints, as well as the overall transfiguring light portrayed in icons in the mystical gold background of many icons.
A similar light appears at the Tomb of Christ – as the Brilliant Angel appears to the Myrrhbearers to announce the Resurrection of Christ.
”And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow” Mt. 28:2
The Church picked upon this biblical theme of the white garment as a sign of the brightness of God’s grace through forgiveness in the life of the Christian received in Holy Baptism, and displayed in the bright white Baptismal garment, which clothes the newly baptized person after he or she emerges from the baptismal font. The Fathers of the Church spoke of this frequently to the newly baptized, who would wear their baptismal garments for eight days. They were exhorted to keep their garments clean and their hearts pure.
The white garment imagery is revealed in wonderful ways in the Book of Revelation. In the Marriage portrayal, representing the wedding feast of the Church and the Lamb, we see something similar to that of St. Paul in Ephesians,
“For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.” Rev. 3:4
In several other places, those who are tempted, but remain pure and unsullied by sin are seen to be ‘preserving their garment: “ Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” Rev. 3:4
The journey of repentance is difficult. But it leads from darkness to light, from depression to confidence, from sadness to joy. The washing of Baptism, the clothing with the grace of the Holy Spirit enable the Christian, through repentance, to live a new life in spiritual brilliance. Even if sin soils our life and conscience, we have the path or repentance to lead us to purity again – and again, and again and again if need be – but only in this life. Hence, now is the hour of repentance and salvation. (2Cor.6:2) Ω
[i] Word images create in the mind’s ‘eye’ a picture that brings understanding and meaning. It’s tragic that visual images (iconography) have been resisted in certain corners of Christendom since the iconoclastic heresy. However, properly executed, a holy image forms a mental image as well – in a sense reinforcing the word images of scripture. We are an image-laden society, and the need for holy images to inform our consciousness of the teachings of the Church are greater now than ever.
[ii] The Mystery of Holy Penance, also called the Sacrament of Confession, while present as a type in practice from the earliest days of Christianity, had an complex track of development to our practices today. The newly baptized was to remain without sin, for their entire life. Human nature in its fallen state resulted in many failures and the ‘second baptism’ of Penance was prescribed, since there is and was only one true Baptism. Eventually, with the development of the monastic practice of regular confession of thoughts to the spiritual father, a confessional practice became much more widespread and was, through the Church canons, linked to the reception of the sacrament of the Eucharist – and became restrictive and limiting. Much more can, and needs to be explored on this topic to bring forth the strengths and weaknesses of both the ancient as well as contemporary practices in the Orthodox Church on the practice of Confession.
[iii] By ‘Self’ here I mean not just one’s ego, but the entirety of one’s person – mind (nous), spirit, will and body.