#19 of a Series on Psalm 50
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
Christian theologians over the centuries have discussed, or maybe just as often argued, about the nature of salvation and trying to describe in a comprehensible way this most profound human experience which bears eternal consequences. What you end up with is a stream of internally coherent thoughts and ideas, which become theological ‘positions’, which try to explain the unexplainable. As an occasional fan of theology, these days I’m wondering if the best we can do is revert back to metaphor and shroud it in mystery. That appeals to my tendency to be lazy in thought – contrasted to that part of the nature of our human condition driven to probe and understand, conceptualizing things and processes, whether they be in the natural world through science, or the metaphysical and spiritual worlds through nebulous theologies.
It’s with that sense that I try to skim through this verse, touching on it like the hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower as they prepare for their great sojourn south very soon. The word ‘create’, from the Orthodox Study Bible’s translation above has a profound implication.
A New Heart?
Everybody has a heart and when that heart is diseased, our only hope is to make it somehow ‘better’ and able to function at least moderately to ‘get by’. That changed when the miracle of heart transplantation appeared with Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s work in the 1967. Before that, we always were just stuck with the heart we were given at birth. But when you’re so sick that your heart no longer works, you die. Now there’s an alternative – get a heart transplant = a new heart.
Sin is a spiritual ‘heart attack’ which seriously compromises our heart’s function. Now here I mean the heart as the center of our being, our soul mysteriously linked to our rational and emotional functions, and the seat of the greatest dimensions of our human condition – love, hope and faith, cognition and rationality, artistic aspiration, etc. – essentially bearingour personality and life itself. When this heart has been wounded, our capabilities to live in goodness (righteousness) and in love and care of others collapses, and death is near.
In our theologies, and even in this psalm, we see references to the cleansing of a heart or, in some translations, a purification. There is, however, in Christianity a very different theological ‘add-on’ to this idea. The heart of the penitent is not merely purified, but instead the penitent is given the unthinkable – a new heart, spiritually. To create is to take something that does not exist, and make it exist. This idea is, I believe, conveyed in this verse – what the penitent person receives is a new heart.
But, as my metaphor above limps as they all do, this new heart is not merely like the transplanted heart from an unfortunate accident repurposed in someone else’s chest – as marvelous as that is (!) – but a new heart, in every way.
Judaism and Christianity
I believe that this concept has been a struggle since the earliest days of the Church.
What is the nature of Christianity?
Is Christian teaching a ‘purified’ or a recycled Judaism taking its teachings to a new place ethically and with a new spiritual focus, centered in the teachings of Jesus? The Council of Jerusalem[i], which wrestled with this fundamental issue, recognized two important things. The Council realized that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism in the Risen Lord, yet had to remain in continuity with it, echoed in the Law and the Prophets and expressing this in distinctive worship (liturgy) of Jesus as Lord, a tightly bound community life and structure, and strong moral teaching based on the teachings of Christ – living a life pleasing to God. But there was always a ‘Judaizing’ tendency in the Early Church, to be confronted by the Jew above other Jews – St. Paul himself, who was the voice of the Christian teaching regarding the evangelization of the Gentiles. It became clear. Did someone need to become a Jew first, before becoming Christians?[ii] Led by the Spirit, the Apostles through the Council was a profound, ‘No.’
The Death and Resurrection of Christ forever changed Judaism – in some ways bringing it to an end so that the fulfillment of Judaism in Christianity would emerge just as a death is necessary for a Resurrection to take place.[iii] Hence, the old Judaic practices of the Law would give way to a completely new re-founding of the Revelation of God in the Crucified and Risen Lord, Jesus Christ identified as The Word of God Himself. It is this newness that St. Paul, emphasizes. Consider these two passages from Galatians:
“I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I liv in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up fo me.” Gal. 2:20
“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” Gal. 6:15
Speaking forcefully to those who wanted to impose Judaism[iv] on those who had received Christ and come into the Church, St. Paul makes this powerful distinction – because becoming a Christian means a death of the old self (and its religious views and limitations) to allow the new creation to emerge. Penance is that necessary death to the old self and our prior actions so that the new life can emerge. As Paul argues in much of the Epistle to the Romans, the old religion of Judaism is meaningless in regard to making one’s soul righteous – for that can only happen in Christ – by being ‘crucified with Christ’ unto death and receiving the new life, in the new heart of spiritual man born of water and the Spirit.
Baptized into His Death
This death, and the emergence of new life happens in sacramental Baptism. It is sacramental precisely because it ‘makes sacred’ the one who was previously dead (the essence of uncleanness in Judaic terms) in sin, and brought to new life and recreated – given a new heart.
As we can see, this newness is, in a sense, not new. David had prophetically (under the inspiration of the Spirit through his penance) alluded to it in Psalm 50, with his language of creating a pure heart – as a re-creation – in the passage above. The Holy Prophet Ezekiel spoke of this as well:
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ez. 36:26
This is why the imagery of death to self is so essential especially, as manifest in the renunciation of the Devil in the Baptismal practice (and ritual) and a confession of sins prior to Baptism.[v] This confession paved the way for receiving the new life, and the new heart, through Baptism.
In this regard, we can also consider the nature of Baptism itself. Some teach that it is a type of symbol or ritual, like the Old Testament ritual washings, which has no real spiritual efficacy except that Jesus said to do it (Mt. 28). The Ancient Church, as expressed in Orthodox and Roman Catholic teaching rejected such a simplistic understanding because the Scriptures had so much more to say about what Baptism accomplishes – the eternal incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Mystical participation of a person in the very life of the Risen Lord, the nature of the Church itself, etc.
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Rom 1:6)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2Cor 5:7)
It is this two phases of baptism into Christ’s Death – through a penitential confession of sins and sacramental Baptism, that the new Creation in Christ emerges.
This newly created heart exists in the man and woman who are the new creation in the Risen Lord. In a rather involved, but fascinating account of the creation of man and woman (Adam and Even), St. Simeon the New Theologian[vi] makes a remarkable observation about the creation of Eve from the side of Adam. The act of creating Eve from Adam, before the Fall, is paralleled to the Lord’s taking a ‘portion’ of humankind for, and dare I say, unto Himself. In His divine foreknowledge He knew that the old Man – Adam and those of his flesh – would die. But the new portion set aside would be ‘reserved’ for the ‘new Adam – Jesus Christ’ and it would be en-fleshed in the Virgin Mary who would give flesh to the Son of God, the New Adam, to institute the beginning of the New Creation through the Incarnation and all that Christ would accomplish as the God-man.
This idea of a new creation is specially revealed in the beginning and end of the Bible, the first and last chapters– Genesis and Revelation. Genesis 1 begins with the starting point of Creation of the cosmos and the human role of stewardship of the Creation being made in God’s image and likeness but bearing bodily form, unlike the angels. Revelation describes the fulfillment of the cataclysmic end of the fallen world as it is recreated in a new way, in Christ, in the Church as the Bride of Christ.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.” Rev. 21:1
In some ways, this new creation idea is not new! The prophet Isaiah spoke these words centuries before the coming of Christ,
“For behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” Is. 65:17
It is in this light that perhaps we can see the First Miracle of Jesus in Cana as pointing to what He was really to do in His ministry. His changing of the water into wine constituted a new creation of the water from something with a simple liquid, into something with a similar but fundamentally new and distinctive nature – wine.
Renewal of the Mind
While the final re-creation of the cosmos in Christ will encompass all beings and all things, the re-creation process has already begun in the central core of creation, the human heart – as David discovered and exclaimed through his repentance, “Create a pure heart in me O God!” This echoes the prophetic cry of the early Church, prompting the faithful to cry out, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 16:2) – anticipating the second Coming of Christ.
When we think of the New Creation, we may anticipate and long for the cataclysmic recreation of the world described in Book of Revelation. But the new creation really begins in a different way, not with trumpets and earthquakes, but with what St. Paul describes as the “renewing of the mind.” (Rom.12:2) This is prompted by tears flowing in repentance for offenses against God, and opens the doors of grace, and Christ Himself, to enter and refashion the human person in His likeness. Ω
[i] The Council of Jerusalem is described in Acts 15:1ff.
[ii] I cannot imagine how incredibly difficult this would be for someone to accept who was so steeped in Judaism as St. Paul. It would have seemed like an abandonment of the Hebraic Faith – except that full understanding of Christianity would point to him the narrow path of understanding how Christianity was truly fully Jewish in its Godly spirit, while certain external aspects would be superseded by incorporation in to Christ (and the Church).
[iii] Many of the Fathers of the Church see the tearing of the curtain of the Temple at the moment of Christ’s death as a sign of this radical end to the Judaism as it was known.
[iv] For a long time I’ve found it utterly strange that some Protestant congregations would have a type of Jewish Seder meal on the evening before Good Friday. Despite the profound meaning of the Seder and its implications for understanding the Christian Passover (Pascha), to celebrate this instead of the Eucharist shows just how far the breakdown of theology has gone. The Eucharist forever supplanted the Seder which had only served as a metaphorical forerunner of the Sacred Meal of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It shows the importance of Liturgy as a spiritual stream of theological revelation.
[v] This raises the oft-debated question of the baptism of infants, which leads to the very important theological discussion of the nature of sin (and the Original Sin) which cannot be explored here.
[vi] See St. Simeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life, Vol. 1, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. In this effort to summarize a complete thought of St. Simeon I way well misconstrue or misrepresent certain aspects of it – hence my recommendation to go to the source.