You Have Loved Truth

#13 of a Series on Psalm 50

“ For behold, You have loved truth, and your uncertain and hidden things you have made manifest to me.

We’ve taken  a pause from this writing after the conclusion of the 2021 Lenten season and during the celebratory season of Holy Pascha, and an abbreviated Apostles’ Fast.  As we now approach the Dormition Fast in the Orthodox Church we, as a Church turn once again to a more penitent posture, in preparation for and anticipation of the joyful celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.[i]  So it’s timely again to pick up this verse-by-verse reflection on the Psalm 50 (51), the great penitential psalm of David.  We don’t stop praying Psalm 50 during those celebratory seasons like Pascha, but the penitential spirit as exemplified by the psalm is less of a focus.  As the Lord told his disciples, they are not to fast[ii] while the Bridegroom is present, but when He is gone, they will fast (Mk. 2:19).  In fact, the fasting seasons in the Orthodox Church are special times of penance and Psalm 50 can be a strong witness of that spirit to us.

If the previous verse was mysterious, today’s is strangely celebratory.  In this part of the Psalm there is an amazing shift really – of focus and tone.  The penitent David turns his attention away from Himself, his failings, his weakness, and the origins of his sin.  Here we see the fruit of faith flowering, blooming and producing fruit.  Here we see grace at work in the depths of the soul.

Behold!

Sometimes when I read the Christmas narratives of the Nativity of Christ in the gospels, I’m struck by the language of the text and its use of the word, ‘Behold’ (in Greek ἴδε).  This is one of those great high-sounding ‘biblical’ words that, is spoken not by men, but by angels.  It is a strong imperative – to ‘wake up and see’.  Akin is the idea of ‘stop what you’re doing and look at this!’  That which is to be beheld is too awesome to miss!  Something is breaking through in time and space in a way that is outside of the realm of this world. 

The entirety of the revelation of the New Testament is a Behold moment in human history.  The Gospel is compelling (imperative) because the followers of Jesus have experienced something that simply cannot be passed by or ignored.  From the first ‘Behold moments’ in the Nativity narratives to the shepherds and Magi – ‘Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy…’ – to the presentation of the scourged Christ by Pilate ‘ Behold the man’, to the climactic proclamation  ‘He is not here, He is risen’… Behold He goes forth to meet you in Galilee’ and Matthew’s soaring words on the apostles’ encounter with the Lord, ‘Behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail!and they worshipped Him.’ Mt, 28:6)  In the same spirit, St. John wrangles our attention when he reports the Lord’s words in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  In fact the entirety of Revelation is about ‘Beholding’ the cosmic divine encounter of Christ and our world. 

So, I would posit that what follows from here on in the psalm is nothing less than revelatory, and invisible to the human ‘eye’ of the heart, unless and until illumined by grace. When we are mired in sin we see nothing of God’s goodness and will vehemently judge the entirety of our life, everyone else’s life, and the whole world as utterly depraved.  But when David says, ‘Behold I was conceived in iniquity’  AND ‘Behold, You have loved Truth and your uncertain and hidden things you have made manifest to me’  we see God lifting David out of his blindness by imparting spiritual insight to his heart, which began when he saw and acknowledged himself as darkened by his sins.   

Before we move on, I want to simply report what everybody knows here – that you cannot convince anyone of their sins as such.  You can present evidence but our human self-protection (denial) mechanisms can be impregnable.  This is why horrific world atrocities (like the Holocaust or the Holodomor or Khmer Rouge famines) can unfold in a desensitized global consciousness even in the presence of undisputable facts.[iii]  But it’s much closer to home when we’ve never allowed the sting of sin to penetrate the soul in such a way that it cracks and the light of a ‘Behold’ moment of grace touches it.  Until then the deceptions rule, marriages crumble, people hate and waste away in the impregnable hell of denial.

But with repentance comes  the second ‘Beholding’– the grounding of life in Truth.

The Good News

God is the God of Truth and truths.  Jesus said, ‘I am the Truth’ (Jn. 14:6) – meaning this is His identity in His divine nature. In God’s truth there is no mistaking, misinterpreting, fudging, covering over, diluting, or misdirecting.  When God speaks we must behold – sit up, listen, obey.  This Truth, as explained by David however, is interactive.  For God’s love for Truth (His Son) by revelation becomes a sharing of the truth with His created world and His most blessed creatures, humankind.  This leads to a manifestation of the Truth to the world – “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only-begotten Son (Truth) “  that we hear in John 3:16, “that for all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life…” This is why Part B of salvation history in Christ is the sending of the Holy Spirit, the formation of the Church and the apostolic mission in the world to bring forth the Truth.  All who repent will eventually long for the salvation of the world in their souls.  The prayer of the Church (us) is for the ‘peace from above and the salvation of souls’ as our savior desires that, “All be saved and come to the knowledge of Truth.” (1Tim. 2)

David was first and foremost a believer.  He placed His trust in the Living God, revealed to Him through the Old Covenant which he received as his spiritual inheritance, taught by his family and lived in the Hebraic community. David received that faith interiorly as well, and engaged in a way of prayerful interaction with God.  In this way, his life was grounded in Truth.  Until he sinned.

When It’s All a Lie

In every case, sin is the result of a lie which has been heard, interiorized and acted upon. From Genesis 3 onward, the pattern is so well known and repeatable – a temptation of the Devil, based on a lie, triggers within the soul a desire for something intemperate and outside of God’s good, life-giving will for us. When we act upon that (like David acting upon his lustful urge) we can’t bear the truth of our fallenness, so more lies are engendered.  Life becomes a Lie.  Lies are tolerated because they reinforce a narrative we want to hear.  Sorry, but “I’m OK, You’re Ok” is a lie.

Behold, You have Loved Truth

But David has had a Behold Moment, and it is undeniable.  It’s a bridge of Truth that leads to God.  It is narrow but walkable and David sees God’s love for Truth and that love comes to dwell in his heart.  He can’t stand to have anything else.  Love of Truth truly is ‘bullet-proof’.  This is what empowered the Christian martyrs of every age to endure all manner of suffering. Suffering and death to self are the gateway to Truth about God, and the Truth Who is God.  When people acquire this Truth it is the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ and nothing will keep them from it.  No longer are the lies of the Evil One to be tolerated but they must be purged from the heart through the tears of penance.  This then shows us why St. Mark’s Gospel, announcing the Christian way, begins with the word Repent.  That can be lived, only when the God of Truth is directing one’s life. Otherwise even our ‘penance’ is self-willed and self-directed and goes only as far as our Self.

The Gospel as a Mystery Revealed

We can see here not only what David saw, but what was previewed prophetically to him, in the fulfillment of the manifestation of the Truth in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  In the Christian Church, the path of ‘Beholding’ is called illumination, and in the ancient Church, the process of initiation into the life of Christ through Baptism was called the Mystery of Illumination.  Preceded by a process of deep, personal penance (like David), the immersion of the person into the waters of Baptism was their ‘Behold’ moment of salvation and the beginning movement from darkness to light.  Born again in the baptismal waters of grace, this was the Mystery, hidden before the ages, revealed now on earth in the Person of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Note that the Orthodox Church prefers the term ‘Mystery’ regarding what are called in the West, ‘sacraments.’ There is always preserved the notion that the fundamental essence of the Mystery cannot be humanly understood. However, through Christian maturity (in the East, called theosis[iv]), that which is seen in some way is understood in the heart and reflected in the whole of human life.  It is revealed as love, because God is love. David’s path is one of the discovery of divine love as a Mystery, overcoming sin within his heart, by aiding him through repentance. Behold,  even the uncertain and hidden things beyond human knowledge are made manifest to those who have been illumined through the Mystery of God’s grace wrought through repentance.

David’s tears[v] have been a type of Baptism, which has led to his awareness of God and Truth. His life is now able to bear fruit once again as He has not only been washed of his sin, but illumined by the Truth of the Lord.  David says that God has loved Truth – but that also means that God has loved us, because His Truth abides in us.[vi]  While God’s love for us does not end when we sin, we face His judgment because the Truth cannot be found in our midst. (Is. 59:15) Ω


[i] Mary is called ‘Theotokos’ or God-bearer in the Christian East.  Her Dormition was her falling asleep in this life (death) which was a miraculous event reported in Church tradition and celebrated on August 15/28 (Gregorian calendar/Julian calendar)

[ii] The Orthodox Church follows the seasons marked by Pascha and Pentecost, with two short fasting periods – the first running from the Sunday of All Saints (First Sunday After Pentecost) until the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul (Gregorian caledar – June 29).  The Dormition Fast anticipates the Feast of the Dormition running from August 1-14th.The whole relationship of fasting to penance is important, but adjunct to the discussion here.

[iii] The Devil, as the Father of Lies, always obscures facts – either by hiding them, revealing only half of the truth, excusing them, etc.  This happens in both the individual and societal conscience.

[iv] Meaning becoming ‘God-like’.  This is the fulfillment of our creation in the likeness of God wrought by our participation with His grace – divine energies.

[v] Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to address at some  point the ‘Gift of Tears’, which is a grace afforded to those who repent deeply, as this is described in the Church’s spiritual tradition, particularly in the writings of the monastic fathers and mothers.

[vi] The interplay of truth, love, grace, sin and judgment is profoundly explored in St. John’s Gospel, epistles and Revelation.

Behold, I was Conceived in Iniquity

     

#12 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me..”  Psalm 50:5  NIV

For behold, I was conceived in transgressions and in sins my mother bore me.”  Psalm 50:5 OSB

Today’s verse[i] is puzzling, or perhaps much better, mysterious.  What is the prophet saying here?  Is he commenting about the state of souls universally in some theological – anthropological exercise?  Or is what he saying more intimate, more personal?

Sin and Missing the Mark

The interpretation of this verse[ii] has wreaked havoc over Christendom for well over a millennium and a half.  Certainly, in the West, it was one of verses that cemented the doctrine of Original Sin as understood by Augustine, and served as something of a template for western Christian thought through the Reformation until today. From this doctrine we have the Roman Catholic teaching of a ‘guilt from moment of conception’ due to Original Sin, as a spiritual heritage passed through the conception process (sex) and having a spiritual end – guilt and finally death.  This thinking required a special grace of the Immaculate Conception which freed Mary from Original Sin, so that she could bear Jesus (no male human involved) in a sin-free state. While the Reformers struggled to deal with this idea of the passing on of guilt from Augustine [iii] (the go-to Father of the Church in the West), there was no real rejection of a universal guilt per se, but some saw the universality of the fallenness of the human state in juridical form in the notion of ‘total depravity of man’, which is the utter lack of goodness of any sort in man’s human character or behavior – leaving mankind as horribly evil.

I cannot go into depth to speak to these things which have been argued about over the centuries, except to say that the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not deny that sin and death are at work in every human being – for this is what the Psalm and other scriptures say explicitly or implicitly. Many/most Eastern Fathers however express this more in terms of the state of the spiritual affliction of sin carried on in human nature not as a personal guilt for evil offenses from conception (if somehow possible) or even from Adam’s offense, but more as a inherent weakness or predisposition to fall into sin or to be deceived by the Devil and choose wrongly in life, as Adam did, even from our earliest days as the human will is emerging in maturity.  The newborn child is incapable of personal sin and Jesus even mentioned that in children there is an innocence which reflects the Kingdom of God. (Mt. 18:3)   Part of the discussion about sin must address the idea of what sin is – in Orthodoxy as in the bible[iv] it is to ‘miss the mark’ akin to the image of the archer who misses his target if his arrow goes awry. It is a description of a failure, not so much an internal state human state.  However, when we miss the mark with regularity (sin) our entire being becomes incapable of (ever?) hitting the bullseye. (God’s will)

Flesh and Impurities

I find that the patristic notion of the flesh and skins and coverings, mentioned previously, might be helpful here.[v]  Even from conception, we are clothed in the flesh from our mother’s wombs by God (Ps.139:13), which is not evil, rather in some way makes us human and hence, good. The flesh that Christ took on, becoming human, cannot be evil! Nevertheless, the flesh as we bear it, in our spiritual sickness, has this tendency and weakness to be led into sin (through desire – passion) and hence this weakness of the flesh is what we are ‘conceived in’, not guilt.

This weakness is not to be underestimated – because it is impossible to be strong in life action if weakness interiorly exists. Hence at some point, we all fail and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23)  – the glory held in his Image in which we were created and which our likeness is to radiate.  Sin collapses us and darkens the image, but does not destroy it.[vi] 

To find a metaphor for this, I’ll  go back to my metallurgical training.  When you have a metal and you stress it enough, the forces of physics being such, it breaks. But if there are certain kinds of impurities in the metal, even in its very structure, it will fracture when subjected to far less stress. Refining of the metal removes the impurities and restores it to the original strength.  This analogy works somewhat similarly in that the working of the frailties of the  flesh within our humanity – with inherent weaknesses spiritually which lead to the entrapment of the will.  If the Original sin of Adam was universal, it is in the passing on of this inherent tendency, or weakness to fail.  Born to fail, bound to fail.

A New Birth is Necessary – Nothing Less

The Gospel of Christ is about nothing less than a rebirth and a re-fashioning of the human person.  Upstream of the oft-quoted passage about the new life in Christ cited in John 3:16, we read about Nicodemus, who reacts to the words of Christ that he must be ‘born again’ from above, who asks, “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”  The New Birth is one of the Spirit, which comes not from the spirit of man, or from the waters of the mother’s womb, sacred as that place is because it is the place where God fashions human beings.  Rather the formation of the New Man in the waters of Baptism, in the New Mother, the Church who is born of the Spirit of God.  This new ‘body’ of the newly-reborn, newly-baptized person is ‘without wrinkle or spot’. (Eph. 5:27)  The re-creation removes the inherent weakness from sin – and places us in a new place of grace as a new creation.  Now here note that if we yet sin again after baptism[vii], when we do we are falling back into the ways of the Old Man, mired in sin, effectively shedding the ‘garment of light’ received at baptism, for the rags of sin (the carnal flesh.) The question is whether a person will exercise the will to put aside (again) the passions/desires of the flesh and instead walk in the light of the will of God, and the love of God in the soul above all things. In this view – the ‘conception in sin’ is a universal state of the fallenness of our nature and weakness of will, but not personal guilt.  

Conception and Sin – A Mystery

I’ve come to believe that the Christian understanding of things spiritual requires Baptism – and the alignment of one’s mind and heart with the teaching of the Church through the scriptures.  Just as Nikodemus could not understand the teaching of Jesus about being born again, so also we cannot ‘figure out’ the meaning of things like ‘conceived in sin’ until the light of the Truth through the message of Christ illumines its meaning.  This is why a simply rationalist approach to the scripture is not only meaningless, but dangerous and leads to errors and heresies. The truth of the Faith and God’s revelation is a ‘mystery hidden from all eternity’ and hence impossible to fully probe through rational thought and ‘data’. (Col. 1:26)  But (only) with the revelation of Christ and the fulfillment of the divine plan of salvation does the mystery begin to unfold.  This understanding is what the Church passes on to us in every generation as the Body of Christ. This is why the viewpoint of the ancient Church is so important in every age.

David’s statement is one of those ultimate ‘dead ends’ in human life. The words of the lamentation song[viii], popularized by Peggy Lee and Bette Midler,  “If that’s all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing, and bring out the booze’ more or less captures this sense of how sin from the beginning of human life seems to be so overwhelming, blotting out the possibility of real life and love and leaving in its wake only sadness, darkness, depression and anger.  It is the dead-end place that sin always takes us – including our own generation – emphasis on dead.

However David goes straight up against this reality – not in despair, but in prayer.  He struggles with what it means to be human – as his own sinfulness and  mortality and the effects of sin have made oh so painfully evident – by pondering these things in the presence of the Lord in prayer.  He searches for his real humanity in the light of God, and the truth, including his personal truth, willing to settle for nothing less. 

And we do not find David blaming anyone else, including Adam, for his sinful state. +


[i] I have included the translations of the verse from the New International Version and the Orthodox Study Bible – noting that the former says “Surely I was sinful at birth…” where most translations historically used the word ‘conceived’.  This raises a whole different exegetical question which can not be addressed here.

[ii] My apologies for what is a far less then thorough, and hence satisfactory treatment of these very involved issues. My focus is more a simple understand of how folks-in-the-pews can view these issues.

[iii] For his approach to the Psalm see: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf108.ii.LI.html   Augustine notes that the sin does not refer to some sinfulness in the act of the conception of David by his righteous father, Jesse, in the womb of his mother  as if it was somehow due to a singular personal sinful sexual act. For a short description of the differences of approach between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant thought see, https://stjohndc.org/en/orthodoxy-foundation/original-sin 

[iv] Gr: ‘hamartia’, ἁμαρτία – to ‘miss the mark’

[v] The passages found in the New Testament using the terms bod/flesh – Greek: sarx and Latin: carne – present these ideas in many places in the writings of St. Paul and others, but an exegesis of all these texts is beyond this reflection.

[vi] There are arguments that say that yes, we bear the image of God in our humanity, but that we essentially lose our humanity when we sin becoming as the scriptures say, like animals.  But as a human cannot not be a human genetically, so the also spiritually. Even with the greatest of sins, repentance and restoration in the Lord is possible.  But sometimes we really do look like and behave like, animals.

[viii]Is That All there Is?”  by Dan Daniels

Against You alone Have I Sinned

#11 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.  Psalm 50:4 – NIV

Today’s insight from the Prophet regarding his sin strips away the finals shreds of David’s self-protection. Jos  focus shifts from himself, and his sin, to Who God is.  And in David’s conscience, God presents Himself as David’s Judge. David is able to see that his sin goes way beyond him, to the realms of the very heavens.  The sins of people are brought before the eternal Judge of the heavens.

God as Heavenly Judge

Any meditation on this is frightening.

We can go through Christian history and find  famous preachers decrying the sins of men and women – such as the famous sermon by 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards – Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.[i]  But he is but one in a long tradition, including the Fathers of the Church, who make clear that God judges sin and sinners – just as Jesus taught and the Church has repeated from the earliest preaching of the Church by the apostles:

For He has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed [Jesus]. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead”  Acts 17:41

Among the countless examples from the Orthodox tradition, here is a simple liturgical example – a prayer cited at the 13th Kathisma of the Psalms:

When I remember the day and hour of Thy terrible, threatening, and incorruptible judgment, O Christ, I tremble for I do wrong, my deeds are shameful and evil, for which I alone am to blame.

There’s a trend in pseudo-Christianity today that seems to ignore sin, or say that since Christians are ‘covered under the Blood of Jesus’ or some such thing they will not face judgment.  This is simply wrong.  We will all face judgment – for our personal offenses against God and need to give an account, just as the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 describes.[ii]  This will be for sins committed – as well as  those things which we neglected to do.  Much of the Protestant tradition drifted away from this awareness and the motivating fear that accompanies it (including Edwards et.al.)  – utilizing a construct of ‘once saved always saved’ which means that once we are saved from our sins by Christ (and acknowledge it) then it doesn’t matter what we do after that.[iii]  Officially Protestant denominations may not hold to this, but the widespread, common belief about it influences all – Protestant, Catholic and even Orthodox. 

Orthodoxy takes us, constantly, back to David’s insight – “Against you alone have I sinned.”   And as a corollary – “there’s nothing I can do about it”.  This is important – because while David’s sin affected himself (per the last article), not to mention Bathsheba, and the real victim, Bathsheba’s husband Uriah who lost his wife and then his life, there is much more.  David comes squarely up against two realities – first that he knows the true God in his heart, and secondly, that he has deeply offended Him.

Offending God

All sin offends God and it is the offense against God that is the real issue here.  So often today we view life only through the ‘horizontal’ plane of relationships.  An offense is committed against someone else and so this is the sum of the ‘sin’.  So we have a great focus on miniscule ways which offenses are brought about – like so-called ‘micro-aggressions’ which can get you in big trouble socially, or for seemingly having offensive ideas about life for people with whom we are in disagreement  But, often real offenses are overlooked or excuses are made and justice is seemingly rarely served.  But all this misses the REAL point that all sin is sin against God – and God’s judgment will require a remedy for this sin.[iv]  Sin is worthy of punishment and in acknowledging God being offended David is saying that because his sin is against God, that’s the most important thing.  If he can be made right with God, through mercy, somehow the other things can be resolved.

David stands (or lies prostrate more likely) naked before God in his sin.  He has no excuse and no defense.  In the manner of Confession long-taught in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, we begin our confession with these words, “I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God…”  I am a sinner before God – David’s words become my words. How wonderful it is when we can make the scriptures’ words of praise and joy our words.  But can we say to God, in all honesty and humility words such as these, “I, a sinner” or more strikingly, “I am a worm.[v]

Many people have been taught not to think this way. 

It’s deemed ‘destructive’ and fosters a ‘negative self-image’.  Maybe it does – but here’s the thing, the only thing that matters is, ‘Is it true?’  The answer is yes. But this is not the only truth – for the conscience does not lie.  The truth isn’t what depresses us, it’s our sins themselves  that contort our self-image, that beautiful and pure image of God Himself within us!  But the distortion caused by sin makes this beauty invisible, especially to ourselves.  We feel and look dirty inside.  Denying the sin only reinforces this blindness -causing the veil of self-delusion to become an iron curtain.  The truth is that I have sinned against the Almighty Lord, and rejected Him and His loving way for me.  But the truth is also in David’s heart, and ours if we but look for it, that this same God is the One who is merciful and sent His Son to save us from all of the damage that our sins have done.  It’s ironic that Christians who are so seemingly focused on personal sin are among the few who ever get to this point of addressing personal sin at this deepest level – as an offense against God[vi]  But this is only because, with a hint of the knowledge of the forgiveness afforded us in Christ Jesus, that we can have the courage to actually look at our sins.

God Gets It Right – Unfortunately

David ratifies that his stance as a sinner before God is correct, continuing, “so you are right in your verdict  and justified when you judge.”  He acknowledges that His God is the One Who has all power to judge him, and when He does so He is exercising His righteous judgment.  He deserves – hell.  Here, all excuses, pretenses and hopes that circumstantial evidence will get him off the hook when the trial comes have been dashed.  He cannot blame the Judge because He knows the Judge is righteous.  He even knows that it is not the desire of the Judge to judge Him harshly but justice must be served.[vii]  God is simply ‘right’ about our sins.

Now what are we supposed to do – we have no defense?[viii] Being defenseless is the posture of the Publican in the parable of Jesus. (Lk. 18:9-14)  It is the starting point of forgiveness.  As long as we have a defense we don’t need grace or mercy of God’s help.  We have something to fight off God’s righteousness and judgment. 

Pretty silly huh? +


[i] While many in the West preach ‘hell’s fire and brimstone’, Edwards sermon was perhaps a milestone in this thought.  The Orthodox approach, following Psalm 50, is different as this article from Holy Cross Monastery in 2012 notes. (https://www.holycross.org/blogs/sermons-homilies/113633862-he-does-not-desire-the-death-of-a-sinner)

[ii] It’s important to realize the metaphorical nature of Christ’s teaching on the Last Judgment.  A number of the Fathers point out that the Judgment will happen instantly, in the human heart and mind, when all truth about one’s life will be realized.

[iii] At the moment, I can’t go into all of the arguments regarding the origins of sin, Augustine’s theology in the West about ‘original sin’ and the reactions to it but these are very important, and confusing issues in need of clarification from a sound biblical and theology based in the Church’s Holy Tradition.

[iv] In a 1980 article, Alexander Kalomiros ( https://orthochristian.com/101726.html,) posits that in this time, I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history...” Rather it was as if everyone knew God, but “hates Him.” And hence just ignored Him.  I would suspect that we ignore Him much more in our age than four decades ago. But sin drives us to ignore Him, and ignore the Judgment which we must face.

[v] These special words from Psalm 22, mirroring  words of Job (25:6) are the words of the One despised and rejected by men because He was deemed, ‘evil’.  Yet these are the words of Christ who took human sins upon Himself, and the lowest state of life – the worm crawling on the ground, as the proper place for the sinner, though He was without sin.

[vi] Many religions recognize sins in various forms, but usually the response is external – making some sort of sacrifice to appease th judgment of God.  For the Christian, the Judgment is internal – so also is the salvation, once received.

[vii] Exodus 18:32

[viii] As one of the penitential prayers recited frequently by Orthodox Christians begins with ‘Have mercy on us O God, have mercy on us, for we have no defense…’

I Know My Sins and My Sins Know Me

patehos.com

#10 of a Series on Psalm 50

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me”  Psalm 50:3

Today’s theme builds upon the previous ones, where we are seeking forgiveness of sins from within the depths of our soul, but seemingly can never escape them.  This causes a kind of desperation that can lead us to many different thoughts and behaviors.  Perhaps the most common is to flee!  David acknowledges his sin not just once, but again and again.  In this psalm, which has been effectively a source of public use in worship for going on three millennia – the whole world knows David’s sin – there’s no escaping it![i]

Flee the Fire!

The energy inside created by guilt makes us want to flee from it.  But it’s inside us; we can’t crawl out of our own skin. ‘Skin’ here is an interesting term, as the Fathers of the church frequently used it as akin to the biblical use of  ‘the flesh’.  We feel like we are literally clothed in our sinfulness as well as having a sinful heart.  Hence the purification of baptism not only brings forgiveness interiorly, but makes us part of the Body of Christ, in His flesh which renews us.[ii] 

Fleeing from sin, before we commit it, is a good thing!  There are a dozen or so exhortations in the New Testament to that effect.  In the Old Testament, we have the wonderful story of Joseph, fleeing the ensnarement of lustful temptation by Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39).  So fleeing works, until one lingers long enough and the trap snaps shut and the laggard is trapped in sin. And as above, this is not just an external entrapment – although many sins like theft, have legal consequences. But the entrapment is really one of the soul, which is then unable to flee.  We can hear David echo this sentiment in Psalm 55:6 6I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest!

We have many images of what this entrapment looks like – in phrases like the ‘clutches of the Devil’.  Again elsewhere in the Psalms, David says, ‘The chains of death encompass me.’  Psalm 116:3.   In these word pictures we begin to see how, when sin is inside of us its presence is felt immediately, powerfully, and continually.  When a person is very ill and dying, she is often brought to the place where the only thing on her mind is her illness – it is all consuming.  The sickness of the body invades the mind and the heart.  The sickness of sin works in a similar way and because all sin leads to death.  The Apostle James puts it this way,


Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished,
 it brings forth death
.” Jas 1:15

So that inescapable sense of inner sin creates a desperate craving for a release from the grip of its effect which results in death.  Nobody really wants to die.

Always Before Me

Hence the sin is “always before me.”.  Now again as always, ironically (!) this can, by grace, be seemingly a good thing.  The person that feels this has the possibility of taking action to escape this inner suffering due to sin. This is what the ‘prick’ of the conscience does – it makes us uncomfortable – leading to the possibility of repentance and resolution.  Like a thorn in the flesh that is ignored goes deeper and becomes more difficult to extricate, while being even more painful and even causing infection, so the sensitivity of our conscience to even seemingly slight sins keeps them before us so we do something to deal with them, not ignore them or self-medicate the pain away. 

Our sins take many forms hence the inner symptoms and how we experience them also can be distinctive, although self-loathing and depression are common to many. [iii]  One of the most grievous sins of our age – committing or facilitating abortion[iv] – has not only great moral consequences, but also psychological ones. Many who now provide help and counsel to women who have had abortions, report that these women’s experiences of their abortion heavy on their hearts, sometimes for decades. Their sin was ‘ever before them’ and could not be shaken from their minds, their feelings and even their bodies. The beginning of their healing came for many only when the Christian message of salvation was brought to their hearts – the forgiveness of Jesus from the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them.’ (Lk. 23:34) 

When the scriptures say that Christ, ‘became sin’ (2Cor.5:21) I think he’s hinting at this idea.[v]  Christ so identifies with us in love, through his Incarnate flesh.  When you draw close to a large pile of ice or snow you feel it’s cold, and when it is touched you shiver.  If you throw yourself into it, stripped of all protection and warmth and lay there, the cold totally envelopes you and penetrates the experience of the moment. The first inclination is of course to flee. But Christ did not abandon us. He stayed that He could draw ever-closer to us and experience the violence to his body and soul  that sin brought about.  While Christ was without sin, there is all certainty that his flesh fully experienced beyond our imagination sin’s wickedness, its depth, its fury, in his human flesh.  The crucifixion was not an illusion.  Yet for the One who loves so deeply, He continues to draw closer and closer to us, despite our sins, effectively taking them on himself because that’s what love does – it bears all things.[vi]  As life ebbs in the presence of love into human death, new life born of the Spirit can flow back into the beloved soul of the one whom He loves and embraces.

So perhaps even the forgiven penitent, who now experiences the warmth of saving love in the midst of his or her sin, can draw near to God and ‘know’ what the effect of sin is in ways before unknown, because they have experienced this love which draws near and forgives, not just by some pronouncement, but by shared love. And with that love comes a kind of understanding and wisdom, to be lived and shared.

Restoration and Renewal

While the nature of sin is always evil, the Cross shows us that God can bring good from every circumstance – even those wrought with sin.  Although David’s illicit relationship with Bathsheba would result in a tragic loss of the child begotten of him, later she would bear his son who would be the ‘Son of David’, Solomon, who was extraordinarily blessed by God and continued the Messianic ancestry line all the way to Jesus. (See Mt. 1)   As Joseph reminds his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis, twice actually,

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”  Gen. 50:20

Perhaps you have seen as I have, situations which were hopelessly ‘evil’, but that God brought forth from those situations something beautiful, marvelous or salvific.  So, the addict who was hopeless near death, now on the road to recovery and mercy, becomes the one who is the sponsor and helper to many others seeking to get on that road.  The Pregnancy Centers often present us with the examples of a woman who aborted her child now has become the strong, caring voice of wisdom for young women frightened with an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy and a powerful voice for the Right to Life movement.  Drawing from the reservoir of God’s mercy through their personal experience, they are able, like Nathan, to speak the truth to others in a vivid, honest and humble way that elicits hope through trusting God in His forgiveness and mercy. + 


[i] I’ll make a note here about the notion of public confession which is worth exploring perhaps in more detail at a later time.  Public confession/acknowledgement of sin was common in the early Church and our whole canonical discipline of penitentiary remedies was based on this public acknowledgement of one’s sins, which cannot be hidden. For example, the prescription for a person who committed murder was 10 years of excommunication from the Church.

[ii] Hence the Flesh of Christ in the Eucharist is so important to our restoration.

[iii] It’s my opinion that with so many ‘therapeutic’ treatments to dull psychological pain these days, the first reaction to psychic discomfort in life today is medication, leading to abuse of it, addiction and much more pain.

[iv] Not only is abortion profoundly evil in itself, but it is accompanied by legion others – always deception, and what now is an industry of death.

[v] The Crucifixion is a great mystery beyond us.  While I’m reluctant to ever delve into the ‘psychology’ of Jesus, it would seem the following does represent the intersection of divine love and sin in the human experience.

[vi] See 1Cor.13

Washed in God’s Forgiveness

What Does Paul Mean by 'Baptism for the Dead'?
Ancient Baptismal font – Tunisia
thegospelcoalition.org

     

#9 of a Series on Psalm 50

“Wash me from my iniquities and cleanse me of my sin”  Psalm 50:2

                “Out, Out Damn Spot!”  Lady MacBeth

This line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, captures the driving madness of guilt in the soul – in this case that of Lady Macbeth, who is driven by the guilt of the death of the King of Scotland, which she perpetrated.  In a mental fog she sees blood on her hands and can’t clean them and is driven to madness because of what she’s done. The blood of the dead is part of her, never to be removed.

Eradication of the Blood Evidence?

The popular TV show, The Black List, has portrayed from time to time, people called ‘cleaners’ who go in and clean up the mess at a murder scene (for a price of course). These people are supposedly very good at what they do.  Yet while  the TV shows seem to show that the blood of the murdered can be quickly and effectively cleaned, it seems that in real life residues of violence remain, materially – but also spiritually and psychologically. Try as they may, there is lingering DNA or other evidence that just doesn’t come out for the cleaners of this world.  And while one can create justifications for doing so, such as for soldiers who are ‘doing their job’ for ostensibly good reasons like defending the innocent, the stain and strain on the soul is very deep and very lasting.  Violence does that to the soul – which is why there are more victims to crimes than just those on the bullet end of the gun.

And certainly, the Prophet David felt this so deeply himself, for the blood of Uriah was on his hands and he couldn’t get rid of it – trying his best with excuses, collusive coercion to hide the deed, and self-deception.  But finally, when confronted with the truth by the prophet Nathan, he accepts what he has done, but this does not relieve his anguish.

So there is something of importance here about guilt. When all of our efforts to dull guilt’s powerful force of truth in our souls[i] by denial, or chemical ‘medication’ are no longer effective, we are stuck only with blood of another on our hands – which cannot seemingly be eradicated.[ii]  This ‘bloodstain’ is proverbial in many cultures, in fact the whole notion of ‘life-blood’ across the human experience makes things of the deepest human importance represented by blood.

Step 1 – Confession of Sin

So we see here the emergence of truth over falsehood through spiritual courage in the words of Nathan internalized by David.  He now realizes that his hands are bloodstained, but his words are not to the ‘Damn Spot’, but to the Lord.  His way out is not dealing with the problem, which cannot be resolved by himself, but by turning to God.  And while he cannot wash the blood from his hands, He cries out to God to do this for him: “Wash me from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

This takes deep humility, courage and faith to pray in such a way.  It takes humility just to acknowledge this to Almighty God, Whom he has so offended.  It takes courage to stand up and acknowledge this because he will have to face the consequences. (Recall how Adam hid from God after his sin – Gen 2)  But, it also takes faith, to somehow believe in a God who would not obliterate him from the face of the earth because of this grievous sin – but that He somehow longed for David’s betterment, effectively a loving God.

Confession of sins – including sacramental Confession requires at least these three things – humility, courage and faith – confronting our sins and their work within us.  Failing humility, we will be like Pharisees, never seeing our sin, or justifying ourselves. and, a deeper anger often results, with ever-increasing self-protection through self-justification.   Lacking courage we will stew in our self-awareness of sin, but be unable to acknowledge it to another, we never get to the ‘washing’.  Depression, despondency and even despair follows – leading to the fate of Judas Iscariot. Lacking faith, we may not ever complete the ‘return’ and come to know the One who came into the world to forgive sins.  This is the essence of faith in Jesus, as the Savior Who came for this expressed purpose – to forgive us our sins.  It takes a personal faith to get to this point, not in ourselves, but in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, the mercy and forgiveness of God, the Father is manifest as divine love, completing the circle of our return to restoration.

I would note that I find that those who do come to Sacramental Confession with regularity and purpose, are truly helped by this grace.  I think it may be for several reasons – first that they must simply say what they did wrong aloud.  It’s not enough to ‘say it to God’ in many cases, that it never gets past the five walls of our heads. So it just rattles around in there – to use a popular term – it’s a spiritual echo chamber.  The mouth becomes the point of exit of the sin – and when heard by another (i.e. priest) it is a freeing experience to know that someone says, ‘I hear you.’ Without judgment.  The priest serves as the ‘ears’ of God in physical form, to help us ‘get it out’ and begin the healing process.[iii]

Step 2: Washing of the Sin

Now to get to the point of deliverance from the sin, there must be a process of cleansing.  The Church has proclaimed this cleansing process in many different manifestations.[iv] 

The Cleansing of Baptism

If we follow the Church’s practice of  receiving people into Christianity and the Church, called the catechumenate, we can see how this preparation for Baptism worked for the healing of the soul through forgiveness.  A person outside the Church is one who is in sin – for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23) Perhaps a person’s sins do not seem as dastardly as David’s, but again using St. Paul’s words, the wages of all sin is death (Rom. 6:23). The reception of people into the catechumenate brought them awareness of how sin works in their lives, the mission of Christ for our forgiveness through the Paschal Mystery[v], and the necessary work of repentance and reforming one’s life morally, to overcome sin. Prior to Baptism, a full life confession was made (and still is) so that this would open the soul through the washing of the blessed waters of Holy Baptism.  The words of the baptismal liturgy repeat those of scripture, of how forgiveness of sins and washing of the soul is accomplished through Baptism – echoed by the apostles from the earliest proclamations of the Church. (Acts 2:38)

Shedding the Clothes of Work in the World

We know that if we’ve been working in the dirt outside doing our spring planting, that the clothes themselves get  dirty and need washed, perhaps vigorously.  If you take a shower and put on the same clothes you get dirty again! For the early Church, the ‘dirty work’ was not digging in the soil, but living in the world of sin and its pollution through our actions in participating in them. Going back to the old ways of working in the world would stain the soul. When a person came to be cleansed in the waters of Baptism, she or he was literally stripped naked of their clothes before going into the baptismal pool.  This was a way of ‘shedding’ the filth of the world and its evils – and rejecting the Devil and all his works, he who is the Prince of this World. When the newly baptized person emerged from the baptismal pool they were clothed in a new, bright white garment which served as a sign to them of the inner reality of their cleansing, and new life in Christ.  It also served as an external witness, as they wore the baptismal garments in the world for a first week after their baptism. Wearing a white garment walking the streets during a time of persecution could result in quick martyrdom!

The Washing by Blood. 

The Church deals with Lady Macbeth’s problem in a powerful way.  The blood is cleansed by Blood – the Blood of Jesus.  To understand Baptism being more than a simple religious ritual, it’s necessary to understand how the Blood of Christ, “shed for you and for many”[vi], is for the remission of sins.  At the time of Jesus, the baptism of repentance proclaimed and carried out by St. John the Baptist, and was a simple washing of water. But Christian baptism is much, much more. As the apostles tell us:

Are you not aware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 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 walk in newness of life.   (Romans 6)

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.   (1Jn.1:7)

So, for Christians, the forgiveness of sins goes far beyond the profound work of Nathan for David, but is accomplished through Baptism in the shedding of His Blood – the Death of Jesus.  Through Baptism, a sinful person dies to sin, but is born again in Christ. The Baptism in the Death of the Christ means being joined to His sacrifice of the Cross – a true Sacrifice with the shedding of Blood of the innocent One, which washes away all sin. She can then be joined with the very person of Jesus Christ, unto life eternally.   This new life brings with it a whole new way of living, enlivened in the Holy Spirit, who continues to purify us and help us in the life of perfection intended for us.

So we are washed in the Waters of Holy Baptism but this is a Symbol (in the ancient sense), of our Baptism in the Death of Christ and his Blood, bringing with it the deliverance from sin and Death through His Resurrection as St. Paul assures.

The Washing of Christ Heals

Understanding the effects of Baptism, is to enter a true Mystery not only in a theological sense, but a personal one as well.  I cannot easily understand how my forgiveness happens through the Blood of Christ[vii] – but rather that it does, accepting it by my faith.  This becomes the start of a new life for the Christian, wherein he is now warriors against sin at work in himself and when called by the Lord, in the world. This is defined as a struggle – first begun in the catechumenate, which the Christian undergoes, in ‘taking up the Cross’ of that struggle inwardly and through personal behavior.

So what Happens to the Spot?

The spot of sin is completely washed and like the world of sin after the Flood at the time of Noah, it is cleansed and begins anew. The old is gone.  Although we are ‘born again’ into Christ through Baptism, we are not like newborns in certain respects.   The secondary effects of our prior sins may, in some cases, remain.  The wounds caused by our sinful decisions may remain in our lives and the lives of others.  The alcoholic who has abused liquor for decades will may still have a sick liver. The healing of psychological trauma of sin also takes time – not unlike the healing of PTSD in the mind of a soldier at war.[viii]  The external effects of sin, say addiction, must still be dealt with – i.e., if one’s sin led to anger, which led to a breakdown of marriage and family or divorce, that’s got to be dealt with.  But the New Way of Christ has guideposts for walking the rest of life by grace, invoking this grace for continued healing in body and soul flowing from the spring of one’s heart renewed in through the sacraments of the Church.

I believe that the painful memories of past sins, though washed, can be helpful to us.  They are a reminder – ‘Don’t go there again!’  You know from experience where it leads, just as the Prodigal Son learned how he wound up in the pig pen.  The forgiven sinner can and must say, ‘No’.  Ironically, after Baptism and forgiveness they can be powerful witness to others who need someone to help them in their struggle – as AA and other 12 Step Programs show.  The prayers of Confession remind us of the need for a ‘Firm resolve’ – deciding in our minds and hearts not to offend God, or others again.

Also, the remembrance of the pain of the past can call us to compassion for others.  So, when we remember our sin, we remember that we weren’t alone in it – but that others were brutalized by our actions.  This can lead us to a spirit of compassion born of remorse because of what we’ve done, reconciliation and healing of those relationships. Being forgiven means that we come to these relationships from a different place – with a sense of hope and trust in God as a way to amending our life.  So often the crippling effect of sin keeps us from ever being able to look into the face of others whom we have offended.  Forgiveness allows us, even compels us, to look up and look around.

Wash and Rinse – a New Start

So, In this blessed washing, the spots of damnation are cleansed completely. We are changed – not only forgiven, but given a new future and perspective to live a life in this world and in the world to come, in keeping with the truth of Him Who shed His Blood for us to accomplish this washing. A very high price indeed.


[i] I note here what I would call true guilt’ born in the conscience  – based on the truth of what we have done and why.  This is very different from a kind of false guilt which is a psychological illness where people blame themselves of all sorts of things inappropriately.  Ironically the ‘blaming’ of other things can be a delusion to deflect where the real internal troubling of one soul is originating.

[ii] In perhaps one of the most ironic verses in Scripture, the Jewish leaders cry out to Pontius Pilate at the Judgment of Jesus to be Crucified, “His blood be upon us, and upon our children.” (Mt. 27:35)  This verse is worthy of much meditation.

[iii] There is much more to the role of the priest in the confessional context of course – to be explored later.

[iv] One which cannot be covered here is the cleansing through tears, the weeping for one’s sins, of which the spiritual fathers speak so frequently.

[v] ‘Paschal Mystery’ is an ancient term which includes the events of the Cross, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus into which the Christian enters through the Mysteries, or sacraments.  The ancient homilies of the Fathers of the Church to the catechumens as well as those to the newly baptized are extremely important and enlightening as they explain the Christian’s participation in the life of God through the Paschal Mystery.

[vi] These words of the Lord in the institution of the Holy Eucharist show us the immediate link of the Mystery of forgiveness through Baptism and repeated through the reception of the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  Baptism is not repeated – we are not re-baptized, but forgiveness in an ongoing way and entry into divine life is sustained by the Person of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist.

[vii] Notwithstanding the passages in Romans and elsewhere which speak of a metaphorical  juridical process of forgiveness through justification by faith, as with most metaphors these become insufficient to explain with sufficient clarity the mechanics of this sort of thing – hence I am reluctant to go into the ‘appeasement of God’s wrath’ and other constructs which may start in the scriptures but go beyond that truthful base into other places including outright falsehood. We do well do stay within the boundaries of the patristic understanding of all this.

[viii] Over the years I’ve been amazed at how some who have struggled with addictions, once they make their life change, actually experience physical as well as emotional and spiritual healing. As much as anything, they are in a better place to take care of themselves being no longer prisoner of addictive, destructive thinking.

More on Mercy

181 Olive Oil Pouring Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock
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#8 of a Series on Psalm 50

I think we all have an idea about what mercy is – especially when we need it!  So the person sentenced to prison or even death ‘begs for mercy’.  An intervention is needed or else something disastrous will happen.  We contrast mercy as leniency to justice as strict adherence to the law.  If there is no mercy, then the lawyer has to contort the law to mean something merciful to get us off the hook.  The plethora of TV shows like ‘Law and Order’ explore every facet of this.

The Oil of God’s Mercy

The Bible has a deep and intricate view of God and His mercy. The word used in the Greek scriptures for mercy is ‘eleos (Ἔλεος) – which means oil.  So when we say, ‘Lord have mercy’, we’re saying, ‘Lord pour out your oil upon us.’  A brief review of a few of the scriptures and the practices of the early Church helps us appreciate this all the better.

Let’s begin with two stories of the mercy of God, as told in the Old Testament.

Justice or Mercy – Which will it Be?  (Exodus 32)

The dramatic story of the reception of the Ten Commandments shows the emergence of God’s mercy even at the very moment that the Law is given!  Even as Moses receives the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone, he is made aware by the Lord that the Israelites are concerned that he is delayed and are not satisfied with the LORD and prefer to make their own idol, in the form of a golden calf. Even Aaron demonstrates moral weakness at this failure moment of moral failure. Moses returns to the camp and finds this betrayal of the Lord, and of him, and casts down the Tablets in righteous anger.  The nation would be punished, but not utterly destroyed as Moses himself, in the spirit of sacrificial love for his people would pray that the Lord relent.  And so the mercy of God was extended and the entire nation not destroyed, although the Lord did punish the people with a plague.  Even Aaron, despite the seriousness of his sin, was spared.  God’s mercy.

Another example of God extending his mercy to those who repent is found in the Book of Jonah.  While the narrative focuses on Jonah’s trials and shortcomings, as a prophet he is sent to warn Ninevah to repent of their sins.  Ninevah does repent, a fast is called for by the rulers of the land, and God bestows his mercy upon them.  And in the process the prophet learns how the God of mercy relents even when the prophet believed that strict justice was in order.

Notably, both stories contain certain common elements:

  • The grace and blessing of God is revealed. (in the Law, in the person of the prophet)
  • The sin of the people drives the narrative – it cannot be ignored.
  • The prophet is called to give witness to God’s mercy and the justice.
  • For those who hearken – mercy is offered, but those who persist in their sins will perish 

God’s Mercy – Anointing of Kings with Oil

Those chosen as King of Israel were anointed symbolically by the pouring of oil over their head. This gesture of pouring or anointing was one both of identification (this is the King!), but also God’s visitation.  The King could not anoint himself – rather if the Kingship was to be godly he had to be anointed by God – hence the prophets were the ones called upon for this sacred duty. Saul’s anointing by the Prophet Samuel is an amazing story of the grace of God poured out upon a man, though unworthy, to carry out a specific mission on behalf of God for His people.  In a similar way, David was anointed King by Samuel.

The term ‘Anointed One’ eventually came to mean a man whom God had chosen as His ultimate leader and victor, set over His people as ruler but also servant.  This term, translated as ‘Messiah’ (Hebrew) or ‘Christ’ (Greek) as The Anointed One – became the title of the long-awaited Savior of God’s people, Who we have come to identify as Jesus, the Christ. 

New Testament Anointing

In the life and ministry of Jesus we see several anointing episodes. In the very beginning, one of the Magi present a gift of a special oil called myrrh, which would be a symbol not only of the Royal Kingship of Jesus, but in anticipation of His death and burial, when the myrrh and aloes were to be used to anoint His Body.  This theme is repeated when Jesus was anointed by Mary Magdalene, and by Mary of Bethany.  These anointings were acts of spontaneous love and mercy by these woman – and roundly criticized by some of the apostles, especially Judas Iscariat who thought it better not to ‘waste’ this oil.  But Jesus rebuked Judas, and used the occasion to reveal that the Kingdom which He came to establish is about this very gesture – an outpouring of mercy from the heart. The Death of Jesus would be the occasion of the Outpouring of God’s mercy upon the world. And Jesus prophetically spoke of His death and this anointing as a preparation of His Body for burial.

Another powerful image from the New Testament was that used to describe the ‘spiritual athletes’ in the ‘arena’.  Now these were allusions to the Greco-Roman games held in public arenas where the athletes, before competing, were rubbed down with oil. This oil brought vigor and strength, and was no small aid in helping him escape from the clutches of the enemy in the wrestling match![i]

The Anointing of God’s People

The image of ‘anointing’ is very much embedded in the prophetic title of Jesus – the One who is the Christ – the Anointed One – who also brings anointing to His people as well.  In Christianity, this action of a ceremonial, liturgical anointing was powerfully symbolic as joining us to the Anointing of Christ.  When a person was preparing for Baptism, he was anointed (oil of the catechumens) to give him spiritual strength to fight the enemy, the Devil. [ii]   A second Anointing at Baptism, using the special oil known as Chrism, signifies and imparts the seal of the Holy Spirit received by a person within – effectively making all who have been baptized into Christ, ‘christs’ themselves, in the image of The Christ. The Holy Spirit brings a special dynamic grace to our souls, including our healing and strengthening for ministry and service.

The Church imparts not only the sacramental anointing at Chrismation, but also the special anointing for healing in fulfillment of the early Church practice as revealed by the holy Apostle James, who taught,


“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”   James 5:14f

This is the anointing for healing and strengthening of the Christian not only in his daily life and spiritual battle, but also at special times when in need of special healing. Note as well the linking of the oil (mercy) to forgiveness of sins.  The ‘pouring of oil’ as described in the Parable of the Good Samaritan becomes a sign not only of physical healing but also strengthening, encouragement and love.  While the Orthodox (sacramental) Mystery ofAnointing  service is done for people with special needs (including those near death), as a Church we celebrate the sacramental (Mystery) Anointing on Wednesday of Holy Week, where we encounter all of these themes of Christ’s victory and anointing, struggle against sin, strengthening for the days ahead (Great Friday) and healing of soul and body.[iii]


The Church’s understanding of the eleos of Psalm 50 is  – ‘Lord, I will reveal my heart  to you which is wounded and sinful.  Pour the oil of your mercy upon me.– heal me.’  The anointing of God through his mercy brings healing of our spiritual sins and secondary psychological wounds from them as well.

So in seeking mercy, we’re really seeking the God of love who desires not our death (in sin) but that we repent and love. His forgiveness is poured out in abundance upon those who repent – this is the heart of Psalm 50.+


[i] God in His mercy has permitted a special oil to flow miraculously from the tombs of martyrs, and this oil becomes a source of healing for those who come to the shrine and receive it, through the intercession of the martyr. There are other examples of oil from the ‘weeping icons’ that are also miraculous beyond explanation and bring spiritual and bodily healing to people.

[ii] The Fathers of the Church frequently used this image when describing the value of the spiritual anointing in our wrestling against our Enemy – the Devil.  So anointed and protected by grace we will be strong and victorious and He will not be able to ‘handle’ us in the battle for our lives.

[iii] Among the other anointings routinely carried out by the Church are the ones that take place at the feasts which have the vigils and the Litiya where we pray extensive prayers for God’s people and the world, for God’s mercy in their need. Traditionally at death, the body of the deceased Christian is anointed again.  It was made holy and remains holy.

Psalm 50: It’s All About God’s Mercy

#7 of a Series on Psalm 50

The Prodigal Son (Rembrandt) Wikipedia

              

Well we’ve just scratched the surface of Psalm 50 and Great Lent is half over!  There will be other times to fill in the important backstory and context of the Psalm not only from its biblical context but our experience of it.

So reviewing the first verse of the psalm we hear,

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.

Psalm 50 is about mercy, God’s abundant mercy offered to all.  In the world today we have a sense of this in what I call ‘Global’ mercy – and the awareness that we should ourselves show mercy to people in need as a duty, and now especially it’s popular to be extra kind to animals!  In Orthodoxy we have organizations that raise our awareness of the needs of others, like IOCC, FOCUS or OCMC.  The secular world has a global outlook in bringing global health care, community development, emergency relief, and an umbrella of ‘caring’ organizations and NGOs (non-government organizations) to take care of everything and everybody.  Of course, they don’t and they can’t.

Solving the problems of others is all well and good.  And through a donation or something it’s possible to participate in this ‘global’ mercy work.  But, the process of mercy must begin with you and me. 

Cares Around Me

As a priest – I find myself often concerned about the issues and struggles of others.  Parents share their concern about their children. Health care workers wonder about the pandemic.  People watch the elderly grow older and face increasing struggles with health, living standards and even the basics of life.  And we know a little and perhaps feel the needs of the hidden populations like the homeless, the mentally ill, prisoners and others who are marginalized in our culture and community.

There’s a danger though – that an exterior mental focus blinds us to our inner personal need.  The whole focus of Great Lent is to shatter this illusion and to come to the realization that I am really in desperate need of God’s mercy.  Like David.

So the question is, who am I – and how do I need God’s mercy?  This is a very personal and intimate question for each person.  No one shares the same wounds and sins of their lives.  No one even knows that you think a certain way – and maybe behave because of it – because of the emotional and psychological wounds of your life decades ago as a child or youth. They may not know of your hidden practices, addictions or other passions.   If you are like me, you may have experienced that quizzical look on someone’s face when you actually start to speak about such things, and their immediate desire is to change the subject.  Maybe because it hits too close to home for them too. So for many of us, we tend to live alone in self-isolation carrying in silence all of our problems, wounds and sins, but desperately needing mercy, from somewhere.

An Act of Faith

To cry out, “Have mercy on me O God”– is an act of faith.  It is an act that is often made standing on very wobbly ground. Almost immediately on saying these words, we are challenged.  Do I have (any) real faith

I recall perhaps the most terrifying moment for me was one dark night when I was in college, and very sick, and I cried out to God. And realized how little faith I had. When there was seemingly no response.

So I find the Gospel we read on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent very unsettling – when the man rushes up to Jesus, seeking help for his demon-possessed little boy, which causes Jesus to cry out not, ‘Be healed’, but ‘O unbelieving generation”, a title which included this man, and the apostles (not to mention the scribes persent) who could not cast out the demon.  The man is forced to cry in a paradox, “I do believe, help my unbelief.”  Mk. 9:17ff

As a Christian and perhaps especially as a priest, sometimes it’s easy to speak words of ‘faith’ to other people going through their trials.  But when we have to confront our own weaknesses, failings and ultimately our unbelief, as for this man, it is crushing. Words of faith come hard.

Do I believe that there is a compassionate and loving God who can help me?   If I call out, “O God” will I be heard?  

This is the heart of the matter for so many people in our world today – who have never been taught at an early age to ‘call upon the Name of the Lord” (Rom.10:13), but rather that there is some other ‘solution’ to our problem, be it government, science, medicine, money or some self-chosen path like Eastern religion or ‘meditation’ that still relies on me, and not Him.

What Does it Take?

So in simple terms, what does it take to pray the first verse of this psalm in truth?  A few things:   

                – Honest  Recognition of our need – This happens when our pride and self-sufficiency is crushed. Sickness, weakness, opposition in the world (i.e. imprisonment), will do that for us.

                – A perspective that God is near to us – He can and will hear.  This is the loving and personal God, who Christians learn to call upon as Father, who ‘unfortunately’ is in ‘heaven’ so He is hard to see, but can still be present.  Part of our spiritual heritage in America is ‘deistic’.  Deists are people who believe in God all right – but their God is very distant, and unengaged in any aspect of human life.  I suspect many agnostics are actually  deists believing in a great power of some sort perhaps – but it really doesn’t matter in real life. He is nowhere to be found.

                – God’s love for me  – God is my Helper, for sure.  But to say ‘God loves us’ is to go much further.  The Helper God is one who will be our ‘Go To’ god when we need help.  Like the student cramming for an exam the night before and needing an A to graduate.  But once deliverance comes, that god is cast aside as unnecessary, until of course he (it) is needed again. The breakthrough moments of life are often those where our limiting view of the god we believe in is exploded by the Real God who gives us a glimpse of what His love is all about.

I would say that if any of these elements is missing, we will come up short and our prayer, “Have mercy on me O God” will not be fruitful.

God’s mercy pours forth

Now when we are able to say these words with personal meaning, we experience a ‘bottoming” upon which a real (spiritual) life can be built.  This is like the Prodigal Son (Lk. 11:15ff) who ‘hit bottom’ when he was desperately hungry and found himself literally among the swine of the field and still unable to find relief.  In turning back, he found restoration.  Mercy flowed from His Father, as it does from our Heavenly Father when we seek Him in this way.  The bottoming out becomes a change of heart, and movement in a new life direction, to a place where we can actually receive the Father’s love and embrace. This restoration leads to a compassion to others who are in similar situations – suffering, alone, desperate and in need of forgiveness and healing.  And to know the Father.

The Church and Mercy

If we experience mercy in this way, then we can understand why the Church prays ‘Lord have mercy’ so much!.  We are the people who have received God’s mercy.  God’s mercy is available to all – but not all receive it.  We have been touched by the compassion and forgiveness of God as poured out as mercy upon us – through the Paschal Mystery – the Suffering, Cross, Death and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.  We know what mercy is because we’ve tasted it – and ‘drunk from the chalice’ of God’s mercy.[i]

This compels us to do the work of the Church[ii] – in prayer, ‘Lord have mercy’.   Having received mercy, and moved in the heart by Christ’s love for ‘mankind’[iii], the Church is sensitized to the way of mercy.  This is how the Church is the ‘priesthood of believers[iv]’ (1Pt 2:5) because we then long to bring mercy to the world – personally first, and then as a body.  In our litany prayers, compassion drives us to lift up the people in need in our personal world (friends, family, co-workers, etc.) as well as all in need to God, trusting in His mercy for them – all in the context of our communal, liturgical intercessory prayer.  

The words, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy;” are heard every week at the beginning of the Litany after the Gospel. God’s mercy is Great! We approach the throne of God in grace and trust in His mercy, as we lift up all the subsequent petitions – for the people of God, our spiritual fathers, our civil authorities, the sick and suffering, those who lie asleep in the Lord, all who bring offerings, etc. as the deacon leads the prayer petitions for these things in the subsequent petitions.  The response of the faithful, “Lord have mercy “– 3 times, is reiterative, and ‘rivets’ our personal intention to the prayer of the entire church.[v]

This intercessory prayer makes us all priests – for this is what priests do, serve as intercessors for others and our world, lifting them and their needs to the God of all mercy.[vi]  Our ‘global’ intercession and ministry is founded in a personal faith in God’s mercy.

Lent is the Season of God’s Mercy

Perhaps you can see how Psalm 50 brings us to so much potential richness in the Faith, discovering His mercy for me and us that we can return to him (like the Prodigal Son) as a slave, but more so in receiving His mercy, forgiveness and restoration, and ultimately discovering the greatest gift –  that He is Father.


[i] I’m convinced that the misunderstanding and misapplication of the metaphorical juridical language of some biblical texts by St. Paul, describing the state of man and the judgment of God and ‘justification’, has driven many Protestant sects to miss this essential grounding of Christian faith in the mercy of God, which is seminal to how the Orthodox Church experiences grace and salvation, as witnessed in the apostolic tradition in the Scriptures and Tradition.  Their forebears in Roman Catholicism at the time may have been in part responsible because of the construct of their faith at the time, so emphasizing personal salvation as a juridical process through personal works, that there was no need for a merciful God.  He could be appeased by what we do. People could effectively save themselves just by racking up enough positive points to balance out the negative ones on the scales of divine justice.  In many of these juridical constructs, where a God from a distance pronounces a judgment of Jesus and somehow forgives the world of its sin, is quite different from how God saves us in fact – intimately, through His mercy – into whose very Body we are baptized.

[ii] The ‘work of the Church’ is called ‘leitourgia’ in Greek, or ‘liturgy’.  So can it be said that those who have no interest in the Church’s liturgy perhaps don’t understand this work or their role in it, or maybe haven’t experienced the mercy of God in this way, or have forgotten?  Great Lent is here to remind us who we are who we are and what we are to be doing.

[iii] Orthodoxy frequently uses the title for Christ, ‘Philanthropos’, in Greek meaning the ‘Lover of Humankind’

[iv] For the Orthodox, this term can be used but is not understood in quite the same way as Luther and later Protestantism.

[v] Perhaps this raises a big issue which cannot be addressed here but needs to be addressed somewhere.  Is this ‘Lord, have mercy’ response really the participatory response of all of the people in the church?  Or is it just a response sung by a chanter or a handful of participants in a choir – but not enjoined by all or even a majority of those present, who are justpassive observers. Participatory singing by all goes a long way to addressing this in a basic way, but there are other issues – for liturgists and spiritual fathers to resolve.

[vi] In Catholicism, I find that the Divine Mercy devotion of recent years has been something of a remedy to the juridical template of the past.  It bears many of the elements of the prayers of the ancient Church – trust in God, seeking forgiveness, mercy and healing for self and for mankind.

Psalm 50: Let’s Focus on Me Shall We?

                                           

#6 of a Series on Psalm 50

file – pinterst

Well, it would seem we’re not making a whole lot of progress working through the verses of Psalm 50 and unfortunately we won’t seemingly get very much further today – our focus for today is ‘Me’!

Our phrase for reflection is, ‘Have mercy on me O Lord” and have spent a little time on “Lord, have mercy”, we’ll go to the second half of the phrases – Have mercy on Me

So What about Me?  It’s all about Me

The Orthodox Faith exists in two modes – and they can run in parallel tracks.  The first is familiar – it’s the Church of our experience with all of her adornments, church buildings, prayer forms, community activities, icons, incense, music and art, etc.  Like the proverbial smorgasbord, we can show up and just engage with it all, or some of it, on a Sunday morning.  Lent and Holy Week provide special experiences and it all reaches a summit of experience in Pascha. And as in a good show, it’s ends, we go home, go back to ‘normal’ and just engage in it all when we choose to.  In this case, the best show wins – with the ‘best’ icons, music, etc. is where we gravitate.

The second and parallel track of the Orthodox Faith is very different.  While the external things may impact it, they’re secondary to another internal question to the believer – ‘How is my soul responding to all of this?’  Where is God in all of this (if anywhere)?   When we experience joy from a service (above) what happens in my soul?  Am I more drawn to pray, do I  love others, or seek a spiritual way to bring me more of the spiritual life?  Is a personal contact with the Divine possible? Desirable?   If so, what is it like?  

Religions try to pull the two tracks into one and Orthodoxy is no different.   Some people focus on their personal faith path and ignore the first mode. And it’s quite possible for a person to experience the first mode, but not the latter.

David was not such a person.  The scriptures show us David’s ‘engagement’ with God was quite personal – his ‘prayers’ were not just religious utterances, but personal expressions to God of what he thought and believed about life, himself, others from the depths of his being.  It was a way of life for him, with a vision of a majestic, and yet loving and intimate God.  Likewise, God did His part in moving mysteriously in David’s life, allowing for this way of communication through prayer and psalms, and wondrous experiences like his call to action in faith in defeating the monstrous Goliath and his anointing as the King of God’s people on earth. So, for David, the faith was much about him, in a good way.  How the God of creation brought this about was viewed as a blessing, and being chosen and beloved by the Lord.

And so, when it came to his epic failure – his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, the effect was profoundly personal – it tore at his heart apart.  Now despite this inner wrenching pain we see his ‘evasive maneuvers’ trying to deflect his personal sensitivity, but his explanations about bringing home Uriah  to be with his wife (and hide the possibility of pregnancy) and the ‘justification’ for sending him to the front to die and was  that ‘bad things happen’ (2Sam 11).  He was lying to himself of course – deflecting externally the pain of conscience that was tearing him up.  But when the Lord, Who loved him, sent Nathan the prophet to cut through his denials, David showed that his extraordinary relationship with God was authentic, proven by the river of tears of sorrow in his eyes and heart.

For David, his words, “Have mercy on me” are extremely personal – begging for God’s mercy on him.  No time to worry about anyone else – family, friends, nation, etc.  When your gasping for air going under for the third time it’s about you.  And in this case, it was the burden of his sin with Bathsheba was a great weight pushing him down.  His is a cry for HELP!  He saw his life flash before his eyes – not his physical life – but his eternity of life which was tied with his relationship with God. 

Now when you’re drowning in an ocean of darkness like that, you just don’t know if you’ll be heard or anyone will come.  But David had the sense that because he had known God so intimately, that the God of the universe would indeed hear him. What he would do was another matter.  It’s kinda’ like the Prodigal Son who realizes that his only hope lies in his father’s house and so he directs his will in that direction, the right direction.  Like the Prodigal Son, his penitential cry is desperate, but it’s also personal.  He believes that somehow, his Father (God) will be there. He’s prepared for the worst and some sort of punishment but that doesn’t matter – he has to survive. 

The bible says and the Fathers affirm, “The wages of sin is death.”(Rom. 6:23)   For David, his need to confess his sin was life and death. Death was at the door and his only way to avoid it was to call out to God to receive deliverance from his personal sin.  This again is not some vague ‘sinfulness’ or personal failure – but a crushing realization of his spiritual plight.

This personal dimension of faith is a wonderful gift of God.  For the person who does not acknowledge the presence of God or any moral authority, there is only Me/I and no one to need to give an account for.  But ironically, we are never alone or solely self-centered, because by placing the human conscience within us that somehow, if we are human in the least, there is a voice that inspires us to goodness, caring and godliness. My “I” (ego) cannot shake my conscience though we’re good at dodging it sometimes for what seems like a lifetime.  But as I heard from a woman last weekend, she was only just recently started  coming to church because she had a life-altering near-death experience in a car crash.  While each of us is unique, you and I are very similar in this way.  When the chips are down, we’re going to look up.

So when David cries, “Have mercy on me, God”.  He is saying this For Real –  from the depth of his heart, not as a religious observer.  That’s when real penance happens, and conversion happens.  When Christ says, ‘Repent’to you and me – this is what he means.  

Psalm 50: Sorry, But Love Means Always Having to Say I’m Sorry

                                                            

Those of us who lived in the 1970s might remember the movie, Love Story, which had not only a rather lovely music score, but also a catchphrase with these words, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The phrase appears a couple of times in the movie and the book and was eventually made into a song.  So embedded in our culture, it became one of those great soundbites catchphrases that sounds so, well, loving and intimate. 

Alas, it’s not really true.

People who love must say, ‘I’m sorry’ and say it again and again.  Love relationships, like marriage, require it to clear the air in the relationship when one caused an offense against her or his beloved. It first is an acknowledgement that something ‘happened’, and my responsibility for it happening, and that it was offensive, and that I care about how you feel about it and also feel badly because of it, and how it has effected you.  Now this is a human example in a sort of generic form, but it applies in other human relationships and arguably in our relationship with God although any projection of human thoughts or behavior or feelings isn’t sound. 

It might also be said that love begins when we say “I’m sorry” or maybe more precisely, when I care so much for how my sinful thoughts and actions influence our relationship in a destructive way. 

Why is “I’m sorry” so Difficult?

There are many reasons why it’s hard to get to ‘I’m sorry.’  You probably know them all. To get to “I’m sorry.” there requires self-awareness, humility and an acknowledgment of my inadequacies and spiritual brokenness. If we lack any of these, we will be unable to (really) say “I’m sorry.”  Well maybe we can say it, but meaning it is a lot harder. 

Self-awareness is a sign of human maturity.  Children see the world as an extension of themselves. Maturing psychologically and emotionally means recognizing the (incredible) distinctiveness of other persons. They are not me or even like me, sometimes not at all.  Our inner thinking often says, “Of course they think that way or feel that or believe that.” But projecting those thoughts, emotions or beliefs on others blocks all relationship.  Similarly, sometimes people (even long married couples) will think – ‘well of course he forgives me’ or some similar thought, simply projecting one’s own thoughts or desires. Seeing this in someone today we usually label them as ‘clueless.’

Humility means humbly seeing the other in this distinctive way and then having enough self awareness that I not only can sin and offend God and others, but do.  In regard to our relationship with God, this denial is mitigated if we can honestly accepted the Ten Commandments and compare our behaviors (and thoughts) against that external standard. Self-delusion takes place when the only standard for me is myself.[i]  Living in denial means surround ourselves in this bubble of self-protection. 

But this is a spiritual reality of the soul as well.  There are certain diseases (even low level ones) that pump toxins into the bloodstream and a person gets weak, and sometimes utterly delusional.  They are wobbly psychologically and emotionally, and spiritually. The disease comes from the sinful passions that overwhelm the soul’s ‘balance’.

This is where David was, before the prophet Nathan showed up.

Here is a rather lengthy comment on this by St. John Chrysostom,

And the prophet was found in adultery, the pearl in the mud. However, he did not yet understand that he had sinned; the passion ravaged him to such a great extent. Because, when the charioteer gets drunk, the chariot moves in an irregular, disorderly manner. What the charioteer is to the chariot, the soul is to the body. If the soul becomes darkened, the body rolls in the mud. As long as the charioteer stands firm, the chariot drives smoothly. However, when he becomes exhausted and is unable to hold the reins firmly, you see this very chariot in terrible danger. The exact same thing happens to man. As long as the soul is sober and vigilant, this very body remains in purity. However, when the soul is darkened, this very body rolls in mud and in lusts. Therefore, what did David do? He committed adultery; yet neither was he aware nor was he censured by anyone. This occurred in his most venerable years, so you may learn that, if you are indolent, not even old age benefits you, nor, if you are earnest, can youthful years seriously harm you. Behavior does not depend on age but on the direction of the will. Although David was twelve years old, he was a judge; his predecessors, however, who were old in years, committed adultery; and neither did old age benefit them nor youth injure this one. So you may learn that the affairs of prudence rely upon the will and do not depend on age, just remember that David was found in his venerable years falling into adultery and committing murder; and he reached such a pathetic state that he was unaware that he had sinned, because his mind, which was the charioteer, was drunk from debauchery1

Here St. John likens this state of mind and heart as a ‘stupor’ like drunkenness.

Diagnosis?

If you want to know your state of mind and heart, just monitor your thoughts of defensiveness?  If we feel that way, like David, we’re usually hiding something we’re ashamed of – and that’s usually something sinful.  And defensiveness, strangely, often accompanies psychological denial.  In our deepest selves we know we are, or have done, wrong, but can’t accept the thought so we defend ourselves. Likewise we’ll attack others and often accuse them of the very thing we have done.

 Nathan was courageous.

The antidote to sin is repentance, and what is necessary to upright the ship is the strength of moral courage.  It takes courage to confront sin, even in others, and so much easier to just avoid the conflict.  St. John Chrysostom speaks further:

What did the king say? “I have sinned against the Lord.” He did not say, “Who are you who censures me? Who sent you to speak with such boldness? With what daring did you prevail?” He did not say anything of the sort; rather, he perceived the sin. And what did he say? “I have sinned against the Lord.” Therefore, what did Nathan say to him? “And the Lord remitted your sin.” You condemned yourself; I [God] remit your sentence. You confessed prudently; you annulled the sin. You appropriated a condemnatory decision against yourself; I repeal the sentence. Can you see that what is written in Scripture was fulfilled: “Be the first one to tell of your transgressions so you may be justified” [Isaiah 43:26]? How toilsome is it to be the first one to declare the sin?”2

David perceived his sin – and regained his senses, his equilibrium. 

We can never be unaware of our sin.  We have a conscience.   We will either

– Deny it

– Blame others for it                        – Dull its pain                     

– Or Confess the sin and accuse myself as a sinner

Only this path leads to health. Our sins are confessed so that they can be forgiven.  Unless they are confessed they remain unforgiven. 

Psalm 50 is all about coming to our senses (like the Prodigal Son) and then the Psalm gives us the perspective which leads us to be able to say, in all honesty and humility, ‘Lord, I am sorry.’  Remember that Judas recognized that he had ‘done wrong’ and effectively sinned, but did not have the courage or faith to come to Jesus and say, ‘I’m sorry!’ Can you imagine what would have happened if He had?  Peter too had offended Christ, be he did say, ‘I’m sorry.’

When we come to our senses and recognize our sins and responsibility for them, we have begun the journey of forgiveness and healing which is what Great Lent is about.  This opens us to the great expanse of God’s forgiveness.


Psalm 50:  Lord, Have Mercy

#4 of a Series of Reflections on Psalm 50 (51)

Lord have mercy!

We’ll hear those words today in all kinds of situations out of the mouths of believers and non-believers alike.  It’s often blurted out when someone is exasperated, or utterly shocked when something happens to them or surprises them.  It’s not always a statement about the Lord, or about mercy, at all.

David begins Psalm 50 with these same words, more or less – “Have mercy on me, O God!”

But for believers, these words are always to be at the center of our hearts. They are our spiritual starting line in the race of faith,  when we begin to understand who we are and how we need God in our lives. The sentence has two parts, ‘Lord’ and ‘have mercy’ so we’ll approach the first in this discussion.

The NAME of the Lord

Christian life starts with speaking the name of the  ‘Lord’.  How we address the Lord is really important!  When we blurt out ‘Lord have mercy’ in exasperation or even anger, the eternal Lord is usually far from our minds.  It’s usually the opposite scenario where we’re overwhelmed by the here and now.

But the Lord Almighty commanded that His Name not be spoken ‘in vain’ (Ex. 20:7) Judaism’s reverence for the name of the Lord was so total, it was a fearful thing just to utter it.  They would not even spell it as such[i], but use the letters YHWH to stand for Him and for His name, because in the Hebrew and Semitic way of thinking, one’s name signified the very essence of a person, his character, and even her life purpose.  So, from the naming of ‘Eve’ by Adam in Gen. 2, to the naming of the sons of the Patriarchs, etc and ‘Emmanuel’ in the Book of Isaiah, this sense of the importance and reverence of any name was serious business.  But to speak the name of the All-Holy and Unknowable God of All Creation was deemed beyond man’s capability, because of our utter unworthiness to even approach, let alone speak to the Divine.  This ‘fear of the Lord’ is called in the scriptures the ‘beginning of Wisdom.’ (Prov. 9:10)  God in His holiness, in this view, was utterly inaccessible and unapproachable.

Approach with the Fear of God

But for one who had a heart for the Lord, like David, he had come to know that he could approach God in all humility. As David begins this great psalm, he begins not with himself, but with the God who is the eternal Point of Reference of all that is and lives. This becomes, in this amazing moment of penance, David’s singular focus, to somehow dare to approach God in his sin!  This he could do because he had approached God many times before – in other times and circumstances not so bitter.  He could praise Him, thank Him as the psalms and scriptures attest, and ask for deliverance.  But now could he approach God to receive forgiveness?   It is a fearful thing to approach the Living God – let alone when we are clothed in sin! In fact, as we read in Genesis as well, our forefather Adam could not approach the Lord, but hid from him (physically, emotionally, spiritually). Faith then requires both humility and courage.

I suspect we may be comfortable chatting with God about our lives or lifting up concerns or the present or future state of things.  This dialogue of what could be called ‘prayer’ sets a grounding and framework for a relationship with God that is personal – not just words from some book, but impacting what is here and now for us.  But if you’re like me, God is probably wondering when I, in my prayers, will actually get around to what’s really going on in my life because the messy things like sin, rebellion, love for this world, hatred of others and other sinful thoughts and behaviors are not the stuff of a daily prayer chat.  Rather, we find ourselves naked and asking ourselves whether, like David, we dare approach God with such things – knowing that they are utterly unworthy of Him.

Jesus opened the door to us in this matter, not only giving us the command to repent, but offering us a way to come to repentance before God – as Father.  When Jesus prayed, He spoke to God as Father.  When the apostles asked Him, ‘How should we pray?’ He said, “When you pray, say, ‘Father…’” (Mt.5). 

Our Father

So now, for us, the eternal, unknowable and All Powerful God is actually ‘Father’ and we are to approach Him as such!  Now this is the good news and the bad news!

The good news of course is that God is indeed approachable to us,  just as we read in the first week of Great Lent from Genesis, ehrn He walked in the garden with Adam, and looked for Adam even after He had sinned.  He could have, in all righteousness, simply struck Adam down in His sin then and there and obliterated him from the Garden, the face of the earth, and the Cosmos in an instant.  Perfect love did not permit this despite how seemingly ‘just[ii]’ it would have been.

But a Father does not do that to his children.

Instead, as Jesus repeats in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Father patiently waits until the movements of life force the fallen son to come to his senses, and recognize the Truth for what it is – his rebellion in sin, his disregard for His Father, his squandering of the precious treasures entrusted to him, his chasing after this life pleasures, etc.  And the son only need make the first step in returning so that the Father can reconcile him and restore him again. 

The ‘Bad’ news is that, when we really recognize how we have sinned, it’s one thing to deal with them as past events, or ‘something to work on’.  But when we realize that we have offended God our Father Who loves us so!  It’s heartbreaking!  Or as the holy Fathers would say, it is heart softening.  (There will be more said about this a little later.)

David did not have the benefit of the Gospel of Jesus to give him the sense when he finally came to his senses that he could actually reach out to God.  This is at the crux of the story for each of us – when the chips are down can we, will we, and do we actually turn to God in a way that is not ‘in vain’ but in faith?  Those who do the former will only find exasperation amplified, even anger, as we read in the scriptures about people like Cain and Judas Iscariot.  When they sinned they had nowhere to go.  They were unable – in their critical moment – to turn to God as their Lord as David could, and I believe, ultimately, Adam could.  When we cannot turn to God in such a moment we are spiritually  lost.  The demons soon swarm in, and convince us that our anger at God is justified, and we can become utterly lost spiritually, like Cain and Judas.  So many people feel emotionally empty and defeated, because they too have only their own feelings confronting them and overwhelming them with their own self-defeating self-talk, leading to depression and even suicidal thoughts.  In such a terrible place we need to look beyond our selves – and cry out to that true God, who is Somewhere, to hear us.[iii]

The words of Jesus to the Apostolic Church after His Resurrection were, “Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 19:13)  Is this not the Good News? We can call upon the name of the Lord, that it as spoken from our lips, can be heard and that we, like Adam and David can come out from our hiding and darkness to receive healing, purification and a restored relationship with God as Father? 

St. Marks’ Gospel speaks a parallel word from Jesus Himself,

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.6 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

Here the Lord refers to the need to approach God in faith and receive Baptism (of repentance). But it goes further speaking another possibility – those who won’t repent and call upon the name of the Lord, won’t be saved.   They will find no salvation, because they distance themselves from the Lord and without Him there is No One who can save them.  They have not learned, nor been taught, to call upon the Name of the Lord. 

Now this points to another spiritual reality and responsibility.  If we have learned from our forebears to call upon the name of the Lord, so as to be saved from our sins, then it behooves us to teach others to call upon the name of the Lord.  This is the Church’s role[iv]  – no other religion or place on earth is in a place or position to bring salvation of Jesus and the awareness of the possibility of God as Father – it is the privilege of the Church to introduce the children of God to their Father.  The Church teaches us with the words of Jesus to come to our Father, that He might “forgive us our trespasses (offenses)” We can call upon our God directly, and as the introduction to the Our Father in the Divine Liturgy vividly says,

And make us worthy O Master, that we may dare call upon You, our Heavenly God, as Father, and to say…’Our Father…’”…

So here is this amazing irony, that the sinners recognize two things – first that they are utterly unworthy to approach God, yet by faith they are compelled inwardly to nonetheless with fear and faith so approach God as Father.”

This is the recipe for repentance and redemption, which comes not from any sense of ourselves that somehow we are worthy of anything good (as like David our sins reveal) but that nevertheless we can so approach God, as Lord and Father, and that He is one Who will deal with us with great mercy, as a Father always does.

David knew this, so his prayer of repentance could so begin.

The Not so Good News?

I mentioned above that being able to call God our Father also had it’s ‘down’ side?  What could that possibly be?  Well it’s a downer, only in so much that it makes it harder in some ways, to say ‘Father, I have sinned’ rather than Eternal God of the Cosmos I am a sinner.  When God is personal, even Father, the emotional sadness of penance has an even deeper reach in our heart.  This is the case with our sins when we realize the love of God in our hearts.  It’s why the saints were so profoundly penitential – because they realized how much our sins were an offense to our loving Father, even unbearably so.  Likewise when we realize the personal aspects of our personal sins – that the effect our loved ones deeply and intimately, makes our repentance so much harder – really.  I think this is one of the reasons why some people live in denial – simply because the thought of having so offended someone they love is unbearable.  How much more so for our All-loving Father.  But the Lord Himself gives us the grace to so approach Him – as the Father was known by the Prodigal Son as One who was full of forgiveness and could be approached.

So the not-so-good news is, of course, good news. Our hearts are capable of deep love, hence we are capable of deep repentance. +


[i] Of the several names for the Lord in Hebrew, Yahweh was used, essentially meaning ‘I am Who Am” 

[ii] The Old Testament notions of justice, and all human limited perceptions of justice pale in comparison to the justice of God. It is beyond us and there is no contradiction between His justice and mercy.

[iii] The Orthodox Church sings Psalm 140 daily at vespers, beginning with these words, “Lord, I have cried to you hear me, He me O Lord.” These words ‘inhaled’ daily help us to instinctively turn to the Lord in our need.

[iv] To fulfill His command in Mk. 16 and as St. Paul was doing by example to the Roman Church in Rom 10 above.