Every Friday morning the church together prays the penitential Psalm 51 as the first psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the “Divine Office.”
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offense.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin.
It can be easy to read this Friday morning confession of one’s guilt and sinfulness, a truth professed by all human beings whether they pray this ancient Hebrew prayer each week or not, as a negative and self-deprecating exercise in humiliation, loathing, and penance.
My offenses truly I know them;
my sin is always before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned;
what is evil in your sight I have done.
It might also be seen as a cathartic practice of confession and acceptance, humbling one’s self before the Creator and acknowledging what we carry in our hearts that needs to be expunged.
That you may be justified when you give sentence
and be without reproach when you judge.
O see, in guilt was I born,
a sinner was I conceived.
But there is something else that strikes me about this powerful psalm. It is, indeed, partly reflective of both those ways of looking at its being prayed, yet there is something more — something hopeful.
Indeed you love truth in the heart;
then in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.
It is perhaps no coincidence that my brother friars and I prayed this psalm this morning as the sun rose over the Atlantic coast. Sitting in the chapel of the friary the beams of light shot through the window, the ocean breeze flowed through the window, joggers and bikers stirred in the distance, and the sound of coastal birds announced the day had begun.
Make me hear rejoicing and gladness,
that the bones you have crushed may revive.
From my sins turn away your face
and blot out all my guilt.
Like the sun that rises in the East, bringing all within our horizon into light, so this psalm shines light on the darker parts of our lives. It doesn’t do so with the self-flaggelating masochism that could wrongly be associated with confessing one’s sinfulness. It brings to light the good and the bad, the sadness of sins committed and the hope of redemption.
A pure heart create for me, O God,
put a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
no deprive me of your holy spirit.
There is for me a sense of hope and of honesty and of love present within this psalm. It flows from the outright expression of guilt, ownership of sinfulness, and confession of transgressions committed toward a prayer of petition that God might renew in us the heart created to and for love, so often turned off by the desire for fulfilled self-satisfaction.
Give me again the joy of your help;
with a spirit of fervor sustain me,
that I may teach transgressors your ways
and sinners may return to you.
Like the sun that rises each morning, this psalm appears on the lips of the members of the Body of Christ each Friday. And like the sun that rises each morning, we are reminded of God’s constant love, forgiveness, and desire for us to be more and more authentically human, which is to be more and more like Christ.
O rescue me, God, my helper,
and my tongue shall ring out your goodness.
O Lord, open my lips
and my mouth shall declare your praise.
This is a prayer of renewal and hope. It provides the opportunity for us to stand in the liminal space between our selfish world of isolation and the conversio of Christian discipleship — the turning toward Christ.
For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offering from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.
God wants nothing more from us than to be our true selves, those women and men acting in accord with our authentic identity as created in the image and likeness of God. Our honest confession, petition, and praise is the desire of God, not other acts of sacrifice.
In your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar.