"Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”
Today’s Responsorial is taken from Psalm 51. This psalm is, arguably, the most profound of the seven psalms that are traditionally called the Penitential Psalms [Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143]. For many centuries, the seven Penitential Psalms have helped Christians to focus on their need to accept God’s mercy, and to practice penance. Here at the beginning of Lent, you might consider copying one of the Penitential Psalms, carrying it with you throughout Lent, and praying it every day. If you’re unsure about which of these seven to choose, try Psalm 51.
Today’s Responsorial is drawn from just eight verses of Psalm 51. Consider each set of verses that the Church sings today between the repetitions of the refrain.
During the first set of verses, we repeatedly petition God. Four times the Church sings of our neediness. But these four needs are of a specific sort. We might say that they’re negative in nature. Of course, every need is negative in the sense that we’re asking for something we do not have: asking God to fill a void, whether it’s an empty pantry or an empty savings account.
But in this first set of verses, we ask God to have mercy on us, to wipe out our offense, to wash us from our guilt, and to cleanse us from our sin. What these four needs have in common is that we’re asking God to restore to us something that we once had but have lost.
The second set of verses complements the first. If we admit in the first verses what our need is, the second set of verses helps us answer the question “Why?” Why do we need what we are asking God for? Why did we lose what we once had?
The answer is that we need mercy, and our offenses wiped out, and our guilt washed away, and to be cleansed from sin because each of us has freely chosen to sin. Each of us has sinned, and each of us needs to admit this fact. What the Psalmist in the first set of verses implied, he makes plain in the second. The Psalmist admits in four different ways that he has sinned. He says: “I acknowledge my offense”, “my sin is before me always”, “Against you only[, God,] have I sinned”, and I have “done what is evil in your sight”. The Psalmist is willing to admit not only that he has a problem, but that he is the problem.
However, while the first half of today’s Responsorial confesses the loss resulting from our human sin, the second rejoices in what God offers us through Divine Mercy. This second half consists of seven petitions, and one promise. But these petitions aren’t like those in the first half. The first half’s petitions ask God to remove what is negative: to wipe out offense, wash away guilt, and cleanse one of sin.
But now in this second half the Psalmist asks God to restore and sustain what is positive. The Psalmist asks God to restore to him a clean heart, a steadfast spirit, and the joy of God’s salvation. He asks God to sustain in him God’s presence, His Holy Spirit, and a willing human spirit.
Finally, the Psalmist sings of his end. In the last two verses of today’s Responsorial, we hear the goal both of God removing from the Psalmist’s life what is negative, and sustaining within him what is positive. Here each of us needs to consider herself or himself to be the Psalmist. What is true of the Psalmist is true of each of us, especially in terms of our Lenten fasting, prayers, and almsgiving.
The final petition of the Psalmist is different from the others within the Responsorial. Now, the Psalmist sings: “O Lord, open my lips.” The Psalmist makes this petition with the aim of making God a promise: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
Praise of God is the end of mankind. Each of us during Lent needs to keep in mind that all our fasting, prayers, and almsgiving are oriented to this goal. This is what God created Adam and Eve for “in the beginning”. The final Adam, Jesus Christ, lives and dies upon this earth to restore to each of us the chance to fulfill this calling from God: to proclaim His praise all our days on this earth, and forever in Heaven.