Lamenting of our sinfulness

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes:

The Scottish Episcopal Church reflects its Christian faith in its liturgies, including its collects. An example is the following collect for weekdays in Lent. The collect is a reworking of the Ash Wednesday collect from Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (1549); the collect has its roots in the Latin of the mediæval Sarum Rite and is the collect for Ash Wednesday in the Scottish Book of Common Prayer (1929). Anglican and Episcopal churchgoers will likely pray it during Lent more than a few times:

Almighty God, 

you hate nothing that you have made, 

and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: 

create in us a clean and contrite heart; 

that, in lamenting our sinfulness, 

we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, 

forgiveness and perfect peace; 

through Jesus Christ, our Lord, 

who lives and reigns with you, 

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

The collect first declares God’s love of creation and forgiveness of sin. It goes on to beseech God to create a clean heart within us (paraphrasing Psalms 145 and 51) and to give us ‘forgiveness and perfect peace’. Forgiveness is what we ask of God not only in Lent 2022, but in the course of our mortal lives. Perfect peace is the end of that forgiveness not fully realised ‘till in heav’n we take our place, till we cast our crowns before [God], lost in wonder, love and praise’ (as Charles Wesley renders it in ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’).

In the meantime, though, there is a line in the collect that should not escape our attention. It is the line that portrays neither who God is nor what we pray God to do, but instead speaks to what we are meant to do, and indeed to what we claim to being doing in Lent, namely lamenting our sinfulness. Such an activity presumes two things. On the one hand, it presumes that we are cognisant of our own sinfulness. On the other hand, it presumes that our cognisance leads us to remorse. St Paul reminds us clearly that there is no distinction among us: ‘we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.22–23). The sobering reality of the constancy of our sin should, in fact, lead us to lament.

Our forebears in faith, the ancient Hebrews, were deeply aware of their sinfulness and their need to lament. About one-third of the Psalms are psalms of lament. They usually begin with an expression of deep sorrow, and then beg God’s intervention and blessing. Some of them are penitential and personal. For example, Psalm 51, which figures largely into our Lenten collects, is King David’s confession of adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11–12). The Hebrews believed that an acknowledgement of sin and prayer to the Lord would lead to forgiveness. They were by God’s grace prescient, for from them, indeed from the house of David, came the Messiah, the Saviour, Jesus Christ.

There is a staggering difference between the mind-set of lament and one pervasive in our time. Lamenting not only admits and owns our personal sinfulness but asks pardon of God. It is honest and humble. Our twenty-first century days, though, are characterised more by a finger-wagging mind-set that is mendacious and arrogant. This mind-set is exercised in calling out, indeed shouting out, the sins of others. It is a mind-set that seeks to shame others yet knows nothing of being ashamed; it is a mind-set that is ever looking outward but never looking inward. Jesus was aware of this in his day and days to come. Is it not Jesus who asks us, ‘Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?’ (Matthew 7.1–5; Luke 6.41–42; cf. Romans 2.1; 14.10).

Lent is a time for us to look inward: to see the log in our own eye and to beg God’s help in removing it. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there is lot of sin in the world; if we are humble, we must admit that we are responsible for much of it. Lent is the liturgical season when we point our fingers at ourselves, not others, and cry out to God for pardon. We will likely pray this Lenten collect. Let us ensure that each and every line strikes a chord within us, even the chord that may be difficult to hear. Let us be confident in our prayer, especially in Lent, let us trust in God’s mercy, his forgiveness and the perfect peace we shall know when we take our place in heaven and find ourselves lost in wonder, love and praise.

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.