Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"Make In Us New And Contrite Hearts"

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made 
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: 
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, 
worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, 
may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

"You are dust, and to dust you will return." With this ancient formula, heard by Christians all over the world on Ash Wednesday as the sign of the cross is traced in ashes on their foreheads, we begin Lent. This symbolic act is both a solemn reminder of our being marked in Baptism "as Christ's own, forever", as well as an invitation to renewal. Ash Wednesday and, indeed, the whole Lenten season is a special time of repentance. Repentance, however, isn't some sick form of regret about past mistakes. Jesus, at the outset of his public ministry, preached: "Repent, for the reign of God has come". The Greek word for repentance literally means a change of mind, of heart, a change of spiritual presence in the heart. In Baptism we began to live in Christ, as Paul says. Jesus hints that to live in him is to be part of and to live in within the reign of God, for he says "The reign of God is within you." You and I know that we need to be called back continually to change our minds, our hearts, and to live within the reign, the presence of Jesus the Christ. 

Hopefully, this Lent will be a special season and time for us together to discover or rediscover the presence and peace of Jesus in our lives. The beloved prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (BCP, p. 833) expresses this theme so well, and can be a particular help to focus our thoughts during Lent.

One of Lent's traditional disciplines and the chief way in which we come to find God's presence and peace is to pray for it. We pray for all sorts of things: a sick relative, a dying friend, for inspiration on an exam, for the relief of suffering people throughout the world. St. Francis reminds us that, above all, in praying we need to pray for God. The focus of prayer isn't asking God for something, but asking that God be there, that God be present, in everything. Augustine of Hippo, a thousand years before  Francis, had exclaimed: "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Andrew Weyermann says, "We have a spirit that curves us into ourselves so that our every want becomes an insatiable need." We feel all sorts of compelling urges: to put ourselves first; to outdo any who oppose us or differ with us; for power and possession; to be needed. Even, and perhaps especially, when all those emptinesses have been filled and satisfied, at least momentarily, we still find ourselves reaching out for something more to ease the void and loneliness. But how do we ask for it? How do we pray? "We do not know how we ought to pray," Paul says.

As we journey through Lent, then, anticipating the joyous celebration of Jesus' Resurrection, we let the Holy Spirit of God and Jesus plead for us in groans which words can't express. We pray for a special measure of his presence: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
In praying thus, we ask two things: 1) "Make me in your presence. We've often used and heard these words "make me" as words of defiance, as a declaration of a war of wills. But in praying to our gracious Father, the words "make me" take on a new meaning. They express our choosing to hand ourselves over to God's presence, to allow ourselves to be created anew. Paul discovered such rebirth in the presence of the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus. For Francis, God's renewing presence took the form of a loathsome leper whom he nevertheless embraced. In Baptism each of us has become a new creation in God's presence. Each time we turn back to God and change our hearts, God stands with us, present, there. "Make me, Lord -- create me anew." 2) "Use me for your presence." No one likes to be "used", in the sense of catering to someone else's needs and desires, and being taken advantage of. Yet there's a sense in which we need and choose to be used for God's purposes. "Make me an instrument of your peace." It's similar to the player on the bench who asks the coach, "Use me." All of us need the assurance that we and our life count for something, that we're here for a reason. Paul expresses the reason thus: "God...through Christ...has given us the ministry of reconciliation...We are ambassadors for Christ..." We're bearers of the message of his presence and peace to all who come into our lives. Perhaps we can resonate with the thoughts of Thomas Merton's poem, The Candlemas Procession, as we embark upon our Lenten renewal:

Look kindly, Jesus, where we come,
New Simeons, to kindle,
Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life's candle.

And when Your flame turns into many tongues,
See how the One is multiplied, among us, hundreds!
And goes among the humble, and consoles our sinful kindred.

...Nor burn we now with brown and smoking flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.


No comments: