Ash Wednesday reflection delivered by Abigail Henderson on 03/09/11 at First Cong. Church of MN.
Psalm 51 is a tough one. It uses the “s-word” five times. You know the one I mean. Sin. These verses even declare that sin is original—“I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” Yeesh. That one’s hard to swallow. Yesterday afternoon, I read a book about animals to my niece, aged fifteen months, and she fell asleep right in my arms. As I felt her little body breathing against mine, sin was about the farthest thing from my mind.
And you know what? It was a moment of rest and relief, because I actually think about sin quite a lot. Not sin as it’s popularly understood or described—the sin of pride, the sin of lust, the sin of… whatever. It’s risky to talk about sin because it’s a loaded term, one that’s been used as a weapon in so many unjust crusades.
In light of this legacy, I don’t use the word lightly or easily. But nevertheless, “sin” is the only way I can describe the subject that occupies so many of my waking and sleeping thoughts. I think about my own failings and misdeeds. I think about the failures of others. I think about the staggering amount of pain in the world, so much of it caused by human greed, cruelty, and carelessness. In the face of so much dreadfulness, it is easy to get tangled up in another s-word: shame.
Psalm 51 is shot through with shame. And this isn’t just anyone’s shame—traditionally, these words are attributed to King David. In our age, when our leaders regularly betray and embarrass us, it’s hard to grasp the significance of this confession. David was anointed king by God’s prophets. David was the powerful, long-awaited ruler of Israel. Yet David was, simultaneously, the flawed and greedy man who seduced Bathsheba and arranged for her husband to die in battle and got caught, called out by the prophet Nathan.
By assigning David that humbled and dejected voice in Psalm 51, our biblical canon insists that even kings are accountable to God. Even kings can miss the mark. Even kings, through their own actions, can become crushed in spirit and broken-hearted.
My thoughts return to my sweet niece. In a way, she is “born a sinner”—because we all grow into one, eventually. None of us can avoid inflicting wounds on others and on ourselves. None of us can move through our lives with a sense of complete ease and virtue. We all sometimes act out of weakness, fear, anger and the intention to cause harm.
My prayer for my niece is that she never feels caught in a cycle of destruction against herself and others, one that is vicious and inescapable. My prayer for her—and for us all—is that her spirit is fed not by shame, but by the life-giving experience of mercy. My prayer is that we learn to bear our regrets with grace and resilience, and that we try to extend that very same grace to others.
On Ash Wednesday, we practice grace by confessing our brokenness and receiving assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We embody grace by receiving ashes on our foreheads—not for the sake of appearance but for the sake of this precious, fleeting moment. We remember that we are dust, the same sacred dust that created King David and my baby niece and every other soul on this earth.
We are only dust, yet God sees us all—even the most secret parts of us. And radically, unexpectedly, mysteriously loves us.
Thanks be to God.