Eleven years ago I married into a family of Episcopalians. Sarah’s father is the recently retired bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey, and Sarah describes herself as a “cradle Episcopalian.” As a result, I have become somewhat familiar with the Book of Common Prayer and the soaring language it employs to capture our relationship to the divine.
Take the Ash Wednesday liturgy, for instance. It starts this way:
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.
That’s beautiful. A little later in the service comes the litany of penitence, which contains these petitions:
Most holy and merciful Father: We confess to you and to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
The litany goes on to list other ways we have sinned “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” These sins include hypocrisy, self-indulgent appetites, negligence in prayer and worship, waste and pollution of God’s creation, anger, envy, prejudice, and so on. It can be disheartening to reflect on all the ways we have failed.
But the point is not to dwell on our failures or wallow in guilt. The point is to follow Jesus Christ as disciples. We will never do it perfectly, but we can do it joyfully. One finds a deep sense of joy in doing God’s will that one simply can’t find anywhere else. That’s why Saint Augustine once described the relation of humanity to God in this way: “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
Having said that, I must also say there is something troubling about the content of the liturgy. After the litany of penitence, the priest offers a prayer on behalf of the participants in which she confirms God’s willingness to pardon and absolve “all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.” But then comes the kicker. The closing paragraph of the prayer goes like this:
Therefore we beseech [God] to grant us true repentance and [the] Holy Spirit, that those things may please [God] which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to [God’s] eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This language has been enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer since the 16th century, and is used throughout the Anglican communion. If you add in all the other traditions who convey similar ideas in their Ash Wednesday liturgies, we’re talking about language that is used by hundreds of millions of Christians all over the world every year. Year after year for centuries. And the liturgy is always the same. The faithful say the same litany of penitence every year, we hear of God’s pardon and absolution every year, and every year we join together in praying this same prayer expressing our heartfelt desire to live in a pure and holy manner for “the rest of our lives hereafter.”
Do you see the irony in this? I knew you would.
A couple of possible conclusions come to mind when I consider this situation. The first one is that it’s all a sham. Every year we make this commitment, and every year we have to come back and say, “Oops, I messed up. I’ll try again this year.” We are like the person Steve Taylor describes in his song “Sin for a Season”:
Gonna get the good Lord to forgive a little sin,
get the slate clean so we can dirty it again.
Before long, one might get the reasonable impression that such a person is not entirely sincere—that his professions of repentance are fictions and he himself is a fraud.
The second conclusion that occurs to me, however, is a good deal more hopeful and a good deal more gracious. Perhaps the liturgy holds a wisdom that is not apparent at first glance. What appears on the surface to be an endless, farcical cycle of sin, repentance, recommitment, and failure may actually be one of the most clear-eyed statements of the relationship between God and humankind that the church has ever produced.
Sure, my cynical side can look at this process and say, “It’s a joke. There doesn’t seem to be any hope of making any genuine progress in the life of discipleship. We might as well throw in the towel.”
But I’m not going to let cynicism win out. I see in these confessions and commitments a parable of our relationship with God. Above all, I catch in them a glimpse of God’s grace at work. We try to live holy and pure lives—we really do—but we fail. Miserably. We fall down again and again, ad infinitum. Then, when we come to our senses, we call out to God for help. As God once again stoops to pick us up and brush us off, God says, “It’s okay; I forgive you. I love you. Now go out there and try again. And if you fail again I will forgive you again. And again, ad infinitum. Just don’t stop trying.”
That’s grace. That’s the source of true joy. That gives me the hope and the strength I need to go on even when I feel like the most miserable failure and sinner the world has ever seen. I hope it does the same for you.
Now get out there and try again.
And don’t ever stop trying.