‘What is evil in your sight I have done’ - Second Sunday of Lent (A)

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > ‘What is evil in your sight I have done’ - Second Sunday of Lent (A)

The season of Lent each year is a call to repentance. As ashes were placed on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, the priest said, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

The call to repent remains central to our participation in Lent. Whatever fasting we undertake, whatever acts of self-denial that we do, whatever works of charity that we perform, all have as their backdrop a recognition that we need to do penance for our sins.

In Psalm 129 the psalmist states a great and salutary truth, “If you O Lord should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive.” Indeed, if all our sins were tallied up, how could we even face God? What a frightening thought: all the sins of our life collected together.

Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm, says, “My offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned: what is evil in your sight I have done.” This is an inescapable truth: I am a sinner.

When we look deep into our hearts, when we look back on our lives, we see those places of darkness, those moments of sin. When we think of God, his holiness, his goodness, his love, we are moved to agree with the psalmist – “What is evil in your sight I have done.”

Each Lent we are encouraged to face our sin.

In the Catholic tradition there are seven psalms from the Old Testament which are called the ‘Penitential Psalms’; penitential, because they expressed profound sorrow for sin and are ardent cries from the soul for forgiveness and mercy.

As early as the fifth century St Augustine referred to these penitential psalms. The greatest of these psalms is Psalm 51, known as the Miserere, as it begins with the words, “Have mercy on me, O God”. This psalm has been traditionally attributed to King David as he repented of his grave sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent complicity in the murder of her husband Uriah. It is a moving expression of one man’s deep regret for serious sin.

The other psalm which has become well known in Catholic tradition is Psalm 130, known as the De Profundis: “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord.”

These psalms have been put to music and some of the greatest Christian composers have sought to capture their depth of contrition. 

The seven Penitential Psalms have their own special poignancy as the psalmist in each one pours out his heart to God, in great distress over sins that have caused him much physical and emotional anguish.

These psalms are not just expressions of deep sorrow, but they are marked by an awareness of God’s mercy and compassion. They end with expressions of joy and thankfulness at being forgiven.

Psalm 130, for example, ends with the words: “With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.”

Lent is a very appropriate time to meditate on the seven Penitential Psalms. I offer a sample from each, that we might quietly ponder the words and consider soberly the state of our own heart.

From Psalm 6:
“Lord, do not reprove me in your anger: punish me not in your rage. Have mercy on me, Lord, I have no strength; Lord, heal me, my body is racked; my soul is racked with pain.”

From Psalm 32:
“I kept it secret and my frame was wasted. I groaned all the day long, for night and day your hand was heavy upon me. Indeed, my strength was dried up as by the summer's heat. But now I have acknowledged my sins; my guilt I did not hide. I said: ‘I will confess my offense to the Lord.’ And you, Lord, have forgiven the guilt of my sin.”

From Psalm 38:
“O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger; do not punish me, Lord in your rage. Your arrows have sunk deep in me; your hand has come down upon me. Through your anger all my body is sick: through my sin, there is no health in my limbs. My guilt towers higher than my head; it is a weight too heavy to bear.”

From Psalm 51:
“My offenses truly I know them; my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done. That you may be justified when you give sentence and be without reproach when you judge. O see, in guilt was I born, a sinner was I conceived.”

From Psalm 102:
“O Lord, listen to my prayer and let my cry for help reach you. Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress. Turn your ear towards me and answer me quickly when I call. For my days are vanishing like smoke, my bones burn away like a fire. My heart is withered like the grass.”

From Psalm 130:
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice! O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness: for this we revere you.”

And finally from Psalm 143:
“Do not call your servant to judgment, for no one is just in your sight. The enemy pursues my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead, long forgotten. Therefore my spirit fails; my heart is numb within me.”

The Prophet Isaiah urged the people, “Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn.” Lent invites us on an inner journey of repentance. The seven Penitential Psalms can assist us in this journey.

The Lent let us desire to walk this necessary but salutary path of repentance.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Sunday 8 March 2020