Lenten Journey in the Psalms

Two very different psalms form the liturgical hinges of Lent. The first is Psalm 51, the heartfelt admission of guilt and plea for mercy found in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. The second is Psalm 22, the responsorial psalm on Palm Sunday, whose anguished expression of divine forsakenness anticipates the cry of the crucified Jesus in the Passion narrative that follows. Two very different psalms, yet each plays a crucial role in the Lenten journey.

Scholars interested in the ancient genres of the psalms classify Psalm 51 as a “penitential psalm,” a genre in which the consciousness of sin has come to the fore in a way that dominates the entire psalm. It is striking that there are relatively few psalms that fit this description, and some would say that Psalm 51 is the only true example in the Book of Psalms. Other psalms, such as the psalms of lament, often include a confession of sinfulness, but only as part of a larger attempt to persuade God to intervene on behalf of the suffering psalmist. In Psalm 51, on the other hand, an acute awareness of sin is present throughout, and the psalmist engages in both a candid admission of guilt (vv. 5-7) and repeated pleas for God’s mercy and absolution (3-4, 9, 11-14).

Psalm 22, on the other hand, is one of the classic examples of a psalm of lament. Its opening question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” has no easy answer, especially in view of the fact that in the rest of the psalm the psalmist never admits to any guilt and even claims to be known as someone who has relied on God (22:9). Scholars have called this opening an “accusatory question,” because the psalmist seems to be accusing God of inexplicable behavior not in keeping with God’s past gracious actions (as described in verses 5-6, 10-11). There follows a graphic account of the psalmist’s present condition, which includes both physical suffering (15-16) and a vicious attack by enemies who are described as bulls (13, 22), lions (14, 22) and dogs (17, 21).

For the ancient Israelites, such a situation represented an invasion of the world of the living by the realm of death, an invasion that God has at least allowed and may even be said to have actively brought about (22:16). Faced with this dire situation, the psalmist boldly confronts God yet still looks to God for help. Indeed, the final section of the psalm (vv. 23-32) goes on to anticipate God’s assistance and to praise God for the saving actions that are to come, both for the psalmist (25) and for all who are in need (27).

Why does the Church ask its members to pray these particular psalms at the beginning and end of Lent? According to St. Athanasius in his Letter to Marcellinus, the special gift of the psalms is that they enable those who pray them to make them “their own words.” Even more, for Athanasius, the psalms have the power to shape those who pray them into a particular type of person, the type of person that God wants them to be. If Athanasius is correct and we do indeed become what we pray, we need to consider how these psalms want us to develop over the course of Lent.

Psalm 51 and Ash Wednesday: Opening to God

Psalm 51 provides us with a detailed portrait of the person one must be to begin Lent correctly. The superscription attributes this psalm to King David, “when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” The David of this episode (see 2 Sm 11-12) is a prime example of the grievous sinner who has run roughshod over a number of the Ten Commandments and the other laws. However, especially as depicted in the passionate language of the present psalm, this same David also is the model of the contrite penitent consumed by an awareness of his great guilt. By praying this psalm, one both acknowledges one’s similarity with David in his all-too-human sinfulness and goes on to adopt David’s deeply penitential stance.

In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the first reading from the prophet Joel (2:12-18) constitutes a forceful call to fasting and repentance. Joel makes pointed demands of his addressees, demands that go beyond their behavior to their hearts. These hearts must be both undivided in turning back to God (v. 12) and rent apart in sorrow over their sins (13). Psalm 51 provides the proper response to this summons, one that answers both of these demands on the human heart (12, 19).

To pray this psalm is to be someone who is aware of the radical presence of sin in one’s life and who passionately longs for it to be blotted out. Such a change is no easy matter, nor is it something that one can accomplish on one’s own. Psalm 51’s description of this process uses language associated both with the vigorous treading out of filthy clothes and the ritual purification of infectious diseases (vv. 3-4; see Lv 13-14). It is only through an appeal to God’s mercy, goodness (or covenant loyalty) and compassion that there is any hope for the kind of transformation that is being sought here (Ps 51:3-4; see Ex 34:6). It is God who must act if the psalmist is to become “pure” (Ps 51:9).

The necessity of divine action is especially evident in the psalmist’s request for the creation of a clean heart (Ps 51:12). The Hebrew verb used here is one of which only God can be the subject. The implication is that the psalmist is seeking something that is radically new, something that goes beyond simply God’s forgiveness of past offenses. Rather, the psalmist dares to ask God for something similar to what one finds in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which describe how God will change the people’s stubbornly sinful hearts into new hearts that are certain to know and fear God and do God’s will.

Those who pray Psalm 51 are asking God to make them into people who are capable of living in the presence of God and in communion with God’s Spirit (v. 13). For those who take Psalm 51 seriously, Lent is less a series of tasks that one undertakes to better oneself than an openness to God’s reshaping of our most basic selves. In this context, the traditional disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — are all about making room for God’s presence in our lives. It is only those with a “contrite, humbled heart” (19) who allow themselves to be open to God’s creation of a new heart (12).

This is what it means to “repent and believe the Good News.” On Ash Wednesday, we are asked to turn from our usual focus on our present selves and to long to be the individuals (and people) God wishes to make us. That such a repentance is the ongoing challenge of Lent may be seen from the fact that Psalm 51 reappears almost weekly in the Lenten liturgies.

Psalm 22 and the Passion: Toward Communion with Jesus

At the other end of Lent is Psalm 22, with its disturbing accusation of divine forsakenness. It is certainly of great theological significance that Matthew and Mark describe Jesus as exclaiming part of this classic lament psalm in his cry of desolation on the cross (see Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34). In his use of this psalm, Jesus both embraces and laments his pain, social rejection and the spiritual anguish of feeling that he has been abandoned by God.

Those who already are experiencing such suffering — the poor, the lowly, the persecuted — can all too easily pray the words of Psalm 22 as “their own words.” For them, the fact that Jesus spoke the opening words of this psalm on the cross is an assurance that Jesus fully has “known” and shared their suffering (see Ex 3:7) and that they are among the “blessed” of the kingdom of God.

For those in more favorable circumstances, the liturgy’s insistence that they pray Psalm 22 on Palm Sunday is less an expression of their present situation than a serious challenge. To be with Jesus on the cross is, of course, what Jesus demanded of his disciples as an essential component of being his followers. As was the case for most of the disciples, this is not something that we find easy to do. Rather, like these disciples, when faced with the cross, we are more inclined to deny Jesus and run in the other direction.

To understand the importance of praying Psalm 22 before the reading of the Passion on Palm Sunday, it helps to consider the question asked in the African-American spiritual that is a moving part of many Holy Week services: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” This is not simply an informational query about our whereabouts on a particular Friday. It is rather a gut-check question about our discipleship. We know that Calvary is not particularly where we want to be. Yet the liturgy’s insistence that we pray this psalm tells us that this indeed is where God wants us to be — in communion with the crucified Jesus and in solidarity with those suffering individuals and groups who already share his cross in their daily lives.

It is perhaps the central paradox of Christianity that God is to be found precisely in that place where God appears to be most absent: on the cross and in the depths of human suffering. As the second Palm Sunday reading, Philippians 2:6-11, proclaims, it is because of Jesus’ emptying himself and his acceptance of the cross that he is exalted. In this, Jesus is the model for every Christian, as Paul makes clear to the Philippians in the verse that immediately precedes this passage: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.” It is, of course, only in being “buried with him through baptism into death ... that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

The Psalms in Lent

In this essay, I have described Lent as a passage between two psalms. This journey begins on Ash Wednesday with Psalm 51, a passionate admission of sinfulness and plea for divine transformation. It ends at the start of Holy Week with Psalm 22, a powerful lament through which those who pray these words both protest human suffering and enter into the death — and through that death also the resurrection — of Our Lord.

In this view, Lent is a period set aside for growth into full discipleship, something that only is possible through God’s grace. At least in part, this grace is given to us through these psalms and the liturgy’s insistence that we make them “our own words.” Psalm 51’s radical openness to God leads to Psalm 22’s communion with the crucified Jesus. No one ever should say that either Lent or the psalms are for the faint of heart.

HARRY P. NASUTI, Ph.D., is professor of biblical studies at Fordham University in Bronx, New York, and past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America.