At first glance, Ash Wednesday falling on Valentine’s Day seems like a rather bad joke. The typical symbols of Valentine’s Day are hearts, candy, flowers, and if retailers have their way, extravagant, diamond-encrusted jewelry. That’s quite a contrast to the ashes we will place on our foreheads. And, while we think of Valentine’s Day as being devoted to romantic love, Cupid was actually the Roman god of erotic love, and a shot from his arrow created not loving devotion but uncontrollable desire. Pose that next to Ash Wednesday, a day that begins a period of introspection and repentance and fasting, and you get a pretty jarring juxtaposition.
And yet, maybe it’s not so inappropriate when we think about it, because in on sense, St. Valentine is the epitome of love. Although there are lots of stories about St. Valentine, the only thing we actually know about him is that he was a Christian priest who was martyred on this day in Rome. We don’t even know for sure what year he died, although it was sometime in the third century when Claudius was emperor. So little is known about him that he doesn’t even appear in the Catholic Church’s calendar of saints’ days.
But the fact that he was martyred tells us all we really need to know: that he loved God above all things, even his own life. He is an example to us of what we strive to be—people who love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, living in ways that show that love. And, he is a standard that shows us how far we are from achieving that kind of love. Ash Wednesday, too, encompasses those two conditions of our lives—our desire to live more faithfully and the ways in which our hearts are divided between our love for God and our love of earthly things, both good and bad.
Psalm 51 recognizes these dual realities of our lives in a dramatic way that I was never aware of until I began studying the psalm for tonight. Even though I have read and loved this psalm for a long time, I never paid any attention to its “superscription”—the little introduction that comes before the actual psalm and which we always skip over. Here’s what it says: “To the leader [the worship or song leader, because psalms were meant to be sung]. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
That phrase “Psalm of David” doesn’t mean that it is a psalm by David but a psalm about David. More specifically, it is a psalm to be understood in light of David’s story. It is meant to be read in light of the sin that David committed when, as Scripture so delicately puts it, “he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
Bathsheba was a female subject of David’s, entirely under his power. She was the wife of another man, and not just any man, but Uriah, a gifted general who had proved his loyalty to both his men and his king—King David. In his rash, selfish, and evil acts against Bathsheba and his cover-up efforts that resulted in the death of her husband, David—the man anointed by God to be the king of Israel—broke nearly half the Ten Commandments in one fell swoop and inflicted great pain on innocent people.
There’s no indication that David had an ounce of remorse over what he had done or over the pain he had caused. After he had been assured that Uriah was dead, and after the official—but surely not, for Bathsheba, the emotional—mourning period was over, David once again had Bathsheba brought to the palace and married her, apparently thinking that would make everything OK.
But it wasn’t OK with God. God was displeased with what David had done, and God sent the prophet Nathan to David. In one of the most memorable courtroom dramas in the Bible, Nathan gets David to realize what he has done. First, Nathan tells a story which essentially rips away any cover for David. Then he speaks God’s word to David—a no-holds-barred list of the charges against him and their coming consequences. Afterwards, David has only one thing to say: “I have sinned against the Lord.”
With that backdrop in mind, hear again the words of the psalm, as David might have prayed it: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” This is a prayer from the heart, for the heart. It is a confession of sin, and it is a plea for forgiveness.
This is a prayer that is appropriate for all of us as we begin this season of Lent. David’s story is a dramatic one—one which in our world would make for news headlines and social media posts gone viral. But, while our own sins may not be as headline-grabbing as David’s, they are just as grievous to God. What David thought he was doing in secret, God saw. The sins we commit are often ones we commit in our hearts, where we think they remain unseen. But the sins we think are secret still have consequences, for ourselves and for others, just as David’s did, and they are just as visible to God.
But as much as Psalm 51 is a prayer of repentance, it is also a prayer for renewal. It is a prayer to be different, and we, too, desire the transformation that only God can offer us. We, too, want more than just an outer appearance of righteousness. We want clean hearts—hearts free from everything that prevents us from loving God and loving neighbor with our entire being. We want hearts that are guided by God’s wisdom. We want hearts that are joyful and fully willing to lead godly lives.
And so we pray this prayer with David: “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
How could David—how can we—make that prayer with any kind of confidence? After David’s confession, Nathan again spoke the word of God to him: “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” We have an even more certain hope. We are promised that in Christ, we can experience the very transformation we pray for. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Jesus makes the same promise to us that God made to David: “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Not only will we live, but in Christ we can live abundantly.
Tonight, on Ash Wednesday, we begin a season of looking at the ash-smeared places in our hearts that need the cleansing power of Christ’s blood and a thorough washing by the Spirit. On this Valentine’s Day, we remember the great love that God has for us. We remember the love that Jesus lived and which drove him to accept the cross for our sakes. We commit our hearts anew to loving him as fully as we possibly can. Tonight, we begin a season of examination, repentance, and prayer from the heart. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young