Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. As we prayed the various penitent prayers and Psalms at church, I couldn’t help but think of the strongly penitential tone of the BCP and its emphasis on actual sorrow for sins. Indeed, in 1662, we “moan and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,” although by 1962 this is mellowed to “acknowledge and confess”. One of the beautiful prayers in Compline prays that “we may so abound in sorrow for our sins . . .”
We live in a world where, even amongst Christians, the very idea of sin is very unpopular, where the wickedness of the average human heart is ignored and denied — as in the modern liturgy used by my evangelical Anglican church last night where we confessed our “brokenness,” not our “wickedness.” Yet, as Christine Watt preached boldly from the pulpit at last night’s service, Sin is real. It is the root of so much pain and sorrow and suffering in our world. It is the inner condition of humanity, the reason for our many daily small rebellions, let alone the big, flashy wrongdoings.
Yet even if we admit the reality of Sin and its insidious presence in our lives, damaging our relationships, distorting the beautiful image of God within us, do we lament? We fight sin, surely. We are good at the linguistic approach to repent, knowing that what it means is to turn 180 degrees and walk a new direction, as Josephus encouraging a Jewish soldier to repent and fight for Rome, or John the Baptist telling that brood of vipers to repent and live holy lives.
However, whenever we think of sorrow, we think of things quite repugnant to the modern mind.
We imagine ashes on our heads, rending our garments, rubbing excrement on our faces, shedding tears, flagellating ourselves, grovelling at the feet of a fierce, wrathful God who will destroy us with fire if we do not repent and live according to his rules.
We remember St. Ambrose saying that if we do not shed tears, we are not truly repentant.
We remember St. Thomas a Kempis’ endless sorrow for his sinful state that hung as a shadow over much of Soliloquy of the Soul.
Sorrow need not be so extreme. Indeed, I do not believe that the Christian should spend his or her entire life weeping over sin and grovelling in the dust, for we are called to rejoice in the Lord always. Christ says that if we love one another, our joy shall be full.
Nevertheless, sorrow for sin can be real. I think it should be real. If we know God, if we are in a real relationship with him, should we not grieve to harm him? If we have compassion for the people around us, should we not grieve to harm them? Indeed, we should. Just as we rejoice to bring joy to our beloved, so it strikes me as natural to sorrow when we bring sorrow to our beloved.
Maybe this lament will be nothing more than an inner pang of regret when we do something wrong. Maybe it will be larger, depending on the sin or its frequency.
And once this lament is done, once we have sorrowed for our sins, we should enter the joy of repentance. We can live the new life. We are reconciled to our Friend. There is no longer any need for sorrow, for we are forgiven through our mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ. Sorrow for sin, if real, should ever turn to joy in forgiveness, hope for resurrection.