An Ash Wednesday Meditation on Psalm 130
by Rev. John Roop
The Lenten season invites us – and compels us if we fully embrace it – to plumb the depths of the human condition: created in the image of God, fallen through our solidarity with Adam and through our own sin, exiled from paradise, enthralled by pain and sorrow and loss and death. When we think of our state, when we contemplate it, “there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height.” In the depths of our being – heart and mind and soul – we know there is something profoundly wrong about this, profoundly unnatural. Worse still, we know that it is all our own fault; we have not so much fallen as jumped headlong and headstrong from the precipice.
De profundis – from the depths – of the human condition we cry out.
Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication (Ps 130:1, BCP).
De profundis – from the depths – of the human condition we cry out because it is all we can do, because we are utterly helpless to help ourselves. Our cry takes many forms: tears of sorrow, groans of pain, shouts of anger; even silence becomes a de profundis cry when all words have been exhausted, when all thoughts have circled round again to the beginning having found no answer and no escape.
For the psalmist the cry is supplication, a pleading for mercy, for rescue. In the depths of the human condition he has encountered the truth, that his only hope lies in the very one whose law he has broken, whose will he has rejected, and whose love he has betrayed time and again.
If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss,
O LORD, who could stand?
For there is forgiveness with you;
Therefore you shall be feared (Ps 130:2-3).
Need we even answer his question? Not one of us could stand. And so, on Ash Wednesday we kneel in the profound depths of our own spirits as the priest cries out for himself and for us:
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
And then the imposition of the ashes: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Remember the depths of the human condition. Wear this smudged cross as a sign of it. Remember the depths – and the breadth and length and height – of the love of God in Christ Jesus (cf Eph 3:18-19). Wear this smudged cross as a sign of it. Remember man’s profound sin and God’s profoundly overcoming mercy. Wear this smudged cross as a sign of it.
Though the ashes wash off or wear off all too soon, their sacramental presence remains with us throughout Lent and into Holy Saturday. On that day we wait. On that day all creation holds its breath. On that day we hope against hope.
I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope (Ps 130:4).
On that day, our Lord Jesus Christ descends into the depths of the human condition with us, stands at the gates of hell and cries out:
Lift up your heads, O gates;
Lift them high, O everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in (Ps 24:7).
Fearing his presence yet rebelling to the end, hell answers:
“Who is this King of glory” (Ps 24:8a)?
And all creation answers with a thunderous roar,
“The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” (Ps 24:8b).
The gates shatter, the chains fall away and the Lord, strong and mighty, strides into the depths of the human condition, takes us by the hand and leads us forth in triumphal procession as the first strains of Alleluia break forth and the sun rises on the first day.
Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD. And he has heard, for with the Lord there is mercy; with the Lord, there is plenteous redemption.