“New and Contrite Hearts” (Psalm 51:11)
Ash Wednesday: March 6, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The other day I was walking out of Walmart and saw one of my favorite things in the world—a table where Girl Scout cookies were being sold, one of the best things about March. As I bought some of their legendary Thin Mint cookies I had an unexpected and troubling flashback to a year when I gave up chocolate for Lent without taking into account Girl Scout Thin Mint Cookies…probably the longest season of Lent in my life. Whatever you give up for Lent, don’t ever do that…
In 2014 my daughter Cate and I spent a week in England, including a couple days in London. We spent one morning visiting the famous (and infamous) Tower of London—or as it is officially called: Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London. It was founded by none other than William the Conqueror following the 1066 Norman Conquest. The Tower of London is a microcosm of British national life. It has served as a treasury, an armory, and a mint. It even housed the royal menagerie during the Middle Ages. It has an ornate chapel, where centuries of prayers and services of Holy Communion have occurred. It also houses the famous crown jewels, all 23,578 gemstones.
And of course, the Tower of London has also served as notorious prison, where many famous people were held, not just criminals, but those labeled as religious heretics, including the writer of the English Prayer Book and the leading figure of the English Reformation, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556). We saw the huge iron gate, the so-called Traitor’s Gate, through which Cranmer was brought across the moat into the Tower of London in 1553 at the age of 64.
We saw the spot where, also in 1553, sixteen year old Lady Jane Grey was beheaded after her nine-day reign as queen. And we saw the frightening cells where prisoners were confined, and the even more frightening torture chambers where victims were stretched on the rack and endured unspeakable pain and agony. All of this occurred at the Tower of London. The amount of history that has unfolded there over nearly a millennium is simply overwhelming.
And later that night as I lay awake I kept thinking about the Tower of London, and something very sobering, very poignant occurred to me. The Tower of London was just like my heart inasmuch that my heart is a microcosm of my life. My heart has a treasury and a mint, and houses the crown jewels of my life, where I cherish memories that are the most important to me—where I hold dear those closest to me, those still alive and those who have died. My heart has a chapel, where I thank God every day, where I pray every day for my family, for the church, for the needs in our lives—some of those prayers transcending words.
But in the same way there are also dark and frightening places in the Tower of London, there are also dark and frightening places in my heart. I wish this was not the case, but it is. My heart has its own prison cells where I may hold grudges against others, others against whom I may at times wish to use the weapons I store in my heart’s armory. My heart has its own torture chambers where I may stretch myself on the rack of regret, or wish I could stretch the impossibly difficult and challenging or just plain mean people in my life. My heart has a chopping block where some of the little or not so little deaths in my heart have taken place.
Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps your heart is also like the Tower of London.
In addition to our hearts having beautiful places as well as dark and frightening places, our hearts are also often hard. Scripture often speaks of the danger of having a hard heart (Mark 8:17; Romans 2:5, etc.). My years of personal and pastoral experience have taught me that often hard hearts are directly connected to deep hurts—the deeper the hurt, the harder the heart. Along these lines, in 1981 the band Quarterflash had their biggest hit that put it this way:
Cryin’ on the corner, waitin’ in the rain
I swear I’ll never ever wait again
You gave me your word, but words for you are lies
Darlin’, in my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d go
But it’s time to let you know
I’m gonna harden my heart
I’m gonna swallow my tears
I’m gonna turn and leave you here
(From their song “Harden My Heart” on their eponymous debut album)
During the season of Lent we are invited to examine our hearts, or rather to ask God to examine our hearts—as the psalmist wrote, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my restless thoughts” (Psalm 139:22, BCP 795). This is serious business, because what happens in our hearts impacts everything in our lives, and more importantly, everyone in our lives. Scripture tells us, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). The “springs of life” that flow from your heart make an impact—whether those “springs of life” are full of love and gratitude, or full of anger and bitterness.
The season of Lent is a season about the heart.
Along these lines, what is the one petition in the collect for Ash Wednesday? “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts.” Why? So as we continue in the collect, “that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness” (BCP 264). That is what Lent is all about.
Scripture does not mince words when it comes to describing the reality of the condition of the human heart. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, whose ministry took place about six centuries before Christ, wrote, “The heart is devious above all else—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus goes even further: “Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19).
King David experienced the reality of this. King David, whom scripture identifies as “a man after (God’s) own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22) succumbed to the dark and frightening places in his heart and committed adultery with Bathsheba and then after learning she was pregnant with his child, conspired to have her husband Uriah, who had been one of David’s personal right hand warriors, to be abandoned and killed in battle. Unbeknownst to him Uriah, actually hand delivered King David’s conspiring letter to Joab, the letter that meant his death.
King David thought he had covered up all his tracks, but God knew what he did, and sent Nathan the prophet to confront him. As a result, David repented, and wrote Psalm 51, the psalm we pray together every year on Ash Wednesday, the psalm in which we ask God for the same thing we ask in the Collect for Ash Wednesday: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:11, BCP 266).
Moreover, during the “Litany of Penitence” in The Book of Common Prayer, a litany we also pray every year on Ash Wednesday, the first thing we confess is: “We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven” (BCP 267). During the entire rest of the “Litany of Penitence” we confess various ways that lack of love and lack of forgiveness impact everything and everyone in our lives. There is nothing esoteric or obscure or arcane about any of this. This is all real life. It all boils down to love and forgiveness. It all goes back to our need for God to “create in us new and contrite hearts.”
And at the end of the “Litany of Penitence” we appeal to the one thing, the only thing that can “create in us new and contrite hearts”: the love of God in Jesus Christ, specifically in his death and resurrection—“Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,” we pray, “that we may show forth your glory in the world. By the cross and passion and your Son our Lord, bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection” (BCP 268-269). Only the love of God can create in us new and contrite hearts. Only the love of God can replace our hard hearts with new and contrite hearts. Only the love God can heal the deepest hurts in our hearts.
On Good Friday Jesus died of a broken heart in order to “create in us new and contrite hearts.” After his death Jesus was pierced by a soldier’s lance in that same sacred heart, and as blood and water sprang forth, the “spring of life” of God’s love and forgiveness sprang forth for every hard heart in the world, including yours.
In 1543, ten years before being imprisoned in the Tower of London, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer beautifully described how “new and contrite hearts” created by the love of God enable us in turn to share that love with others: “If the profession of our faith of the remission of our own sins enter within us into the deepness of our hearts, then it must kindle a warm fire of love in our hearts towards God, and towards all others for the love of God” (Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance 185). Love begets love. That is the fruit of the gospel.
So during Lent may God, who will never “turn and leave you here”, do just that—create a new and contrite heart in you, and heal the deepest hurts in your heart with his “perfect remission and forgiveness” and his unconditional love.