FROM FATHER SMITH: “A BROKEN AND CONTRITE SPIRIT”
Sydney Harris (1917-1986) was a journalist and syndicated columnist whose work, at one point, appeared in more than 200 daily newspapers. In his column, “Strictly Personal,” and in a recurring feature entitled, “Things I Learned En Route to Looking Up Other Things,” he shared with his readers various discoveries, insights, observations, and bits of wisdom. He was particularly good at constructing the short, terse, well-balanced sentence that said a great deal in very few words (not a bad strategy when your typical reader is reading your column while eating her breakfast cereal). One of Harris’s aphorisms, often quoted, goes like this: “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.”
Change isn’t easy, for lots of reasons. It’s often quite painful and so it’s natural to resist it. Harris understood that. But to me the real insight of Harris’s aphorism is this: in order to deal with the “dilemma” of change many of us try to negotiate a set of conditions under which we believe that change might, just conceivably, be possible. Our interlocutors during these negotiations are many and varied. Sometimes we find ourselves negotiating with family members, spouses, or close friends. Sometimes it’s with colleagues and co-workers. Sometimes it’s with physicians, psychotherapists, confessors, or spiritual directors. Often it’s with ourselves; and, of course, not infrequently, it’s with God.
This year, during the first seven days of Lent, we heard Psalm 51, or a portion of that psalm, on three different occasions. As always, we heard it on Ash Wednesday during the liturgy of the day. We also heard it at Mass on the First Sunday in Lent, and then at Mass on the following Wednesday. This is not surprising. Psalm 51 is one of the seven so-called “penitential psalms.” (The others are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 102, 130, and 143.) Psalm 51 has often been recited during the liturgy, both at Mass and, even more frequently, during daily prayer. The Anglican liturgist, Paul Bradshaw, tells us that Psalm 51 was, for long centuries, a “universal feature” of the morning office, in part because it can be regarded as “the penitential psalm” (Paul Bradshaw, Daily Prayer in the Early Church, 82). Psalm 51 has also played an important role in Jewish liturgy. The “wrenching plea” of the psalm’s twelfth verse (“Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me”) appears “in the introduction to the penitential prayer during the Jewish Days of Awe” (Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary, 180).
Psalm 51 is only twenty verses long, but it manages to say almost all that needs to be said about the human struggle with sin, the movement towards repentance, the need for forgiveness, the fear that one will not be forgiven, and the desire for renewal, restoration, and reconciliation. At points, the psalmist is achingly honest: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (vss. 3-4). One might ask, however, if the psalmist sometimes seems to go too far, as when he says, “Look, in transgression was I conceived, and in offense my mother spawned me” (vs. 6, Alter’s translation, 181). Sometimes the psalmist addresses God with profound vulnerability: “And so you are justified when you speak and upright in your judgment” (vs. 5). The trust required for this sort of vulnerability does not entirely offset the anxiety expressed in vs. 12. Alter believes that “cast me not away” is too weak a translation of the Hebrew of that verse. He suggests instead, “Do not fling me from Your presence, and Your holy spirit take not from me” (ibid., 182). Alter’s translation makes the verse particularly heart-wrenching. The advantage of such language is that it allows the psalmist name his deepest fears unflinchingly.
The psalmist may name his fears, but he refuses to be paralyzed by them. It is as if he feels that he must confront the specter of God’s potential rejection in order to be able to calm his anxiety; and so the psalmist quickly moves into a set of petitions in which he asks God for God’s “saving” help. His request seems to reveal a truth deeper than the psalmist’s anxieties. He lives in hope. He believes that he has a right to expect the Lord’s “mercy,” “steadfast love,” and “great compassion.” And so he asks for the gift of transformation—“give me joy”; “sustain me with your bountiful Spirit”; “deliver me from death”; “open my lips”. He demands all this of God so that he can live a transformed life, a life lived no longer for himself alone, but for others as well—“I shall teach your ways”; “my tongue shall sing of your righteousness”; “my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” These petitions bring us to the psalm’s climax (vss. 17-18). Here, the psalmist is no longer afraid and he no longer asks God for anything. He has arrived at a kind of knowledge, a vision that brings him peace; and so he can simply say: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
In Psalm 51, the psalmist gives us a deeply personal vision of what one path towards reconciliation looks like. The path is not easy and there is a price to be paid if one is going to walk it—“a broken, crushed heart,” in Alter’s translation. This is a steep price to pay. I doubt that many of us start out on such a path altogether willingly or with a spring in our step. As a result, we negotiate: if only things would “get better” and, at the same time, “remain the same.” But the psalmist suggests that there is no “cheap grace.” Apparently, certain steps cannot be ignored. Honesty, vulnerability, risk-taking, the admission of responsibility—it’s understandable that one would want things to “get better,” while avoiding such difficult tasks.
Paul Bradshaw’s observation that Psalm 51 was traditionally a part of the morning office surprised me when I read it. I assumed that it would make more sense to recite it in the evening, as one reviewed the day’s blessings and failures. And yet it does make sense. We recite this psalm not because we are defeated or despondent. We recite it because this “penitential” psalm is filled with hope. We recite it and then we go forth into the world, to face a new day, secure in the knowledge that we are loved and have been forgiven. For, as Saint Paul tells us, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). James Ross Smith
YOUR PRAYERS ARE ASKED FOR Sharon, Barbara, Ruth, Tish, Rick, Gloria, Dick, John, Gregory, Babak, Robert, Jack, Rob, Takeem, Linda, Eloise, Arpene, Paulette, priest, Harry, priest, and Don, bishop; and for the members of our Armed Forces on active duty, especially Mark, Alex, and Elizabeth . . . GRANT THEM PEACE . . . March 16: 1886 Henry Heckroth; 1892 Maria Sullivan; 1904 Katherine Klein; 1918 Carl Janson; 1934 Clara Maria Wayne; 1939 Katherine Widmayer; 1954 Jennie Graham.
THE ORDINARY WEEKDAYS OF LENT are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial. The Fridays of Lent are also observed by abstinence from flesh meats. Abstinence is not observed on Sundays in Lent.
I PUBLISH THE BANNS OF MARRIAGE between Dean Timpone, of Bronx, New York, and Sahoko Sato, of Yonkers, New York. If any of you know just cause why they may not be joined together in Holy Matrimony, you are bidden to declare it. This is the second time of asking. J.R.S.
THIS WEEK AT SAINT MARY’S . . . Christian Education for children and adults meets on the regular schedule on Sunday, March 16 . . . Sunday, March 16, 5:00 PM, Solemn Evensong, Litany, and Benediction. Please note that except on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 30, there are no organ recitals before Sunday Evensong until Easter Day . . . Monday, March 17, 6:30 PM, Meeting of the Board of Trustees . . . Wednesday, March 19, Saint Joseph, Mass 12:10 PM & 6:20 PM . . . Friday, March 21, 6:30 PM, Stations of the Cross . . . Confessions will be heard on Saturday, March 15, by Father Pace and on Saturday, March 22, by Father Gerth. Confessions are also heard by appointment.
AROUND THE PARISH . . . Saturday, March 15, is the seventh anniversary of the arrival of the Community of Saint John Baptist here at Saint Mary’s. We are grateful for the sisters’ ministry here at the parish. Please keep Sister Laura Katharine and Sister Deborah Francis in your prayers—and wish them a happy anniversary! . . . Visual Arts Program: An exhibition of paintings by Emilio Arraiza has been hung in Saint Joseph’s Hall. For more information, and for a price list, please contact José Vidal . . . The Narthex Gift Shop is closed for renovation. The Shop’s new manager is Dexter Baksh . . . We hope to receive donations for flowers for the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, and for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 30. If you would like to make a donation, please contact the parish office . . . If you are interested in helping to decorate the church for Easter, please speak to Rick Austill, Dexter Baksh, or Marie Rosseels . . . Parishioner Dick Leitsch is now at home. He is doing quite well, as he continues his recuperation. It has been good to have him back with us on many Sundays, and also, at times, during the week . . . Parishioner Charles Arthur Schaefer celebrates his 101st birthday on Wednesday, March 19. Charles Arthur has been a member of Saint Mary’s since 1946. Congratulations, Charles Arthur! . . . Attendance: Last Sunday 203.
AIDS WALK 2014 . . . This year, the Saint Mary’s AIDS Walk Team thinks it’s important that our community knows more about where their donations go. Be sure to check this space every week for a new statistic about the AIDS Walk and the organization that benefits from it, GMHC (“Gay Men’s Health Crisis”). And please donate to our team here! . . . Did you know? GMHC connects clients and families to vital community resources and offers support with negotiating and coordinating care. They assist with finding housing, medical care, health insurance, entitlements, food, substance-abuse services, dental services, mental-health providers, job-training services, support groups, and treatment education. The goal is to help clients become stable and self-sufficient.
MUSIC THIS WEEK . . . Jacob Handl (1550–1591), is a lesser-known composer who produced some notable sacred music, including the Missa super “Ich stund an einem Morgen,” heard at the Solemn Mass on Sunday. One reason for the apparent neglect of his works may be the fact that he went by several different names. He was called Jacobus Gallus or Jacobus Handelius, but this German-Austrian composer is not to be confused with the more famous G.F. Handel. A Cistercian monk, Handl traveled in Bohemia and Silesia, was a member of the Viennese court chapel in 1574, and was choirmaster to the bishop of Olmütz (in the Czech Republic) in 1579–85. His most notable work is the Opus musicum (1590), a collection of motets for the entire liturgical year. His wide-ranging, eclectic style blends archaism and modernity, and utilizes the Venetian polychoral manner. Some of his chromatic writings foreshadowed the breakup of modality; his five-voice motet Mirabile mysterium was, at one time, attributed to Don Carlo Gesualdo. He enjoyed word-painting in the style of the madrigal, yet he could also write the simple Ecce quomodo moritur justus later used by the aforementioned George Frideric Handel in his funeral anthem The Ways of Zion Do Mourn (1737). At the ministration of Holy Communion on Sunday we hear one of the many settings of the text, God so loved the world. The setting is by John Goss (1800–1880), an English organist and composer. A student of Thomas Attwood, Goss began life as a chorister at the Chapel Royal, and in time became organist of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. Mark Peterson
BAPTISM, CONFIRMATION & RECEPTION . . . If you, or someone you know, would like to be baptized at the Easter Vigil on April 19 please speak to Father Smith or Father Gerth. If you would like to be confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church, you may also speak to a member of the clergy. Confirmation & Reception will be celebrated at the Solemn Mass on Ascension Day, Thursday, May 29, at 6:00 PM by our newly ordained bishop suffragan.
CHRISTIAN EDUCATION . . . Christian Education on Sunday, March 16: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd will take place in the Atrium at 9:45 AM; Church School for the older children will meet with Peter Secor at 10:00 AM in the Morning Room . . . The Adult Forum will meet at 10:00 AM on the second floor of the Mission House. Father Peter Powell continues his series on the Book of Exodus . . . The Wednesday Night Bible Study Class will meet in Saint Joseph’s Hall on March 19, the feast of Saint Joseph, at 7:00 PM, after the evening Mass. (Note that the class begins at a later time than usual because of the feast-day Mass.). On March 19, we will begin reading at chapter 20, Paul’s last visit to Greece and his return to Palestine. J.R.S.
PLEASE MARK YOUR CALENDAR . . . Monday, March 24, Eve of the Annunciation, Solemn Evensong 6:00 PM . . . Tuesday, March 25, The Annunciation, Sung Matins 8:30 AM, Noonday Prayer 12:00 PM, Sung Mass 12:10 PM, Organ Recital 5:30 PM, Solemn Mass 6:00 PM . . . Sunday, March 30, Organ Recital 4:40 PM & Solemn Evensong, Litany, and Benediction 5:00 PM. The service will be sung by the Choir of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Richard Latham, music director and conductor. . . Sunday, April 13, Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday . . . The Triduum: April 17, Maundy Thursday; April 18, Good Friday; April 19, The Great Vigil of Easter; April 20, Easter Day . . . Saturday, May 17, Consecration of Suffragan Bishop-Elect Allen Shin.
OUTREACH AT SAINT MARY’S . . . . The cold weather continues so donations of warm clothing, as well as new, unopened packets of underwear and socks, especially white cotton socks are still needed. We also welcome donations of: hand sanitizer; granola bars; applesauce, sold in small, plastic cups with peel-off tops; water; peanut butter and crackers; and other small items that can be packed in bags for distribution to those who are homeless . . . The Holy Cross School and its Scholarship Fund at Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery, Grahamstown, South Africa, a house of the Anglican Order of the Holy Cross. Donations may be made c/o Brother Robert Sevensky, OHC, Superior, Holy Cross Monastery, PO Box 99, West Park, NY 12493. When making a donation, it would be helpful if you could let the brothers know that you heard about the school through Saint Mary’s . . . The New York City Coalition Against Hunger’s website is a valuable resource for learning more about hunger and homelessness in the City of New York. J.R.S.
AWAY FROM THE PARISH . . . At the Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park, New York, New York: Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral, February 25–May 18, 2014. There is more information about the exhibition on the museum’s website . . . Also at the Met Museum, Piero della Francesca: Personal Encounters, January 14–March 30, 2014: “The Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting a focused presentation of the devotional paintings of Piero della Francesca, addressing Piero's work for private devotion for the first time. The four works on view have never before been brought together; the exhibition, therefore, promises to make an important contribution to the study of this major figure of the Renaissance. It consists of: Saint Jerome and a Donor, Madonna and Child with two Angels (the Senigallia Madonna), Saint Jerome in a Landscape, and Madonna and Child.”