The Divine Hours of Lent

It’s Wednesday, the first ‘real’ Wednesday in Lent for me. For better or worse, Ash Wednesday has always felt surreal to me. It is as if Ash Wednesday were not a Wednesday at all…as if it were not even a day, in fact, at least not in the way a Sunday or Monday or any other week day is.
Easter is a Sunday; and because it is Easter, it’s a special Sunday. Christmas is a fixed date on a moveable calendar, and Lord knows it’s not ordinary; but it is, none the less, still a day. Nobody would question that. Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, is a stillness that first plans around and, as the day progresses, becomes more and more focused upon, one’s forehead. All day long, my awareness becomes increasingly concentrated upon my own forehead and upon the strangeness of being publicly, visibly marked there.
All the other Wednesdays of Lent–every single one of them, in fact–throw me back to remembering that place on my forehead and to feeling it there all over again, even though it is long since disappeared from physical view. I can feel those ashes now, even as I write; and tonight, as I speak the words of Compline just before I go to bed, I will let them come in with me to become what I am praying.
In the daily prayer manual I use, the prayer for Wednesday Compline during Lent is always the same. Always the same words to carry the ashes from my remembering forehead down into that place where the soul in me is praying:
1 O, Lord, you have searched me
and know me:
You know when I sit down
and when I rise up.
2 You discern my thoughts
from far away,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
3 If I have raised my hand
against the orphan,
or have caused the eye
of the widow to fail,
4 be gracious to me, O Lord,
and forgive all my sins.
5 If I have seen anyone perish
for lack of clothing,
or a poor person without covering,
6 be gracious to me, O Lord,
and forgive all my sins.
7 If I have rejoiced at the ruin
of those who hate me,
or exalted when evil overtook them,
8 be gracious to me, O Lord,
and forgive all my sins.
9 If I have walked with falsehood,
or my foot has hurried to deceit,
10 be gracious to me, O Lord
and forgive all my sins.
11 If my step has turned aside
from the way,
or my heart has followed after my eye,
12 be gracious to me, O Lord,
and forgive all my sins.
13 Answer me, O God of my right,
hear my prayer,
14 and deliver me
from all my transgressions,
for my hope is in you.
The words sound almost–but not quite–as if they are taken from one of the Psalms of the Old Testament. Truth told, in its opening lines, my Wednesday Compline prayer is indeed based on Psalm 139. But in its later lines, it interweaves lines from Psalm 9 and Psalm 25. And this sweetness of language that so soothes my soul during Lent’s Wednesdays contains as well words from the Book of Job. These words are the poetry of the Bible’s most harshly tested and yet most consistently faithful believer woven together with the words of David, the Bible’s greatest singer of holy music and forebear of Messiah. I have prayed the words for so many years now that they will inform and perfume all the hours of every Wednesday from now until that Sunday when David’s son and Job’s constancy faith meld into each other on an empty cross, and the lilies themselves sing the hymns of God in all our hearts.
This psalm first appeared in Awake My Heart – Psalms for Life, arranged and edited by Frederick W. Bassett and published by Paraclete Press in 1998. All fifty-two of the psalms in that volume are as hauntingly beautiful and hauntingly familiar as is this one which has so infiltrated my self.

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