Some Musings on Psalm 51

By Kathleen Staudt

On most days in Lent this year my prayers have included Psalm 51, the penitential psalm, and various parts of it have been resonating for me. Some fresh insight seems to be coming as I pause over the verses late in the psalm:

Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice,

But you take no delight in burnt offerings

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit

A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps 51: 17-18)

I haven’t been sure what I meant, praying this psalm, by “sacrifice,” but an article I’ve run across just lately by Orthodox theologican Andrew Schmemann has opened this up to me in ways that will probably carry my meditations through much of the rest of Lent. Here are some directions that meditation is taking.

Schmemann resists the western notion of sacrifice as a legalistic “satisfaction” of an unpaid debt – something offered to make up for sins or to earn forgiveness – or to satisfy the anger of a sinned-against God. Instead he insists that “sacrifice” is “an ontology” – a way of being. The word literally means “to make holy.” When the people of Israel went up to Jerusalem and offered sacrifices they were responding to the holiness of God by offering back something from their own flocks, thus making holy the things from their daily lives; when they feasted on the meat of animals offered as “burnt offerings,” they saw themselves as sharing in a meal with the God to whom the sacrifice was offered, and so they, and their offerings, were “made holy.” And so the sacrifice also was one way that they responded to and renewed the Covenant – assented to God’s desire that ‘you will be my people and I will be your God” – the sacrifice is reciprocal, mutual. God was often delighted (though in the psalm the sacrifice demanded goes beyond burnt offering and into the human heart). Sin offerings work the same way: because we were made to be holy people, by a God who longs for us, acts of repentance or turning back to God, become celebrations of a feast of reconciliation – the feast ordered up by the prodigal son’s father because his the beloved has returned home. (I now see even more clearly why this image of the prodigal son figures so prominently in one of our rites for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (BCP p.450))

“Where there is no sacrifice there is no life,” Schmemann writes in his essay “The Energy of Life: Sacrifice and Worship.” “Sacrifice is rooted in the recognition of life as love: a giving up, not because I want more for myself, or to satisfy an objective justice, but because it is the only way of reaching the fulness that is possible for me.”

As we are made holy, through God’s loving invitation, we want more and more to offer ourselves, and all that we we have – and so Schmemann wisely suggests the opposite of sacrifice is ‘consumerism” – the belief that we own what we have and have control over it and need to own more and more. An ethic of sacrifice recognizes that growth toward God always requires a letting go and a receiving, a mutuality that is part of the divine nature, part of what we share in because we were made in the image of God.

Of course the divine invitation to a life of sacrifice – a life energized by the desire for greater communion with God – can be distorted by all kinds of power dynamics. Women for generations have been familiar with the expectation of “self-sacrifice” often before any mature sense of self has been built or affirmed, and this can be profoundly wounding—one of the sadder results of an authoritarian reading of the notion of “sacrifice.” But this is exactly to the notion of sacrifice that Schmemann refjects – “a legal transaction. . . a duty of the creation to the Creator, like an income tax”( Schmemann, p.142) — the notion that our giving of self is a transaction, a condition that wins us the love we long for.

That is not how God works: the process of being “made holy” is one that invites a constant, willing giving over, giving up, of parts of ourselves we thought we controlled; and it also invites a practice of receiving with gratitude – a practice that we lose very easily! Because our deepest identity is that we are made by God and beloved by God, the process of sacrifice is ultimately a life-giving and freeing one: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) – Jesus is talking here about his own sacrifice and how it gives life. There is much more here for further meditation.

Repentance, sacrifice, being made holy, bearing much fruit – it is all part of the same process, a way of being that Schmeman calls “sacrificial living.” To return to the psalm: a “troubled spirit,” the sense of separation that comes when I truly examine my conscience in relation to the faithfulness of God, is a gift that “makes holy” – a returning to the One who loves me. If it hurts to look honestly at myself, I can rely on God to receive what I bring – a heart made a little bit more sincere by self-examination. Another small step toward the trust-filled returning, the self-offering that gives life.

I hadn’t realized before reading this Schmemann piece how much this psalm of contrition is also a psalm of celebration – an invitation to deeper connection, through deeper honesty, with the One who made us and calls us. For Schmemann the idea of sacrifice (making holy) is integrally connected to worship and to Eucharist and here too is much more food for meditation. But perhaps it is enough for now to observe that the same psalm contains these familiar words of worship:

“Open my lips, O God

And my mouth shall show forth your praise.” (Ps 51:16)

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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