New and Contrite Hearts | Introduction
I love the collect which The Book of Common Prayer appoints for Ash Wednesday:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
There is a great deal of wisdom and sound theology in this brief prayer, and I would like to use this small space to think about it.
We ask God for “new and contrite hearts.” In Scripture, the heart is the center of the person and not simply the center of the emotions. While modern thought tends to divide the human person into “heart” and “mind,” Scripture sees the heart as the center of both thought and feeling. During Lent, we especially ask God to re-form us, to grant us genuine contrition for our sin and for the ability to desire righteousness rather than sin. To pray for contrition, which we should all do, is to pray that God will enable us to truly lament our sin. We lament our sin not because we have been “caught in the act,” but because sin offends God. We should lament the fact that our sin has offended God’s perfect goodness and righteousness.
We acknowledge our “wretchedness.” This may sound a bit extreme but it is not. We may not feel wretched but this is not the point. We need to acknowledge our wretchedness in that our sin has transformed us into something very different from what God intends us to be. Of course, this can only really happen through the work of grace. By ourselves, we cannot really know our wretchedness for the simple reason that sin blinds us not only to a true knowledge of God but also to a true knowledge of ourselves. There is no true repentance apart from grace.
We can only ask for contrition and we can only acknowledge our wretchedness because we know that God is the “God of all mercy.” When we ask for God’s mercy we are not simply asking God to “cut us a little slack.” Rather, we are asking God to respond to us not in terms of what we deserve but in terms of His own love and goodness. As Paul makes clear in Romans 5:6-8, the Cross is the sign that God treats us mercifully whether we deserve His mercy or not.
I hope that this collection of reflections will be one of the companions you take with you on your Lenten journey. As you read the Scripture readings and the reflections upon them, I hope that you will spend some time thinking about the way in which God might grant you a “new and contrite heart.”
I would like to express my thanks to all those who wrote a devotion for this collection. This is not something lightly undertaken and I appreciate the commitment and prayer that each reflection represents.
I would also like to thank Linda Dean, who served as executive editor, and to Barbara Mattick, who served as assistant editor. Both devoted hours to this effort and without their work this collection of reflections would simply be a nice idea.
Finally, I would like to thank Bryan Schultz, Director of Communications, John Dickson, and Pam Johnson. Bryan was responsible for taking the text and putting into the beautiful form we now see. John and Pam have converted the print booklet into daily devotional emails and also made them available on our website.
Michael W. Petty
Associate Rector for Adult Formation
Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, 2017
Editor’s Note: Scriptures are from The English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. The cover image is a wood carving of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector found in Luke 18:9-14. Artist unknown.