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NAVIGATING THE FAITH:
THE SEVEN PENITENTIAL PSALMS
These are psalms of lament, living words to help us pray honestly, giving expression to our deepest feelings. Psalm 6 reads, “Do not reprove me in Your anger, Lord, do not punish me in Your wrath. Have pity on me, Lord for my bones are shuddering.” There is a poignancy throughout the psalms which correlate sin to physical and emotional anguish.
As you read and pray with the Psalms, it is important to know the author’s beliefs at the time. For the Jewish psalmist, these are open and honest expressions of pain in the context of faith. As Christians, the Penitential Psalms remind us that our response to sin must be trust in God’s love, confession and repentance.
I invite you to pray with these Penitential Psalms during Lent. There are seven, making it easy to pray one each week. Below you will find a short explanation of each of the psalms along with a reflection question.
Psalm 6: Prayer in Distress
The psalmist does not claim innocence, but appeals to God’s mercy. Sin here, as often in the Bible, is both the sinful act and its harmful consequences; it is physical sickness and attacks of enemies. The psalmist prays that the effects of personal and social sin be taken away.
Reflection: Which of your sins cause you to “shudder”? Consider its long-reaching consequences (family, community, etc). Ask God to be merciful as you face this sin.
Psalm 32: Remission of Sin
The opening declaration – the forgiven are blessed – arises from the psalmist’s own experience. At one time the psalmist was stubborn and closed, a victim of sin’s power, and then became open to the forgiving God. Sin here is not only the personal act of rebellion against God, but also the consequences of that act – frustration and waning of vitality. Having been rescued, the psalmist can teach others the joys of justice and the folly of sin.
Reflection: Is there a sin which “withers your strength?” Talk to God about this and beg His forgiveness.
Psalm 38: Prayer of an Afflicted Sinner
In this lament, the psalmist acknowledges the sin that has brought physical and mental sickness and social ostracism. There is no one to turn to for help; only God can undo the past and restore the psalmist.
Reflection: Which sin makes you physical feel “stooped and deeply bowed?” Ask the Lord to help you stand upright.
Psalm 51: The Miserere: Prayer of Repentance
This lament prays for the removal of the personal and social disorders that sin has brought. The poem has two parts. The first part asks for deliverance from sin, not just a past act but its emotional, physical and social consequences. The second part seeks something more profound than wiping the slate clean: nearness to God, living by the spirit of God.
Reflection: When do you offer a “sacrifice” to God but your heart is not contrite? Speak about this in Confession.
Psalm 102: Prayer in Time of Distress
The psalmist, experiencing psychological and bodily disintegration, cries out to God. In the temple precincts where God has promised to be present, the psalmist recalls God’s venerable promises to save the poor.
Reflection: Remember a time when your heart felt “withered, dried up and wasted.” Talk to God about this. Listen for His mercy.
Psalm 130: Prayer for Pardon and Mercy
This lament is used in liturgical prayers for the faithful departed. In deep sorrow the psalmist cried to God, asking for mercy. The psalmist’s trust becomes a model for the people.
Reflection: Is there something in your life that you need to “cry out” to the Lord? What emotions come forth as you think about this? Hang out with Jesus and listen to what he says to you.
Psalm 143: A Prayer for Distress
This lament is a prayer to be freed from death-dealing enemies. The psalmist addressed God, aware that there is no equality between God and human beings; salvation is a gift. Victimized by evil people, the psalmist remembers God’s past actions on behalf of the innocent. The psalm continues with fervent prayer and a strong desire for guidance and protection.
Reflection: What “guidance and protection” do you need from God right now? Where is God’s mercy most needed in your life?
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Christian tradition can name at least seven reasons for fasting:
- From the beginning, God commanded some fasting, and sin entered into the world
because Adam and Eve broke the fast.
- For the Christian, fasting is ultimately about fasting from sin.
- Fasting reveals our dependence on God and not the resources of this world.
- Fasting is an ancient way of preparing for the Eucharist—the truest of foods.
- Fasting is preparation for baptism (and all the sacraments)—for the reception of grace.
- Fasting is a means of saving resources to give to the poor.
- Fasting is a means of self-discipline, chastity, and the restraining of the appetites.
Code of Canon Law
CHAPTER II Days of Penance
Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.
Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
? Questions and Answers about Lent and Lenten Practices (Click to view)
- from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
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Journey to the Foot of the Cross:
Bishop Ricken Offers 10 Things to Remember For Lent
Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, former chairman of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), offers “10 Things to Remember for Lent”:
- Remember the formula. The Church does a good job capturing certain truths with easy-to-remember lists and formulas: 10 Commandments, 7 sacraments, 3 persons in the Trinity. For Lent, the Church gives us almost a slogan—Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving—as the three things we need to work on during the season.
- It’s a time of prayer. Lent is essentially an act of prayer spread out over 40 days. As we pray, we go on a journey, one that hopefully brings us closer to Christ and leaves us changed by the encounter with him.
- It’s a time to fast. With the fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, meatless Fridays, and our personal disciplines interspersed, Lent is the only time many Catholics these days actually fast. And maybe that’s why it gets all the attention. “What are you giving up for Lent? Hotdogs? Beer? Jelly beans?” It’s almost a game for some of us, but fasting is actually a form of penance, which helps us turn away from sin and toward Christ.
- It’s a time to work on discipline. The 40 days of Lent are also a good, set time to work on personal discipline in general. Instead of giving something up, it can be doing something positive. “I’m going to exercise more. I’m going to pray more. I’m going to be nicer to my family, friends and coworkers.”
- It’s about dying to yourself. The more serious side of Lenten discipline is that it’s about more than self-control – it’s about finding aspects of yourself that are less than Christ-like and letting them die. The suffering and death of Christ are foremost on our minds during Lent, and we join in these mysteries by suffering, dying with Christ and being resurrected in a purified form.
- Don’t do too much. It’s tempting to make Lent some ambitious period of personal reinvention, but it’s best to keep it simple and focused. There’s a reason the Church works on these mysteries year after year. We spend our entire lives growing closer to God. Don’t try to cram it all in one Lent. That’s a recipe for failure.
- Lent reminds us of our weakness. Of course, even when we set simple goals for ourselves during Lent, we still have trouble keeping them. When we fast, we realize we’re all just one meal away from hunger. In both cases, Lent shows us our weakness. This can be painful, but recognizing how helpless we are makes us seek God’s help with renewed urgency and sincerity.
- Be patient with yourself. When we’re confronted with our own weakness during Lent, the temptation is to get angry and frustrated. “What a bad person I am!” But that’s the wrong lesson. God is calling us to be patient and to see ourselves as he does, with unconditional love.
- Reach out in charity. As we experience weakness and suffering during Lent, we should be renewed in our compassion for those who are hungry, suffering or otherwise in need. The third part of the Lenten formula is almsgiving. It’s about more than throwing a few extra dollars in the collection plate; it’s about reaching out to others and helping them without question as a way of sharing the experience of God’s unconditional love.
- Learn to love like Christ. Giving of ourselves in the midst of our suffering and self-denial brings us closer to loving like Christ, who suffered and poured himself out unconditionally on cross for all of us. Lent is a journey through the desert to the foot of the cross on Good Friday, as we seek him out, ask his help, join in his suffering, and learn to love like him.
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