‘O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow’
In the opening scene of the gritty 2006 Russian film The Island, a monk, Anatoly, is seen repeating the Jesus Prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer, which he prays throughout the film, does not relieve Anatoly of the painful memory of his past, but his life of penance does free him from living in guilt; his experience of God’s mercy transforms him to share that mercy with others in unexpected ways. Anatoly, a holy fool, extends God’s prophetic and healing touch to those who seek him out, often enduring hardship to reach him.
Every year during Lent, and especially during this Jubilee of Mercy, the church opens to us similarly rich practices so that we might experience the mercy of the Father. In Lent, each of us is invited to experience anew God’s mercy and in turn to radiate this love to others as we become “merciful like the Father.”
A centerpiece of Lent is the celebration of the “scrutinies.” Celebrated on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent, these are rites for self-searching and repentance, not only for those preparing for baptism but for all of us. The scrutinies invite all of us to stare at sin, both personal and social — as well as our ultimate mortality as the effect of sin — not to weigh us down, but rather that we might experience the weightiness of the forgiveness of our sins.
The scrutinies “are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful … to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good.” (RCIA 141) In the Gospel reading that accompanies the third and final scrutiny, Jesus calls forth Lazarus from the tomb, then tells his disciples, “Untie him and let him go.” (John 11:44) These are the same words the priest speaks to us in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation: “I absolve you …” — literally, “I loosen you from your sins,” unbinding us from the sin that held us bound.
During this Jubilee of Mercy, as we hear the story of the Prodigal Son on the fourth Sunday of Lent (March 6), we are given an image of the merciful Father who runs out to meet us, rejoicing to restore us as his sons and daughters that we became in baptism. Our sin holds us bound, but “the tender mercy of our God” seeks us out — the Father is the one who comes to loose our bonds, to set us free so that “without fear we might worship him … all our days.” (Luke 1:78, 74-75)
Lent is an ideal time to scrutinize our own lives and receive God’s liberating mercy. During my annual Lenten retreat, I gaze alternately at an icon of Christ and at a mirror, asking God to reveal to me the cracks in my life, where I fall short of being made in the image and likeness of the beloved Son, so that the merciful Father might heal my defects and so see and love in me what he sees and loves in the Son. Such an examination of conscience is preparation to experience the mercy of the Father in the sacraments — especially the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.
Together may our Lenten practices bear fruit that we may earnestly pray with the psalmist that Miserere which the monk Anatoly quotes in The Island as he falls to his knees on the icy shores and weeps those tears of repentance which St. Ambrose described as the waters of a second baptism: “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. … O purify me, then I shall be clean; O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51)
The Island is available to borrow from the archdiocesan Library Media Center.
Let your Catholic voice be heard
Northwest Catholic - March 2016