The Joy Of Salvation. Ash Wednesday
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
With these lines, the poignant Psalm 51 suggests us the most suitable words and sentiments to enter the Lenten period, inaugurated today with the highly symbolic rite of the ashes. It is normal, on this day, to adopt a certain sobriety, a serious and resolute attitude, so as to welcome properly this time of grace, this opportunity for conversion and repentance, and try to return to the most essential things in our life, in our relationship with the Lord, in how we behave with one another.
It seems, however, that precisely when we are willing to take our Christian life a little more seriously, the Gospel contradicts us with its invitations not to look gloomy and disfigure our faces but rather anoint our head and wash our face (Mt 6.18). And Psalm 50 too at one point makes us proclaim "Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Ps 51.14).
Whenever I read these sentences I am reminded of Saint Benedict’s words in his Rule. Despite being traditionally represented as an austere man, when he talks about Lent, he says that we should spend it "waiting for Easter in the joy of spiritual desire" (RB 49.7)
One of the questions to ask ourselves at the beginning of Lent, then, could be this: do I feel joy in God's salvation? Or, put it in another way, do I perceive a link between joy and salvation?
The word salvation may seem excessive to us. We associate it with imminent danger and rescue. I need to be saved if I am about to drown, if I am seriously ill and must be rushed to the hospital. Instead, the book of Deuteronomy describes salvation as an experience of the Lord’s care and kindness, of how much we matter to him:
Remember all the way that the Lord, your God, has made you travel in these forty years in the desert ... Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years ... The Lord ... brought you water out of the flinty rock; he fed you with manna unknown to your fathers, to make you happy in your future "(Dt 8,1-17)
In other words, salvation is the discovery that we are not alone in our desert - and here by desert we can think not only of times of trial as an illness, a bereavement, a betrayal, but also the dryness that we often experience in our daily life, the sense of emptiness, the worrying prospects for our future. And, especially in this period, this new, almost literal form of desert, due to the forced isolation, loneliness, and often the sense of abandonment caused by repeated and endless lockdowns.
When we pray that the Lord may "restore to us the joy of his salvation" we ask him for eyes to see the way in which he remains close to us, takes care of us, supports us, consoles and accompanies us in our deserts, exactly as he did with his people in the Sinai.
The favourite Old Testament word to describe salvation is not “rescue” but "covenant", that is, the relationship of friendship with God, the way in which he enters our life, walks beside us, takes care of us.
There is no deeper source of joy in life than this: love, in all its forms, in our family, in friendship, in our communities, with our partner. Nothing alleviates anxieties and suffering like sharing, like the presence and care of those who love us, like knowing that we can count on someone. If we think of salvation in this way, as a relationship, then we understand how it can become a source of joy.
Sometimes we can take these relationships for granted, especially in our families. We let ourselves to be distracted by the inevitable misunderstandings, tensions and sometimes conflicts that are normal in every human relationship, even - and perhaps above all - those that are dearest to us, and we forget all the comfort, meaning, encouragement we draw from them. We lose sight of 'the joy of our salvation', that is, the joy of the relationships that give us life. And we do the same with the Lord. We take for granted his presence, his care, and the meaning and strength that we draw from our faith.
It is for this reason that the psalm speaks of rediscovering, restoring, receiving again this joy: "Restore to me the joy of your salvation".
This could become the program for this Lenten period: learning to recognize and appreciate more salvation, that is, friendship, bonds, relationships in our lives, both with one another and with God. And to keep this resolution in mind and persevere in it, we could use the sentence of this psalm as a reminder and as a prayer, repeating it often during our days: "Restore to me, O Lord, the joy of your salvation".