The Third Sunday of Lent
Do not enter into judgment with your servant
For you are righteous in your word and just in your judgments
For no living thing is just before you
If you enter into judgment with your servant, O Lord God, what excuse will I find? And where can I beg for forgiveness? For I have rejected and broken all your laws, and have become a dead man in the greatness of my sins. As from Sheol, from the sea of sin draw me out, in your mercy: O Christ the King, have mercy on me!
The Lord’s Fasting and Ours
Among the reflections appropriate for Lent, the Great Fast, is that of sin. When Christ fasted for forty days in the desert and battled with Satan for our salvation, he could not reflect on his own sinfulness, because he is without sin. But while his fasting is an example to us, ours is of a different nature than his; he fasted in order to show us what to do, whereas we fast because we need to; he fasted in order to provide us with grace, whereas we fast because we are in such need of grace; he fasted to show the world his greatness and to destroy the power of Satan, whereas we fast to show ourselves our weakness and to beg for God’s help in defeating Satan in our own lives.
Fasting as a Reminder
All of this implies how important it is to recall our sinfulness and our weakness, so that we may more earnestly beg for the mercy of God offered to us in the grace of Christ. Fasting, if it is done in accord with the wishes of the Church, is to result in humility. By it we are to know more vividly our need for God’s aid. Indeed, fasting is among the finest weapons against spiritual pride.
When we begin to think of ourselves as pious and holy, we need only deprive ourselves of some simple desire to realize who we really are – how driven by our own wants and preoccupations, how distracted by silly desires, how grumpy when we are denied what we wish for; or, even worse, how quickly we can fall into arrogance and looking down on others when fasting is easy for us.
Without Excuse or Defense
The Basilica Hymn for the third Sunday of Sawma, or Lent, is in precisely this spirit – it reflects an awareness of how far we fall without God’s help, and how necessary grace is for us. “If you enter into judgment with your servant, O Lord God, what excuse will I find? And where can I beg for forgiveness?” Here the problem is presented under the aspect of judgment and forgiveness; the scene is set in this way: we are the subjects of the great King, and we have been called to present our case before him. But we cannot find any lawyer among our fellow subjects to defend us in court. Nor can we give any defense ourselves, or find an excuse for our actions, or even beg for forgiveness! The reason for this is that we “have rejected and broken all your laws,” and as a result of this rebellion against the King who gave us life, you and I “have become a dead man in the greatness of my sins.”
The imagery is deliberate and rich. The King of this World has given us so much more than any political leader – he has given us life itself. But along with this life he has asked that we follow his laws, as any Sovereign can reasonably do when he provides us with any good. Indeed, most of us are (rightly) so careful to follow the laws of the country which gives us freedom and prosperity. Otherwise, if we break its laws, the freedom and prosperity it gives us can be taken away. But what of the King who gives us life? What if we break his laws? Does he not have the right to take away the life he gave us for free? And so each one of us, no matter how great or how little our sins, are found in the same situation: having broken the laws of the King of life, we find ourselves spiritually dead “in the greatness of our sins.”
The Merciful King
Then what are we to do? After sinning and sinning again, we have dug our own spiritual graves and have made our souls lifeless, rotting corpses, so much worse than the lepers who were healed by Christ, for our disease is deeper and even more difficult to cure. Sheol is the Semitic word for the “place of the dead,” and the Basilica Hymn for this third week of Lent reminds us where we find ourselves by putting us there. But, after all of this, God has not given up on us and does not condemn us, for he has given the Kingdom to his Son, who has the power to save us even from spiritual death:
“As from Sheol, from the sea of sin draw me out, in your mercy: O Christ the King, have mercy on me!”
As Christ pulled Peter up from drowning in the sea, and as it was only Christ who could have done so, we ask him to pull us out of the sea of sin in which we are drowning. “Mercy” is repeated for two reasons: first, because he does not owe us any help or salvation – that is, it is not something we deserve to ask for, and saving us is not something he owes us. It is a grace – that is, an undeserved gift. The second reason “mercy” is repeated is that it is an accurate description of this King to say he is “Merciful.” Despite all of our sins, Christ our King has loved us enough to give his life for us and to save us from death.