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‘Super Nivem’

A reflection on Lenten themes

By Brian Caulfield, FFG Editor

As I shovel every few days the latest blanket of Connecticut snow and toss it upon the 6-foot drifts surrounding my house, I find myself silently singing the Latin hymn “Asperges Me,” from the penitential rite of Mass. Shoveling the driveway can, indeed, be a penance this winter, which has dumped foot upon foot of powder across New England, but the hymn bubbles up from my unconscious for another reason.

The penitent in the Latin verses begins by humbly accepting the Lord’s sprinkling (“Asperges me”) of cleansing hyssop. He then intensifies the image, saying that the Lord will wash him whiter than snow – “super nivem dealbabor.” I have had, with my shoveling family, plenty of opportunity to meditate on just how blindingly white fresh snow can be, and to compare the purity of this “nivem” to the state of my soul, too often cramped, crabbed and impatient, especially in extreme winter. With Ash Wednesday this week marking the beginning of Lent, it is a good time to reflect on where we are in our spiritual journey, using the Latin hymn, which is based on Psalm 51:7, as a guide.

The first thing to notice is that although the penitent speaks, it is the Lord who acts. Asperges is not in the imperative or subjunctive case – the penitent is not imploring the Lord for sprinkling. Rather, asperges is in the second person future tense – “You (Lord) shall wash me.” The initiative comes from the Lord; the penitent accepts the Lord’s sprinkling and acknowledges the result – “I shall be cleansed.”

The attitude of the penitent is wholly humble. Like the tax collector in the Gospel parable, he does not even lift his eyes to heaven, seeking to justify himself as does the Pharisee; rather, he humbly submits to the Lord’s judgment, saying, “Be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14).

This is a lesson for us. We have no right to God’s mercy, no claim on his forgiveness, so that we can demand to be washed clean. Often we may wish to earn God’s mercy, like the Pharisee who says, “I fast twice a week and pay tithes on my whole income.” We tally up good works and penances as though we could present them as a bill for the Lord to pay. Certainly, good works and penances are needed for us to grow in virtue and holiness, but they must be performed in a spirit of humility, not as a legal case or a fiscal account. After all, Jesus instructed, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done only what we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:10).

There is always a tension between grace and good works; the kind of tension that could spark a Protestant revolution. Rejecting works, Luther set a course that led to a theology of human depravity; that man could do no good before God and never become holy in himself. Justification to Luther was simply God overlooking our sins, not imputing our guilt to us, and covering our sins like snow (the nivem imagery again) covering a dung heap.

Catholic teaching has always balanced the tension. While it is true that grace can never be merited by any works, God does in fact bestow his grace in response to good works, and this grace makes a person holy in himself, in his own soul. Justification is not simply a “get out of jail free” card from God whose mercy ignores sin. The Council of Trent, in direct response to the Reformation errors, wisely stated that the interaction between grace and works is difficult to explain, but we know that a person must do something in response to grace, because grace can be rejected. At the very least, man’s response to grace must be acceptance, which is a human action that requires knowledge and virtue.

Our sacrifices this Lent should be done in this spirit of acceptance. If we give up chocolate or coffee, don’t make a big deal about how painful it is, or how we are suffering. Don’t say to God, even subtly – Look what I have done for you, now give me what I want.

The readings for Ash Wednesday underline this truth. On the day we get a smudge of ash on our forehead to symbolize our penance and weakness, we are told by Jesus in the Gospel not to announce our good works or change our appearance to let others know we are fasting (Matthew 6:1-6). We hear that reading and then walk forth to receive our ashes, and may think it strange that we are told not to do what we apparently are doing – showing our good works before the world. Yet this is the tension of grace and works that our faith embraces – the works of fasting and the dab of ash, balanced with the grace of God working silently in our soul. As Catholics, we are asked to accept the tension with God’s grace and mercy through the course of 40 days, so that we may be made “whiter than snow.”