This is the fourth time during our reflections on morning prayers from the Liturgy of the Hours that we have heard the proclamation of Psalm 51, the famous Miserere. In fact, it is repeated every Friday, thereby becoming an oasis for meditation where we discover the evil that we harbor in our conscience and ask the Lord to purify and forgive us. Indeed, as the psalmist confesses in another prayer of petition, “Before you no living being can be just” (Psalm 143:2). In the Book of Job we read: “How can a man be just in God's sight, or how can a woman's child be innocent? Behold, even the moon is not bright and the stars are not clear in his sight. How much less man, who is but a maggot, the son of man, who is only a worm?” (Job 25:4-6).
These are strong and dramatic words that attempt to convey in all seriousness and gravity the limitations and the fragility of human beings and their perverse capacity to sow evil, violence, impurity and lies. However, the message of hope contained in the Miserere, which the Book of Psalms attributes to David, a repentant sinner, is this: God can “blot out, wash away and cleanse” any guilt that we confess with a contrite heart (see Psalm 51:2-3). As the Lord says through Isaiah, “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool” (Isaiah 1:18).
A Message of Hope
On this occasion, we will reflect briefly on the conclusion of Psalm 51, an ending that is full of hope because the psalmist is aware that God has forgiven him (see verses 17-21). At this point, his mouth is about to proclaim the praises of the Lord to the world, thereby attesting to the joy that he feels in his soul, which has been purified of evil and, consequently, freed from remorse (see verse 17).
The psalmist gives witness in a clear way to another conviction, which is related to a teaching that the prophets reiterated (see Isaiah 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-25; Hosea 6:6): The most pleasing sacrifice that rises up to the Lord like a perfume and a sweet fragrance (see Genesis 8:21) is not a holocaust of bulls and lambs but rather a “broken, humbled heart” (Psalm 51:19).
The Imitation of Christ, a text so beloved in our Christian spiritual tradition, repeats the same admonition as the psalmist: “The humble contrition of sins is for you the pleasing sacrifice, a perfume sweeter than the smoke of incense … In it, every iniquity is purified and washed away” (III, 52:4).
Christ Our Mediator
The psalm ends unexpectedly, giving us a completely different perspective, which even seems to contain a contradiction (see verses 20-21). From the final plea of an individual sinner, a transition is made to a prayer for rebuilding the entire city of Jerusalem, transporting us from David's era to the era when the city was destroyed several centuries later. Moreover, after having expressed God's rejection of animal sacrifices in verse 18, verse 21 of the psalm proclaims that God will be pleased with these very same sacrifices.
It is clear that this last passage is a later addition that was made during the time of the exile. In a certain sense, it was an attempt to correct or at least to complete the viewpoint in David's psalm. It does so in two ways. On one hand, it did not want the psalm to be restricted to an individual prayer; there was also a need to reflect on the pitiful situation of the entire city. On the other hand, there was a desire to reappraise God's rejection of ritual sacrifices; this rejection could neither be a blanket rejection nor a definitive rejection since it concerned a form of worship that God himself prescribed in the Torah. The person who completed the psalm had a valid intuition: He understood the need that sinners experience — the need for sacrificial mediation. Sinners are not capable of purifying themselves through their own efforts; good intentions are not enough. An external yet effective mediation is needed. The New Testament later revealed the full meaning of his intuition, showing us that Christ has brought about the perfect sacrificial mediation by offering up his life.
Communion of Saints
In his Homilies on Ezekiel, St. Gregory the Great understood very well the difference in perspective between verses 19 and 21 of the Miserere. He proposed an interpretation of these verses that we can receive as our own, thereby concluding our meditation. St. Gregory applies verse 19, which speaks about a contrite spirit, to the Church's earthly existence, and verse 21, which speaks about holocausts, to the Church in heaven.
Here is what this great pontiff had to say: “The holy Church has two lives: one in time, the other in eternity; one of labor on earth, the other of reward in heaven; one in which merits are gained, the other in which merits gained are enjoyed. Both in one life as well as in the other life, it offers sacrifice: here the sacrifice of remorse and on high the sacrifice of praise. About the first sacrifice it has been said: ‘My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit’ (Psalm 51:19); about the second it has been written: 'Then you will be pleased with proper sacrifice, burnt offerings and holocausts’ (Psalm 51:21). … In both flesh is offered, since here on earth the offering of flesh is the mortification of the body, while on high the offering of flesh is the glory of the resurrection in praise of God. On high flesh will be offered as a holocaust, when it will be transformed in eternal incorruptibility, and there will no longer be any conflict or anything mortal, because it will remain wholly burning with love for him in endless praise” (Omelie su Ezechiele/2, Rome, 1993, p. 271).