Psalm 51 is traditionally read during Ash Wednesday services. Here is a revised homily from Heather Juul on how Psalm 51 speaks about penance through the metaphor of laundry.
“Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean.”
The psalmist, knowing that laundry was not a delicate process, still prayed for the removal of sins in this way. In the ancient world laundry likely took all day. Without modern soaps or machines, the dirt in clothing was beaten out, slapped on flat rocks or hit with sticks and then rinsed in whatever body of water was convenient. The psalmist, however, does not pray to be slapped on rocks or hit with sticks (I can't say that I have ever prayed for this either). Instead, the psalmist asks for soaking, which is perhaps the gentlest cycle in God’s cosmic washing machine. When I pray for healing, cleansing, purification, or sanctification, I too want it to be easy. But these things rarely are. Soaking helps ease the difficulty of getting clean, but this is only the first step in the cycle.
“Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry. I know how bad I’ve been; my sins are staring me down.”
Psalm 51 is attributed to David and was likely written after Nathan the prophet confronted the king about his affair with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. While the cleaning that Psalm 51 is praying for is a from a position that many would see as unforgivable, God is, as the psalmist notes, generous in love and huge in mercy. This cleansing soak and scrubbing are both available to all of us regardless of how deep in sin and dirt we are.
“Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean. Scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life”
The beauty I see with this laundry imagery is how intimate it is. I don't see God dumping us in a machine, no matter how fancy, to get us clean. Rather God is the one patiently helping us to scrub out our stains, again and again. God is ankle deep in a very cold river waiting to gently, or not so gently, wash the stains out of us.
As we go into lent I pray these next 40 days will be our time to go from soiled laundry to clean (or more accurately from soiled to clean, soiled to clean, again and again.) I pray too that this cleansing agitates us, riles us up, and makes us uncomfortable. After all, isn't this what Lent is about? Isn't Lent about changing our routine to get closer to God? Closer to this God who chooses to enter our dirty, earthy, human world to become close to us. Isn’t Lent about taking on something good and soapy so there is no extra room for dirt?
Ash Wednesday is a day that begins the Lenten season and where we recognize that we are mortal. We will each die. In the recognition of our mortality, we see that we cannot each be our own little gods. God is the one who created us. God is the one who has defeated death and conquered sin. God is the one who will resurrect us and make us new. God is the one waiting ankle deep in a river to soak us and scrub away our sins.
Like the psalmist, I pray for graciousness and mercy. I pray that God would give us each a fresh start. As garments none of us are brand new, we have holes, pulls, discoloration. But this doesn’t mean that we have to also live with stains. God takes us, as we are, stained garments full of holes, and breathes holiness into us, soaking and scrubbing us into a new life. Lent is an opportunity to remember that God doesn’t throw us out because of our stains. Because we are not trash. We are God’s imperfect people who constantly strive to move from stained to clean and none of us are beyond this transformation.
“Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean”