Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away!
Psalm 32:1, appointed for Morning Prayer today.
We rightly honor God as the actor in this verse. God is the forgiver, the one who puts away our wrongs, never again to look at them.
But Christian spirituality also celebrates a "supporting actor," our own memory. How happy - blessed - are we to forget the greatest exposures of our distance from God.
I happened to run into this Psalm last night, while reading Gregory the Great's Sermons on the Prophet Ezekiel. Pondering the winged creatures who move with the presence of God in Ezekiel's visions, Gregory quotes Ps. 30 (numbered 31 in the Roman Catholic system)and says,
"'Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, whose sins are covered.' We cover our sins when we place good deeds atop evil acts. For everything which is covered is placed below, and this, when it is concealed, is led away from above. Therefore, when we disown the evils which we have done, and choose the good which we shall do, we spread, as it were, a covering over the thing which we are ashamed to have seen."
Some 800 years later, an anonymous English spiritual guide wrote The Cloud of Unknowing. The title refers to the "cloud" of separation between God and our souls, which the spiritual life is meant to penetrate. But this upward effort must be matched with wise use of a "cloud of forgetting" beneath our feet, under which we must lose all thoughts that distance us from God.
This spiritual method - straining intently upward toward God while practicing forgetfulness on earth - is present in the New Testament itself, as St. Paul writes:
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:12-14
Sins must be forgotten because the recollection of them for anything other than confession, repentance and, where possible, restitution to those we've wronged simply creates dangerous nostalgia at one extreme or despairing shame at the other. Both of these become weapons of our enemy. The devil comes as tempter, to stir up memories of enslaving pleasures. But he comes also as "ha-satan", the accuser, to read out all the charges against us and crush our hope.
Sins must be forgotten because the memory of them is a vain obsession with self, ignoring the power of God to transform us and give us new life. God spoke to his banished, guilty people and said,
"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland." Isaiah 43:18-19
In a beautiful vision, Zechariah sees God transform a fallen priest,
"Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?’ Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.’"
Jesus, with quiet power, expunged the record against one woman and set her free to find the upward path,
"‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’" John 8
In all of these examples, God is the actor. God makes things new, God cleans us up, God rebukes our accuser. But we must support his act, clearing our minds of our old self and memorizing the part written for us by Christ, the author of our salvation.
And so God's people accept the supporting role...
Confessor: "The Lord has put away all your sins."
Penitent: "Thanks be to God."
Confessor: "Go (or abide) in peace, and pray for me, a sinner."
(Book of Common Prayer, Pastoral Office of Reconciliation)
...and God's people find freedom to reach higher:
In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our
salvation. The Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer B