On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of the sentence pronounced by God upon our first ancestor: “Dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return” (Gen. 3:19).
Adam had been given everything: “a paradise of pleasure,” and total dominion over it. Made in the image of God, he understood, cared for, and enjoyed all of the things God made, which were “very good” (Gen. 1-2).
Adam’s mistake was to listen to the serpent, who convinced him (through the influence of his lovely wife) that there was something more to be had. Instead of possessing all these good things as gifts from God, he could make them his alone, if only he would refuse to acknowledge God’s supremacy, and declare himself equal to his Creator.
What Adam failed to consider is that equality with God is one thing God cannot give, for the simple reason that God “made us, and not we ourselves” (Ps. 99:3).
Since God is the ground of our existence, by rights Adam (and with him his descendants) should have ceased to exist the moment he turned away from God.
In his mercy, God gave Adam, and us, another chance. How have we used it?
Throughout history, man has sometimes obeyed God, inviting his further blessings, but often forgotten or even repudiated his Lord. As a consequence, mankind continues to rise and fall, veering from blessings and prosperity to the brink of self-destruction.
The prophet Jeremias reminds us of the fate that awaits us as persons and societies if we are unwilling to humble ourselves before God.
This musical setting of his words by Matthias Weckmann (1619-1674) helps us to feel the weight of St. Paul’s warning, that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23); and to experience the liberation of the mercy that offers us a better choice.
How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How doth the city sit solitary, that was so populous! How is she become as a widow, she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! All ye that pass by: Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me. She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks. Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me. She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks, among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her. Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me. The Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger. Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is become as an impure woman. All her friends condemn her, they are become her enemies. They have heard that I sigh, there is none to comfort me. Mine heart is turned within me, for I am grief-stricken. O Lord, behold my affliction; because the enemy prevails!
As we contemplate the nothingness which our sins have deserved, let us not forget what King David learned when he confessed his sins to the Lord: “a contrite and humbled heart, O god, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 50:19).
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