The Lenten liturgical season is quickly upon us. Ash Wednesday takes place on 22 February. Lent is considered a penitential part of the church calendar year and is thus signified with purple paraments (which are not to be confused with a pair of mints).

Psalm 51 is one of the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Penitential psalms, or portions thereof, express and confess our sinful condition and ask God for saving grace. Lutherans regularly use a portion of Psalm 51 in their liturgy, namely

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:10-12).

Little known is that those failing to recite these psalms on a regular basis run the risk of ending up in a penitentiary. So, start reciting. Most people do not want to be behind bars, except, of course, bartenders.

Whereas that might be a bit of an exaggeration, in the history of the Roman Church if one committed a sin, one faced two problems. First, one has sinned and now requires forgiveness which is obtained through the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution. Second, one needs to compensate for the damage caused by such sin, which takes place through penance. For example, if you steal Billy’s football, in addition to confession and absolution, you would need to make up for the misdeed, either by returning Billy’s football or buying him a new football or, instead of those, perhaps saying ten “Hail Marys.” The last penalty does little to help Billy, but it is particularly fitting in football.

In the Roman Church, if one should die after confession/absolution but before having fulfilled one’s penitential obligations, one gets a free trip to purgatory. The word “purgatory” comes from “purge.” So, in purgatory one is purged through torment, usually by fire of some sort, and when one if purified, one finally pops into heaven. This process is, unfortunately, painfully slow because those in purgatory cannot quicken the process. Fortunately, the pope, being the gracious chap that he is, can grant indulgences to shorten or remove time in purgatory, particularly when the living do something to benefit the powerless dead populating purgatory.

These indulgences are issued by the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary. The pope’s second most recent indulgence, “Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary on Plenary Indulgences for the Deceased Faithful,” was promulgated on 27 October 2021. That decree renewed the indulgence issued on 22 October 2020 which was issued in light of COVID 19. Here are the opening paragraphs of 2020 indulgence:

“This Apostolic Penitentiary has received many petitions from holy Pastors who have asked that this year, due to the “Covid-19” epidemic, pious works to obtain the Plenary Indulgences applicable to souls in Purgatory, be commuted in accordance with the Manual of Indulgences (conc. 29, § 1). For this reason, the Apostolic Penitentiary, on special mandate of His Holiness Pope Francis, willingly establishes and decides that this year, in order to avoid gatherings where they may be forbidden:

a. — the Plenary [full] Indulgence for those who visit a cemetery and pray for the deceased, even if only mentally, normally established only for the individual days from 1 to 8 November, may be transferred to other days of the same month, until its end. These days, freely chosen by the individual faithful, may also be separate from each other; …” *

Isn’t that good news! Have you ever lain in bed on Sunday morning thinking that you should go to church but might skip it anyway? Well, in the Roman Church you can lie in bed and pray for the dead in a virtual cemetery, and presto, you have sprung someone from purgatory! What could be better, sleep in on Sunday and save a soul? If, however, you are not one of the faithful, i.e. not a Roman Catholic, or if do not believe in purgatory or both, you are condemned and do not have a prayer.

Lutherans did not originally include a portion of Psalm 51 in the liturgy merely for penitential purposes. Rather, the Reformers believed that the Roman doctrines of penance, purgatory, and indulgences negated the work and person of Jesus Christ. If one can lie in bed and pray for the dead to help them pop out of purgatory, then Christ and his cross were null and void. In the Reformers’ eyes, the Roman Church could conjure up this and other false doctrines because God had withdrawn his Holy Spirit from the papcy. For the Reformers, the verse, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me,” was an earnest plea from the whole church to God to protect the truly faithful from the fate of becoming faithless.

Sadly, if one views the Lutheran world today, it would appear that whole swaths of Lutherans have succumbed to the same fate as the papcy. Some so-called Lutherans are even willing to overlook things like purgatory and indulgences to find ecumenical favor with the pope. Such thinking is equally a denial of the person and work of Jesus Christ in whom the church already has its true unity. When one adds thereto countless “Lutherans” placing trendy, political ideologies over and above the principles of scripture, it would appear that what was once a reformation of the church has become yet another deformation of it.

We at St. Luke’s are not immune from the society in which we live. Instead of giving up something this Lenten season, perhaps we might like to add something by daily praying Psalm 51:10-12 as our earnest plea to God to protect us from being imprisoned by false gospels and their resultant faithlessness to which even we penitential sinners so easily succumb.