Saturday, August 25, 2007

How to Pray the Psalms(6)

A similar circumstance happens when the mood changes radically without explanation. During Advent we prayed Psalm 85 regularly. This begins on a mournful note: “O Lord, you once favoured your land, and revived the fortunes of Jacob.” and later on: “Will you be angry with us forever? Will your anger never cease?” Well the answer to these questions must be that God won’t be angry forever because in verse 9, things turn completely around: “I will hear what the Lord God has to say, a voice that speaks of peace.” This is indeed a beautiful Psalm for Advent and Christmas, continuing as it does: “Faithfulness shall spring from the earth and justice look down from heaven.” But the most famous instance of this sort of turnaround is undoubtedly for the Christian Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I have had friends try to argue that this was an indication that Jesus despaired on the cross. But such an argument is made without understanding the dynamics of the particular Psalm on the lips of our Lord. This Psalm ends with one of the most remarkable passages in the whole Psalter: I will quote just a bit:
The poor shall eat and shall have their fíll
They shall praise the Lord, thóse who seek him.
May their hearts live for ever ánd ever!

All the earth shall remember and return to the Lórd,
all the families of the nations worshíp before him
for the kingdom is the Lord’s; he is ruler of thé nations.
They shall worship him, all the mighty óf the earth;
before him shall bow all who go down to thé dust.

Whatever the predicament had been, the end result is the enlightenment of the nations and eschatological fulfillment! This is a perfect picture of the true Kingdom of God. There can be no mistaking the fact that the evangelist Mark intended us to understand this.
But what happened in the middle of these Psalms? Again, let me draw a comparison to our own liturgy. The transition from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist includes the Intercessions. We bring all our needs and the needs of the Church and world before God. We go on to present our gifts to God. God’s response is contained within the mystery of the transubstantiation. This is important to grasp. We all take on faith the fact that we are changed by participation in the Eucharist. The prayer after Communion makes bold claims on behalf of the efficacy of the sacrament. But an outsider would be puzzled: aren’t there still wars going on? Don’t you still have the same feud with your friend or family member? And so on.
These Psalms express a similar paradox of faith. I would suggest that the difference between the lament that opens these two Psalms and the thanksgiving that concludes is that between them, the ritual sacrifice has been performed. The Israelites believed that God’s power went forth at the time of the sacrifice. This is a power of peace and justice, of healing and shalom. We say the same, even more, in fact, about the sacrifice of the Mass.

Communal Nature of the Written Text
A last important point indicating that the Psalms were not personal prayers is one often overlooked. Any written text in the ancient world was inherently communal. This was true until the invention of the printing press. A pious Jew simply could not take home a copy of the Psalter any more than a devout Catholic could take home a Bible in the year 856. Books were too expensive, and almost no one could read them. Therefore, the reading of the text was always an official event. We think of Jesus in Nazareth in Luke’s gospel, sitting down to teach in the synagogue and unrolling the scroll. When he quotes Isaiah, he is doing so publicly, not for the edification of his own faith, but for the edification of the community.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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