Monday, August 27, 2007

How to Pray the Psalms(8)

Number Two: Curses
We encountered curses in Psalm 63 and noted that they are such a sore spot, that for the most part, Christians have stopped praying curses altogether. Such a practice, I should point out, is not acceptable to Luke the Evangelist for one. He did not hesitate to quote from one of these banned texts, Psalm 109, in the Acts of the Apostles in order to supply a rationale for the appointment of Matthias in Judas’ stead. “Let another man take his office,” indeed! Some reflection on this scene helps to give proper perspective on curses. If you are like me, you find it distasteful to pronounce a curse even on Judas. We are more likely to make excuses for him, perhaps his parents fought or he had a pre-existing psychological condition. We even portray him sympathetically as a misunderstood individual following his own conscience as in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” We wonder, quite contrary to Saint Paul’s teaching, if his mistake wasn’t so bad after all, since it brought about our redemption. Wasn’t Judas necessary to the equation? Why then condemn him?
But as Paul says about those who make such dangerous excuses: our ‘condemnation is just’. By reducing the situation of the curse to a merely interpersonal squabble gotten out of hand, we lose the seriousness of the conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Chaos of Evil. If we are not eager to curse our neighbor, and we should not be, then we must be eager to renounce sin, to curse Satan and all his empty promises, sly excuses, deceptively small compromises. By turning the Psalms into personal statements of piety, we risk removing ourselves from the cosmic drama of redemption.
It is essential to recognize in the idea of a king or high priest, an official of highly concentrated representative power, cursing those who oppose him as a moment with potentially cosmic implications. An attack on the king of Israel, after all, is an attack on all Israel, and even more, a possible challenge to the power and authority of God himself. This is the thrust of a most important royal Psalm, Psalm 89. God has promised that the Davidic line of kings will reign forever over Israel. As the Psalm tells us, even if the king sins, God will remain faithful to his love, his hesed for David. The king might be punished, yes, but God will never let an enemy put an end to the royal line. And yet, as we know, the Babylonians appeared to do just that. The destruction of the Jerusalem temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. was not just another example of the horror of war in ancient times; it was and remains a serious challenge to a theology which demands that God work through historic events and not merely in a ‘spiritual world’ abstracted from the cosmos. Aggressive enemies of Israel or of the Church present a visible affront to God’s supremacy.
We are reluctant, I would guess, to use such bold language if we don’t have to. It is easier theologically to propose that God is omnipotent, but then restrict his supremacy to some invisible spiritual realm and let the world go to the devil, literally. But the exiled Jew in Psalm 137 “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept,” will have none of such equivocation. A nation such as Babylon who dares such an affront to God deserves extinction, for after all, this is an affront to the creator. If that is how you treat the Lord of creation, why should you be allowed to stick around to enjoy his creation?
Now Jewish and Christian theology has developed since 580 B.C. and we have different modes of expression for these realities: but the stakes are not, therefore, any lower. To lose the visceral link to such Biblical immediacy and concreteness risks, I propose, a weakening of our belief in the Incarnation, our treasured belief in God’s love for our physical world.
Finally, we as Christians must recognize the king as Jesus himself, that is, Son of David according to the flesh, and constituted Son of God according to the Holy Spirit. We now know that our kingdom is not of this world and our struggles as the adopted people of God are not with flesh and blood, but with the rulers of this present darkness. In monastic tradition, this teaching of Saint Paul is realized in the identification of our enemies with all tempting thoughts that enter our minds and undermine our resolve to live as children of the light. As St. Benedict teaches, don’t let temptations take root and grow into physical manifestations of evil. While they are still young, dash their heads against the rock who is Christ. In fact, Benedict twice in his rule quotes this very passage, another one commonly passed over in polite silence. The real battle, both in Biblical times and today is between God and evil.

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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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