Saturday in the Benedictine Office, I have suggested previously, calls us to remember Holy Saturday, when the tomb is empty and the Mass is not celebrated, because Christ is preaching to those in Sheol.
It is a day when we can meditate on God's wonderful faithfulness and care of us, set against our constant rejection of him through sin.
In St Benedict’s ordering of the Office, Saturday has but one psalm, Psalm 142.
The reason for this is no doubt in part that the Canticle he set for the day, from Deuteronomy 32, is extremely long (65 verses when arranged for liturgical use). Today I want to look briefly provide something of an introduction to it.
Importance of the Canticle
Before looking at the text itself, it is worth noting that this is an extremely important canticle.
Whereas in the case of the other Lauds canticles St Benedict simply says, in his Rule, to use the Roman ones, he specifically mentions Deuteronomy for Saturday. In this he was carrying over a Jewish tradition that this canticle be recited each Sabbath in the synagogues, a tradition alluded to by St James in Acts 15:21.
This in fact reflects a Scriptural injunction: in Deuteronomy 31 God tells Moses that he is going to die soon, and calls him and Joshua before him within the tabernacle. Appearing as a pillar of cloud, Scripture records that God then dictated the canticle and instructed Moses to make the children of Israel learn it by heart so they would have no excuses as to what the law required, and could not say that they did not know the consequences of not following it.
Modern (and modernist?) commentaries (yes, even the Navarre) tend to reject the idea that it was composed all at once, or dictated in quite so dramatic a fashion, Scripture notwithstanding. Still, regardless of how literally you interpret the story of its composition, the inclusion of this explanation clearly signals its importance.
The canticle is effectively a summary of all of Deuteronomy, and its mix of rejoicing over God’s care and creation of us, testimony to God’s care of us and man’s infidelity and continuing rejection of him, together with warnings over the consequences of sin. Its themes are also reflected in many of the psalms of Matins today in the Benedictine Office.
And its references to a perverse generation and should sound very familiar from the New Testament.
Despite all this, the full text of the canticle is likely to be relatively unfamiliar to those who say the 1962 Benedictine Office using the Monastic Diurnal or Breviary (as opposed to the Antiphonale Monasticum) for several reasons.
First, on many Saturdays during the year, the rubrics suggest that it be replaced by the festal canticle, as part of the Saturday Office of Our Lady.
But secondly, even where it is retained (such as during Lent and Advent), the 1962 breviary actually cuts out more than half of it, ending it at verse 27, before even the division point of the original version! Indeed, the Monastic Diurnal for some reason inserts a division into Psalm 142 rather than the canticle as St Benedict actually specified, perhaps by way of a protest? The result is that the canticle seems to end on a rather odd note, condemning the people who had forgotten God who created them.
I can only speculate on the reasons for this bit of liturgical butchery.
Were the verses condemning homosexuality perhaps ones the reformers didn’t want to have modern monks confronted with on a regular basis?
Or was it perhaps the references to God’s judgment?
Or worse still from a liberal perspective, the references to God’s vengeance, that actually conclude the canticle?
Unsurprisingly, the modern Liturgy of the Hours goes even further, slashing the canticle to but twelve verses, and thus transforming it from some hard sayings coupled with a tough warning to a ‘joyful hymn to the Lord who lovingly protects and cares for his people amid the daylong dangers and difficulties’ (Pope John Paul II, in a General Audience on it in 2002).
Can one legitimately add those excluded verses back into the 1962 Office? Given that many monasteries continue to use the older version of the Antiphonale Monasticum which includes the full text of this canticle, I actually do think this is legitimate and even desirable.
Here is the first half of the canticle, up to the pre-1962 divisio point, but with verse divisions as it appears in Scripture:
Hear, O you heavens, the things I speak, let the earth give ear to the words of my mouth.
2 Let my doctrine gather as the rain, let my speech distil as the dew, as a shower upon the herb, and as drops upon the grass.
3 Because I will invoke the name of the Lord: give magnificence to our God.
4 The works of God are perfect, and all his ways are judgments: God is faithful and without any iniquity, he is just and right.
5 They have sinned against him, and are none of his children in their filth: they are a wicked and perverse generation.
6 Is this the return you make to the Lord, O foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, that has possessed you, and made you, and created you?
7 Remember the days of old, think upon every generation: ask your father, and he will declare to you: your elders and they will tell you.
8 When the Most High divided the nations: when he separated the sons of Adam, he appointed the bounds of people according to the number of the children of Israel.
9 But the Lord's portion is his people: Jacob the lot of his inheritance.
10 He found him in a desert land, in a place of horror, and of vast wilderness: he led him about, and taught him: and he kept him as the apple of his eye.
11 As the eagle enticing her young to fly, and hovering over them, he spread his wings, and has taken him and carried him on his shoulders.
12 The Lord alone was his leader: and there was no strange god with him.
13 He set him upon high land: that he might eat the fruits of the fields, that he might suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the hardest stone,
14 butter of the herd, and milk of the sheep with the fat of lambs, and of the rams of the breed of Basan: and goats with the marrow of wheat, and might drink the purest blood of the grape.
15 The beloved grew fat, and kicked: he grew fat, and thick and gross, he forsook God who made him, and departed from God his saviour.
16 They provoked him by strange gods, and stirred him up to anger, with their abominations.
17 They sacrificed to devils and not to God: to gods whom they knew not: that were newly come up, whom their fathers worshipped not.
18 You have forsaken the God that begot you, and have forgotten the Lord that created you.
19 The Lord saw, and was moved to wrath: because his own sons and daughters provoked him.
20 And he said: I will hide my face from them, and will consider what their last end shall be: for it is a perverse generation, and unfaithful children.
21 They have provoked me with that which was no god, and have angered me with their vanities: and I will provoke them with that which is no people, and will vex them with a foolish nation.
1 Audite, cæli, quæ loquor : audiat terra verba oris mei.
2 Concrescat ut pluvia doctrina mea, fluat ut ros eloquium meum, quasi imber super herbam, et quasi stillæ super gramina.
3 Quia nomen Domini invocabo : date magnificentiam Deo nostro.
Dei perfecta sunt opera, et omnes viæ ejus judicia : Deus fidelis, et absque ulla iniquitate, justus et rectus.
5 Peccaverunt ei, et non filii ejus in sordibus : generatio prava atque perversa.
6 Hæccine reddis Domino, popule stulte et insipiens? numquid non ipse est pater tuus, qui possedit te, et fecit, et creavit te?
7 Memento dierum antiquorum, cogita generationes singulas : interroga patrem tuum, et annuntiabit tibi : majores tuos, et dicent tibi.
8 Quando dividebat Altissimus gentes, quando separabat filios Adam, constituit terminos populorum juxta numerum filiorum Israël.
9 Pars autem Domini, populus ejus : Jacob funiculus hæreditatis ejus.
10 Invenit eum in terra deserta, in loco horroris, et vastæ solitudinis : circumduxit eum, et docuit : et custodivit quasi pupillam oculi sui.
11 Sicut aquila provocans ad volandum pullos suos, et super eos volitans, expandit alas suas, et assumpsit eum, atque portavit in humeris suis.
12 Dominus solus dux ejus fuit, et non erat cum eo deus alienus :
13 constituit eum super excelsam terram, ut comederet fructus agrorum : ut sugeret mel de petra, oleumque de saxo durissimo;
14 butyrum de armento, et lac de ovibus cum adipe agnorum, et arietum filiorum Basan : et hircos cum medulla tritici, et sanguinem uvæ biberet meracissimum.
15 Incrassatus est dilectus, et recalcitravit : incrassatus, impinguatus, dilatatus, dereliquit Deum factorem suum, et recessit a Deo salutari suo.
16 Provocaverunt eum in diis alienis, et in abominationibus ad iracundiam concitaverunt. 17 Immolaverunt dæmoniis et non Deo, diis quos ignorabant : novi recentesque venerunt, quos non coluerunt patres eorum :
18 Deum qui te genuit dereliquisti, et oblitus es Domini creatoris tui.
19 Vidit Dominus, et ad iracundiam concitatus est : quia provocaverunt eum filii sui et filiæ.
20 Et ait : Abscondam faciem meam ab eis, et considerabo novissima eorum : generatio enim perversa est, et infideles filii.
21 Ipsi me provocaverunt in eo qui non erat Deus, et irritaverunt in vanitatibus suis : et ego provocabo eos in eo qui non est populus, et in gente stulta irritabo illi.