Monday, January 20, 2014

St Benedict's psalter and the election of the Gentiles**


This is a cross-post from my Saints Will Arise Blog.

There is a very interesting series over at the always excellent Fr Hunwicke's Mutual Enrichment blog, which I strongly recommend reading, on what is known as 'two covenants theory', the idea that Judaism is not superseded by the New Covenant.

The situation of modern Jews when it comes to the Church is sensitive territory these days, for many in the Church, swayed by the desire to promote inter-religious unity, advocate ideas that are at odds with both Scripture and tradition.  Fr Hunwicke does a fairly comprehensive demolition on these erroneous theories in the light of the tradition, what Vatican II's Nostra Aetate actually says, and other evidence.

Fr Hunwicke's posts (as on some many other issues) have been rather helpful for my own understanding of this touchy subject, so I thought it might be timely to share some of my speculations on St Benedict's ordering of his psalm cursus that may reflect his understanding of this topic by way of a minor footnote.

The traditional understanding of the Old and New covenants

Fr Hunwicke provides a very carefully nuanced articulation of the tradition on this topic; let me provide the un-nuanced version for the sake of debate.

I would suggest that the hardline version of the traditionalist position is that modern-day Jews are no longer the chosen people: for God's promise to Abraham is fulfilled in the Church, which was founded by the faithful remnant of the Jewish people that he preserved, consisting of the apostles and disciples and their subsequent converts.  Catholics, in other words, are the new Jews.

In this view, instead of the whole Jewish people being granted a privileged place in ongoing salvation history (or at least are still the inheritors of an eschatological promise of reconciliation), they have been dispossessed just as the Canaanites were in their time, and their inheritance given to the new Israel, the Church, which is open to gentiles and Jews alike; Rabbinic Judaism, in other words, is not the Judaism of Our Lord's time.

Fr Hunwicke demolishes some of the obviously erroneous liberal views on this subject, but many traditionalists still struggle with the suggestion made by modern theologians, including Pope Benedict XVI, to the effect that while the Mosaic Covenant has been closed, modern Jews still have a privileged place in salvation history by virtue of the covenant with Abraham.

Fr Hunwicke suggests that Pope Benedict's rewrite of the (EF) Good Friday prayer, which reflects St Paul's words on the subject, arguably reflects an eschatological explanation for this view of the continuing covenant, while leaving the traditional view, that Jewish worship and practices have no salvific value, intact.

I want to draw your attention to five insights on this issue that can, I think, be gained from St Benedict's version of the Divine Office, which I think helps support the eschatological promise approach advocated by Pope Benedict and others.

1.  The old sacrifices have been superseded: Psalm 91 (92) on Friday

In the traditional version of the Roman Office, Psalm 91 (Bonum est confiteri Domino) is said on Friday, not least because the title given to in Scripture is 'For (or 'on the day of' in the Vulgate) the Sabbath'.

St Benedict, however, moved it to Friday at Lauds.  It is a change that contemporary liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw, for one, finds puzzling (Daily Prayer in the Early Church, p147).

Ex-Trappist turned Orthodox scholar Patrick Reardon, in his book Christ in the Psalms, though offers a very elegant and plausible rationale for this change, for he notes that as well as the Sabbath, Jewish commentaries state that it was sung daily as an accompaniment to the morning sacrifice of a lamb.  Reardon, accordingly, sees the shift of the psalm to Friday Lauds as a testimony to the idea that Friday is "our true the true Pascha and Atonement Day, on which the Lamb of God took away the sins of the world."(p181)

Reardon sees Psalm 91 as a reminder that the Old Covenant, which merely foreshadowed what was to come, has ended, and the New has replaced it:

"Prayed on Friday mornings, as the ancient Western monastic rule prescribed, this psalm reminds the Church why it is no longer necessary to make the daily offering of lambs in the temple, for those sacrifices had only "a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things" (Heb. 10:1). With respect to those quotidian lambs offered of old, we are told that "every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins" (10:11). But, with respect to the Lamb in the midst of the Throne, we are told that "this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God . . . For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified" (10:12-14). This is the true Lamb to whom we chant: "You are worthy to take the scroll, / And to open its seals; / For You were slain, / And have redeemed us to God by Your blood" (Rev. 5:9)." (p181)

2.  Psalm 118: the new testament is superior to the old

In the Roman Office, Psalm 118 is sung over the course of Sunday from Prime to None (and in the older form of the Office, daily at these hours).  St Benedict, by contrast, splits the longest psalm in the psalter between Sunday (Prime to None) and Monday (Terce to None).   And he organises the split so as to end Sunday Nones with a stanza where the psalmist claims to have outshone his teachers and those of old in his understanding:

"Through your commandment, you have made me wiser than my enemies: for it is ever with me. I have understood more than all my teachers: because your testimonies are my meditation. I have had understanding above ancients: because I have sought your commandment." (verses 98-100)

It could of course just be how things fell out.  But St Benedict's contemporary Cassiodorus (author of easily the most popular commentary on the psalms of medieval monks) certainly understood these verses as affirming the new covenant over the Old:

“Certainly the new people had better understanding than the older Jewish people, for they happily accepted the Lord Christ who the Jews with mortal damage to themselves believed was to be despised.”

Cassiodorus actually sees the reference in another verse of the stanza, verse 103, which refers to the law being sweeter than honey, as another allusion to this same idea:

“Honey has particular reference to the Old Testament, the comb to the New; for though both are sweet, the taste of the comb is sweeter because it is enhanced by the greater attraction of its newness. Additionally, honey can be understood as the explicit teaching of wisdom, whereas the comb can represent that known to be stored in the depth, so to say, of the cells. Undoubtedly both are found in the divine Scriptures.”

3.  The canticle of Hannah and younger sons

Over at Fr Hunwicke's blog, commenters have noted that the recent tendency to refer to Jews as our 'older brother' is something of a mixed message given the fate of so many older brothers in the Bible!   Indeed, St Paul uses just this typology in one of his discussions on the status of the Jews, in Galatians 4:

"21 Tell me, you who are so eager to have the law for your master, have you never read the law? 22 You will find it written there, that Abraham had two sons; one had a slave for his mother, and one a free woman. 23 The child of the slave was born in the course of nature; the free woman’s, by the power of God’s promise. 24 All that is an allegory; the two women stand for the two dispensations. Agar stands for the old dispensation, which brings up its children to bondage, the dispensation which comes to us from mount Sinai.25 Mount Sinai, in Arabia, has the same meaning in the allegory as Jerusalem, the Jerusalem which exists here and now; an enslaved city, whose children are slaves. 26 Whereas our mother is the heavenly Jerusalem, a city of freedom. 27 So it is that we read, Rejoice, thou barren woman that hast never borne child, break out into song and cry aloud, thou that hast never known travail; the deserted one has more children than she whose husband is with her. 28 It is we, brethren, that are children of the promise, as Isaac was. 29 Now, as then, the son who was born in the course of nature persecutes the son whose birth is a spiritual birth. 30 But what does our passage in scripture say? Rid thyself of the slave and her son; it cannot be that the son of a slave should divide the inheritance with the son of a free woman."

Wednesday, in the Christian week, is traditionally associated with the betrayal of Judas.  That's the reason that Wednesday was a fast day in the early Church as it is in the Benedictine Rule, and in the Office, this is reflected, inter alia, in the choice of Psalm 63 at Lauds.  The variable (ferial) canticle of the day, though, is the Canticle of Hannah (I Kings [1 Sam] 2:1-10), a song of rejoicing at her pregnancy (with the prophet Samuel) that put paid to the taunts of her husband's fecund other wife.  We today tend to interpret this canticle as foreshadowing the Magnificat, which it certainly does.  But one of the earliest Benedictine monastic commentaries on the Office Canticles, by Rabanus Maurus (780-856), also interprets that typology in the light of St Paul's Galatians typology, saying by way of summary:

"But on Wednesday the Canticle of Anna the prophetess is sung, in which the expulsion of the perfidious Jews is set out, and the election of the Church of the gentiles is demonstrated."

And indeed St Benedict's psalm selections for this day come back to the theme of God's choice of peoples several times, most notably in Psalms 134 and 135.

4.  The redemption triptych (Psalms 113, 129 and 134/5) - redemption comes only through Christ

In the Benedictine Office, Psalm 113 (In exitu Israel) is said at Vespers on Monday rather than Sunday as it is in the Roman Office.  In part I think that is because it provides a type of baptism, in the parting of the Red Sea and the Jordan (especially in verse 3: Mare vidit, et fugit: Jordánis convérsus est retrórsum), one of the themes Maurus identifies in the Monday Lauds canticle (along with the Incarnation).  But it also, I think, sets up a nice triptych of opening psalms at Vespers on the first three days of the week around our redemption through Christ.

The two outer panels are provided by Psalms 113 on Monday and 134 and 135 (known as the Great Hallel in Jewish liturgy) on Wednesday.  These three psalms share both common themes and several verses between them, and take us through God's power compared to empty idols, manifested through the creation of the universe, and intervention in history to lead his people out of Egypt,and into the Promised Land.

If he were being consistent, St Benedict would have placed Psalm 128 as the first Psalm at Vespers on Tuesday, for on that day all of the other Gradual psalms are said from Terce through Vespers.  But St Benedict actually places Psalm 128 (where it arguably fits well for other reasons) on Monday, and instead, in the middle of the triptych sits Psalm 129 (De Profundis), with its promise of Christ's redeeming action ('For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption: he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquity').  Dom Gueranger, in his Liturgical Year, notes that this psalm above all, was often interpreted by medieval commentators, as a prophecy of that final reconciliation of the Jews.

5. The Hallel psalms reversed: The first shall be last?

St Benedict’s arrangement of the Sunday Office at both Lauds and Vespers is significantly different to the old Roman he started from.  Two key changes he makes are to start the variable psalmody  at Lauds with Psalm 117 (it was in Prime in the old Roman Office), and to end it with Psalm 112, at Vespers (moving Psalm 113 to Monday in order to do so).  These are, of course, the last and first respectively of the ‘Hallel’ psalms, the psalms sung at the three major Jewish festivals each year.

The more prominent St Benedict accords to Psalm 117 is easily explained: it is one of the most quoted psalms in the New Testament, important in particular for the verses directly prophesying the Resurrection, and pointing to Christ as the stone the builders rejected.

Is it possible, though, that the ending of Vespers on Psalm 112 was also meant to provide a subtle reference to the idea that the first shall come last in relation to St Paul's prophesy in Romans that  'all Israel shall come in'?  St Benedict (485-547) may very well have been familiar with the Bishop of Ravenna, St Peter Chrysologus' (380-450) teaching to just this effect (now used in the readings of the Liturgy of Hours as Fr Hunwicke notes).  And it is certainly nicely consistent with Pope Benedict's rewrite of the Good Friday prayer:

"Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men. (Let us pray. Kneel. Rise.) Almighty and eternal God, who want that all men be saved and come to the recognition of the truth, propitiously grant that even as the fullness of the peoples enters Thy Church, all Israel be saved. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen"

So, is this all too much of a stretch?  Do let me know what you think.

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