Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Psalms 20 to 31: Psalms of the Passion or Resurrection?

In my recent series over at Saints Will Arise on the structure of the Benedictine Office, I suggested that St Benedictine started Sunday Matins at Psalm 20 rather than Psalm 1 in order to give more of a Resurrection focus, in keeping with the nature of Sundays.

Joshua of Psallite Sapienter however, argues that we should view Psalms 21 to 30 as particularly focusing on the Passion, and hence an appropriate Lenten devotion.  He points to the suggestion by William of Autun (765-812) and Durandus (1237-1296) and  that Our Lord said all of these psalms while on the Cross.

Psalms of the Resurrection or psalms of the Passion?

There is certainly Scriptural warrant for viewing Psalm 21 in this way: Scripture puts its opening line (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me) on Our Lord's lips, and this is taken as impliedly a reference to the whole psalm. 

And I certainly have no doubt about the value of saying these psalms as a group as a devotion. 

But they should they really be viewed primarily as psalms of the Passion?

Psalm 21

In fact a large part of the point of the implied reference to the whole of Psalm 21 by Our Lord is as a prophesy of the Resurrection. 

While the first half of the psalm speaks very literally of the suffering Our Lord underwent, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in a General Audience on the psalm, its ending is one of triumph:

"On the other hand in quoting the beginning of Psalm 22, which he perhaps continued to recite mentally during the passion, Jesus did not forget the conclusion which becomes a hymn of liberation and an announcement of salvation granted to all by God. The experience of abandonment is therefore a passing pain which gives way to personal liberation and universal salvation. In Jesus' afflicted soul this perspective certainly nourished hope, all the more so since he had always presented his death as a passage to the resurrection as his true glorification. From this thought his soul took strength and joy in the knowledge that at the very height of the drama of the cross, the hour of victory was at hand."

Psalm 20

The key to the interpretation of this set of psalms surely has to be the opener of the group, Psalm 20, which features this key verse:

4  Vitam pétiit a te: * et tribuísti ei longitúdinem diérum in sæculum, et in sæculum sæculi.
5 He asked life of you: and you have given him length of days for ever and ever.

The Fathers invariably interpret this as a reference to the Resurrection.

St Irenaeus, for example asked:

"Why does the Psalmist say: "Life you have asked for', since Christ was about to die? In this way, the Psalmist proclaims his Resurrection from the dead and his immortality after rising from the dead. In fact, he entered life in order to rise again, and through the space of time in eternity, so as to be incorruptible" (Esposizione della Predicazione Apostolica, 72, Milan, 1979, p. 519).

Similarly, St Augustine commented:

"He asked life; and You gave Him: He asked a resurrection, saying, Father, glorify Your Son; John 17:1 and You gave it Him, Length of days for ever and ever. The prolonged ages of this world which the Church was to have, and after them an eternity, world without end."

The rest of the set

St Benedict, I think, was undoubtedly influenced by the Fathers' view of this group of psalms as having more of a Resurrection focus than a Passion one.

In the Septuagint text, four of them have titles rendered into Latin as 'in finem', which is invariably interpreted by the Fathers to be a reference to the Resurrection and/or Second Coming.

Several others have equally suggestive, upbeat titles: Psalm 23, for example, is labelled 'for the first day after the Sabbath', and Cassiodorus comments on it:

"A psalm of David on the first day of the week. Let us with the Lord's help eagerly remove the veil of this title, so that the inner sanctum may become clearer to us. The first day of the week indicates the Lord's day, the first after the sabbath, the day on which the Lord rose from the dead. It is rightly called the Lord's day because of the outstanding nature of the miracle, or because on that day He stabilised the world, for by rising again on it He is seen to lend succour to the world and is declared also its Maker. Because the whole psalm is sung after the resurrection, this heading has been set before it to inform the hearts of the faithful with the appropriate indication."

Similarly, let's look at what St Augustine has to say about the opening and closing of Joshua's proposed set of psalms:

Psalm 21 (My God, my God why have you forsaken me): St Augustine opens his commentary on this Passion psalm as follows:

To the end, for His own resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself speaks. John 20:1-17 For in the morning on the first day of the week was His resurrection, whereby He was taken up, into eternal life, Over whom death shall have no more dominion."

Psalm 30 (In you have I hoped): St Augustine comments:

To the end, a Psalm of the joy of the Resurrection, and the change, the renewing of the body to an immortal state, and not only of the Lord, but also of the whole Church. For in the former Psalm the tabernacle was finished, wherein we dwell in the time of war: but now the house is dedicated, which will abide in peace everlasting."

What about the content of these psalms?

Take a look too, at a couple of  key verses in this set, and you will similarly see why they can be seen as much as hymns of the Resurrection as the Passion.

Psalm 22 (The Lord is my shepherd): ends with the verse: "And that I may dwell in the house of the Lord unto length of days".

Psalm 23 (The earth is Lord's): Lift up your gates, O princes, and be lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in", made famous by Handel's setting of it, is the quintesential Resurrection verse.

In fact pretty much all of these psalms have some verses that are generally interpreted as references to heaven and/or the Resurrection.

Psalms 21 to 30 in the Office

Nonetheless, there seem to have been an intriguing development in thinking about these psalms, reflected in their liturgical use. 

In the oldest form of the Roman Office, Psalms 1 to 26 were said at Sunday Matins, and 27 to 31 as part of Monday Matins.  This arguably simply reflects the older 'running cursus' approach to the Office.

As I noted above, Psalms 20 to 31 were shifted to Sunday Matins by St Benedict.  That seems to me to reflect a deliberate design decision, reflecting the Resurrection focus on Sunday.  That is consistent with St Benedict's firm focus on heaven: you will be hard-pressed to find an explicit reference to the Cross in his Rule!

But there was an interesting Reformation development in the Roman Office: under Pope Pius V, psalms 21 to 25 were taken out of Sunday Matins and reallocated to Prime, but not in numeric order. 

Instead, Psalm 21 (My God, my God why have you forskaen me) moved to Friday, giving that day an obvious Passion focus.  Psalm 22 (The Lord is my shepherd) was allocated to Thursday, perhaps to reflect its eucharistic connotations; Psalm 23 was placed on Monday; Psalm 24 on Tuesday; and Psalm 25 to Wednesday.

The Pius X reorganisation of the Psalter retained those allocations for Prime, but further shuffled the Matins psalms so that the remaining psalms of  Psalm 20 to 31 were now said on Monday at various hours.

St Benedict revisited

To go back to my rather upbeat view of these psalms, suffice it to note that St Benedict's set of Sunday Matins psalms starts with a psalm of the Incarnation (Psalm 20), and ends on one of the seven penitential psalms.   But is a penitential psalm that starts "Blessed are those...", and ends with an injunction to "Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, you just, and glory, all you right of heart. "

In the end I suspect your focus is depends on your particular school of spirituality....

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Kate!

    Note that, in my discussion of these psalms in the blog post to which you refer, I explained that, accepting the mediæval view that these psalms were prayed by Our Lord on the Cross (Ps 22:1 and Ps 30:6 aloud, and the rest in between silently), of course they mix together references to His Passion as well as His Resurrection, Ascension, and much else. To pray them "in Christ" is to recognize that they are not all focussed on the Passion, but encompass the whole economy of salvation - just as Our Lord's prayer on the Cross, it may devoutly be believed, did so.