Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Psalm 118(119) Nun: The Christian life

Today we pick up this Lenten series again with a look at the fourteenth stanza of Psalm 118, Nun, which in the traditional Benedictine Office marks the start of Monday Terce. In the Roman Office it is said at Sunday Sext, and in the Liturgy of the Hours at Vespers.

Christ our light
Today’s section of the psalm starts with an image that was a favourite of the Fathers, and can be seen both as a reference to the Decalogue and the Incarnation alike:

Lucerna pedibus meis verbum tuum, et lumen semitis meis.
Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my paths.

Pope John Paul II commented on this verse that:

Man ventures on life's often dark journey, but all of a sudden the darkness is dispelled by the splendour of the Word of God. Psalm 19[18] compares the Law of God to the sun, when it says that "the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes" (19[18]: 9). Then in the Book of Proverbs it is reasserted that "the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light" (6: 23). Christ was also to present himself as a definitive revelation with exactly the same image: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (Jn 8: 12).

On being a lamp to the world

The verse is one we can apply to ourselves too, as Caesarius of Arles pointed out:

If we notice carefully, we will realize that what our Lord said to the blessed apostles also refers to us:
"You are the light of the world," he says, "and no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel but on the lampstand, so as to give light to all in the house."

He goes on to suggest that we all, but most especially priests, have a duty to speak out:

"Now, if the head's bodily eyes refuse to show the way to the rest of the members, the whole body walks in darkness. Similarly, if priests, who seem to have the function of eyes in the body of Christ the head, have been put on a lampstand in the church but are unwilling to shine in God's house and have ceased to show the light of doctrine to the whole church, it is to be feared that some of the people may become involved in the darkness of error and fall into some abyss of sin."

Through our baptism we are sworn

The second verse is also a crucial one to keep in mind:

Juravi et statui custodire judicia justitiæ tuæ.
I have sworn and am determined to keep the judgments of your justice.

The oath sworn here is often interpreted as our baptismal promises which, if made on our behalf as infants, we must take upon ourselves as adults and keep with the help of grace in order not to be foresworn. To do so, Cassiodorus tells us is to walk the path of saints:

"Their sacred devotion had enjoined upon themselves the decision to keep the Lord's judgments in each and every danger. The very word denotes its purpose, for iurare (swear) is iure orare, in other words, to plead what is right, so that one may not go astray and seek to renege on one's promise. This is how the saints swear, in other words, make firm decisions, for they have already been strengthened by the Lord's gift."

In fact this whole stanza then becomes a summary of the Christian life.

Drawn by the light of Christ (v105) we are bound to him by the promises of our baptism (v106) and our free commitment to the heritage he has gained for us and offered to us (v111).

We fall into sin, but through confession of our fault are revived (v107).

We struggle constantly with ourselves (v109) and the traps set by the devil (v 110).

We offer our sacrifices of praise (v108), and carry out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy (v110).

And in doing all this, we hope always for the joy of heaven at the end (v 112).

Verse by verse

105 Lucerna pedibus meis verbum tuum, et lumen semitis meis.
Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my paths.

lucerna, ae, f. a light, lamp.
pes, pedis, m. the foot
verbum, i, n., words
lumen, inis, n. light; in the hymns, brightness, splendor
semita, ae, f a path, way; course of life, action, conduct, or procedure.

Lucérna pédibus meis= a lamp to my feet

What is the lamp? It has variously been as the Decalogue, the law more broadly, and the guiding word that comes to us from the Word who is Christ.

verbum tuum =your word

Cf John 1

et lumen =and a light

This is familiar imagery: as Pope Benedict XVI has explained, “In the Biblical message, light is the most immediate image of God: He is total Radiance, Life, Truth, Light. During the Easter Vigil, the Church reads the account of creation as a prophecy. In the resurrection, we see the most sublime fulfilment of what this text describes as the beginning of all things. God says once again: “Let there be light!” The resurrection of Jesus is an eruption of light. Death is conquered, the tomb is thrown open. The Risen One himself is Light, the Light of the world. With the resurrection, the Lord’s day enters the nights of history. Beginning with the resurrection, God’s light spreads throughout the world and throughout history. Day dawns. This Light alone – Jesus Christ – is the true light, something more than the physical phenomenon of light. He is pure Light: God himself, who causes a new creation to be born in the midst of the old, transforming chaos into cosmos.”

sémitis meis= to my ways

What is the purpose of this light? The Pope continues: “In the Old Testament, the Torah was considered to be like the light coming from God for the world and for humanity. The Torah separates light from darkness within creation, that is to say, good from evil. It points out to humanity the right path to true life. It points out the good, it demonstrates the truth and it leads us towards love, which is the deepest meaning contained in the Torah. It is a “lamp” for our steps and a “light” for our path…Christ is the great Light from which all life originates. He enables us to recognize the glory of God from one end of the earth to the other. He points out our path. He is the Lord’s day which, as it grows, is gradually spreading throughout the earth. Now, living with him and for him, we can live in the light.” Easter Vigil 2009

106 Juravi et statui custodire judicia justitiæ tuæ.
I have sworn and am determined to keep the judgments of your justice.

juro, avi, atum, are, to swear, take an oath
statuo, ui, utum, ere 3 to set, place, establish. to change, still, calm;
custodio, ivi or li, itum, ire to guard, watch, keep; to maintain, to hold steadfastly.
judicium, i, n. judgment, decrees; law, commandment; the power, or faculty of judging wisely; justice.
justitia, ae, f justice, righteousness, innocence, piety, moral integrity

Jurávi et státui =I have sworn and I have established/determined/resolved

The commentaries suggest that this does not literally mean swearing an oath, but rather, as the second half of the phrase suggests, the firm resolution to follow the way lit for us by the Word. Haydock suggests that it can be seen as the promises binding us by virtue of our baptism.

custodíre judícia justítiæ tuæ = to guard the judgments of your justice/righteousness, or righteous judgments

Cassiodorus suggests that, in the light of the next verse, the judgments of his justice lie in “His exalting the humble, bringing low the proud, and relieving by the gift of His mercy those prostrated in humble satisfaction.”

107 Humiliatus sum usquequaque, Domine; vivifica me secundum verbum tuum.
I have been humbled, O Lord, exceedingly: quicken me according to your word.

humilio, avi, atum, are to humble, bring low.
usquequaque, adv., utterly, altogether, exceedingly.
vivifico, avi, atum, are (vivus and facio), to quicken, give life to, vivify.

Humiliátus sum usquequáque, Dómine = I have been humbled utterly O Lord

This is a recapitulation of the important message of the earlier picked up by St Benedict in his degrees of humility, and that echoes through so many of Monday’s psalms in the Benedictine Office: God humbles us that he might raise us up in new life, for pride is death. Bellarmine says: "I have been humbled;" persecuted and harassed by reason of my observance of the law; for "all who live piously in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution;"

vivífica me secúndum verbum tuum = revive me according to your word

Bellarmine continues: but do you, O Lord, "quicken me;" grant me, at last, that true life that will be free from all evils; "according to thy word;" according to the promise you made when you said, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments."

108 Voluntaria oris mei beneplacita fac, Domine, et judicia tua doce me.
The free offerings of my mouth make acceptable, O Lord: and teach me your judgments

voluntarium  a free-will offering.
os, oris, n., the mouth.
beneplacitus, a, um well-pleasing, agreeable, acceptable

Voluntária oris mei =the freewill/voluntary offerings of my mouth

This can be interpreted either as a reference back to his promise to keep the Law, or, as St Augustine and others do, as referring to the sacrifices of praise that we offer through our prayers.

beneplácita fac, Dómine= make pleasing/acceptable O Lord

et judícia tua doce me =and your justice teach me

109 Anima mea in manibus meis semper, et legem tuam non sum oblitus.
My soul is continually in my hands: and I have not forgotten your law.

anima, ae,f soul
manus, us, f, the hand
semper, adv., ever, always, at all times.
obliviscor, oblitus sum, obllvisci to forget;

Anima mea=my soul

in mánibus meis semper=in my hands always

There is some debate over whether this should read instead ‘your hands’, but the neo-Vulgate sticks with my hands, that is it means my fate is in my hands – I can choose to ‘forget’ your law or remember it, to sin ro stay the course

et legem tuam =and your law

non sum oblítus = I have not forgotten

110 Posuerunt peccatores laqueum mihi, et de mandatis tuis non erravi.
Sinners have laid a snare for me: but I have not erred from your precepts.

pono, posui, itum, ere 3, to put, place, lay, set.
peccator, oris, m. a sinner, transgressor; the wicked, the godless.
laqueus, ei, m., a noose for capturing animals; a snare, trap
erro, avi, atum, are, to wander, stray, rove,

posuérunt peccatóres =sinners have set/laid

láqueum mihi=a snare/trap for me

Cassiodorus comments on the nature of the traps set for us:

"They have laid means they have stretched out and sprung; they could not have been merely laid idly. A snare without bait does not catch a bird; the more effective deceit is that which beguiles with something pleasant. The devil's snare was armed with thirty pieces of silver when it trapped Judas and choked him to death. It caught Saul by proud jealousy; it drew the noose tight on Cain through envy of his brother;and there are other examples of the devil's rage continually attacking the continuing life of this world, for in the forest of the world you find as many snares as you observe vices."

et de mandátis tuis= but your commandments

non errávi = I have not strayed (from)

111 Hæreditate acquisivi testimonia tua in æternum, quia exsultatio cordis mei sunt.
I have purchased your testimonies for an inheritance for ever: because they are the joy of my heart.

hereditas, atis, f. an inheritance, possession; the chosen people, the Israelites, the Church,
acquiro, quisivi, qulsitum, ere 3, to acquire, obtain
exsultatio, onis, f. joy, rejoicing, exultation
cor, cordis, n., the heart

Hereditáte acquisívi = I have acquired/obtained/purchased by/as an inheritance

The Greek verb is translated by two Latin ones to convey the nuances of its meaning: he didn’t just inherit it automatically, but purchased or acquired it deliberately.

testimónia tua in ætérnum = your testimonies forever

quia exsultátio =for the joy

cordis mei sunt =of my heart they are

=for/because they are the joy of my heart

Bellarmine paraphrases the verse as: "I have chosen your law as an everlasting inheritance, because it is most sweet and most agreeable to me, and the source of supreme joy and delight."

112 Inclinavi cor meum ad faciendas justificationes tuas in æternum, propter retributionem.
I have inclined my heart to do your justifications for ever, for the reward.

inclino, avi, atum, are, to bend, incline
propter, prep, with ace. In stating a cause: on account of, by reason of, because of, from, for, for the sake of.
retributio, onis, f. reward, recompense, requital, either as a reward or punishment

Inclinávi cor meum = I have inclined my heart

ad faciéndas justificatiónes tuas = to the doing/to do [of] your justifications

That is, the works of corporal and spiritual mercy according to Cassiodorus:

“Doing justifications means performing the Lord's commands with feelings of humility; breaking bread for the hungry, clothing the naked, sympathising with others' calamities, and the other activities which the Creator's devotion has deigned to recommend to the human race.”

in ætérnum =forever

Does the forever refer to the doing of your justifications or the reward? The text is ambiguous: St Jerome’s from the Hebrew version attaches it to the reward (which kind of makes sense); but the neo-Vulgate to the first phrase. But the choice to incline our hearts now to doing God’s will means that when we die that inclination is fixed forever, so it does make sense as the Douay-Rheims and others interpret it.

propter retributiónem = for the sake of the reward/requital/judgment

The neo-Vulgate changes this to ‘in finem’ or until the end. Either way, all it is saying is that our hope is the joy of heaven.

And you can find the next part in this series here.

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