Friday, August 3, 2012

The sixth seal and Psalm 75 (76)

Simon Vouet 1622

Friday has of course always had an association with the Crucifixion in Christian piety, and for this reason it was the second fast day of the week (and still is, at least in theory, a day of abstinence or other penance).

St Benedict’s Office can certainly be seen as reflecting this association: the day opens at Matins with Psalm 85, which the Fathers interpreted as the prayer of Christ poured out in his Passion. Similarly, the psalms of Prime all have reasonably obvious connections with the Passion of Our Lord.

The sixth seal?

St Benedict’s choice of psalms for Friday Lauds though, has, puzzled some commentators because he shifted the more obvious choice of Psalm 142 from the Old Roman Office to Saturday, and added in Psalms 75 and 91 instead.

I will look at the possible reasons the saint had for moving Psalm 142 to Saturday tomorrow, but I want to suggest that the choice of Psalm 75 (and 91) for Friday does in fact make perfect sense in the context of a mini-Triduum celebrated each week in the Benedictine Office.

The Fathers often associated the Crucifixion, and the ‘sixth day’ with the description of the opening of the sixth seal in Revelation 6: 12-14:

“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.”

This imagery is particularly echoed in the (ferial) canticle that St Benedict imported from the old Roman Office (Habacuc 3:2-19), and aspects of it are picked up in many of the psalms of the day.

The earth trembled - and so should we

In particular, Psalm 75 includes the earthquake, surely that which occurred at the moment of Our Lord’s death, rending the temple veil in two, with the verse 'De caelo auditum fecisti judicium: terra tremuit et quievit (From heaven you have pronounced your judgment: the earth trembled and was still).  Though we mostly associate this verse with the Resurrection by virtue of the Easter Sunday Offertory, the verse surely works equally well in the context of Good Friday?

The key focus of the meditation St Benedict places before us in today's psalms seems to me to be on the terribleness of these events and their consequences: the God-man has been put to death by his own people; as a result, the old covenant has been closed, and the inheritance of Israel given to the gentiles.

The Old Testament historical context for the psalm (suggested by the title) is the victory over the king of the Assyrians, Sennacherib described in 2 Kings 19: 35; Isaiah 37:36 (as indeed is Psalm 74). The language of fear and awe is an appropriate reaction to the scene described there:

“And it came to pass that night, that an angel of the Lord came, and slew in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and eighty-five thousand. And when he arose early in the morning, he saw all the bodies of the dead.”

Both Isaiah and this psalm imply that the attack of Sennacherib foreshadows the dawning of the Messianic era, reminding us of God’s stupendous power: Tu terríbilis es, et quis resístet tibi? ex tunc ira tua’, or You are terrible, and who shall resist you? From that time your wrath (verse 8).

God came to save...

This emphasis seems to me entirely consistent with the spirituality St Benedict articulates in his Rule, which is almost devoid of references to the humanity of Christ and the Cross. Instead, the saint emphasizes God’s awesome Majesty, his all-seeing, overwhelming power that redeems us and should lead us to cultivate a holy fear of Him.

The design of Friday Lauds surely reflects this: rather than placing a lot of emphasis on the sufferings of Christ, we are invited to meditate on the terrible and wondrous nature of his saving works, of just what it means that Christ, the man-God, died for us.

In particular, the psalm reminds us that despite God's 'anger', Christ died on the cross for a reason, namely ‘to save all the meek of the earth’ (v9).  And in the light of this, the opening references to God being known in Judaea, and in the Temple in (Jeru)salem, in verses 1-2, have, the Fathers point out, a layer of irony attached to them: when the people denied God the Son, the veil of the Temple was pierced, the earth trembled, and the true Judaea, where God is really known, became the Church.

Jerusalem too is transfigured into the heavenly Jerusalem, from which judgment comes, causing the earth to fear and stand still.

This psalm is a fierce reminder of God’s justice, power and might before which we should tremble.

No wonder then that it ends in a call to persevere in our vows and offerings.

Psalm 75

Unto the end, in praises, a psalm for Asaph: a canticle to the Assyrians.
In Judea God is known: his name is great in Israel.
3 And his place is in peace: and his abode in Sion:
4 There has he broken the powers of bows, the shield, the sword, and the battle.
5 You enlighten wonderfully from the everlasting hills.
6 All the foolish of heart were troubled. They have slept their sleep; and all the men of riches have found nothing in their hands.
7 At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, they have all slumbered that mounted on horseback.
8 You are terrible, and who shall resist you? From that time your wrath.
9 You have caused judgment to be heard from heaven: the earth trembled and was still,
10 when God arose in judgment, to save all the meek of the earth.
11 For the thought of man shall give praise to you: and the remainders of the thought shall keep holiday to you.
12 Vow and pay to the Lord your God: all you that are round about him bring presents. To him that is terrible,
13 even to him who takes away the spirit of princes: to the terrible with the kings of the earth.

In finem, in laudibus. Psalmus Asaph, canticum ad Assyrios.
Notus in Judæa Deus; in Israël magnum nomen ejus.
3 Et factus est in pace locus ejus, et habitatio ejus in Sion.
4 Ibi confregit potentias arcuum, scutum, gladium, et bellum.
5 Illuminans tu mirabiliter a montibus æternis;
6 turbati sunt omnes insipientes corde. Dormierunt somnum suum, et nihil invenerunt omnes viri divitiarum in manibus suis.
7 Ab increpatione tua, Deus Jacob, dormitaverunt qui ascenderunt equos.
8 Tu terribilis es; et quis resistet tibi? ex tunc ira tua.
9 De cælo auditum fecisti judicium : terra tremuit et quievit
10 cum exsurgeret in judicium Deus, ut salvos faceret omnes mansuetos terræ.
11 Quoniam cogitatio hominis confitebitur tibi, et reliquiæ cogitationis diem festum agent tibi.
12 Vovete et reddite Domino Deo vestro, omnes qui in circuitu ejus affertis munera : terribili,
13 et ei qui aufert spiritum principum : terribili apud reges terræ.

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