Sunday, September 9, 2012

Psalm 110 (111) - He has sent redemption to his people

Gathering of the manna, c1460-70

Some months back I started a look at the psalms for Sunday Vespers, and now I'm finally getting back to that!

I've already looked at Psalm 109 (110).  Accordingly, today an introduction to Psalm 110, the second psalm of Sunday Vespers in the traditional organisation of the psalter.  I will then look at into more detail, with a series of verse by verse posts.

And to organise my thoughts and hopefully demonstrate its efficacy, I'm going to use the lectio divina schema suggested by Pope Benedict XVI.

The Psalm

First, here is the psalm as a whole in Latin, divided into verses as it is used liturgically.

1 Confitébor tibi, Dómine, in toto corde meo: in consílio justórum, et congregatióne.
2 Magna ópera Dómini: exquisíta in omnes voluntátes ejus.
3 Conféssio et magnificéntia opus ejus: et justítia ejus manet in sæculum sæculi.
4 Memóriam fecit mirabílium suórum, miséricors et miserátor Dóminus: escam dedit timéntibus se.
5 Memor erit in sæculum testaménti sui: virtútem óperum suórum annuntiábit pópulo suo:
6 Ut det illis hereditátem géntium: ópera mánuum ejus véritas, et judícium.
7 Fidélia ómnia mandáta ejus: confirmáta in sæculum sæculi, facta in veritáte et æquitáte.
8 Redemptiónem misit pópulo suo: mandávit in ætérnum testaméntum suum.
9 Sanctum, et terríbile nomen ejus: inítium sapiéntiæ timor Dómini.
10 Intelléctus bonus ómnibus faciéntibus eum: laudátio ejus manet in sæculum sæculi.

And here is the Douay-Rheims updated version, with verse numbers as they appear in Scripture:
1 I will praise you, O Lord, with my whole heart; in the council of the just, and in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the Lord: sought out according to all his wills.
3 His work is praise and magnificence: and his justice continues for ever and ever.
4 He has made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: 5 He has given food to them that fear him.
He will be mindful for ever of his covenant: 6 He will show forth to his people the power of his works. 7 That he may give them the inheritance of the Gentiles: the works of his hands are truth and judgment.
8 All his commandments are faithful: confirmed for ever and ever, made in truth and equity.
9 He has sent redemption to his people: he has commanded his covenant for ever.
Holy and terrible is his name: 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
A good understanding to all that do it: his praise continues for ever and ever

Lectio: what does the text mean?
Psalm 110 is a hymn of praise to God for his wonderful work of redemption.  In the Old Testament context, it refers to the freeing of the Jewish people from Egypt; in the New, of the sending of Our Lord.
The key line is verse 9:
"He has sent redemption to his people: he has commanded his covenant for ever."
Pope Benedict XVI presents it as a prayer of contemplation on the mystery of salvation:
"In this Psalm we find a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the many benefits that describe God in his attributes and his work of salvation: the Psalmist speaks of "compassion", "love", "justice", "might", "truth", "uprightness", "standing firm", "covenant", "works", "wonders", even "food" which God provides, and lastly his glorious "name", that is, God himself. Thus, prayer is contemplation of the mystery of God and the wonders that he works in the history of salvation."
Psalm 110 is a sapiential/praise psalm that continues the theme of the previous psalm, albeit from a different direction, namely the kingship of God. But whereas Psalm 109 prophesies the coming and victory of Christ, Psalm 110 expresses our joy as a result of that news.

The first half of the psalm looks at the wonder of creation; the second focuses on the glory of the law. After the first verse, which announces the subject, the prophet praises the works of God in general, v. 2, 3; then his benefits towards the typical people, v. 4, 5, 6; the excellence and the stability of his law, v. 7; and finally, the sending of the divine Redeemer giving salvation to the world: the last two verses form a practical conclusion, indicating the way to be followed to profit by these graces.

Psalm 110 forms a pair with the next psalm: both are alphabetic psalms, with each half line starting with a letter of the (Hebrew) alphabet; and the two are complementary in terms of content.

Meditatio: What is the text telling us?

Although Psalm 110 is joyous, titled with an Alleluia, it does in fact wrestle with some issues that are difficult for modern readers.  At its heart is a question that many struggle with, namely why do some reach heaven (the inheritance of the gentiles, vs 6) while others are excluded, and are cast down to hell? Why do some benefit from the redemption offered by Christ (vs 8), but not all?

The psalm provides, I think, three answers to this.

The first is that God’s offer of redemption is a two-way covenant, an agreement with his people. He offers, but we have to respond: we have to accept the offer and put ourselves within the ‘council of the just’ (v 1), the congregation that is the Church.

Secondly, we have to understand that each of the covenant parties undertake to do certain works. God for his side creates and sustains us (vs 2-5), but we must keep our end of the bargain and keep the commandments, for God is also truth and justice (vs 6-8). Those who fail to understand this will be dispossessed, their inheritance taken away and given to those who do respond (vs 7).

Finally, we must cultivate the right attitude: we must praise God in the liturgy (v1), and maintain an appropriate fear of God (vs 4&9) rather than presuming on our salvation.

The key to our acceptance of salvation sits at the very centre of the psalm, and is the sustaining and transforming power of the Eucharist which gives us the grace necessary for salvation: "He has made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He has given food to them that fear him." (v4)

As Rupert of Deutz suggests:

"Since as he has said in the previous psalm that [...] You are a priest forever, like Melchisedek of old, and because he has instituted the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, in this psalm he sings in truth: He provides food for those who fear him" (De Sancta Trinitate et operibus eius, 5, in psalmo 110).

Oratio: what do we say to the Lord?
The psalm asks us to so several things: first to praise God for the things he has done for us. 
This injunction can be interpreted literally: that is, worship in Church, particularly on a Sunday, and partake of the Eucharistic food he offers.  Similarly, when we pray Vespers liturgically, even at home by ourselves, we are offering the public prayer of the Church, and we are praying along with the angels and saints, the assembly of the just indeed. 
The second injunction is to keep the commandments: and we must constantly recommit ourselves to this through our prayers for help, as we do for example, in the Lord's Prayer.  
Thirdly, we are asked to cultivate a holy fear of God, and we can pray here for that perfect, filial, fear whereby we act 'no longer for fear of hell, but for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue' (Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 7).
Contemplatio: what conversion of mind, heart and life is God asking of us?

Pope Benedict XVI concluded his General Audience on this psalm with some advice on how to put into the effect the second verse of the psalm, the injunction that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord: 

"The Christian writer Barsanuphius of Gaza (active in the first half of the sixth century) comments on this verse: "What is the first stage of wisdom if not the avoidance of all that is hateful to God? And how can one avoid it, other than by first asking for advice before acting, or by saying nothing that should not be said, and in addition, by considering oneself foolish, stupid, contemptible and of no worth whatsoever?" (Epistolario, 234: Collana di testi patristici, XCIII, Rome, 1991, pp. 265-266).

The true conversion comes though, as the Pope goes on to note, when we progress beyond servile fear:

"However, John Cassian (who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries) preferred to explain that "there is a great difference between love, which lacks nothing and is the treasure of wisdom and knowledge, and imperfect love, called "the first stage of wisdom'. The latter, which in itself contains the idea of punishment, is excluded from the hearts of the perfect because they have reached the fullness of love" (Conferenze ai monaci, 2, 11, 13: Collana di testi patristici, CLVI, Rome, 2000, p. 29). Thus, on the journey through life towards Christ, our initial servile fear is replaced by perfect awe which is love, a gift of the Holy Spirit."

You can find the next post in this series on Psalm 110 here.

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