Sunday, June 16, 2013

The psalms of Sunday Vespers; Psalm 112

Quite a while back I started a series on the psalms of Sunday Vespers, which I interrupted for Lent.

Today I want to resume that series, with a look at the final psalm for Sunday Vespers in the Benedictine Office, Psalm 112.

You can find the previous posts in this series as follows:
The text of the psalm

Laudate, pueri, Dominum; laudate nomen Domini.
Sit nomen Domini benedictum ex hoc nunc et usque in sæculum.
A solis ortu usque ad occasum laudabile nomen Domini.
Excelsus super omnes gentes Dominus, et super cælos gloria ejus.
Quis sicut Dominus Deus noster, qui in altis habitat, et humilia respicit in cælo et in terra?
Suscitans a terra inopem, et de stercore erigens pauperem:
ut collocet eum cum principibus, cum principibus populi sui.
Qui habitare facit sterilem in domo, matrem filiorum lætantem.

And a translation:

Praise the Lord, you children: praise the name of the Lord.
Blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth now and for ever.
From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is worthy of praise.
The Lord is high above all nations; and his glory above the heavens.
Who is as the Lord our God, who dwells on high: And looks down on the low things in heaven and in earth?
Raising up the needy from the earth, and lifting up the poor out of the dunghill:
That he may place him with princes, with the princes of his people.

Who makes a barren woman to dwell in a house, the joyful mother of children.

Psalm 112 in the Benedictine Psalter

The Benedictine version of Sunday Vespers is one psalm shorter than the Roman, and that is I think a very deliberate decision on St Benedict's part, for their is an important symmetry at play.

At Lauds, the first of the variable psalms is Psalm 117, the last of the Hallel Psalms, the set of psalms used at the Paschal liturgy.  And now here at Vespers the Office ends on the first of the set, Psalm 112.

How fitting for the day when, above all, we celebrate once again the Paschal mystery and the sacrifice of Christ, our Paschal lamb!

There is more to it than that though, I think, for in Psalm 117, we are told that Christ, the stone that the builders rejected', has become the cornerstone of the New Testament, the founder of the Church.

Psalm 112 brings us back to that theme very clearly, particularly in its final verse which speaks of the barren woman bearing many children, an image interpreted as referring to the Church.

Each verse of the psalm takes on new light when interpreted Christologically, and I'll look at the verses in more detail in subsequent parts of this mini-series.

First though by way of an overview, here are some comments on the psalm by Pope Benedict XVI from a General Audience he gave on it in 2005.

Pope Benedict XVI on Psalm 112

"We have just heard, in its simplicity and beauty, Psalm 113[112], a true introduction into a small group of Psalms that go from 113[112] to 118[117], commonly known as the "Egyptian Hallel". It is the Alleluia, or song of praise, that exalts the liberation from Pharaoh's slavery and the joy of Israel to serve the Lord freely in the Promised Land (cf. Ps 114[113]). 

The Jewish tradition intentionally connected this series of Psalms to the Paschal liturgy. The celebration of that event, according to its historical-social and, more especially, spiritual dimensions, was perceived as a sign of liberation from the multifaceted forms of evil. Psalm 113[112] is a brief hymn that in its original Hebrew consists of only 60 or so words, all imbued with sentiments of trust, praise and joy. 

The first strophe (cf. Ps 113[112]: 1-3) praises "the name of the Lord" who, as is known, indicates in Biblical language the person of God himself, his presence, living and working in human history. Three times, with impassioned insistence, the "name of the Lord" resounds at the centre of the prayer of adoration. All being and all time - "from the rising of the sun to its setting", as the Psalmist says (v. 3) - are involved in a single action of grace. It is as if a ceaseless breath were rising from earth to heaven to praise the Lord, Creator of the universe and King of history. 

Precisely by means of this ascending movement, the Psalm leads us to the divine mystery. Indeed, the second part (cf. vv. 4-6) celebrates the Lord's transcendence, described with vertical images that go beyond the mere human horizon. It is proclaimed: the Lord is "sublime", "enthroned on high", and no one is equal; also, to look at the heavens he must "stoop", since "above the heavens is his glory" (v. 4).
The divine gaze watches over all realities, over all beings, earthly and heavenly.  However, his eyes are not arrogant and distant, like that of a cold emperor. The Lord, the Psalmist says, "stoops... to look" (v. 6). 

In this way, we pass to the last part of the Psalm (cf. vv. 7-9), which moves the attention from the heights of the heavens to our earthly horizon. The Lord attentively stoops down towards our littleness and poverty, which drives us to withdraw in fear. He looks directly, with his loving gaze and his real concern, upon the world's lowly and poor: "From the dust he lifts up the lowly, from his misery he raises the poor" (v. 7). 

God bends down, therefore, to console the needy and those who suffer; this word finds its ultimate wealth, its ultimate meaning in the moment in which God bends over to the point of bending down, of becoming one of us, one of the world's poor. He bestows the greatest honour on the poor, that of sitting "in the company of princes, yes, with the princes of his people" (v. 8). 

To the abandoned and childless woman, humiliated by ancient society as if she were a worthless, dead branch, God gives the honour and the immense joy of many children (cf. v. 9). And so, the Psalmist praises a God who is very different from us in his grandeur, but at the same time very close to his suffering creatures. 

It is easy to draw from these final verses of Psalm 113[112] the prefiguration of the words of Mary in the Magnificat, the Canticle of God's chosen one, who "looked with favour on his lowly servant". More radically than our Psalm, Mary proclaims that God "casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly" (cf. Lk 1: 48, 52; Ps 113 [112]: 6-8). 

A very ancient "Hymn of Vespers", preserved in the so-called Apostolic Constitutions (VII, 48), takes up once more and develops the joyful introduction to our Psalm. We recall it here, at the end of our reflection, to highlight the customary "Christian" re-reading of the Psalms done by the early community: "Praise the Lord, O children, praise the name of the Lord. We worship you, we sing to you, we praise you for your immense glory. Lord King, Father of Christ, spotless Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. To you all praise, to you our song, to you the glory, to God the Father through the Son in the Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen" (S. Pricoco M. Simonetti, La preghiera dei cristiani, Milan, 2000, p. 97)." 

You can find lectio divina notes for each verse in a series starting here.

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