Friday, January 31, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 11

The final psalm of Prime on Wednesday is Psalm 11 (12).

Psalm 11: Salvum me fac, Dómine
In finem, pro octava. Psalmus David.
Unto the end: for the octave, a psalm for David
Salvum me fac, Dómine, quóniam defécit sanctus: * quóniam diminútæ sunt veritátes a fíliis hóminum.
Save me, O Lord, for there is now no saint: truths are decayed from among the children of men.
2  Vana locúti sunt unusquísque ad próximum suum : * lábia dolósa, in corde et corde locúti sunt.
They have spoken vain things, every one to his neighbour: with deceitful lips, and with a double heart have they spoken
3  Dispérdat Dóminus univérsa lábia dolósa, * et linguam magníloquam.
May the Lord destroy all deceitful lips, and the tongue that speaks proud things.
4  Qui dixérunt : Linguam nostram magnificábimus, lábia nostra a nobis sunt, * quis noster Dóminus est?
Who have said: We will magnify our tongue: our lips are our own: who is Lord over us?
5 Propter misériam ínopum, et gémitum páuperum, * nunc exsúrgam, dicit Dóminus.
By reason of the misery of the needy, and the groans of the poor, now will I arise, says the Lord
6  Ponam in salutári : * fiduciáliter agam in eo.
I will set him in safety: I will deal confidently in his regard.
7  Elóquia Dómini, elóquia casta : * argéntum igne examinátum, probátum terræ purgátum séptuplum.
The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried by the fire, purged from the earth, refined seven times.
8 Tu, Dómine, servábis nos : et custódies nos * a generatióne hac in ætérnum.
You, O Lord, will preserve us: and keep us from this generation for ever.
9  In circúitu ímpii ámbulant : * secúndum altitúdinem tuam multiplicásti fílios hóminum.
The wicked walk round about: according to your highness, you have multiplied the children of men.

An evil and perverse generation?

The three psalms of Wednesday Prime all plead with God for help in the face of the evil men, and this psalm continues that song of complaint, painting a picture of the evil and perverse generation that Jesus accused those of his time who rejected him of being.  In fact St Thomas Aquinas' commentary on the psalm offers an interpretation of it that neatly fits with my hypothesis on the programmatic nature of the Benedictine Office.  He says:

"In the first decade the Psalmist treats of the beating that he suffered from his son Absalom, by which the persecution which Christ was to suffer from Juda was figured; but, in the second decade, just as is apparent from the title of some of its Psalms, he speaks of the persecution that he suffered from Saul, by which the persecution that Christ was to suffer by the High Priests was figured...".

Now will I arise, says the Lord

This psalm though, unlike the previous two, finally provides God's response.

Psalm 9 pleaded with God to arise and ensure that evil men did not prevail. Psalm 11 provides the reply: "Now I will arise, says the Lord, I will set him in safety'.

What is the safety he offers?  The Fathers and Theologians interpreted this, particularly in the light of the reference in its title to the Octave (Eighth Day), as a reference to the Resurrection.  Cassiodorus, for example, says:

"After the psalmist has condemned those who proposed shedding the Lord's blood, he comes to the second section in which he promises the Lord Saviour's resurrection in the prophetic voice of the Father..."

The next few verses then extol the trustworthiness of God's promises, and the promise of salvation.

The psalm ends though on a rather negative note, lamenting that the number of the wicked circling around him actually seems to have increased.  In the context of the Benedictine Office at least, it is a reminder that we are indeed at Spy Wednesday, not yet at Sunday.

Understanding the text

The language of Psalm 11 is, I think, quite hard to penetrate, and this is one of those rare occasions where I think a less literal translation is helpful to look at:

Help, O Lord, for good men have vanished; truth has gone from the sons of men.
Falsehood they speak one to another, with lying lips, with a false heart.
May the Lord destroy all lying lips, the tongue that speaks high-sounding words,
those who say: "Our tongue is our strength; our lips are our own, who is our master?"
"For the poor who are oppressed and the needy who groan I myself will arise," says the Lord,
"I will grant them the salvation for which they thirst."
The words of the Lord are words without alloy, silver from the furnace, seven times refined.
It is you, O Lord, who will take us in your care and protect us for ever from this generation.
See how the wicked prowl on every side, while the worthless are prized highly by the sons of men. (Grail Psalter)

I just want to pick out a few key phrases here.

First, the Latin, in verse 2 says in 'corde et corde', which most older translations render as a double-heart.  But what it is trying to convey is a deceitfulness, or falsity in a person.  

Secondly consider that phrase 'quis noster Dóminus est?' (verse 4), which the Grail Psalter translates as 'Who is our master?'.  It is surely the devil who is speaking here.

Finally, unalloyed silver from the furnace, seven times refined (verse 7), plays on the ideas of the number seven as a symbol of purity and perfection.  St Augustine uses this idea extensively in his analysis of the Sermon on the Mount linking this allusion to the beatitudes (the eighth he argues is a restatement of the first), the seven fold operation of the Holy Ghost, and the seven petitions of the Our Father.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 10

Psalm 10 (11 in most modern Bibles), is the second psalm said at Prime on Wednesday in the Benedictine Office, and is an exhortation to spiritual heroism.

Psalm 10(11): In Domino confido
In finem. Psalmus David.
Unto the end. A psalm to David.
In Dómino confído : quómodo dícitis ánimæ meæ: * Tránsmigra in montem sicut passer?
In the Lord I put my trust: how then do you say to my soul: Get you away from hence to the mountain, like a sparrow.
2  Quóniam ecce peccatóres intendérunt arcum, paravérunt sagíttas suas in pháretra, * ut sagíttent in obscúro rectos corde.
For, lo, the wicked have bent their bow: they have prepared their arrows in the quiver, to shoot in the dark the upright of heart.
3  Quóniam quæ perfecísti, destruxérunt: * justus autem quid fecit?
For they have destroyed the things which you have made: but what has the just man done
4  Dóminus in templo sancto suo, * Dóminus in cælo sedes ejus.
The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord's throne is in heaven
5  Oculi ejus in páuperem respíciunt: * pálpebræ ejus intérrogant fílios hóminum.
His eyes look on the poor man: his eyelids examine the sons of men
6  Dóminus intérrogat justum et ímpium: * qui autem díligit iniquitátem, odit ánimam suam.
The Lord tries the just and the wicked: but he that loves iniquity, hates his own soul
7  Pluet super peccatóres láqueos: * ignis, et sulphur, et spíritus procellárum pars cálicis eórum.
He shall rain snares upon sinners: fire and brimstone, and storms of winds, shall be the portion of their cup.
8  Quóniam justus Dóminus, et justítias diléxit: * æquitátem vidit vultus ejus.
For the Lord is just, and has loved justice: his countenance has beheld righteousness.

When to stand and when to flee?

The original historical context for this psalm is probably David’s time at the court of mad King Saul, when he was constantly under suspicion, and was in fact forced to flee and live in the caves in the mountainous regions several times during this period.  On this particular occasion, however, although anxious friends concerned about his safety urge him to flee, he rejects the advice, confident that God  wishes him to stay.

The first two verses have an obvious Christological application as we ponder the events of Wednesday in Holy Week in today's Office,  for they warn that ‘unless you flee, they will kill you’.  Yet Our Lord, knowing the coming betrayal he faced, chose not to flee, not to shirk the cup.

A society in turmoil

The psalm is also, though, a commentary on the corrupt state of a society in turmoil.  The Fathers and Theologians accordingly read it as being primarily  about the threat posed by heresy.   Cassiodorus, for example, in commenting on the structure of the psalm says:

"In the first section he tells heretics in ambush who strive to seduce Catholics into their own wickedness.  In the second he speaks threateningly of the Lord's judgment, clearly revealing what they are to endure at the time of retribution, so that they may fear the Lord's justice and abandon superstitious falsehoods."

But there is another possible allusion in these verses of particular contemporary relevance, namely to the fate of Sodom, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in his catechesis on it:

The righteous person foresees that, as happened in Sodom (cf. Gn 19: 24), the Lord makes "rain upon the wicked fiery coals and brimstone" (Ps 11[10]: 6), symbols of God's justice that purifies history, condemning evil. The wicked man, struck by this burning rain - a prefiguration of his final destiny - finally experiences that "there is a God who is judge on earth!" (Ps 58[57]: 12). 

The ultimate triumph of justice

In fact the key message of this psalm seems to be that no matter how things may seem at a particular point of time, God is not indifferent, and justice will ultimately prevail.  Pope John  Paul II, for example, commented:

Now, the turning point comes in sight, outlined in the second scene (cf. vv. 4-7). The Lord, seated on the heavenly throne, takes in the entire human horizon with his penetrating gaze. From that transcendent vantage point, sign of the divine omniscience and omnipotence, God is able to search out and examine every person, distinguishing the righteous from the wicked and forcefully condemning injustice (cf. vv. 4-5). 

The image of the divine eye whose pupil is fixed and attentive to our actions is very evocative and consoling. The Lord is not a distant king, closed in his gilded world, but rather is a watchful Presence who sides with goodness and justice. He sees and provides, intervening by word and action. 

Indeed the Pope suggested that:

The spiritual key of the entire psalm is well-expressed in the concluding verse:  "For the Lord is just, he loves just deeds". This is the root of all trust and the source of all hope on the day of darkness and trial. God is not indifferent to right and wrong:  he is a good God and not a dark, incomprehensible, mysterious destiny. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 9 (pt 2)

The three psalms of Wednesday at Prime are all, in essence a plea God to intervene to set things right: to arise and act.

Today's installment is largely a complaint: as verse 3 plaintively puts it, why is God standing so afar off, and hiding himself in our hour of need?   Why does God allow evil men to thrive while oppressing the poor and persecuting good men (verses 4, 12-13)?

Psalm 9/2 (10) - Exsúrge, Dómine, non confortétur homo
Exsúrge, Dómine, non confortétur homo: * judicéntur Gentes in conspéctu tuo.
Arise, O Lord, let not man be strengthened: let the Gentiles be judged in your sight.
2 Constítue, Dómine, legislatórem super eos: * ut sciant Gentes quóniam hómines sunt.
Appoint, O Lord, a lawgiver over them: that the Gentiles may know themselves to be but men.
3 Ut quid, Dómine, recessísti longe, * déspicis in opportunitátibus, in tribulatióne?
Why, O Lord, have you retired afar off? Why do you slight us in our wants, in the time of trouble?
4 Dum supérbit ímpius, incénditur pauper: * comprehendúntur in consíliis quibus cógitant.
Whilst the wicked man is proud, the poor is set on fire: they are caught in the counsels which they devise.
5 Quóniam laudátur peccátor in desidériis ánimæ suæ: * et iníquus benedícitur.
For the sinner is praised in the desires of his soul: and the unjust man is blessed.
6 Exacerbávit Dóminum peccátor, * secúndum multitúdinem iræ suæ non quæret.
The sinner has provoked the Lord, according to the multitude of his wrath, he will not seek him:
7 Non est Deus in conspéctu ejus: * inquinátæ sunt viæ illíus in omni témpore.
God is not before his eyes: his ways are filthy at all times.
8 Auferúntur judícia tua a fácie ejus: * ómnium inimicórum suórum dominábitur.
Your judgments are removed form his sight: he shall rule over all his enemies.
9 Dixit enim in corde suo: * Non movébor a generatióne in generatiónem sine malo.
For he has said in his heart: I shall not be moved from generation to generation, and shall be without evil.
10 Cujus maledictióne os plenum est, et amaritúdine, et dolo: * sub lingua ejus labor et dolor.
His mouth is full of cursing, and of bitterness, and of deceit: under his tongue are labour and sorrow.
11 Sedet in insídiis cum divítibus in occúltis: * ut interfíciat innocéntem.
He sits in ambush with the rich, in private places, that he may kill the innocent.
12 Oculi ejus in páuperem respíciunt: * insidiátur in abscóndito, quasi leo in spelúnca sua.
His eyes are upon the poor man: he lies in wait, in secret, like a lion in his den.
13 Insidiátur ut rápiat páuperem: * rápere páuperem, dum áttrahit eum.
He lies in ambush, that he may catch the poor man: so catch the poor, whilst he draws him to him.
 14 In láqueo suo humiliábit eum: * inclinábit se, et cadet, cum dominátus fúerit páuperum.
In his net he will bring him down, he will crouch and fall, when he shall have power over the poor.
15 Dixit enim in corde suo: Oblítus est Deus, * avértit fáciem suam ne vídeat in finem.
For he has said in his heart: God has forgotten, he has turned away his face, not to see to the end.
16 Exsúrge, Dómine Deus, exaltétur manus tua: * ne obliviscáris páuperum.
Arise, O Lord God, let your hand be exalted: forget not the poor.  
17 Propter quid irritávit ímpius Deum? * dixit enim in corde suo: Non requíret.
Wherefore has the wicked provoked God? For he has said in his heart: He will not require it.  
18 Vides quóniam tu labórem et dolórem consíderas: * ut tradas eos in manus tuas.
You see it, for you consider labour and sorrow: that you may deliver them into your hands.
19 Tibi derelíctus est pauper: * órphano tu eris adjútor.
To you is the poor man left: you will be a helper to the orphan.  
20 Cóntere bráchium peccatóris et malígni: * quærétur peccátum illíus, et non inveniétur.
Break the arm of the sinner and of the malignant: his sin shall be sought, and shall not be found. 
21 Dóminus regnábit in ætérnum, et in sæculum sæculi: * períbitis, Gentes, de terra illíus.
The Lord shall reign to eternity, yea, for ever and ever: you Gentiles shall perish from his land.  
22 Desidérium páuperum exaudívit Dóminus: * præparatiónem cordis eórum audívit auris tua.
The Lord has heard the desire of the poor: your ear has heard the preparation of their heart.
23 Judicáre pupíllo et húmili, * ut non appónat ultra magnificáre se homo super terram.
To judge for the fatherless and for the humble, that man may no more presume to magnify himself upon earth.

The sinner acts as if there were no God...

The evil men of the psalm, who act as if God does not exist, and lurks in ambush to kill (v13), are types, I would suggest, of Judas, consistent with the association of the day with his betrayal.  God gives us free will: we can choose to follow him, or to betray him.   Either way, God uses our choices to advance his providential plan for the world, bringing good even out of evil.  But, the psalm reminds us, there are consequences of our choices both for ourselves and others.

In fact, as several of the commentators, including St Augustine and St Robert Bellarmine have treated the psalm as a little political economy lesson on the tendency of the rich to become greedy and oppress the poor, picking up a theme that runs through many of the books of the prophets as well and providing the basis for the social teaching of the Church.  Some of the commentators also note that spiritual oppression as one of the issues alluded to in this psalm, viewing heresy as a form of oppression: murdering someone spiritually by seducing them from the truth, after all, is far worse a crime than murdering them corporally.

One psalm or two?

In the Septuagint, today's Prime psalm is combined into one with the section of Psalm 9 that is said on Tuesday at Prime in the Benedictine Office.  In the Hebrew Masoretic Text, they become Psalms 9 and 10 respectively, albeit not split at quite the same verses as the Benedictine Psalter has traditionally done.

There are good reasons for believing that they were originally one composition.  In particular, Psalm 9 (and 10) is an acrostic psalm, starting the verses with a letter of the alphabet in order (though with a few missing, perhaps due to text corruption) as an aid to memory.

The two halves of the psalm are, though, quite different in tone and content, so St Benedict's decision to split them is readily understandable.

All the same, as I noted in relation to Tuesday Prime, the Monastic Breviary of 1962 actually places the first two verses of this part of the psalm on Tuesday rather than Wednesday, in order to line it up with Psalm 10 in the Hebrew Masoretic Text.  This seems problematic on several counts.

Firstly, the inclusion of the Exsurge verse gives the psalm a nice structure, with its who halves each framed by an exhortation for God to arise (ie v1&11), that I think helps make clear the psalm's key messasges.

Secondly, it breaks the link to the verse that is used as the antiphon on Wednesday at Prime throughout the year, since this is consigned to Tuesday Prime instead of Wednesday.

Thirdly, it breaks the link with Matins. Psalm 9's original division point echoes the fifth psalm of the first Nocturn, Psalm 67 'Exsurgat Deus, et dissipentur inimici eius.  And just to add weight to the view that this echoing is not in the least bit accidental, note that the opening verse of the psalm two on from this at Matins (Psalm 68) shares the identical incipit to that of the third psalm of Prime today, Salvum me fac Domine.

Finally, it undermines the symmetry of the whole hour, for while all three of the psalms of Wednesday Prime ponder the problem of God's seeming indifference to the persecution of the just, the first (in its traditional version) opens by asking God to arise and act; the third includes a response from God that he will now do so (nunc exsúrgam, dicit Dóminus), and a statement of just what he proposes to do.

Arise Lord, let man not prevail

This is also one of those psalms where the Septuagint differs substantially from the received Hebrew version, which appears to be corrupt in many places.  Accordingly, those who normally work from translations such as the Neo-Vulgate, Coverdale or the RSV, all of which follow the Hebrew here, will benefit from a look at the Vulgate and an English version which follows it, such as the Douay-Rheims.

The most dramatic of these differences leads to a diametrically opposite interpretations of the psalm.  In particular, in verse 2, instead of  asking for a 'law-giver' to be appointed over them (Constituite Domine, legislatorem super eos...), a plea for the coming of Christ the king, the Hebrew says 'incite terror over them' (or 'put them in fear'), and has thus been interpreted by some as a prophecy of the anti-Christ.

Both interpretations have some support in the Fathers and so are open.  But the Benedictine Office, it seems to me, not least through the use of the preceding verse as an antiphon, to have adopted the obvious meaning of the Septuagint/Vulgate version.  And the verse could also be seen it as referring back to Psalm 2's 'Ego autem constitutus sum Rex...' ('By him I am established as King...'), said at Monday Prime.

This is just pure speculation, but there is another possible reason for changing the divisio point, for the words that open the old start of Wednesday Prime's psalm, Exsurge Domine, are also the title of a bull of Pope Leo X condemning Luther, and so, 'de-emphasising' them may perhaps have been motivated by ecumenical concerns.  The removal of some of the verses of Psalm 13 may also have been linked to this, as I've discussed in relation to that psalm.

That said, many modern Benedictine monasteries, including Solesmes, have adopted the neo-Vulgate psalter, and so de facto take a different view on this, a curious case of modern translators overturning centuries of (liturgically inspired) tradition...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Canticle of Anna (Hannah)

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout -
Hannah presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli,
ca. 1665

The ferial canticle for Lauds on Wednesday comes from I Kings (aka 1 Sam 2) 2. 1-10, and its sentiments will sound very familiar, for Our Lady's Magnificat draws on it heavily.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Exsultávit cor meum in Dómino: * et exaltátum est cornu meum in Deo meo.
My heart has rejoiced in the Lord, and my horn is exalted in my God:
2  Dilatátum est os meum super inimícos meos: * quia lætáta sum in salutári tuo.
my mouth is enlarged over my enemies: because I have enjoyed in your salvation.
3 Non est sanctus, ut est Dóminus : neque enim est álius extra te, * et non est fortis sicut Deus noster.
2 There is none holy as the Lord is: for there is no other beside you, and there is none strong like our God.
4  Nolíte multiplicáre loqui sublímia, * gloriántes :
3 Do not multiply to speak lofty things, boasting:
5   Recédant vétera de ore vestro : quia Deus scientiárum, Dóminus est, * et ipsi præparántur cogitatiónes.
let old matters depart from your mouth: for the Lord is a God of all knowledge, and to him are thoughts prepared.
6  Arcus fórtium superátus est, * et infírmi accíncti sunt róbore.
4 The bow of the mighty is overcome, and the weak are girt with strength.
7  Repléti prius, pro pánibus se locavérunt: * et famélici saturáti sunt.
5 They that were full before, have hired out themselves for bread: and the hungry are filled,
8 Donec stérilis péperit plúrimos: * et quæ multos habébat fílios, infirmáta est.
so that the barren has borne many: and she that had many children is weakened.
9  Dóminus mortíficat et vivíficat: * dedúcit ad ínferos et redúcit.
6 The Lord kills and makes alive, he brings down to hell, and brings back again.
10 Dóminus páuperem facit et ditat, * humíliat et súblevat.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he humbles and he exalts:
11  Súscitat de púlvere egénum, *  et de stércore élevat páuperem :
8 He raises up the needy from the dust, and lifts up the poor from the dunghill:
12  Ut sédeat cum princípibus: * et sólium glóriæ téneat.
that he may sit with princes, and hold the throne of glory.
13  Dómini enim sunt cárdines terræ, * et pósuit super eos orbem.
For the poles of the earth are the Lord's, and upon them he has set the world.
14  Pedes sanctórum suórum servábit, et ímpii in ténebris conticéscent: * quia non in fortitúdine sua roborábitur vir.
9 He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; because no man shall prevail by his own strength.
15  Dóminum formidábunt adversárii ejus: * et super ipsos in cælis tonábit:
10 The adversaries of the Lord shall fear him: and upon them shall he thunder in the heavens
16  Dóminus judicábit fines terræ, et dabit impérium regi suo, * et sublimábit cornu Christi sui.
The Lord shall judge the ends of the earth, and he shall give empire to his king, and shall exalt the horn of his Christ.

This canticle can be read in a number of ways.

Model for prayer

Firstly, its author, Hannah (or Anna), can be seen as a model for persistent and humble prayer, and as a testament to the value of pilgrimages.

As 1 Samuel relates, each year as she and her husband visited the shrine of Heli she fasted and prayed, and her prayers were so loud and fervent that the priest thought her drunk.  Hannah's persistence, even in the face of ridicule by others, was often compared by the Fathers, to the example of the Publican and the Pharisee in the New Testament.

The barren made fruitful

Secondly, Hannah's prayer was answered in a way that represents one of God's providential interventions in history, many of which are recalled in the psalms of Wednesday's Office, wherein he acts to thwart men's pretty plans and hopes:

"Boast no more, boast no more; those lips must talk in another strain; the Lord is God all-knowing, and overrules the devices of men." (v3; Knox translation)

In particular, one of the recurring 'types' of the Old Testament is of the suffering barren woman, who, through God's miraculous intervention, is granted a son who is chosen over other elder children for great things in salvation history.

Hannah (the mother of the prophet Samuel), is one of these woman, along with Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.  The Fathers, following St Paul's exposition in Galatians on Abraham's two sons, generally interpret these great reversals of fortune, these children 'born of the promise', as foreshadowing the New Testament, and the closing of the Old.

The election of the gentiles

Unsurprisingly, then, the ninth century monastic commentator Hrabanus Maurus sees this canticle as being sung on Wednesday, the day of the week associated with Judas' betrayal to the Council of Jewish leaders plotting to kill him, as signifying the expulsion of the Jews as God's chosen people, and the election of the Church of the gentiles in their place.  Virtually all of the Patristic commentaries note that the song is a prophesy that fits both King David and the Incarnation of Our Lord.  Pope John Paul II summarises it thus:

"The hymn of thanksgiving that sprang from the lips of the mother was to be taken up and expressed anew by another Mother, Mary, who while remaining a virgin conceived by the power of the Spirit of God. In fact, in the Magnificat of the Mother of Jesus we can perceive an echo of Anna's canticle which for this reason is known as "the Magnificat of the Old Testament". In fact, scholars note that the sacred author has placed on Anna's lips a sort of royal psalm laced with citations or allusions to other Psalms."

In this light, we can see it as a prayer of rejoicing at the coming birth of the Church as the body of Christ, as St Alphonse Liguori:

"Inspired by the Holy Ghost, Anna thanks God for having freed her from the reproach of sterility, and she predicts clearly the mystery of the Incarnation and the glories of the Church. There is no Christian that cannot use this canticle to thank God for all his benefits, and especially for the benefits of Redemption."

Monday, January 27, 2014

Wednesday in the Benedictine Office

Duccio: The betrayal of Judas
Wednesday is, I think, a challenging day in the Benedictine Office.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First it is quite a long day - Vespers in particular is the longest of the week, at 69 verses all up.

Secondly, it contains some of the more challenging psalms of the psalter, particularly at Vespers, with assorted bits of smiting (in Psalms 134&135) and bashing of babies (Psalm 136, By the Rivers of Babylon), all normally sung to Tone 3 which I always find rather disconcertingly cloying given the words.

Above all, though, the psalms of the day dwell on themes that are deeply confronting and counter-cultural, even (perhaps especially) within contemporary Catholicism, including the reality of malice and betrayal; the closing off of the Old Testament and the election of the Church; and punishment for sin.

So it is a hard day, I think, for us to meditate on.  But an extremely necessary one.

We are all Judas's

The key theme of the day is, I think, man's malice, most particularly as manifested in the councils of the Jews plotting to kill Our Lord and the betrayal of Judas.

In the liturgy of Holy Week, Wednesday is called 'Spy Wednesday' because of its association with these events.  It was a fast day throughout the year for this reason, and St Benedict certainly follows this very ancient tradition in his own prescriptions on fasting, making Wednesday one of the two days a week with only one meal for most of the year.

Does he echo the theme liturgically however?

Contemporary Orthodox (and former Trappist) theologian Patrick Reardon certainly thinks so in the case of Lauds at least, arguing that:

“Wednesday’s relationship to the betrayal of Jesus seems to be the major reason that Psalm 63 (Hebrew 64) has been associated with that day for many centuries.  The Rule of St Benedict, in the sixth century, already testifies to what appears to have been the older custom of praying this psalm on Wednesday mornings at Matins.” (Christ in the Psalms, p125)

I agree, and think that the other psalms of the day can be prayed as a meditation on the rejection of Jesus by his own, and the consequences all this has had for salvation history.  And of course this meditation must be applied to our own lives and times as well, for in our day many once again reject the Gospel; for we are all Judas's, crucifying Jesus through our sins; and we must all decide whether to accept God's choice of us for his own.

The consequences of betrayal

One of those uncomfortable, unfashionable truths Wednesday's Office confronts us with is not just the reality of our own betrayals of God, the sins we all continue to commit that crucified Christ, but also the consequences of those choices.

Several of the psalms of the day deal with the punishments God meted out to his people as punishment for their sins.  The day opens, for example, at Matins, with Psalm 59, which describes a defeat suffered by the Israelites at the hands of the pagans because God is angry with them.

Indeed, the very opening verse of the first Nocturn at Matins sets the scene with these words: O God, you have cast us off, and have destroyed us; you have been angry...

The old and new covenants

The most immediate consequences of the rejection of God represented by Judas' betrayal though, was surely the fate of Jews of the time following their rejection of Christ.

The situation of modern Jews when it comes to the Church is sensitive territory these days, for many in the Church, swayed by the desire to promote inter-religious unity, advocate ideas that are at odds with both Scripture and tradition.  But the traditional view, which as Fr Hunwicke has recently carefully set out (do go read his series of posts on this subject) is not contradicted by Vatican II's teaching on the subject, is that because the Jews of his time mostly rejected Jesus as the Messiah, the old covenant is closed off: the Jews are no longer the chosen people, for they are displaced by the Church.

The Church is based on the faithful remnant of the Jewish people of course, consisting of the apostles and disciples and their subsequent converts.  But the Mosaic Covenant has been closed, and the Jewish people have been dispossessed just as the Canaanites were in their time, and their inheritance given to the new Israel, the Church, which is open to gentiles and Jews alike.

In fact Hbrabanus Maurus' early medieval monastic commentary on the Office Canticles reminds of us St Paul's discussion of those famously barren women of the Old Testament granted a child who is preferred over that of a hated rival as foreshadowing the closing off of the old covenant with the Jewish people, and the opening of the new to all nations (Galatians 4).  Maurus says:

“But on Wednesday the Canticle of Anna the prophetess is sung, in which the expulsion of the perfidious Jews is set out, and the election of the Church of the gentiles is demonstrated.” 

God's choices

The idea that God chooses individuals and peoples as his own, and intervenes in history to advance his plan for them is something our egalitarian, aggressively secularist, society tends to shy at, but is repeated over and over in today's psalms.

The sentiments of the canticle of Hannah, with her rejoicing at becoming pregnant at last and bearing a son meant for great things is clearly the direct source of many of the verses of Our Lady's Magnificat, her own song of exaltation at being chosen to be the Mother of God.

And the first two psalms of Vespers celebrate God's interventions to choose the Jewish people out of all the nations of the world, to bring them out of Egypt, and bring them into the Promised Land.  We can see them as foreshadowing the establishment of the Church.

A Redemption triptych?

In fact these two psalms of Vespers seem to me to form something of a deliberate triptych with the opening psalms of Vespers on Monday and Tuesday.

On Monday, Psalm 113  rehearses the parting of the Red Sea and Jordan as a type of our baptism, and the rejection of idolatry and election of Israel as a type of the Church.

On Tuesday, Psalm 129's concluding verse promises redemption through Christ.

Psalm 134 repeats Psalm 113's verses on the impotence of false idols, and takes us through the key events of salvation history.

Psalm 135 covers virtually identical ground, but concludes with a verse on God providing food to 'all flesh' that can be interpreted as the opening of the covenant to the gentiles.

They can also usefully provide a meditation for us on the nature of God, a theme continued in the opening psalm of Thursday (with Psalm 139 as a meditation on his omniscience and omnipotence).

Babylon or Jerusalem?

A key point to note is that Wednesday's psalms are strongly at odds with the modern idea that pretty much everyone will be saved, regardless of whether or not they have actually sought to follow Christ.  Rather, they contain a clear message: stay faithful to God, and he will aid you; reject him, and he will reject you.

The Prime psalms in particular point to the need for prayers and grace, for heroic perseverance at a time when heresy, indifference and atheism are rife.  Nowhere, though, is the choice that we must each make - between the city of God or the city of men - made clearer, perhaps, than in Psalm 136, By the rivers of Babylon, sung at Vespers.

Wednesday in the Office is, I think, something of a 'tough love' day, reminding us that just as evil men constantly circled around Jesus trying to trap him and find the moment to bring him down, so can we expect the same treatment.  Worse, we can all be tempted to utterly betray Christ through our sins.

This hard message is, though, always tempered by the constant reminder that repentance is always possible: God's punishments are meant to cause amendment.

Out of death comes life: the seed must die

A second thread to the day is, I think, that God intervenes in history in order to bring good out of evil: our sufferings are for a purpose, and have meaning.

In particular, the Wednesday Office reminds us, as part of the weekly cycle on the life of Christ, that what is to come - Jesus' suffering and death - was a necessary sacrifice, made to reopen to way the heaven for us.

Psalm 64, a harvest hymn said at Lauds, and Psalm 137, the closing psalm of Vespers both reflect this theme, with Psalm 64 telling us that the Lord has ‘visited the earth, and have plentifully watered it; you have many ways enriched it’, such that the streams are full, and everything is set for a ripe harvest, surely a fitting image for the day on which Scripture tells us that Christ spoke to his disciples of the necessity of the wheat seed dying so that the new harvest could be planted.

Our Lord on Spy Wednesday

Yet in many ways the overarching image for the day is provided, I think, by the last verses of the last psalm of Prime, which describes evil men circling, waiting for the moment to attack, just as they did Christ throughout his ministry, but most especially on that final Wednesday before the first Triduum.

In keeping with these challenging themes, Wednesday's variable psalms end on a somewhat ambivalent note, with the words of Psalm 137 echoing Psalm 23 (the Lord is my shepherd), in speaking of the trust we can all have in God when things look dire - but also, perhaps, foreshadowing the abandonment that Christ faced on the Cross:

"Though affliction surround my path, thou dost preserve me; it is thy power that confronts my enemies’ malice, thy right hand that rescues me. My purposes the Lord will yet speed; thy mercy, Lord, endures for ever, and wilt thou abandon us, the creatures of thy own hands?" (Knox translation)



(Note: Psalm 3 &Psalm 94 said daily)

Psalm 59
Psalm 60
Psalm 61
Psalm 65
Psalm 67 (divided)

Psalm 68 (divided) (in the context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 69 (Mass propersin context of Tenebrae
Psalm 70 (in the context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 71 (in the context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 72 (in the context of Tenebrae)


(Note: Psalms 66, 50 and 148-150 are said daily)

Introduction to Psalm 63 (Psalm 63 in the context of Tenebrae)
Introduction to Psalm 64

Canticle of Anna (Hannah) (1 Kings 2: 1-10)
Canticle of Judith (Judith 16: 15-21) (festal)


Introduction to Psalm 9 (Pt 2 aka Psalm 10)
Introduction to Psalm 10
Introduction to Psalm 11

Terce to None: as on Tuesday


Introduction to Psalm 134 (with links to verse by verse notes)
Introduction to Psalm 135 (with links to verse by verse notes)
Introduction to Psalm 136 (with links to verse by verse notes)
Introduction to Psalm 137 (with links to verse by verse notes)

Compline: same psalms said daily: 4, 90, 133

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sunday Canticle: Isaiah 33:13-18

Today I want to continue my Sunday series on the canticles used in the third Nocturn at Matins in the Benedictine Office.

The second of the three canticles used during time throughout the year picks up a few verses after the first, and consists of Isaiah 33:13-18a.

Isaiah 33:13-18
1 Audite, qui longe estis, quæ fecerim; et cognoscite, vicini, fortitudinem meam. 
Hear, you that are far off, what I have done, and you that are near know my strength
2 Conterriti sunt in Sion peccatores; possedit tremor hypocritas
The sinners in Sion are afraid, trembling hath seized upon the hypocrites.
3 Quis poterit habitare de vobis cum igne devorante? quis habitabit ex vobis cum ardoribus sempiternis? 
Which of you can dwell with devouring fire? which of you shall dwell with everlasting burnings? 
4 Qui ambulat in justitiis et loquitur veritatem, qui projicit avaritiam ex calumnia, et excutit manus suas ab omni munere,
He that walketh in justices, and speaketh truth, that casteth away avarice by oppression, and shaketh his hands from all bribes,
5 Qui obturat aures suas ne audiat sanguinem, et claudit oculos suos ne videat malum. 
that stoppeth his ears lest he hear blood, and shutteth his eyes that he may see no evil.
6 Iste in excelsis habitabit; munimenta saxorum sublimitas ejus: panis ei datus est, aquæ ejus fideles sunt. 
He shall dwell on high, the fortifications of rocks shall be his highness: bread is given him, his waters are sure.
7 Regem in decore suo videbunt oculi ejus, cernent terram de longe. Cor tuum meditabitur timorem:
His eyes shall see the king in his beauty, they shall see the land far off.  Thy heart shall meditate fear:

The previous canticle of the day asked for God's blessings and protection for his people in the face of external threats - the destroyer who, we are told will himself be destroyed - and points to the evidence of God's judgment on those external enemies.

Today's canticle takes us closer to home: it opens with a warning of the fate of those nominally within the Church, but who are in fact hypocrites: 'the sinners of Sion'.

But it quickly moves to a more positive note, telling us what we must do if we want to dwell in holy city where, as the Knox translation puts it, "bread shall be his for the asking, water from an unfailing spring. Those eyes shall look on the king in his royal beauty, have sight of a land whose frontiers are far away."

What must we do? Pursue justice; speak truth; reject greed and avarice; avoid listening or looking at things that will lead us astray; cultivate a healthy fear of the Lord wherein lies the beginning of wisdom.