Wednesday, January 15, 2014

An introduction to Psalm 64

As it is a psalm set for Wednesday in the Benedictine Office, I thought I'd provide this introduction to the psalm set for Lauds in the Office of the Dead, Psalm 64, on this day and come back to the remaining psalms of Matins thereafter.  

Psalm 64 is a prayer filled with hope at the coming of Our Lord, and at the prospect of our return to our heavenly home.  

On Holy Wednesday, Our Lord said that first the seed must die before it can spring up anew: this psalm takes up that thought and tells us that Christ’s suffering is necessary for an abundant harvest.

In finem. Psalmus David, canticum Jeremiæ et Ezechielis populo transmigrationis, cum inciperent exire.
To the end, a psalm of David. The canticle of Jeremiah and Ezechiel to the people of the captivity, when they began to go out.
1 Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion: * et tibi reddétur votum in Jerúsalem.
A hymn, O God, becomes you in Sion: and a vow shall be paid to you in Jerusalem
2  Exáudi oratiónem meam: * ad te omnis caro véniet.
3 O hear my prayer: all flesh shall come to you.

3  Verba iniquórum prævaluérunt super nos: * et impietátibus nostris tu propitiáberis.
4 The words of the wicked have prevailed over us: and you will pardon our transgressions.
4  Beátus quem elegísti et assumpsísti: * inhabitábit in átriis tuis.
5 Blessed is he whom you have chosen and taken to you: he shall dwell in your courts.
5  Replébimur in bonis domus tuæ, sanctum est templum tuum: *  mirábile in æquitáte.
We shall be filled with the good things of your house; holy is your temple, 6 wonderful in justice.
6  Exáudi nos, Deus salutáris noster: * spes ómnium fínium terræ et in mari longe.
Hear us, O God our saviour, who is the hope of all the ends of the earth, and in the sea afar off
7  Præparans montes in virtúte tua, accínctus poténtia: * qui contúrbas profúndum maris sonum flúctuum ejus.
7 You who prepares the mountains by your strength, being girded with power: 8 Who troubles the depth of the sea, the noise of its waves.
8  Turbabúntur Gentes, et timébunt qui inhábitant términos a signis tuis: * éxitus matutíni, et véspere delectábis.
The Gentiles shall be troubled, 9 and they that dwell in the uttermost borders shall be afraid at your signs: you shall make the outgoings of the morning and of the evening to be joyful.
9  Visitásti terram, et inebriásti eam: * multiplicásti locupletáre eam.
10 You have visited the earth, and have plentifully watered it; you have many ways enriched it.
10  Flumen Dei replétum est aquis; parásti cibum illórum: * quóniam ita est præparátio ejus.
The river of God is filled with water, you have prepared their food: for so is its preparation.
11  Rivos ejus inébria multíplica genímina ejus: * in stillicídiis ejus lætábitur gérminans.
11 Fill up plentifully the streams thereof, multiply its fruits; it shall spring up and rejoice in its showers.
12  Benedíces corónæ anni benignitátis tuæ: * et campi tui replebúntur ubertáte.
12 You shall bless the crown of the year of your goodness: and your fields shall be filled with plenty.
13  Pinguéscent speciósa desérti: * et exsultatióne colles accingéntur.
13 The beautiful places of the wilderness shall grow fat: and the hills shall be girded about with joy,
14  Indúti sunt aríetes óvium et valles abundábunt fruménto: * clamábunt, étenim hymnum dicent.
14 the rams of the flock are clothed, and the vales shall abound with corn: they shall shout, yea they shall sing a hymn.

The theme of Wednesday in the Benedictine Office, I would suggest, is man's malice and betrayal of God, most importantly typified by Judas' betrayal on 'Spy Wednesday' of Holy Week.

The first of the variable psalms of Lauds on Wednesday, Psalm 63, dwells directly on the theme of betrayal, and serves to remind us that we are all Judas's at heart, and must repent wholeheartedly for as St Peter did. Psalm 64 however takes a rather more upbeat approach, focusing on the necessity of Christ's death in order for his people to come home, as indeed must we!

One of the features of St Benedict’s construction of Lauds is that he always gives it an upbeat note, consistent with the association of the hour itself with the resurrection/rising sun.  Where the first variable psalm of Lauds is darker, as for Wednesday to Friday, the second psalm is invariably more upbeat in its take on the events of Holy Week.  In this he perhaps takes his cue from this psalm, for amidst the warnings of coming disturbances and signs, the psalmist points firmly to the promise of good things to come, and notes that God ‘shall make the outgoings of the morning and of the evening to be joyful’.

The seed must die...

Some have suggested that today’s psalm was originally a hymn used for the harvest festival.  In Christian usage, however, that harvest has become the heavenly one, for verses 1 and 2 are used in the Introit of the Requiem Mass.

The harvest theme is appropriate though, for it is on Holy Wednesday that Our Lord is traditionally said to have prophesied his death to his disciples, reminding them that the seed has to die in order for new life to grow (Jn 12: 24). 

Similarly this psalm tells 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.  St John Chrysostom interprets the rain provided here as Christ’s teaching, and Cassiodorus’ interpretation of verse 7 complements this, suggesting that the ‘prepared mountains’ here refers to the apostles,

“So we fittingly interpret allegorically the prepared mountains as the apostles who were chosen to proclaim the word. They had strength of faith and height of sanctity; they were lowly in style of life, but deservedly ranked higher. The Lord prepared them by His strength because He performed great miracles through them, so that by the greatness of the Word they could convert unbelievers, and admiration at their deeds could soften the hardest hearts."

The title of the psalm in the Septuagint however that perhaps points us most clearly to the interpretation of the psalm St Benedict had in mind, for it recalls the ending of the Babylonian captivity: ‘To the end, a psalm of David. The canticle of Jeremiah and Ezechiel to the people of the captivity, when they began to go out’.   Cassiodorus, following St Augustine, notes that “when the Jewish people because of their disobe­dience were led captive by the Chaldean nation, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezechiel said that they would return to their native land seventy years later, and that they would restore Jerusalem to a better state after it had been overturned by the enemy.”  

Today we contemplate the end of those years of captivity, and our coming freedom, for despite the fact that ‘The words of the wicked have prevailed over us’, God ‘will pardon our transgressions’, for ‘Blessed is he whom you have chosen and taken to you’.  For his sake, ‘We shall be filled with the good things of your house’, for ‘holy is your temple’.

This is indeed the ‘crown of the year’ in our salvation.

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