Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Penitential Psalms - Introduction to Psalm 50

Today, I want to pick up my Lent series on the penitential psalms with a look at the most famous one of them all, Psalm 50 (51), the Miserere.

Psalm 50 has been described as the penitential psalm par excellence, and I think that’s a fair description: it is a powerful expression of deep humility and contrition, and every verse has great spiritual and theological riches waiting to be uncovered.  Accordingly, I plan to linger over it for a while.

The title of the psalm suggests that it is, like Psalm 6, a response to King David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12).  St Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on the psalm suggests that there is something of a schema at work here, mimicking that of the sacrament of penance: the first penitential psalm, Psalm 6, is about contrition; the second, Psalm 31 is about confession of sins; the third, Psalm 37 deals with satisfaction. Psalm 50, he suggests, is about absolution: in the first half of the psalm he asks for mercy; in the second, he promises correction and seeks the restoration of holiness and grace.

The best known of the psalms?

The Miserere is surely the best known of the penitential psalms, perhaps almost of all the psalms.

It is often used for quasi-liturgical purposes, such as part of grace before and after meals, and each week at Mass in the Asperges (and in monasteries again after Compline).

St Benedict set verse 16 to open Matins each day, a practice subsequently adopted in the Roman Office as well, as well as setting the full psalm for Lauds every day.

And there are a number of famous stories centred around it, including when the child Mozart stole the fabulous setting of the psalm by Gregorio Allegri (composed in the 1630s and used at Tenebrae during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel) by transcribing it from memory, thus making what had been restricted to the Vatican available to the world. He escaped excommunication for his act partly perhaps because of his youth, but mostly because the Pope of the day was so impressed at the musical feat.

The text

Keep in mind that saying the Miserere has a partial indulgence attached to it if you recite it 'in a spirit of penitence'.

Psalm 50: Miserere me Deus 
In finem. Psalmus David cum venit ad eum Nathan propheta, quando intravit ad Bethsabee.
Unto the end, a psalm of David, 2 when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had sinned with Bethsabee.
1 Miserére mei Deus, * secúndum magnam misericórdiam tuam.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy.
2  Et secúndum multitúdinem miseratiónum tuárum, * dele iniquitátem meam.
And according to the multitude of your tender mercies blot out my iniquity.
3  Amplius lava me ab iniquitáte mea: * et a peccáto meo munda me.
Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
4  Quóniam iniquitátem meam ego cognósco: * et peccátum meum contra me est semper.
For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.
5  Tibi soli peccávi, et malum coram te feci: * ut justificéris in sermónibus tuis, et vincas cum judicáris.
To you only have I sinned, and have done evil before you: that you may be justified in your words, and may overcome when you are judged.
6  Ecce enim in iniquitátibus concéptus sum: * et in peccátis concépit me mater mea.
For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.
7  Ecce enim veritátem dilexísti: * incérta et occúlta sapiéntiæ tuæ manifestásti mihi.
For behold you have loved truth: the uncertain and hidden things of your wisdom you have made manifest to me.
8  Aspérges me hyssópo, et mundábor: * lavábis me, et super nivem dealbábor.
You shall sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: you shall wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.
9  Audítui meo dabis gáudium et lætítiam: * et exsultábunt ossa humiliáta.
To my hearing you shall give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.
10  Avérte fáciem tuam a peccátis meis: * et omnes iniquitátes meas dele.
Turn away your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
11  Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: * et spíritum rectum ínnova in viscéribus meis.
Create a clean heart in me, O God: and renew a right spirit within my bowels.
12  Ne projícias me a fácie tua: * et spíritum sanctum tuum ne áuferas a me.
Cast me not away from your face; and take not your holy spirit from me.
13  Redde mihi lætítiam salutáris tui: * et spíritu principáli confírma me.
Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.
14  Docébo iníquos vias tuas: * et ímpii ad te converténtur.
I will teach the unjust your ways: and the wicked shall be converted to you.
15  Líbera me de sanguínibus, Deus, Deus salútis meæ: * et exsultábit lingua mea justítiam tuam.
Deliver me from blood, O God, you God of my salvation: and my tongue shall extol your justice.
16  Dómine, lábia mea apéries: * et os meum annuntiábit laudem tuam.
O Lord, you will open my lips: and my mouth shall declare your praise.
17  Quóniam si voluísses sacrifícium dedíssem útique: * holocáustis non delectáberis.
For if you had desired sacrifice, I would indeed have given it: with burnt offerings you will not be delighted.
18  Sacrifícium Deo spíritus contribulátus: * cor contrítum, et humiliátum, Deus non despícies.
A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, you will not despise.
19  Benígne fac, Dómine, in bona voluntáte tua Sion: * ut ædificéntur muri Jerúsalem.
Deal favourably, O Lord, in your good will with Sion; that the walls of Jerusalem may be built up.
20  Tunc acceptábis sacrifícium justítiæ, oblatiónes, et holocáusta: * tunc impónent super altáre tuum vítulos.
Then shall you accept the sacrifice of justice, oblations and whole burnt offerings: then shall they lay calves upon your altar.

  Psalm 50 and the sacrament of penance

Pope John Paul II devoted four separate General Audiences to this psalm. For this introduction to it, I'm largely going to draw on them:
  • the first Audience, on 21 October 2001 provided a general overview of the psalm;
  • on 8 May 2002 the Pope looked at the first half of the psalm;
  • the Audience of 4 December 2002 looked at the verses on forgiveness; and
  • the final Audience of July 2003 looked at the concluding verses.
Two horizons: sin and grace

The Pope suggested, following the tradition, that the psalm basically falls into two parts, or ‘horizons’:

“Psalm 50 (51) outlines two horizons. First, there is the dark region of sin (cf. vv. 3-11) in which man is placed from the beginning of his existence: "Behold in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived" (v. 7)...The first part of the Psalm appears to be an analysis of sin, taking place before God…the second spiritual part of the psalm, the luminous realm of grace (cf. vv. 12-19). By the confession of sins, for the person who prays there opens an horizon of light where God is at work. The Lord does not just act negatively, eliminating sin, but recreates sinful humanity by means of his life-giving Spirit: he places in the human person a new and pure "heart", namely, a renewed conscience, and opens to him the possibility of a limpid faith and worship pleasing to God…”

Within these two horizons, there are several key themes and theological concepts that the psalm points to that deserve to be highlighted.

Sin and its nature

The first the psalm points to the importance of recovering a sense of sin, something so much lacking in our time:

“There is above all a lively sense of sin, seen as a free choice, with a negative connotation on the moral and theological level: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, I have done what is evil in your sight" (v. 6).

King David alludes to our inheritance of original sin: “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me”. But he also explores the dimensions of personal sin, using three different terms to capture its dimensions:

“Three Hebrew terms are used to define this sad reality, which comes from the evil use of human freedom. The first term, hattá, literally means "falling short of the target": sin is an aberration which leads us far from God, the fundamental goal of our relations, and, consequently, also from our neighbour. The second Hebrew term is "awôn, which takes us back to the image of "twisting" or of "curving". Sin is a tortuous deviation from the straight path; it is an inversion, a distortion, deformation of good and of evil; in the sense declared by Isaiah: "Woe to those who call good evil and evil good, who change darkness into light and light into darkness" (Is 5,20). Certainly, for this reason in the Bible conversion is indicated as a "return" (in Hebrew shûb) to the right way, correcting one's course. The third term the psalmist uses to speak of sin is peshá. It expresses the rebellion of the subject toward his sovereign and therefore an open challenge addressed to God and to his plan for human history.”

He also draws out the broader implications of sin:

“In the confession of the Miserere there is a noteworthy emphasis: the sin is described not only in its personal and "psychological" dimension but above all what is described is the theological reality. "Against you, against you alone have I sinned" (Ps 50[51],6) exclaims the sinner…Sin is not just a psychological and social matter, but an event that corrodes the relationship with God, violating his law, refusing his plan in history and overturning his set of values, "putting darkness for light and light for darkness", in other words, "calling evil good and good evil" (cf. Is 5,20). Before finally injuring man, sin is first and foremost a betrayal of God.”

Conversion and renewal

But the real force of this psalm surely comes from its testimony to the contrasting possibility of conversion and renewal from even the gravest of sins: “You shall sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: you shall wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. To my hearing you shall give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.”

I have to admit that my personal favourite verse is that strident demand for joy: Redde mihi lætítiam salutáris tui: et spíritu principáli confírma me, or ‘Give me back the joy of your salvation and strengthen me with a noble spirit’.

Grace through the Holy Spirit

Pope John Paul II points to the allusions to the Holy Spirit in the psalm read in the light of the New Testament:

“The movements of grace through the Holy Spirit: in the original Hebrew the word "spirit" is repeated three times, invoked of God as a gift and received by the human creature who has repented of his sin: "Renew in me a steadfast spirit.... Do not deprive me of your holy spirit.... Sustain in me a generous spirit" (vv. 12.13.14). One could say, taking recourse to a liturgical term, that it is an "epiclesis", that is, a triple invocation of the Spirit who, as in creation hovered over the waters (cf. Gn 1,2), now penetrates the soul of the faithful, infusing it with new life and raising it from the kingdom of sin to the heaven of grace.”

The mediation of Christ and his Church

The last two verses, praying for the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem, and the restoration of animal sacrifices, and may be later additions (for those who worry about such things, the old Pontifical Biblical Commission ruled this an acceptable opinion). Pope John Paul II commented:

“The person who completed the Psalm had a valid intuition: he grasped the needy state of sinners, their need for sacrificial mediation. Sinners cannot purify themselves on their own; good intentions are not enough. An effective external mediation is required. The New Testament was to reveal the full significance of this insight, showing that Christ, in giving his life, achieved a perfect sacrificial mediation.”

He pointed to St Gregory the Great’s interpretation of the verse about the offering of a contrite heart as the proper sacrifice to God as speaking of the earthly life of the Church. The verse on burnt offerings, as of the Church in heaven. He ended his Audiences with the relevant section from St Gregory, and it is indeed a fitting place to conclude this brief overview:

"Holy Church has two lives: one that she lives in time, the other that she receives eternally; one with which she struggles on earth, the other that is rewarded in heaven; one with which she accumulates merits, the other that henceforth enjoys the merits earned. And in both these lives she offers a sacrifice: here below, the sacrifice of compunction, and in heaven above, the sacrifice of praise. Of the former sacrifice it is said: "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit' (Ps 51[50]: 19); of the latter it is written: "Then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and in whole burnt offerings' (Ps 51[50]: 21).... In both, flesh is offered, since the sacrifice of the flesh is the mortification of the body, up above; the sacrifice of the flesh is the glory of the resurrection in praise to God. In heaven, flesh will be offered as a burnt holocaust when it is transformed into eternal incorruptibility, and there will be no more conflict for us and nothing that is mortal, for our flesh will endure in everlasting praise, all on fire with love for him" (Omelie su Ezechiele/2, Rome 1993, p. 271).”

You can find the next set of notes on this psalm here.

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