Thursday, May 22, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 66

I want to turn now, in this series on the repeated psalms of the Benedictine Office, to the psalms of Lauds.  In both the older form of the Roman Office and the Benedictine Rite, Psalm 66 is said daily at Lauds by way of an invitatory psalm.

The first point to note is that there is a certain symmetry in the opening and closing psalms of Lauds: the three closing psalms are calls to us, to praise and sing to God.  The two opening psalms, though, Psalm 66 and 50, thrice ask God to have pity, or mercy, on us (misereatur, miserere).  

That is not to suggest though, that this is a dark or penitential psalm; far from it.

 Psalm 66: Deus misereátur nostri
In finem, in hymnis. Psalmus cantici David.
Unto the end, in hymns, a psalm of a canticle for David.
1 Deus misereátur nostri, et benedícat nobis: * illúminet vultum suum super nos, et misereátur nostri.
May God have mercy on us, and bless us: may he cause the light of his countenance to shine upon us, and may he have mercy on us.
2  Ut cognoscámus in terra viam tuam, * in ómnibus Géntibus salutáre tuum.
3 That we may know your way upon earth: your salvation in all nations.
3  Confiteántur tibi pópuli, Deus: * confiteántur tibi pópuli omnes.
4 Let people confess to you, O God: let all people give praise to you.
4  Læténtur et exsúltent Gentes: * quóniam júdicas pópulos in æquitáte, et Gentes in terra dírigis.
5 Let the nations be glad and rejoice: for you judge the people with justice, and direct the nations upon earth.
5  Confiteántur tibi pópuli, Deus, confiteántur tibi pópuli omnes: * terra dedit fructum suum.
6 Let the people, O God, confess to you: let all the people give praise to you: 7 The earth has yielded her fruit.
6  Benedícat nos Deus, Deus noster, benedícat nos Deus: * et métuant eum omnes fines terræ.
8 may God bless us: and all the ends of the earth fear him

Light in the darkness

The use of the use of psalm as a Lauds invitatory  is surely due to the image it provides, in verse 1, of Christ as the light of the world, making it particularly appropriate to this hour said at daybreak. 

Indeed,  the first two verses take us straight to what is surely the core of this psalm's message, presenting Christ as the saviour of all nations,  foreshadowing the words of the Nunc Dimittis Canticle (Luke 2:30-32): "Because my eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples:  A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel." 

Psalm 66 is surely the quintessential psalm of the Church’s mission, and Acts 28: 28 quotes verse 2 in just this context, as the conclusion of St Paul's last mission speech, saying ' Be it known therefore to you, that this salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it'. 

The Benedictine Office is of course primarily an office for monks, but monks are not of course exempt from the Gospel imperative of mission. Rather, both their prayers and witness is vital to it.  Contemplative prayer, the Church teaches us, is a vital element of evangelisation. 

But so too is practical action, and it is of course no accident that monks have so often been missionaries.  St Benedict himself, St Gregory the Great tells us, converted the shepherds who came across him in the wilds of Subiaco, and on his arrival at Monte Cassino converted the pagans who had worshipped there.  This psalm, then, is a daily reminder of the connection we all have to the mission of the Church to the world.

The blessing

Psalm 66 is above all a joyous and uplifting hymn of praise. 

It begins and ends with a request that God bless us, using a blessing formula echoes that of Numbers 6:24-26.  The blessing in Numbers though, is for the people of Israel alone:

"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Say to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the children of Israel, and you shall say to them: The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord shew his face to thee, and have mercy on thee. The Lord turn his countenance to thee, and give thee peace.  And they shall invoke my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them."

In Psalm 66 though, the blessing is requested not just for us, but for all people's that they may come to know and worship God.  Twice it asks for God to have mercy and loving kindness: a reminder that our own merits could never win us anything; everything depends on God.  Between these two pleas for mercy, we ask for the blessing of the sense of God's presence and approval (the light of his countenance).  God of course is always present, always aware of us; we however need prompts to practice our awareness of the presence of God.

The psalm  asks God to guide us, and all the nations in his ways.  And it ends with a warning: God's reach extends everywhere, and we should fear him, albeit out of filial devotion.

Some commentators argue that this was originally a harvest song.  Perhaps, but if so, the harvest in question is surely primarily a spiritual one, for the psalm asks us to pray for the salvation of all the world.

You can find the first set of verse by verse notes on this psalm here.

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