Saturday, July 5, 2014

Thursday in the Benedictine Office

“For on Thursday justly is sung the song of the Israelites, which they sung after the pasch celebrating being freed from Egypt and conveyed through the Red Sea dry foot.  For on the same day our saviour figuratively celebrating the psach with his disciples, he offered the paschal mystery continuing in the sacrament of his body and blood and in this immolation of the lamb, who takes away the sins of the world.”  Hrbanus Maurus 

Thursday is, in my view, the start of a mini-Triduum in the Benedictine Office each week, a chance to meditate on the events of Maundy Thursday, when Christ celebrated the Passover with the apostles, ordained them and instituted the Eucharist; prayed in agony in the Garden; was betrayed and arrested; and was deserted and denied by his disciples.

The psalms of the day move back and forwards between these themes.

Passover and the ferial canticle

As always in the Benedictine Office, Lauds, and particularly the Lauds (ferial) canticle) offers the key to the themes of the day, for as Rabanus Maurus points out in the quote above, the day's associatins with Maundy Thursday are firmly linked to the Canticle of Moses, Exodus 15:1-19, sung at that hour. 

In Scripture, the text of this canticle sits between two key events that foreshadow the Last Supper, namely the escape of the people, lead by Moses, from Egypt; and the miracle of the manna in the desert.  In Exodus Chapter 12-13, the people of Israel celebrate that first Pasch, marking the doors of their houses with the blood of the lamb to protect them against the avenging angels who slew the first-born of Israel.  Moses then leads the people out of Egypt, but the Egyptians pursue.  The people are terrified, wishing that they had not followed Moses (Exodus 14) – until he miraculously parts the Red Sea to let them cross, and then lets the waters flow back drowning the pursuing Egyptians.  The people rejoice, and then Thursday's canticle is sung (Chapter 15). Yet no sooner is this song sung than Exodus records that the people are once more murmuring against Moses, this time complaining at the lack of food and water.  Thus in Chapter 16, the miracle of the manna in the desert, that type of the Eucharist, is recorded.

The canticle itself is a song of the victory over Pharaoh, and the Fathers interpreted it typologically, as foreshadowing the events of Maundy Thursday.   The storyline goes like this: at the time of the coming of Our Lord, the Jewish people have once again become enslaved, this time by the law.  But Christ has come to lead them out of Egypt and into the new promised land of the Church of grace.  The lords of the Old Law, the Scribes and Pharisees, however, have hardened their hearts just as Pharaoh did, refusing to see the miracles and wonders Jesus worked.  Instead they are determined to stop Our Lord, to pursue and overtake him as Pharaoh’s horses and chariots tried to (vs 9).  We can look forward though, to the Resurrection, and know that nothing can stand against the omnipotence of God.

Several of the psalms of the day explicitly refer to the events of Exodus, above all Psalm 77, a long historical poem that is divided in two at Matins.  But there are many other references to these events.  The most explicit can be found in Psalms 76, 79, 80, and 82.  Many more of these psalms though, were seen by the Fathers as containing allusions to these events.  The second half of Psalm 73 (verses 13-20), the opening psalm of Matins, for example, gives us a set of verses that at the literal level recall God's work of creating the earth, with the references to sea monsters and more taking us up to day 5 of creation (ie Thursday).  But those same sea monsters and dragons were also interpreted metaphorically  as a reference to the drowning of Pharaoh's troops in the Red Sea.

The agony in the Garden

Yet if the day focuses on our salvation, symbolised by the escape from Egypt, those same events also serve as a reminder that we too are suffering from the enslavement of sin;  that we too hang on the edge of destruction, dependent on Christ's willingness to suffer death on the cross to redeem us, for which we must plead.  The opening psalm of the day, Psalm 73, for example, demands that God remember his covenant: the people are enslaved, suffering the effects of God's anger at their sins.

In fact the agony of the garden is never very far away from the front of these psalms.  Psalm 87, at Lauds, is the ultimate prayer of the Garden: easily the darkest psalm in the psalter.  The psalm is the lamentation of a man close to death, and it offers no note of hope whatsoever.  Instead, it is a song of abandonment, a song, perhaps, of the agony in the garden.  Similarly, Psalm 138, which takes up the entire first half of Vespers, is often interpreted as Christ's words in that night of agonised prayer.

Several of the psalms, such as Psalm 13 at Prime, and Psalm 140 at Vespers, dwell on the need to do God’s will, not our own, and to resist the temptation to compromise.  Yet through it all, as Psalm 138 at Vespers draws out, it is made clear that no matter how absent God may seem to be from us, no matter how hard the path may seem, God is always with us.

Betrayal, arrest and abandonment

Nonetheless, it is the theme of abandonment, betrayal, unfair persecution and destruction that stands at the forefront of the day. 

The very first psalm of the day, Psalm 73, opens with a lament for the destruction of the Temple, and the attempt to suppress the worship of God in the land the destruction of the Temple by invaders.  It can be interpreted Christologically, as Christ's prophesy that the temple will be destroyed, then rebuilt in three days.  Indeed, Cassiodorus' commentary does just that saying that:

"In this psalm there is lamentation for the destruction of the city, so that the Jews' extreme hardness of heart should at least feel fear at the disasters to their city. The good Physician has done all he could, if the sick man wished to recover his health. Let us remember, however, that the authority of the Church relates that Jerusalem was ravaged in the days when the most cruel people of the Jews crucified Christ the Lord, so that there can be no doubt what temporal evil that obstinate transgression sustained."

Psalm 74, the second psalm of Matins, takes us to the events of Jesus' arrest.  The psalm starts its narrative with a reminder that we are God's people, members of his flock, and pleads for God to convert us, to rise up and save us:  above all, for the Messiah to come and 'visit' the 'vineyard' he brought out of Egypt:

9  Víneam de Ægypto transtulísti: * ejecísti Gentes, et plantásti eam.
9 You have brought a vineyard out of Egypt: you have cast out the Gentiles and planted it.
10  Dux itíneris fuísti in conspéctu ejus: * plantásti radíces ejus, et implévit terram.
10 You were the guide of its journey in its sight: you planted the roots thereof, and it filled the land...
15  Deus virtútum, convértere: * réspice de cælo, et vide, et vísita víneam istam.
15 Turn again, O God of hosts, look down from heaven, and see, and visit this vineyard:

The parable of the wicked servants of the owner of the vineyard, who murder first the servants, and then the son of the vineyard owner, points to these verses.  And the allusion is reinforced by the psalm's ending, which takes us to the saving role of the Son, whose name we know, and whose face we have seen:

16  Et pérfice eam, quam plantávit déxtera tua: * et super fílium hóminis, quem confirmásti tibi.
16 And perfect the same which your right hand has planted: and upon the son of man whom you have confirmed for yourself.
18  Fiat manus tua super virum déxteræ tuæ: * et super fílium hóminis quem confirmásti tibi.
18 Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand: and upon the son of man whom you have confirmed for yourself
19  Et non discédimus a te, vivificábis nos: * et nomen tuum invocábimus.
19 And we depart not from you, you shall quicken us: and we will call upon your name.
20  Dómine, Deus virtútum, convérte nos: * et osténde fáciem tuam, et salvi érimus.
20 O Lord God of hosts, convert us and show your face, and we shall be saved

These themes are then picked up and amplified throughout the day's psalmody, not least at Matins.

The sheep of his pasture

The day's variable psalmody starts, in Psalm 73, with a recapitulation of the question that opened Wednesday's psalmody: why have you cast us off, why are you angry with us, O God? A key difference between Psalm 59's opening verse though, and that of Psalm 73 is the addition of a reference to the 'sheep of his pasture': we are his people and he is both shepherd and the lamb who will be sacrificed for us:

Psalm 59:1 Deus, repulísti nos, et destruxísti nos: * irátus es, et misértus es nobis.
3 O God, you have cast us off, and have destroyed us; you have been angry, and have had mercy on us.
Ps 73:1 Ut quid, Deus, repulísti in finem: * irátus est furor tuus super oves páscuæ tuæ?
God, why have you cast us off unto the end: why is your wrath enkindled against the sheep of your pasture?

Psalm 77 points us to the importance of this addition, for it reminds us of the reassuring image of God leading his people like a shepherd leading his flock:

Ps 77: 57  Et ábstulit sicut oves pópulum suum: * et perdúxit eos tamquam gregem in desérto.
52 And he took away his own people as sheep: and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.

It is the last psalm of Matins on Thursday, though, Psalm 84, that finally provides the reply to Wednesday and Thursday's opening question, with a series of verses reassuring us that Christ's will indeed redeem us:

 Benedixísti, Dómine, terram tuam: * avertísti captivitátem Jacob.
2 Lord, you have blessed your land: you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.
2  Remisísti iniquitátem plebis tuæ: * operuísti ómnia peccáta eórum.
3 You have forgiven the iniquity of your people: you have covered all their sins.

All of the themes of the day are finally brought together in the closing psalm of Vespers, Psalm 140, with its injunctions to prayer, and reference to the Eucharist in the evening sacrifice of the Last Supper, anticipating for the apostles the sacrifice of the Cross.


(Psalm 3 &Psalm 94 said daily)

Psalm 73 (in the context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 74 (in context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 76 (in context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 77 (divided)
Psalm 78

Psalm 79
Psalm 80
Psalm 81
Psalm 82
Psalm 83
Psalm 84 (Mass propers, Advent 3in context of Tenebrae)

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

Canticle of Moses (Exodus 15:1-19) (in context of Tenebrae)
Festal Canticle: Canticle of Jeremiah 31: 10-14


Psalm 12
Psalm 13


Psalm 139
Psalm 140 

Compline (same psalms said daily)

Psalm 4 (in the context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 90
Psalm 133

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