Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gradual Psalms - Introduction to Psalm 122

In the previous Gradual Psalm, the last psalm of Terce, the speaker focuses his attention on the holy city.

Now, with the first psalm of Sext, Psalm 122, we are invited to look even higher, lifting our eyes towards God himself.  There may be something programmatic about this, for Sext of course, was traditionally said at (solar) midday when the Sun is at its highest point, and also the hour when Christ ascended the cross.

Psalm 122 - Ad te levavi
Canticum graduum

1  Ad te levávi óculos meos, * qui hábitas in cælis.
To you have I lifted up my eyes, who dwell in heaven.
2  Ecce sicut óculi servórum, * in mánibus dominórum suórum.
2 Behold as the eyes of servants are on the hands of their masters,
3  Sicut óculi ancíllæ in mánibus dóminæ suæ: * ita óculi nostri ad Dóminum, Deum nostrum, donec misereátur nostri.
As the eyes of the handmaid are on the hands of her mistress: so are our eyes unto the Lord our God, until he have mercy on us.
4  Miserére nostri, Dómine, miserére nostri: * quia multum repléti sumus despectióne:
3 Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us: for we are greatly filled with contempt.
5  Quia multum repléta est ánima nostra: * oppróbrium abundántibus, et despéctio supérbis.
4 For our soul is greatly filled: we are a reproach to the rich, and contempt to the proud

Attempts to assign this psalm to a particular time period in Israel’s history are entirely speculative, and probably unhelpful in my view.  

A more important question is why it fits in with the psalms of Ascent.  But perhaps the answer is that it speaks of the normal state of the earthly pilgrim: beset by the effects of our own sins and the attacks of enemies, we wait anxiously and pray for God to show us the signs of his forgiveness.  Some commentators also suggest that the psalm alludes to the hope of the second coming.

The opening verses set before us the idea of our total dependence of God for his gifts - and punishments - just as a slave is on his or her master/mistress.  The analogy of the slave or servant’s relationship to their master or mistress is not one that has many resonances to a modern Western reader, perhaps.  Accordingly, we might better think of the psalm as being firstly about self-abandonment: the slave is totally dependent on his master for food, clothing, instructions on what to do, punishments and rewards; so too should we think of our relationship to God, acknowledging that nothing truly comes from our own efforts, but all requires his grace.  St Ambrose writes, Christ is everything for us.

The second dimension of the slave/servant analogy that is worth considering is the implication of the reverent awe with which we should raise our eyes to God.  It is true of course, that we are invited to progress from fear of God based on the threat of punishment and dread of hell, to a filial fear based on love.  But as the Rule of St Benedict makes clear in Chapter 7, on humility, we do need to ground ourselves in the fear of punishment first, and remind ourselves of it from time to time even when we have progressed.  And no matter how far we progress, we should never forget that our salvation is God’s free gift, not a right, or something we can ever merit through our own efforts.

The sense of verses 4 and 5 is that we are fed up with being looked down on by the rich and proud - noting that rich and proud doesn't just mean material wealth, but rather evildoers in general who pursue their own pleasure at everyone else's expense (though the two conditions often coincide). The psalm serves as reminder that adherence to the good is somehow affronting to many, and brings forth attempts to humiliate those who pursue truth.  The moral truth pointed to here is that we must bear our sufferings with patience, knowing that God will fill us up with good things.

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