Friday, October 28, 2016

Psalm 91 - God who soothes and caresses; chastens and scourges...

The Crucifixion and the Harrowing of Hell / Sicilian
The Crucifixion and the Harrowing of Hell in a New Testament,
 Sicilian, late 1100s.
 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig I 5, fol. 191v

Psalm 91 (92): Bonum est confiteri Dominum - Friday Lauds
Psalmus cantici, in die sabbati.
A psalm of a canticle on the sabbath day.
1 Bonum est confitéri Dómino: * et psállere nómini tuo, altíssime.
It is good to give praise to the Lord: and to sing to your name, O most High.
2  Ad annuntiándum mane misericórdiam tuam: * et veritátem tuam per noctem
To show forth your mercy in the morning, and your truth in the night:
3  In decachórdo, psaltério: * cum cántico, in cíthara.
4 Upon an instrument of ten strings, upon the psaltery: with a canticle upon the harp.
4. Quia delectásti me, Dómine, in factúra tua: * et in opéribus mánuum tuárum exsultábo.
5 For you have given me, O Lord, a delight in your doings: and in the works of your hands I shall rejoice.
5  Quam magnificáta sunt ópera tua, Dómine! * nimis profúndæ factæ sunt cogitatiónes tuæ
6 O Lord, how great are your works! your thoughts are exceeding deep.
6  Vir insípiens non cognóscet: * et stultus non intélliget hæc.
7 The senseless man shall not know: nor will the fool understand these things.
7  Cum exórti fúerint peccatóres sicut fœnum: * et apparúerint omnes, qui operántur iniquitátem.
8 When the wicked shall spring up as grass: and all the workers of iniquity shall appear:
8  Ut intéreant in sæculum sæculi: * tu autem Altíssimus in ætérnum, Dómine.
That they may perish for ever and ever: 9 But you, O Lord, are most high for evermore.
9  Quóniam ecce inimíci tui, Dómine, quóniam ecce inimíci tui períbunt: * et dispergéntur omnes, qui operántur iniquitátem.
10 For behold your enemies, O lord, for behold your enemies shall perish: and all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.
10. Et exaltábitur sicut unicórnis cornu meum: * et senéctus mea in misericórdia úberi.
11 But my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn: and my old age in plentiful mercy.
11  Et despéxit óculus meus inimícos meos: * et in insurgéntibus in me malignántibus áudiet auris mea.
12 My eye also has looked down upon my enemies: and my ear shall hear of the downfall of the malignant that rise up against me.
12  Justus, ut palma florébit: * sicut cedrus Líbani multiplicábitur.
13 The just shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow up like the cedar of Libanus.
13  Plantáti in domo Dómini, *  in átriis domus Dei nostri florébunt.
14 They that are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of the house of our God.
14  Adhuc multiplicabúntur in senécta úberi: * et bene patiéntes erunt,  ut annúntient:
15 They shall still increase in a fruitful old age: and shall be well treated, 16 that they may show,
15  Quóniam rectus Dóminus, Deus noster: * et non est iníquitas in eo.
That the Lord our God is righteous, and there is no iniquity in him.

Christ our high priest

The title of this psalm indicates that it was said on Saturday (the Sabbath) in Jewish tradition: it was sung in the Temple on the Sabbath at the offering of the first lamb in the morning, when the wine was poured out.  It has retained that position in the Roman Office through several sets of reforms.

St Benedict, though, moved it to Friday for obvious symbolic reasons, as Patrick Reardon has pointed out:
"That liturgical setting of Psalm 91 in the ancient temple goes far to explain its traditional use in the Church. From times past remembering, the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict testifies to the primitive Christian custom of chanting this psalm at daybreak on Friday, the true Pascha and Atonement Day, on which the Lamb of God took away the sins of the world. Thus, the "mercy" declared "in the morning" bears a most specific sense, for our Friday is both Yom Kippur and Passover, the day of that "darkness over the whole earth," the three hours of that ninth plague immediately prior to the atoning death of the Firstborn, the sprinkling of that paschal blood without which there is no remission.  Prayed on Friday mornings, as the ancient Western monastic rule prescribed, this psalm reminds the Church why it is no longer necessary to make the daily offering of lambs in the temple, for those sacrifices had only "a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things" (Heb. 10:1)." Christ in the Psalms, pg 181
The psalm reminds us that to secular man, the cross is a scandal, a senseless waste, not an atoning triumph:
Vir insípiens non cognóscet: * et stultus non intélliget hæc. The senseless man shall not know: nor will the fool understand these things.
Towards the Resurrection

One of the interesting features of the Benedictine Office, in my view, is that St Benedict doesn't actually dwell much on Christ's sufferings, but always places them in the context of the Resurrection and life to come: his main focus is Christ's divinity not his humanity.

On Sundays, for example, when we have a weekly celebration of the Resurrection, we also say the psalms Christ said on the cross (Psalms 20 forward); on Friday's, though there are multiple allusions to the Passion, his selection of psalms for this purpose all look forward to the future.

This may in part be something of a response to the heresies of his time: the Arian and monophysite heresies were rife in the early sixth century, and much effort was expended at this time to combat them and their many variants.

In our time, these heresies seem to be thriving once again, so it is useful to consider the messages embedded in the Office that can serve as a correction to these errors.  In the case of Psalm 91, for example, St Augustine reminds that:
We are not Christians, except on account of a future life: let no one hope for present blessings, let no one promise himself the happiness of the world, because he is a Christian: but let him use the happiness he has, as he may, in what manner he may, when he may, as far as he may. When it is present, let him give thanks for the consolation of God: when it is wanting, let him give thanks to the Divine justice. Let him always be grateful, never ungrateful: let him be grateful to his Father, who soothes and caresses him: and grateful to his Father when He chastens him with the scourge, and teaches him: for He ever loves, whether He caress or threaten: and let him say what you have heard in the Psalm.
The message then, it seems to me, is that though in this life we are called on to 'share by patience in the sufferings of Christ', this is not an end in itself; rather it is so that 'we may deserve to be partakers also of his kingdom'. (Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict).

How then do we share in the sufferings of Christ?  Cassiodorus' commentary on the psalms argues that the true sabbath is about 'rest' from sin:
The sabbath day denotes rest, by which we are schooled to desist from all vicious action, and by the holiness of heavenly deeds to give our minds a holiday from vices.
The psaltery and harp: word study

A little meme that recurs in several places in the psalms are references to the psaltery (psalterium, iin, a stringed instrument) and harp (cithara -ae f):

Psalm 42 (Tuesday): 
5  Confitébor tibi in cíthara, Deus, Deus meus: 
To you, O God my God, I will give praise upon the harp: 

Psalm 56 (Tuesday)
11  Exsúrge, glória mea, exsúrge psaltérium et cíthara: * exsúrgam dilúculo.
Arise, O my glory, arise psaltery and harp: I will arise early.

Psalm 91
3  In decachórdo, psaltério: * cum cántico, in cíthara.
4 Upon an instrument of ten strings, upon the psaltery: with a canticle upon the harp.

And of course there are the references in the Laudate psalms said at Lauds each day:

Psalm 149
3  Laudent nomen ejus in choro: * in tympano, et psaltério psallant ei.
3 Let them praise his name in choir: let them sing to him with the timbrel and the psaltery.

Psalm 150
3  Laudáte eum in sono tubæ: * laudáte eum in psaltério, et cíthara.
3 Praise him with the sound of trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harp.

(See also Psalms 32, 48, 70, 80,107, 143 and 146).

In each case the verse can be read literally, presenting a contrast between the beautiful music of the just, and the bitter words of evil-doers.  But in each case the Fathers and Theologians also saw a spiritual level of meaning to the allusions.

The instruments themselves have particular resonances.  Revelation 5:8-10, for example describes those singing the 'new song' referred to in these psalms:
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals,for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth."
St Bede gives these verses a particularly Benedictine interpretation:
For by "harps," in which strings are stretched on wood, are represented bodies prepared to die, and by "bowls", hearts expanded in breadth of love.
Similarly, the ten-stringed instrument (decacordus a um or decacordum i n) of today's psalm:
In decachórdo, psaltério: * cum cántico, in cíthara. Upon an instrument of ten strings, upon the psaltery: with a canticle upon the harp. (Ps 91)
and which also occurs in Psalm 143, said at Vespers tonight (Friday)
Deus, cánticum novum cantábo tibi: * in psaltério, decachórdo psallam tibi.  To you, O God, I will sing a new canticle: on the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings I will sing praises to you. 
can be seen as an allusion to the ten commandments.  St Thomas Aquinas, for example, in his commentary on Psalm 2, says:
Mystically speaking, however, by the ten strings of the psalterium is signified the law of God, which consists in ten commandments, and it is appropriate that it be touched with the hand, that is with good performance, and from above, because these commandments are to be satisfied according to the hope of eternal life, otherwise it would be touched from what is below.
St Augustine's commentary on a similar verse in Psalm 32 summarises the message as:
Praise the Lord with harp: praise the Lord, presenting unto Him your bodies a living sacrifice. Sing unto Him with the psaltery for ten strings let your members be servants to the love of God, and of your neighbour, in which are kept both the three and the seven commandments.
Cassiodorus builds on this to argue that:
Clearly the ten-stringed psaltery denotes the ten commandments of the Law, for they are strings which if we strum with the character of goodly deeds will play the tune of salvation and lead to the kingdom of heaven... He added: With canticle and harp; these represent the joy of good works, in other words, the pleasure shown in distributing alms. As Paul says: God loves a cheerful giver? Harp indicates active deeds which though achieved with toil and tension will bear the greatest fruit if fulfilled with the addition of joy. The man who performs good works without harsh melancholy is singing with the harp.
The psalm as a whole, Cassiodorus argued, urges us to good works that we may rest with God eternally:
...we must give thanks to the Godhead in all our actions; for psalm, as has often been stated, denotes spiritual works which rise upwards to the Lord Christ. In them we should sing and ever offer thanks, for by His kindness we are freed, whereas by our own efforts we were bound with the chains of sins. The person who devotes all his life to giving thanks is singing a psalm.   
Let us, then, gives thanks each Friday in particular, for Christ's saving sacrifice.

I've previously provided notes on this psalm both in the context of Friday in the Office and its use at Tenebrae of Holy Saturday.

The next part of this series is on the development of the festal Office of Lauds.

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