Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Christ ascends the cross - Psalm 122 (Gradual Psalm No 4)

Church of St. Peter in Santander, Spain

In the previous Gradual Psalm, the speaker focused 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

This psalm, I think, takes us to the fundamental orientation we need to cultivate as we undertake this earthly pilgrimage, namely our focus on God.   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, and wait for the second coming.  Origen, for example, interpreted the psalm as urging those who trust in God to follow the example of Christ in lifting their eyes to heaven in anticipation of receiving God's mercy.  

The opening verses set before us the idea of our total dependence of God for his gifts - and punishments - just as a slave is dependent on his or her master/mistress.  The analogy of the slave or servant’s relationship to their master or mistress, however, is not one that has many resonances to a modern Western reader.  Accordingly, we might, perhaps, 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.  Several of the Fathers see this psalm as representing a progression from fear of God based on the threat of punishment (looking to the mountains), to filial fear, based on love of God.  Cassiodorus, for example, comments that:
First he raised his eyes to the mountains, but now he has lifted up the eyes of his heart to the Lord Himself. Thus in his struggle to mount higher by spiritual steps, he has sought happily to draw near to the divine mercy. What a fine sight to see men drawing close to God and raising this sluggish mass of flesh to the rewards of heavenly grace! But this is the doing only of Him who bade Lazarus emerge from the tomb, who stretched out His right hand and saved Peter when he was drowning, who translated Elias and Enoch to heaven while they were still alive,1 and who performed other similar miracles such as the Godhead's power performs every day. It is men who are one in charity on this earth who mount these steps; only those who have deserved to be Christ's members can hasten to their Head. So just as in our hearts we have observed this wonderful ascent, so now with attentive minds let us discuss this lofty psalm. 
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.

You can find more detailed notes on the individual verses by following the links below:
Or you can go on to Psalm 123.

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