Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Footnote to the series on Psalm 2: Psalm 2 in the Benedictine Office

Over the course of my recent mini-series on Psalm 2 I tried to draw out some of the connections of the psalm to the Christmas season, as well as to Benedictine spirituality more generally.

I thought it might be useful to conclude the series by drawing together a few key strands of my thinking, and inviting comments on my particular take on the psalm.

Liturgy as Scriptural commentary

One of the key premises of this blog is that the texts of the liturgy in general - and the Benedictine Office in particular - are not simply random or mere mechanistic assemblies of texts designed to suit the convenience of their users, but rather carefully constructed spiritual edifices, intended to convey, whether we realise it explicitly or not, deep meanings. 

Some psalms are rather easier to interpret in this regard than others - the reasons for the use of  Psalm 2 in the Christmas liturgy, for example, is reasonably obvious.  The psalm was also used as a responsory on the Sundays after Epiphany in Rome (preserving one of the 'old Roman' chants, presumably because of its connection both to the Incarnation and Christ's kingship, key themes of the season.

Some of the deeper meanings of the psalms though, particularly when we read them in the context of the liturgy, require us to recover the mindset of those who decided on their positioning, requiring the use of Patristic methods of interpretation.

Psalm 2 and Benedictine spirituality

So why, then, does St Benedict allocate Psalm 2 to Monday Prime?

I noted in the introduction to this mini-series on Psalm 2 that the overarching themes of the psalm fit very well with that of the other psalms set for Prime across the week, such as God's constant scrutiny of us from above; Christ as the first and last, the essential foundation for the ascent through grace; and the kingship of Christ.

It is probably relevant too, that the psalm articulates the first of St Benedict's steps of humility, fear of the Lord.

Psalm 2 and the Incarnation

But the more fundamental reason for its use on Monday, I would suggest, lies in that verse used in the Christmas Introit, 'Thou art my son, this day have I begotten Thee'.

The Benedictine Office, I've previously argued, includes a weekly cycle around the life of Christ.

The idea that the liturgical week should involve a repeated remembrance of the key events in the life of Christ is first clearly articulated, as far as I can find, by Pope Innocent I, in a letter defending the Roman practice of fasting on Saturdays, written in 414 AD.  He said:
 If in fact we celebrate the Lord’s Day [Sunday] because of our Lord Jesus Christ’s resurrection—doing so not only at Easter but each week renewing the image of this feast—and if we fast on Friday because of the Lord’s suffering, then we should not omit Saturday which appears to be enclosed between a time of sorrow and a time of joy. In fact, it is evident that during these two days the apostles were in sorrow and hid themselves, doing so because of their fear of the Jews...This practice is to be observed each week so that the commemoration of this day be always observed...(trans Lawrence Johnson, Worship in the Early Church vol 3, pg 97)
In the case of the Office, the eighth century commentary by Amalarius of Metz (c 775-850) includes explanations of the texts for Lauds in relation to the day of the week in relation to the Roman Office, but it is the commentary on the Lauds (OT 'ferial') canticles by his contemporary, the great Benedictine Rabanus Maurus (780-856) that is perhaps most helpful for our purposes here.

Sunday's canticle (from Daniel 3), Maurus notes, refers to the work of creation. 

But there is another key Christological focus appropriate to the day -  aside from the Resurrection referred to by Pope Innocent - for on Sunday at Vespers, Psalm 109 proclaims the eternal generation of the son ('from the womb before the day-star have I begotten Thee').

On Monday (feria secunda), the emphasis shifts to the Incarnation, as Maurus summarises:
On Monday, truly the second day, the canticle of Isaiah, in which the coming of the Saviour and the sacrament of baptism is preached, is decreed to be said, because these are the beginning of our salvation. 
Psalm 2, it seems to me, is key to the development of that theme, and the separation of the two verses on Christ's generation (Psalms 109 and 2) between the two days serves to emphasize the distinction in the meaning of the respective verses.

I do hope you enjoyed this series and found it useful.  Comments, corrections or alternative interpretations are most welcome.

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