Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Ps 101/4: Praying for the restoration of Church and State

Destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule.
 Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

And now,  continuing my series of notes to aid lectio divina on the penitential psalms.  I'm currently looking at the fifth psalm of the set, Psalm 101 (you can find the introduction to the psalm here). 

In the last part of this mini-series on Psalm 101, I looked at the psalmist’s sense of isolation and loneliness, described in the first part of the psalm. That section of the psalm called attention to the necessity to do penance, appropriate to our state of life, and to take the opportunities life provides us to progress.

Still, that is only one part of the psalm's prescription for our ills.  The second part of the psalm points to two other ways out of the misery, depression and loneliness that comes from sin. The first, which I will talk about today in the context of verses 12-14, through the Church, symbolised by the restoration of Jerusalem. The second path alluded to in the psalm is, I think, the hope of heaven, which I will talk more about in the final part on this psalm.

Sin is the cause of our isolation and death

The original historical context of this psalm was, as I’ve noted previously, probably the Babylonian exile, which Scripture portrays as a punishment for the sins of the people of Israel. But the same isolation results when we are individually in a state of mortal sin: we are cut off from God; and separated, at least in the spiritual sense, from the community of the Church. In this state our good deeds – whether spiritual or corporal - avail us nothing, accruing no merit for us. In this state, unless we repent, our ultimate destiny is the final death of hell.

Verse 12 in the Vulgate (and neo-Vulgate) gives us two images to describe a man approaching death:

12 Dies mei sicut umbra declinavérunt: * et ego sicut fœnum árui.

First he says that ‘my days’ (dies mei) have departed or declined (declinare), like the lengthening of a shadow (umbra) that occurs as the sun sets. Then he says I have dried out (arere) like grass (foenum).

Mankind, the traditional commentaries on this verse remind us, was made to be immortal. But due to Adam’s sin, we are condemned to die. St Robert Bellarmine notes:

“Not only by reason of my own sins, but by reason of the old fall, that is, common to us all; "my days have declined like a shadow," quietly, insensibly, but steadily, until at sunset it disappears and passes into the shadow of night. "And I am withered like grass." I, who was created to flourish like the palm forever, am now prostrate and withered, like the grass that dries up immediately.”

By contrast, the first half of Verse 13 points out, God is immortal:

13 Tu autem, Dómine, in ætérnum pérmanes; that is, ‘But you (tu autem), Lord, endure (permanere) forever’.

God in majesty,
Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 41v,
Musée Condé, Chantilly.

Verse 13-14: Christ bridges the divide

In this psalm, though, as the second half of the psalm makes clear, it is not fear of hell that is the prime motive for action, but rather the desire to be with God, to worship him properly in community, and to be with him forever. Verse 13 goes on:

et memoriále tuum in generatiónem et generatiónem.

First, God allows the knowledge of himself, the faith to be passed down the generations: ‘your memory (memoriale tuum) from generation to generation (generatiónem et generatiónem)’ through a cloud of witnesses.

Secondly, though, it is God’s action in time, in the form of the mission of Christ, that offers us the chance of immortal life:

14 Tu exsúrgens miseréberis Sion: * quia tempus miseréndi ejus, quia venit tempus. Or, “You shall arise and have mercy on Sion: for it is time to have mercy on it, for the time has come’.

The psalmist may be talking first and foremost about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Jewish state after the Exile, but that event only foreshadows the true fulfilment of this verse in the coming of Christ and the establishment of his Church on earth. The objective of this restoration, as the psalm says, is that God may be properly worshipped by the community he creates:

“All the Gentiles shall fear your name, O Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory. For the Lord has built up Sion: and he shall be seen in his glory... the people that shall be created shall praise the Lord… that they may declare the name of the Lord in Sion: and his praise in Jerusalem; when the people assemble together, and kings, to serve the Lord”. (verses 16-23)

But we must be transformed...

Yet though Our Lord’s death and resurrection, and through this, the graces available to us through his Church, give us the means to reclaim our lost inheritance of immortality, we have to submit our own claim for that free gift, be justified ourselves!

More on this in the next part of this mini-series.  In the meantime, enjoy to a chant setting of verses 16-17.

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