Saturday, 24 March 2012

Psalm 118 (119) Phe: A call to joy

Today’s stanza of Psalm 118 (Phe, verses 129-136) is the first ‘psalm’ of Monday Sext in the Benedictine Office; Sunday None in the Roman.

And it is a stanza that I think brings us back to the opening verses of the psalm: Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.

Joy and the law

It is often suggested these days that focusing on God’s law, whether in the broadest use of that term, or in the form of moral, judicial and ceremonial codes of either the Old Law or the Church, somehow stands in opposition to joy and thus evangelization.

This psalm repeatedly asserts that the very opposite is the case.

The first verse of this stanza is a restatement of this key theme:

Mirabilia testimonia tua : ideo scrutata est ea anima mea.
Your testimonies are wonderful: therefore my soul has sought them.

St Augustine sees testimonies here as above all a reference to the wonder of creation, through which alone we can reason our way to God.

But it can equally be interpreted (and has been) as including the detailed code of the old Law contained in the Torah, to the working out of God’s providential plan in history, and above all to the coming of Christ and the institution of his Church.

Consider for example the Old Testament laws, most of which Christians do not follow. St Robert Bellarmine comments that on the face of it they are not wonderful, but rather articulated so no one can claim ignorance of what was required. Yet they are wonderful, he argues, especially the Decalogue, particularly in that they contain and foreshadow all the (proper) laws of the world:

But as regards the mystic meaning, especially of the ceremonial laws, they are wonderful and most obscure, foreshadowing, as they do, all the mysteries of the Christian religion, to which the Prophet alludes here. With that, the Decalogue that principally contains God's law, is wonderful for being written in such plain and intelligible language, though it contains, in the smallest possible space, all the principles of justice on which all the laws that ever have been, or will be made, are based. All other laws are innumerable, have filled, and are still filling, many large volumes, and yet they are all conclusions or inferences from the laws of the Decalogue. Thus, as small seeds are wonderful by reason of their having within them the germs of large trees, so the Decalogue is wonderful by reason of its essentially comprising all the laws of the world.”

Truth is the true freedom

This stanza goes on to explain just why seeking and studying the law should be so freeing, so joyful.

First, they shed light on our path, so that we do not have to walk in darkness:

Declaratio sermonum tuorum illuminat, The declaration of your words gives light (v129)

They allow God to direct us in our way (v133), and bring his blessings on us (v135, Make you face shine upon me).

Secondly, they give understanding to those who are prepared to become like little children as the Gospel enjoins us, rather than insisting on our own path in the name of an ‘adult faith’:

et intellectum dat parvulis : and gives understanding to little ones.

Thirdly, following them allows us to call for God’s justice (whether realized now or in the next life) in the face of attacks by evildoers (v134).

Joy mixed with sorrow

Yet the psalmist also reminds us that in this life, the joy of God’s law can never be entirely pure, never be entirely unmixed with sorrow, for we are all sinners who are yet to be fully purified.

On the positive side, commitment to follow God’s law gives us the right to ask, as Verse 132 suggests, to ask for his mercy, and to ask for him to prevent us falling to the forces of evil (v133).

But the stanza also reminds us that the law should call forth not just longing for it, and for the grace that we need (v131), but also repentance (v136):

Exitus aquarum deduxerunt oculi mei, quia non custodierunt legem tuam.
My eyes have sent forth springs of water: because they have not kept your law.

In this stanza, the repentance is for our own sins. In the next stanza (verses 137-144), as we shall see next week, the psalmist speaks of the zeal called forth by the offences against God of others.

Phe

129 Mirabilia testimonia tua : ideo scrutata est ea anima mea.
Your testimonies are wonderful: therefore my soul has sought them.

130 Declaratio sermonum tuorum illuminat, et intellectum dat parvulis.
The declaration of your words gives light: and gives understanding to little ones.

131 Os meum aperui, et attraxi spiritum : quia mandata tua desiderabam.
I opened my mouth, and panted: because I longed for your commandments.

132 Aspice in me, et miserere mei, secundum judicium diligentium nomen tuum.
Look upon me, and have mercy on me according to the judgment of them that love your name.

133 Gressus meos dirige secundum eloquium tuum, et non dominetur mei omnis injustitia.
Direct my steps according to your word: and let no iniquity have dominion over me.

134 Redime me a calumniis hominum ut custodiam mandata tua.
Redeem me from the calumnies of men: that I may keep your commandments.

135 Faciem tuam illumina super servum tuum, et doce me justificationes tuas.
Make your face to shine upon your servant: and teach me your justifications.

136 Exitus aquarum deduxerunt oculi mei, quia non custodierunt legem tuam.
My eyes have sent forth springs of water: because they have not kept your law.

No comments: