Monday, 25 February 2013

Psalms of Tenebrae/11 - Psalm 89: Have we made a difference?

The arrest of Jesus, c1500

Today we move to the Lauds proportion of Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday.  We've already looked at Psalm 50, the Miserere, that opens up this hour, so today a brief look at Psalm 89.

One could also see the psalm as recapitulating the purpose of the Passion and Resurrection, for there is a progression in what the psalmist is asking for here: first for God to relent in his punishment of mankind (v3-12); secondly, to reveal his power and teach us wisdom (v14); and finally to fill his people with grace and blessings (v14-17).

A psalm of Moses

Psalm 89 is the only psalm attributed to Moses in the psalter, and he is also the author of the canticle that forms part of this Lauds (from Exodus 15).  Some interpret this psalm as having been written at the end of Moses’ life, gazing into the Promised Land, yet not allowed to enter it himself, and begging for God to have mercy on the remnant that still survived of those who came out of Egypt.  Thus Moses stands on our behalf, begging Christ to save us through his Passion.

The psalm points first to the divinity of Christ, reminding us that: “Before the mountains were made, or the earth and the world was formed; from eternity and to eternity you are God.” (v2)  Thus, it reminds us of the two natures of the Christ, so critical to what is to come.

The next verse, at least in the Septuagint/Vulgate version (yet curiously reversed in meaning in the later Hebrew Masoretic Text!), continues the plea set up in the previous psalms for God not to abandon man: Turn not man away to be brought low (v3).  Certainly the Fathers saw the following plea for God to have pity and convert men, and v15’s ‘Return, O Lord, how long? And be entreated in favour of your servants’, in the context of the discussion on the shortness of man’s life, in verses 6-11, as allusions to the consequences of Adam’s sin: we too would be immortal but for it.

Have we made a difference?

One can also take the discussion on the shortness of man’s life in contrast to the eternity of God (vv 2, 4&5) as part of a kind of dialogue between the human and divine natures of the Saviour, pointing to the shortness of Christ’s life on earth, a time that he was obviously reluctant to cut short, the divine plan notwithstanding.

Some commentaries on this psalm see it as in part the lament of a man facing death and wondering whether he has really made a difference with his life.  That is obviously not an issue that faced Our Lord, but the psalm's emphasis on the transient nature, and shortness of human life on earth should serve as a reminder to keep our focus on eternity and what matters.

Christ's public ministry was short, and so far as the world viewed it, cut off ignominiously.  Yet the effects of his ministry resound to the ends of the universe.  In our own small way we too each have a mission to carry out, a difference to make in ways that may not be obvious to anyone, including ourselves.   So let us head the words of the psalm, ignore the perceptions of the world, and 'be converted'!

Psalm 89 (90)

Domine, refugium factus es nobis a generatione in generationem.
Priusquam montes fierent, aut formaretur terra et orbis, a sæculo et usque in sæculum tu es, Deus.
Ne avertas hominem in humilitatem : et dixisti : convertimini, filii hominum.
Quoniam mille anni ante oculos tuos tamquam dies hesterna quæ præteriit:
et custodia in nocte, quæ pro nihilo habentur, eorum anni erunt.
Mane sicut herba transeat; mane floreat, et transeat; vespere decidat, induret, et arescat.
Quia defecimus in ira tua, et in furore tuo turbati sumus.
Posuisti iniquitates nostras in conspectu tuo; sæculum nostrum in illuminatione vultus tui.
Quoniam omnes dies nostri defecerunt, et in ira tua defecimus.
Anni nostri sicut aranea meditabuntur; dies annorum nostrorum in ipsis septuaginta anni.
Si autem in potentatibus octoginta anni, et amplius eorum labor et dolor;
quoniam supervenit mansuetudo, et corripiemur.
Quis novit potestatem iræ tuæ, et præ timore tuo iram tuam dinumerare? Dexteram tuam sic notam fac, et eruditos corde in sapientia.
Convertere, Domine; usquequo? et deprecabilis esto super servos tuos.
Repleti sumus mane misericordia tua; et exsultavimus, et delectati sumus omnibus diebus nostris.
Lætati sumus pro diebus quibus nos humiliasti; annis quibus vidimus mala.
Respice in servos tuos et in opera tua, et dirige filios eorum.
Et sit splendor Domini Dei nostri super nos, et opera manuum nostrarum dirige super nos, et opus manuum nostrarum dirige.

And the translation:

Lord, you have been our refuge from generation to generation.
Before the mountains were made, or the earth and the world was formed; from eternity and to eternity you are God.
Turn not man away to be brought low: and you have said: Be converted, O you sons of men.
For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, which is past.
And as a watch in the night, things that are counted nothing, shall their years be.
In the morning man shall grow up like grass; in the morning he shall flourish and pass away: in the evening he shall fall, grow dry, and wither.
For in your wrath we have fainted away: and are troubled in your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before your eyes: our life in the light of your countenance.
For all our days are spent; and in your wrath we have fainted away. Our years shall be considered as a spider: The days of our years in them are threescore and ten years.
But if in the strong they be fourscore years: and what is more of them is labour and sorrow.
For mildness has come upon us: and we shall be corrected.
Who knows the power of your anger, and for your fear can number your wrath? So make your right hand known: and men learned in heart, in wisdom.
Return, O Lord, how long? And be entreated in favour of your servants.
We are filled in the morning with your mercy: and we have rejoiced, and are delighted all our days.
We have rejoiced for the days in which you have humbled us: for the years in which we have seen evils.
Look upon your servants and upon their works: and direct their children.
And let the brightness of the Lord our God be upon us: and direct the works of our hands over us; yea, the work of our hands do you direct.

Tenebrae of Holy Thursday

Nocturn I: Psalms 68, 69, 70
Nocturn II: Psalms 71, 72, 73
Nocturn III: Psalms 74, 75, 76
Lauds: 50, 89, 35, [Ex 15], 146

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