Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Psalm 101/5: A new heaven and a new earth

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry,
Folio 34r - the Musée Condé

Today I want to finish off my mini-series of notes to aid your lectio divina on Psalm 101, part of a bigger Lenten series on the penitential psalms, with a look at the concluding verses of the psalm.

Yesterday I looked at verses 12-14 of Psalm 101, which point us to a higher motive for repentance - no longer fear of hell, but rather the desire for heaven. I noted that a key focus of the psalm was the question of time: the contrast between human mortality and God’s eternity; and the timing of our collective and individual restoration to God’s favour.

Today I want to look more closely at that hope of heaven, and more particularly of the new heaven and earth promised after the Last Judgment, in the context of verses 26 to 29, which close this fifth penitential psalm.


Psalm 101, in verse 14, states that the time has come for God to arise and have mercy on Sion  - a reference to Christ’s reopening of the doors between heaven and earth.

But although Christ opens the door and issues an invitation to us – but we still have to take it up.  At the individual level it means that we must seek perfection, making use of the sacraments, especially penance: there comes a time when, having made our confession, we are entitled to eat the bread of heaven again instead of ashes mingled with tears (verse 10).  At the level of the nation, it means we must work to ensure that the laws of the nation, and its culture are consistent with and conducive to Christianity, so that ‘the people assemble together, and kings, to serve the Lord’: whatever view one takes on the much-debated issue of the proper relation between Church and state, the two can never be altogether independent and utterly disconnected, for it the actions of the State must always be grounded in and purified by truth.  And we must strive too for the holiness of the Church, symbolized in the psalm by the stones of Jerusalem (verse 15). The Church, of course is always holy: through her sacraments and saints, and by virtue of the guarantee provided to us by Our Lord. Yet the actual degree of holiness in the Church Militant can of course vary, depending on the degree of fidelity of priests, religious and people!

All this leads up to another plea by the psalmist for God to grant him life: in verse 25 he says, ‘call me not away in the midst of my days’, since God himself endures forever.

Verses 26-28: You change them like a garment

The climax of this psalm comes in Verses 26 to 28, verses quoted in Hebrews:

26 Inítio tu, Dómine, terram fundásti: * et ópera mánuum tuárum sunt cæli.
27 Ipsi peribunt, tu autem pérmanes: * et omnes sicut vestiméntum veteráscent.
28 Et sicut opertórium mutábis eos, et mutabúntur: * tu autem idem ipse es, et anni tui non defícient.

The RSV translates this as:

“Of old thou didst lay the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
They will perish, but thou dost endure; they will all wear out like a garment.
Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away; but thou art the same, and thy years have no end.”

St Robert Bellarmine interprets it thus.  God created heaven and earth: yet all of this creation is temporal and will come to an end. Yet this is not the end for us: for God changes us to, creates the new person ready to dwell in the new heaven and earth he has promised:

“Here he gives the name of temporal to everything we see, because the very elements, and the heavens, as we see them, will have an end. We see the earth clothed with trees, full of cattle, ornament¬ed with buildings; the rivers now placidly rolling along, now swollen and muddy; the sky now clouded, now serene; the stars in perpetual motion; all of which are temporal, and sure to come to an end; for, as St. Peter writes, "We look for new heavens and a new earth, according to his promise."

Not with a whimper but a bang!

Tapestry, c14th, the New Jerusalem

One of the most important reasons for our loss of the sense of sin is our loss of the sense of eschatological realities, of the concrete reality of heaven and hell. If we wish to gain eternity, we must direct our attention to the objective of reaching the former now!

Yet that orientation is constantly eroded by the theology espoused by contemporary theologians, who, rejecting the Church’s long tradition on this subject, suggest that the new heaven and earth is already with us, brought about primarily by those who work for social justice, rather than the operation of grace. I’m not just talking abut the more extreme liberal variants on this theme, but also of ‘mainstream’ scholars such as Scott Hahn who, interprets the symbolism of the book of Revelation purely in terms of the Mass, and suggests that the new heaven and earth will arrive not so much with a bang as a whimper:

“But what if Jesus’ Second Coming turned out to much like His first?...What then should be our image of Jesus’ Second Coming? For me, it is Eucharistic, and it is brought about as the Mass brings heaven to earth…We stand on the earth as the elements stand on the altar. We are here to be transformed: to die to self, live for others, and love like God.” (Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper The Mass as Heaven on Earth, Doubleday: New York, 1999, pp 134-6).

True at one level, perhaps, but only if we remember that our own transfiguration, like that of the Church and the world, is still a work in progress:

“…The new Temple, not made by human hands, does exist, but it is still under construction. The great gesture of embrace emanating from the Crucified has not yet reached its goal; it has only just begun. Christian liturgy is liturgy on the way, a liturgy of pilgrimage toward the transfiguration of the world, which will only take place when God is “all in all”…. this City is not yet here. This is why the Church Fathers described the various stages of fulfilment, not just as contrast between Old and New Testaments, but as the three steps of shadow, image, and reality.” (Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press: San Francisco; 2000 , pp 50, 54).

And thus we pray with the psalmist, that we may yet participate in the true reality, forever with God....

Tomorrow, on  to the sixth penitential psalm, the De Profundis.  And for a last listen to Psalm 101, some Romanian chant.

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