Thursday, 15 March 2012

Psalm 118 (119) Lamed: On reading the signs of the times

The central verse of today’s stanza of Psalm 118 in this Lenten series, Lamed, is, I think, verse 94:

94 Tuus sum ego; salvum me fac: quoniam justificationes tuas exquisivi.
I am yours, save me: for I have sought your justifications.

Pope Benedict XVI has commented on this verse (in a speech to the Synod on Scripture) that:

"The Word of God is like a stairway that we can go up and, with Christ, even descend into the depths of His love. It is a stairway to reach the Word in the words. “I am yours”.

How, specifically does God show us that stairway?  Cassiodorus’ commentary on the stanza gives us a little lesson on God's testimonies or justifications as ‘reading the signs of the times’ that I think is worth reflecting on.

Reading the signs of the times

Reading the signs of the times is one of those expressions popularized by the 'aggorniamento' (updating) school of spirit of Vatican IIism, used to justify changing anything and everything about the way the Church is structured and operates.

The Wikipedia entry on the term claims that it “dropped out of use in the 1970s”. If only!

In fact it still pops up quite frequently, including in the writings of more than one Australian bishop!  So it is worth pondering its real meaning.

God is eternal and unchanging; his law endures

The second half of Psalm 118 (for we have reached the twelfth stanza of the twenty-two), Lamed, starts with a restatement of some of the attributes of God, namely that he is eternal, unchanging, our creator, and our sustainer (verses 89-91).

It then sets out man’s relationship to God as his creatures, saying: for all things serve you.

Yet despite the immutable nature of God’s law and the psalmists commitment to it, despite the fact that by definition we are God’s he still has to assert that he belongs to God, 'I am yours', and plead for salvation, 'save me' (verse 94): for God has given man free will, and set the means for us to test our decision for or against him in this world in the form of those lying in wait to tempt us to fall (verse 95).

What saves us, the speaker asserts, is our 'memory' of and meditation on God’s ‘justifications’, or testimonies (in the Septuagint the word used in verse 95 is marturia, from which the word martyr is derived).

The signs, or 'testimonies' God gives us

What then are these ‘justifications’ or testimonies?

Cassiodorus argues that God's justifications are the signs of the times in the form of those events that point us towards salvation:

“...justifications are the understanding of the signs to come through events in time; the slaying of the spotless lamb at the Pasch, the journey to salvation afforded by the Red Sea, the gaining of the promised land by the people led in by Joshua. It is clear that all these events offered indications of the perfection to come. So we must not in any way forget these justifications, which afforded us the initial bases of our faith; for no-one can acknowledge the favour of a gift unless he recalls how events were seen to have their beginning.”

The signs of the times, then are arguably not, as some would have us believe, what we can learn from the secular world in the positive sense.  Rather, they are God’s providential actions in history that recall us to the correct path and direct us to his promise of salvation: natural events that remind us that God controls things not us, and that he punishes as well as rewards; the consequences of immoral laws such as no fault divorce that we constantly see exposed around us; and the persecution of the good that remains a constant in so many societies around the world that are antagonistic to Christianity.

In the New Testament (Lk 11:29), Our Lord tells ‘an evil generation’ seeking a sign that the only one they shall be given is that of Jonah, usually interpreted as the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. In this psalm too, we are reminded that God’s truth endures from generation to generation for those with the eyes to see it.   We too, should heed the message of that St Luke records from Our Lord’s discussion of ‘the signs of the times’:

"The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Lk 11:32)."

Pope Benedict's comments on the verse 'I am yours', quoted above, continue:

"The word has a face, it is a person, Christ. Before we can say “I am yours”, He has already told us “I am yours”. The Letter to the Hebrews, quoting Psalm 39, says: “You gave me a body… Then I said, ‘Here I am, I am coming’”. The Lord prepared a body to come. With His incarnation He said: I am yours. And in baptism He said to me: I am yours. In the Holy Eucharist, He always repeats this: I am yours, so that we may answer: Lord, I am yours. In the path of the Word, entering the mystery of his incarnation, of His being among us, we wish to appropriate His being, expropriate our existence, giving ourselves to Him, He who gave Himself to us."

This is indeed the message of the final verse of this stanza, which concludes with a vision of the consummation of all, that is, Christ:

Omnis consummationis vidi finem, latum mandatum tuum nimis.
I have seen an end of all perfection: your commandment is exceeding broad


89 In æternum, Domine, verbum tuum permanet in cælo.
Forever, O Lord, your word stands firm in heaven

90 In generationem et generationem veritas tua; fundasti terram, et permanet.
Your truth unto all generations: you have founded the earth, and it continues.

91 Ordinatione tua perseverat dies, quoniam omnia serviunt tibi.
By your ordinance the day goes on: for all things serve you.

92 Nisi quod lex tua meditatio mea est, tunc forte periissem in humilitate mea.
Unless your law had been my meditation, I had then perhaps perished in my abjection

93 In æternum non obliviscar justificationes tuas, quia in ipsis vivificasti me.
Your justifications I will never forget: for by them you have given me life.

94 Tuus sum ego; salvum me fac: quoniam justificationes tuas exquisivi.
I am yours, save me: for I have sought your justifications.

95 Me exspectaverunt peccatores ut perderent me; testimonia tua intellexi.
The wicked have waited for me to destroy me: but I have understood your testimonies.

96 Omnis consummationis vidi finem, latum mandatum tuum nimis.
I have seen an end of all perfection: your commandment is exceeding broad.

As usual, you can find additional verse by verse notes over at my Psallam Domino blog.

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