Saturday, 10 March 2012

Psalm 118 Heth/3: On why our 'worship space' should be an isoceles triangle...

Continuing my Lenten series on Psalm 118, today a look at the last two verses of the Heth stanza.

Pie chart vs triangle?

I read, recently, a comment from a Mr Walsh attacking the New Liturgical Movement blog and attempting to justify the wreckovation and monstrosities of churches that arose out of the spirit of Vatican IIism.  The commenter suggested that "The geometric icon of the worship group should be that of a pie chart, not an isosceles triangle."

I have to say I haven't actually seen too many isosceles triangles in pre-Vatican II Church designs!  Still, the point he was trying to make, I suppose, was that the older style Church reflected a hierarchical theology where one looks up to an altar, rather than downwards into a central 'well' (as in some of our unfortunate new cathedrals and churches); where the sanctuary where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved was separated out from the rest of the Church; and where no one would ever stand around in a semi-circle around the altar 'table' as occurs in some modern monasteries.

Mr Walsh wants instead to have a "worship space expresses in design, and celebration the work of all in worship."

But does Scripture support this interesting reconceptualization of the nature of worship?  Does it ever suggest liturgy should be about 'celebrating the work of all' as opposed to celebrating the work of God for example!  I think not!

O God my portion...

In fact these verses of Psalm 118 set out quite clearly firstly the importance of the vertical dimension of our spiritual life: our relationship to God, who is ‘our portion’, our inheritance that we receive because of God's goodness and our obedience to his will.  Consider again the opening verse of the stanza in the RSV translation: 'The LORD is my portion; I promise to keep thy words'.

The subsequent verses deal with our response to his call: the psalmist talks about reflecting on our own past actions and beliefs, makes a renewed commitment to God, prays for the aid of grace.  The climax of the stanza, that I talked about yesterday, is his commitment to ‘rising’ even at the darkest times, when under attack from fierce enemies, to praise God steadfastly.

There is certainly a circular element to this (kind of like a pie chart!) but only that evildoers attempt to tie us up!

The last verses of the stanza, that I want to focus on today do however turn to the horizontal communion with other believers. But there is no piechart at work here!  Rather, we are joined together first and foremost through our relationship to God. 

We are partakers with those who fear God and keep his commandments

Here are the verses:

63 Particeps ego sum omnium timentium te, et custodientium mandata tua.
I am a partaker with all them that fear you, and that keep your commandments

64 Misericordia tua, Domine, plena est terra; justificationes tuas doce me.
The earth, O Lord, is full of your mercy: teach me your justifications.

Verse 63 is in effect a statement of the unity of the Church: we are not just a random collection of individuals, but rather joined in communion 'with all those who fear God'. 

Fear of the Lord is an important concept in Scripture, even if one out of favour with many in the Church today. Fortunately the newly released paper from the International Theological Commission provides some corrective points on this, noting that:

"In the Old Testament, the central message of wisdom theology appears three times: ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps 111:10; cf. Prov 1:7; 9:10). The basis of this motto is the insight of the sages of Israel that God’s wisdom is at work in creation and in history and that those who appreciate that will understand the meaning of the world and of events (cf. Prov 7ff., Wis 7ff.). ‘Fear of God’ is the right attitude in the presence of God (coram Deo). Wisdom is the art of understanding the world and of orientating one’s life in devotion to God…"(Theology today, 87)

But the key point to note here is that communion with other believers comes about not through horizontal “community building” activities, not through our 'exercize of ministry in community', and not through superficial conformity in external gestures or action, but is established by our faith in God.

It doesn’t matter, from this perspective, whether we are hearing Mass in the Mozarabic Rite, the Sarum, the Maronite, the Extraordinary Form or the Novus Ordo. It doesn’t matter whether we are ‘ministers’ or not.

All that matters is our shared faith and our shared commitment to obeying God, that we each, in ways appropriate to our state in life, 'rise' to praise God.

And the traditional understanding of what it means to be a 'partaker' refers, first and foremost to spiritual benefits.  As Haydock puts it “The true living members of Christ enjoy the great benefit of partaking in the prayers and good works of the whole Church militant and triumphant, in the communion of saints.”

The social life of a parish, and concrete activities are means of making the invisible bonds visible, flowing vertically from our relationship to God who must always come first, and then horizontally to love of neighbour.  Kind of like three points of a triangle really, with God at the top...

 And yet in reality, we stand not at different points of a triangle, but next to one another, part of the cloud of believers stretching down the generations.  And it is indeed on this note that the stanza ends, with a paen of praise for God’s mercy in offering redemption to us all, for his mercy that fills the earth even though we are but sinners.


57 Portio mea, Domine, dixi custodire legem tuam.
58 Deprecatus sum faciem tuam in toto corde meo; miserere mei secundum eloquium tuum. 59 Cogitavi vias meas, et converti pedes meos in testimonia tua.
60 Paratus sum, et non sum turbatus, ut custodiam mandata tua.
61 Funes peccatorum circumplexi sunt me, et legem tuam non sum oblitus.
62 Media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi, super judicia justificationis tuæ.
63 Particeps ego sum omnium timentium te, et custodientium mandata tua.
64 Misericordia tua, Domine, plena est terra; justificationes tuas doce me.

57 O Lord, my portion, I have said, I would keep your law.
58 I entreated your face with all my heart: have mercy on me according to your word.
59 I have thought on my ways: and turned my feet unto your testimonies.
60 I am ready, and am not troubled: that I may keep your commandments.
61 The cords of the wicked have encompassed me: but I have not forgotten your law.
62 I rose at midnight to give praise to you; for the judgments of your justification.
63 I am a partaker with all them that fear you, and that keep your commandments.
64 The earth, O Lord, is full of your mercy: teach me your justifications.

And don't forget that if you would like a more detailed commentary on these verses, particularly focused on understanding the Latin, you can find additional verse by verse notes over at my Psalms Blog.

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