O LORD OUR GOD, HOW ADMIRABLE IS YOUR NAME IN ALL THE EARTH! (Psalm 8.1) This Psalm, which we often sing on feast days and regularly on Saturday at Lauds, deserves our attention for a number of reasons that will appear in the course of this commentary. For one thing, it well illustrates the themes from our last three chapter talks which treated of the beauty of God, the elusive God who is at once hidden and yet manifests himself, and the role of Christ in awakening us to a higher life and by implication the process of conversion.
We have the assurance of inspired Scripture that this psalm is Christological. It is so interpreted by the Epistle to the Hebrews as well as by St. Paul who cites it in his First Epistle to the Corinthians and in Ephesians. Moreover, it is referred to by our Lord himself more than once in ways that indicate he himself viewed it as having reference to his own person and his teaching. The Catholic tradition, following the lead of these New Testament authors as well as Jesus himself, continued the practice of the apostolic Church by praying this Psalm as referring to Christ. We can infer this from a number of ancient Latin manuscripts of the Psalter. These texts, some of which date back to the 800's, others to somewhat later centuries, conserve titles inscribed by editors at the head of this Psalm that indicate that this Psalm was considered to refer to Christ. It was in this perspective it was prayed by the faithful over a period of centuries. One of these titles reads: "That the Son of man himself was made a little less than the angels in his passion." Another refers to the Incarnation rather than to the Passion as such: "The Church singing the praise and majesty of the Lord Christ states that his human nature grew to the heights of great things (Pierre Salmon, Les "Tituli Psalmorum" des Manuscrits Latins, Rome 1959, pp. 138, 155)."
However, the original author would seem to have had no conscious intimation that his work would be read as a prophecy of the coming Savior. He was aware of writing a hymn celebrating God's magnificence as manifested in the starry heavens of the Eastern night. This profound religious sense of awe led him to worship the living God. He does not go through a process of analysis and reasoning to conclude that God exists; to him that is obvious, as it remained through the centuries to persons who were guided by religious and poetic insight. This remained the case even in the periods when rationalism became the fashion and secularism dominated much of society, especially the intelligentsia. As science itself becomes more attuned to the mystery of reality at the sub-atomic level and discovers unexpected complexity in the vast spaces of the cosmos it becomes more accepting of mystery and so more open to belief in the living creator, as the increasing number of believing modern scientists and philosophers attest.
Many poets and mystics, in marked contrast with a majority of scientists and philosophers, celebrate the glory of God manifestly disclosed to them in the night skies. Their reaction is well summarized by Alfred de Musset who exclaims: "this beautiful heaven so pure that it causes belief in God." He is but one of a long series of poets who, like Larigaudie, see proof of God's existence in the night skies: "And how can man doubt about you , under the stars?" More celebrated is the poetic work Charles Péguy, who wrote in the first part of the 20th century. He is even more emphatic as he puts the following words in the mouth of God: "I burst forth so greatly in my creation,/ That these poor people would have to be blind not to see me (cf. "La Porche ...de la deuxième Vertu (cf. for these citations Louis Jacquet, Les Psaumes et le coeur de l'homme' Ducoulot 1975, 309, 311, 314)."
There is a second theme, the littleness and the greatness of man, that suddenly arose in the mind of the psalmist in the wake of the overwhelming experience of God's grandeur in nature. As a consequence of his contemplation of God's surpassing glory displayed in the heavens, he was struck by the sense of his own insignificance and that of every human creature. This sense of smallness he expressed in the exclamation: "What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you visit him?" This sentiment too has been expressed repeatedly by the contemplatives and great poets through the ages as they considered nature as manifesting so forcibly the God hidden in his creation. Few have stated it as well as Blaise Paschal in his "Pensées."
Let man contemplate then nature in its entirety, in its high and full majesty. Let him regard this brilliant light place like an eternal lamp to enlighten the universe, let earth appear to him like a point at the price of the vast turn described by this star, and let him marvel that this vast turn itself is only a very delicate point in regard to that which the stars, which circle in the firmament, embrace.... What is a man in this infinitude (cited in Jacquet, op. cit., 315)?"
One of the greatest French poets, Lamartine (1790-1869) captured this same sentiment in his Hymn to the Night:
And I, God of the suns, what am I to praise you?/Atom in the immensity, minute in eternity,/ Shadow that passes ceases to be,/ Can you hear me without a prodigy?/ Ah! The prodigy is your goodness (ibidem).
Why should the God whose great beauty and power gave life and lovely form to his creation occupy himself with this infinitesimal creature of earth? This question has been agitated since the time of the Greek philosophers. It remains at the heart of the modern exploration of the space for it implicitly includes the question of man's place in the cosmos. Is there some planet besides earth where there is intelligent life? Are there other beings capable of knowing, acknowledging and loving the Creator? Or is this planet, Earth, the only site of such praise? There seems to be no a priori theological objection to the possibility that there are other such worlds as the one we know. On the other hand, I believe there is reason to maintain that the earth, while physically a mere particle in the immensity of space, is, spiritually speaking, the center of creation. This view is based on the fact of the Incarnation of the Word of God. Having taken place in a particular locality on this earth of ours, this transcendent event by which the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity takes to himself our human nature in an indissoluble union so that God is truly man, and man now lives and reigns as God in the person of the glorified Christ, makes of the earth the definitive spiritual center of creation. Which of these alternate views is correct will remain an open question; perhaps it is, in the nature of the case, incapable of an answer. It seems unlikely that science will ever be able to say definitively that there is no intelligent life anywhere in the cosmos save on earth. A great deal of imagination has been expended to give expression to possible forms that such life might assume. While some scientists maintain the existence of intelligent creatures is statistically probable, I believe that I am not alone in remaining highly skeptical that such life does in fact exist in the material universe. In any case, no evidence has so far emerged to support it, though radio telescopes are deployed in an effort to capture any signals that might point to such creatures. That this Psalm suggests such questions as this is an additional reason why it remains an eloquent expression of praise and worship for modern believers.
Whereas the author of Psalm 8 extols the greatness of man to whom God has given dominion over all material creation and the living creatures of earth, the preacher of the Epistle to the Hebrews employs this same text to make the opposite point, namely that Jesus, who, higher than the angels by nature being God, was, for a brief time, made less than these pure spirits and was humbled as man. He temporarily took upon himself suffering and humiliation so as to redeem man from slavery and re-establish him in the proper relation to God: "We see Jesus for a short while made lower than the angels because of the suffering of death, then crowned with glory and honor, so that he might taste death by the grace of God on behalf of all (Hebrews 2: 9)." St. Paul views the case similarly, summarizing the meaning of Jesus' suffering as the victory over all that resists God's rule: "And he seated him at his right hand in heavenly places above all rulers and powers... and he subjected all things under his feet. (Ephesians 1: 20...22)." In another context, he makes explicit that death itself is included in this subjection: "It is fitting that he should rule until he subjects all enemies under his feet; death is the last enemy that he annihilates. For he has subjected all things under his feet."
This psalm, when viewed as a prophecy of the passion and death of Jesus, occupies a key place in the whole argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews. For it moves from the exaltation of the Son in heaven to the suffering and lowliness of his death on earth, raising the whole question of the role of the mystery of Christ's suffering in the plan of redemption. The use made of Psalm 8 here is the beginning of a lengthy explanation of the issues associated with Christ's humiliation and so is a turning point in the plan of this Epistle as Thomas Long indicates (cf. his commentary, "Hebrews", p. 34.. 37 for this and the following.). The author previously used for his argument Old Testament texts that referred to some particular feature of Christ's experience; but this Psalm supplies him with an argument that encloses the whole of the Lord's redemptive trajectory. . A further function of this use of the Psalm is to raise the issue of faith which is a major topic of this Epistle. While the Psalm speaks of Christ having all subject to him, yet the world as we see it with our physical eyes does not bear out this claim. Only by faith can we see all things as subject to God's plan in Christ.
In order to see the connection with the person of Jesus, much depends on the translation here This is made more evident as we can discover from a recent English version that, avoiding gender specific language, substitutes "human beings" for "man"," ;mortals" for " ;son of man" ;, and "their" for "his". These expressions are interpretations which obfuscate the literal basis for the application to the man Jesus made by several important texts of inspired Scripture. In fact, in one translation I reviewed it is significant that while the psalm itself is translated with these tendentious paraphrases it was found necessary to translate the same words of this text as cited by the author of Hebrews literally with "man" and "son of man" in order to make any sense of the use employed by this Epistle.
The first and last lines of this Psalm contain a reference to the name of God: "O Lord our God, how admirable is your name in all the earth." In this way it introduces one of the topics that has such a strong resonance for the prayer of Christians and Jews through the ages. The name of God in the Jewish tradition plays a central role in worship and prayer. Christians took over this usage and developed a theology of the name of Jesus and its role in prayer and worship that continues to be fundamental to the spirituality of prayer. This opens a vast topic, in fact, which we can explore on some subsequent occasion. For now, it suffices to observe that here "the name" stands for what we would call today "the person" of God. At the time this Psalm was written, and throughout the Biblical period, the concept of "person" had not found any distinct expression. The term, as we understand it, is not found in the New or the Old Testament. It came to a clear and distinct formulation only in the course of the Christological discussions in connection with the refutation of heresies, as the Church sought better to grasp the implications of the Incarnation. The one person of Christ unites the two natures in which he subsists.
The " ;name of God" ; was, practically speaking, a circumlocution employed out of reverence for the divinity. To believers with a strong sense of piety it seemed a lack of respect and presumptuous to make free use of the term "God". For the name reveals something of the essence and character when used of God and should always be treated with regard. Even to employ the wprd " ;God" ; in direct address struck some as showing a certain lack of sensitivity for his holiness. And so "the name of God" commonly was used when speaking directly to God or about God to others to express a particular reverence. Other terms employed in the same way at times were "the face of God", "the angel of God", or "the glory of God."
Used at the beginning and end of this Psalm this expression displays a deep sense of awe and is used to convey the impression of God's surpassing holiness as he speaks directly to God in his hymn of praise for his majesty. St. Benedict was imbued with this same sense of the profound reverence due to God and repeatedly seeks to inspire his disciples with this attitude. He encourages us to take particular care to show reverence to God at the time of the office by our attention, by the gestures and the corporal attitudes we assume when present in choir. In a particular way he urges us to say the prayer of praise at the end of each psalm, the "Glory be to the Father and to the Son And to the Holy Spirit" with reverent attention. If we thus address God in our prayer, we shall be more apt to discover his awesome presence in man and in nature, as did the Psalmist in this Hymn of praise to the majesty of God, and so better able to give him glory by the way we treat one another with regard, and by respectfully making use of the tools and machinery of the monastery. Then, in the words of Benedict, we shall so live "that in all things God may be glorified."
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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