AUGUST 18, 2002- 20th SUNDAY OF THE YEAR: CHAPTER

FOR YOU WILL NOT LEAVE MY SOUL IN THE NETHER WORLD, NOR WILL YOU GIVE YOUR HOLY ONE TO SEE CORRUPTION (Ps. 16.8).  This verse from the Psalter is quoted in the first re­corded Christian sermon, given by St. Peter following Pentecost.  It is one of five citations employed in this talk taken from the Book of Psalms.  The function of these texts is to serve as proofs showing that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament.   Prophecies of these events were made by the authors of the psalms as well as by the pro­phets whose words are also adduced in the course of his talk.  Thus the Psalter play­ed a pro­minent role in preaching from the very beginnings of the church; it was read primarily as a book of pro­phesy, not of praise and prayer. This was the function it served not only in its use by prea­chers, but also in the way it was employed in the liturgy. 

Prior to the end of the second century, the Psalter seems not to have been used to any large extent as prayer at the liturgy, as far as we can infer from the evidence that is preserved, but read in the same way as the prophetic books.  The Book of Psalms served to show that Jesus fulfilled utterances by the psalmists that were considered to be prophetic.  Their words indicate in advance his identity as God’s Son (Psalm 2), foretell his passion in certain detail, his violent death and his victorious resurrection. The prophet Isaiah, is important in providing prophetic interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ paschal mystery, is utilized for this purpose frequently; however, he is second to  the psalms in frequency of use  by New Testament authors.  

Moreover, as St. Paul makes clear in his letter to the Ephesians, the psalms were also used for worship in private prayer, and possibly, to some degree in the liturgy as well.  “...be filled with the Spirit, singing to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and chanting to the Lord in your heart (5: 18, 19).”   Paul in this connection is but following the example of Jesus who on the cross prayed to his Father with the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and who sang a hymn, possibly taken from the psalter, with his apostles just before he went to the garden of Gethsemani where his passion was about to begin (Mt 26: 30). 

Of all the Old Testament books The Psalter, in fact, is the book most frequently cited by New Testament authors.  Jesus himself quotes from the Psalms more than from any other of the inspired writings.  In addition to their prophetic function which is their dominant use, the psalms are cited in contexts that show they were also used in private prayer of various kinds- praise, petition and lamentation. This appears quite strikingly in the Magnificat and Benedictus Canticles both of which contain a number of phrases taken from psalms.   

We take it for granted that the Psalter provides the body of the Divine Office at each of the hours, and it does not seem strange to us that this is so, yet, attentive consideration suggests the situation of the primitive church made the use of the Psalter problematical, even contradictory to its mission. (cf. Balthasar Fischer, “Le Christ Dans Les Psaumes” La Maison-Dieu 27 (1951) p. 88, 89 for this and certain of the following views on early history of the Christian use of the psalter.). Contrary to common belief, the early Church did not take over the psalter as its prayer-book from the synagogue; there were serious obstacles of a theological kind as well as the fact of religious and social opposition by the Jews  to Christian belief and ways of life be over­come before this development could take place  The early Chris­tians were very conscious of having entered into a new and definitive covenant with God in accepting Jesus as his Son and envoy.  This fresh relationship, established by Jesus who gave the Eucharist as a sign and memorial of what he himself termed The New Covenant, abrogated the former Sinai Covenant. This took place, not through negation of the former covenant, but by fulfilling and perfecting its fundamental ten­dency, by  ethical holiness of life, and by forms of worship of the true God in spirit and truth.   However, the psalms were all written before Jesus’ birth and accordingly have no historical references to his person or work; only in so far as they are prophetic do the psalms speak of Christ.  None of the psalms has an overtly Christian content: none is ad­dressed directly to Jesus, still less to him as Lord and Son of the eternal Father, none depicts the historical Jesus as praying, or refers to his person as a mediator with the Father on behalf of his people.  

The psalms as prophecy were of great importance to the primitive church, then, but as time went on became even more widely employed in the devotional life of her members as well as in her public worship.  Jewish-Christians had at first continued to take part in the temple service, as we see from The Acts 3:1: “Peter and John went up to the temple together at the ninth hour of prayer”. They also remained for some time members of the synagogues where psalms were used in the liturgy, as we find was regularly the case for St. Paul and his companions. Accordingly, it was quite natural for their Jewish-Christian converts to continue to make use of the psalms as worship in the early days of the church.  Just how much or little the psalms were used in specifically Christian context remains somewhat obscure due to lack of known evidence, though it is likely they played some part in the prayer of the earliest assemblies.  We do know that Chris­tian hymns were written and used in public worship quite early, and used along with psalms even before St. Paul’s letters were written, for he cites some of them and urges the private use of psalms and hymns in their personal prayer, as I indicated above. 

Evidence that the psalms began to be used as the chief liturgical prayers offered by the faithful in public worship becomes more abundant around the year 200.  A major cause of this turn of events was the production of new hymns, written by heretical Gnostic Christians, that threatened to undermine the teachings inherited from the apostles.   This concern for orthodoxy is found very early; it appears already in the writings of Paul and is more prominent in the Epistles of John.  As unorthodox Gnos­tic writings became more widespread, concern for preserving the Deposit, as the apostolic teaching was called, intensified and led to a creative reaction. This response to a crisis took the form of the adoption of the Psalter as the Christian prayer book par excellence.  It took place during the second and third century, prior to the conversion of Constantine. Thus this imag­inative, positive manner of confronting a crisis was the achievement, not of the Church of the great fourth century Doctor Bishops, but of the harassed, persecuted Church of the Martyrs. 

This step was not merely a defensive reaction on the part of a threatened congregation, though it proved to be an effective defense in fact; rather, it was motivated by what Balthasar Fischer describes as “a powerful wave of love for the psalter (op. cit., 91).”  He finds that this attraction was due partially to the fact that the psalms are such profoundly human prayers.   This alone, however, would not have been enough to make the transition effected.  For that step to be taken there was a more powerful force at work: it was the conviction that this book was inspired by God himself, and that the God addressed in these psalms was the Father of the Lord Jesus.

In the psalms we pray to God in the words of God, as St. Augustine later expressed it. Included in this fundamental belief, and decisive for the development under consideration, was the conviction that the psalms not only contained passages that were prophesies concerning Christ, but that “the psalter as a whole is for the church a prophetic book, fulfilled in Christ (ibidem, 92).”   What this meant in practice is that every individual psalm, in one way or another, referred to Christ. It either spoke of Christ or to him, or Christ himself spoke in it.    

Obviously, this manner of understanding the psalms involved a radical transformation of the original conscious intent of the authors of these prayers.  This project of assigning Christological significance to the psalms was confidently undertaken by men who were guided by the Spirit Jesus gave to his church.  We find this re-reading of the psalms reported in the works of such writers as St. Justin, St. Irenaeus, Hippolytus, St. Cyprian and Origen.  The two principles enunciated and applied to the text during this process were stated in lapidary form: “The Psalm is the voice of Christ! The Psalm is the voice of the Church.”  Later, St. Augustine, with his unique gift for saying much in a few words, would reduce these to a single statement: “The psalm is the voice of the whole Christ, head and body.”   Actually this principle is applicable to about two thirds of the psalms which speak in direct address, using the second person.  For the other third, narrative that employ the third person, the text was considered to be “a voice about Christ”. 

This step was facilitated by the fact that the Septuagint translation used the word 5bD4@H (Lord) to render the Hebrew %&%* (Yahwe), a title that the primitive church applied to Christ. This appears in St. Peter’s powerful first sermon to the Jewish people after Pentecost: ‘Let the whole house of Israel know most certainly that God made this Jesus whom you crucified, Lord (5bD4@H) and Christ.’(Acts 2:36). That it was the Lord Jesus who had fulfilled the Scrip­tures was the basic conviction that inspired this fresh manner of reading the psalms and so led to the adoption of the psalter as the primary prayer of the Christian liturgy.  Once this new way of praying the psalms was given form and expression it met with a popular response of eager appreciation and quickly spread.  Soon it became firmly established in the practice of the various churches.   

Other developments assisted this adoption of the psalter as the basis for public Catholic worship.  St. Justin Martyr gave prominence to the activity of the Logos in his writing.  He affirmed that the same Logos, who of old had spoken through the prophets, now speaks in the words of Christ.  This teaching provided for an easy transition to the view that in the psalms it is the voice of Christ, who is the Logos made flesh, that speaks and prays.  Thus in Psalm 19, which speaks of the sun as an image of the law of God, was very early understood as referring to Christ. Psalm 23 that views Yahwe as a good shepherd and a generous host, was applied to the Lord Jesus and remained a popular prayer under this form down to present times.   

Still another factor that contributed to the acceptance of the psalter as a Christian prayer-book  was the increasing aware­ness of the implications of the Incarnation.  As the truth imposed itself upon the consciousness of the faithful that, since Jesus is divine in his person, he in all reality is equal to the Father, gratitude and affection for the person of Christ grew stronger in the hearts of many.   Consequently, there evolved particular devotions which further paved the way to praying the psalms in a Christological perspective.   Expressions of this affection directed to the person of Jesus are found in certain Sayings of the Fathers that, according to Hausherr, remind one of the ardent piety of St. Bernard.  Similar devotedness to Jesus found expression also in some of Origen’s Homilies.  Thus the adoption of the psalter as the basic Christian prayer book was greatly facilitated by a Christological perspective rooted in heart-felt devotion to the person of Christ.  It was not an imposition by authority but a growth under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful. 

By the fourth century, we find that for the generality of believers the psalter was the most popular book of the Bible, including the New Testament.   St. Basil’s comments witnesses to this fact in a passage that reflects his pastoral experience. 

Due to indolence, hardly one of the multitude ever departs (from the liturgy) remembering any precepts from the apostle or the prophets, but the words of the psalms are sung at home and carried about in the public square (Homilia in Psal­mum 1.1 PL 29: 212C).  

Once the psalms were established as such a prominent part of the worship of the assembly, the more learn­ed pastors of the church devoted their efforts to explaining their significance.  As a result there are extant a large number of commentaries written on psalms, some of which treat of selections from the psalter, others comment on the whole of the book. In the West the most influential work of this kind was St. Augustine’s Ennarationes in Psalmos. This commentary, which was composed in the form of an extensive series of homilies to be  preached to the people, had a mark­ed influence on the formation of monks in the middle ages especially.   The early Cistercians made it one of their more popular sources for meditation and study.  Its teach­ings were incorporated into monastic spirituality and oriented the way monks pray­ed the psalter.  The work is conceived from a Christologi­cal perspective,  and its theology is summed up in following passage. 

God could give men no greater gift than that he should make his Word through whom he created all things to be their head, and so adapt them to him as his mem­bers.  He did this in such a way that the Son of God is also the son of man, one God with the Father, one man with men.  Thus it happens that when we beseech God in prayer we do not separate the Son from him, and when the body of the Son prays it does not separate the head from itself.    And so our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,  is the one savior himself of his body who both prays for us, and prays in us and is prayed to by us.  He prays for us as our priest; he prays in us as our head, he is prayed to by us as our God.   Let us accordingly acknowledge in him our voces and his voice in us (In Psalmum LXXXV.1 PL 37: 1081). 

In his comments on a number of psalms and with a variety of formulas he brings out this same basic teaching.  His opening sentence on the first verse of the first psalm serves, as does this psalm itself, as an introduction to the Book of the Psalter­.

“Blessed is the man who does not stray in the council of the impious”: This is to be understood to refer to our Lord Jesus Christ, that is to the Lord man “Domini­cus homo” (PL 36: 67). 

“Domini­cus homo” became a technical phrase in Augustine’s vocabulary which signifies that the Jesus is at the same time man and the second person of the Trinity.  In another of these homilies  he sets forth in a statement memorable for its concise completeness, the basic theological principle that directs his interpretation.

This psalm is spoken in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, both head and members.  He is the head, we are the members.  Not without good reason then, his voice is ours and our voice is also his. Let us therefore listen to this psalm and recognize in it the voice of Christ. 

His vision is a sweeping one that includes all those who belong to Christ, not only those of his time, but through the ages, past and future.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, for I cry to you every day”, not one day. “Every day” I take to mean all time, beginning with the time that the body of Christ first groan­ed from sufferings to the end of the world when suffering will pass away this man groans and cries out to God.  Each one of us has his cry proportionately in that whole body.  You have cried out in your days, and your days have passed away, another succeeds to you and he cried out in his days.  You here, he there, another elsewhere, the body of Christ cries out every day, with its members dying and succeeding to itself.  One man is extended to the end of the world; the same members of Christ cry out, and some members rest in him, certain others cry out at present, others still will cry out when we ourselves will have rested ; finally, others will cry out after these.  This man hears the voice of the whole body of Christ saying “To you I have cried out every day” (Ennarationes In  Psalmos, 85.5 PL 37: 1085).

Because of his theological vision and the conviction he brings to bear in applying this exegetical principle to the text of the psalms, Augustine’s commentary remains today one of the eminently readable and practical approaches to praying the psalms.  His focus on the personal relationship between the Lord and all those who belong to him in faith and by grace and desire renders his treatise an appealing invitation to enter into this grand movement of prayer and praise united with all those who have gone before us and with those who pray with us throughout the world.  In praying the psalms as members of Christ, we join ourselves to our Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph, the apostles, St. Augustine himself, Saints Benedict and Bernard among others, all of whom prayed in these same words and grew in the love of Christ in doing so.  May our praying of the psalms then prove no less effective than it prov­ed to be for these saints of God as we make them our own by faith and desire as we use them to praise and thank the Lord for his good­ness to us and to all his children every­where.+

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger


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