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‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah’ (Psalm 94)

27 May 2020

To use the Psalms wisely

Fr Robin is a priest of the byzantine rite, Greek-Catholic Melkite Church. An academic theologian for many years, he is a Senior Member of Regents Park College at Oxford, an Honorary Ecumenical Canon of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, and Ecumenical and International Canon of All Saints Cathedral and Diocese, Edmonton, Canada.

‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah’ (Psalm 94)

SETTING THE SCENE: COVID-19

When I began this reflection on the use of the psalms, mainly as something one can utilize for prayer and preaching, or even prayerful preaching, we had not entered this extraordinary period of a Pandemic brought on by Covid-19. As I write we are still in the midst of it, praying for a vaccine and an ending to perhaps the most disturbing period of any of our lives. Nevertheless, it has also brought out of our mental and emotional cupboards, deep spiritual resources which perhaps we had neglected or forgotten. The enforced periods of lockdown mean that we firstly rely on things we already know and understand, before secondly venturing into new areas of faith exploration. That living tradition of the Christian Church, the lex orandi, the ways of prayer, (private and liturgical) have been blown into a bright flame by the Spirit, who is working out with all of us a new change of direction, as yet unclear, unmapped! Into this world, the psalms themselves have a particular voice to speak to us!

 

A PARTICULAR CONTEXT FOR A PSALM

To have, as has happened already, no open church building, no services, no congregational gatherings except for funerals, and then only ten people usually gathered outside at the grave, has meant a huge and seismic shock to the pattern of our faith communities lives. It is true that clergy and parishes have been busy setting up virtual ‘church’ in the sense of Zoom, Face Time, Skype and other initiatives, yet most of us seem hide bound on replicating what we have already.

What has caught my attention and is very germane to my title, is that only relatively few of these attempts have created patterns of prayer and worship which try to utilise the psalms in ways that revitalize our common and private faith-prayer life. For instance, I find it a very powerful witness that monastic communities have at this time quite often kept their daily offices going, yes, following social distancing in choir, their diet of psalmody making a very vibrant gift via a camera to those of us holed up in our homes. It is also noticeable that overall, homilies are far shorter and for that more powerful with this type of media, not only because they are starting to feed in and out of the experience of fear, suffering, aloneness, that we all now share, but also there are particular time constraints that does not require long speech or clergy rambling off the point!

 

RETURN TO THE SOURCE

Somewhere in all this is a real call to return to the sources, and that is where I find that the psalms are so powerful for each of us. Why? Perhaps the ancient tradition of using them in various ways might help here. If we take that traditional morning psalm 94/95, it starts in this manner:

‘Come, let us ring out our joy to the Lord:

Hail the rock who saves us,

Let us come into his presence, giving thanks,

Let us hail him with a song of praise.’

(Ps 94/95 :1-2)

Without over expression this poetic phrase encapsulates a whole approach to the beginning of any day, and though we might not fully understand the immediate meaning of words like ‘ring’, the cadence and the poetry cut across our own ways of speaking to give us a focused common prayer, intuitively we ‘come’ into prayer with the meaning. This is later reinforced by the use of other terms like ‘rock’ and ‘presence’, we instinctively know this is a psalm of invitation; ‘come’, to meet the Lord in whom we place our trust. The second set of verses reinforces this, God is ‘mighty’, ‘a great king above all gods’, he holds ‘the depths in his hands’, the ‘mountains’ belong to him as does the ‘sea’ and ‘dry land’, laid bare before us is a panorama of creation in a few brush strokes of imagery. But, true to form, after being called to worship we are also reminded of what we need to do in order to change our everyday life for the Common Good and not to put God to the test, as we are told that this, in the end, doesn’t work!

‘O that today you would listen to his voice

Harden not your hearts as at Meribah,

as on that day at Massah in the desert

When your ancestors put me to the test;

when they tried me, though they saw my work.’ (Ps 95/94 vv8-9)

Here there is a strong sense of the biblical tradition of deep communion across the ages, our ancestors in faith are those at Meribah and Massah, and as we sing or recite this psalm that connecting moment of prayer, anamnesis, remembering, puts us back in touch with what originally happened so that we then find we become like them. Our identification is complete as the two voices, the narrator and the voice of God draw us into the psalm, and we respond accordingly. To show that not every psalm of praise runs in the same way, this one ends on a discordant note, God loathes ‘that generation,’ whose ‘hearts are astray,’ who did not ‘know my ways.’. ‘They shall not enter my rest.’ Even after many years of singing this as the Invitatory Psalm of Vigils, that opening ‘Come ring out our joy’ still evokes a powerful resonance in me, but it also allows a formal spiritual dialogue internally, who is this God? How does this affect me, what is it saying to me?

Why do I mention all this, simply to make direct links? There is much more. I was trained in monastic life, so the psalms were a daily diet of prayer and also reflection that emerged in curious ways. A deep soaking in them has influenced me greatly and also my own way of preaching, as they become more and more familiar we can own them, not necessarily as a total psalm, although some are eminently suitable, like Psalm 22/23, The Lord is my Shepherd, but rather in phrases that connect us to something going on. For example, in recent days as I have wandered in our fields for the daily exercise walk, images like this phrase,

‘Fresh and green are the pastures

where he gives me repose.

Near restful waters he leads me;

He revives my soul’ (Ps 22/23 vv2,3)

became slight mantra in my head, almost a walking lectio divina, pondering on them so as to let the familiar words speak, as I saw river, sheep and fields appear beside me. The appearance of deer down by the old mill pool at another time brought to mind psalm 41/42:

‘Like the deer that yearns

for running streams,

so my soul is yearning

for you, my God.’ (Ps 42/42 vv1,2)

This is a way of ruminating in a prayer form that enters the mind and soul, and by repetitious use becomes part of our own spiritual vocabulary, this is something we can and should be doing to help congregations, directees and individuals to ‘enjoy’ and use, for the whole range of the psalms takes us into every situation we can imagine, joy and sorrow, anger and despair, whilst it also gives us permission to let go as a community or an individual before God and learn through the different voices to hear God’s eternal response given us through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I also sense that the reintroduction of different ways of encountering them, such as the `Responsorial Psalm’ between first and second reading at the Sunday and Weekday Eucharist, and attempts to provide a more Cathedral Office for parishes, where the psalms are attuned to the time of day or festival rather than simply done in rotation, has opened them out to a wider audience. Learning to use them in different ways, said or sung, is important too, some are responsorial, others solo, yet again some are acclamatory or a two-voice conversation, all this is there for our use.

 

PSALM TYPES: THE EXODUS STORY

How then can the psalms fit into our faith and worship? Several suggestions have already been made, but we also need to understand their place as a component of worship. That they have been a constant feature of Jewish and Christian prayer is self-evident, our liturgical books show us plenty of evidence for their use. In the history of Christianity, we know for instance that before the monastic tradition started to use the 150 psalms in a constant round of prayer, the early community had begun to pick out textual psalms appropriate for certain events, in this they had the Temple tradition of music to fall back on, as well as the more intimate use of the psalms in Synagogue prayer. The very directions we find at the beginning of certain psalms tells us in what way or festival they were sung, for example Psalm 38/39, For the choirmaster For Jeduthon Psalm Of David or Psalm 99/100 Psalm For Thanksgiving. The psalms of Ascents, (Ps 120-134, Gk 119-133) seem to have been used by pilgrims going to Jerusalem, snatches of songs with lively imagery and a rather uneven rhythm, contrast these with the great litany of praise; Psalm 135/136 which begins with the triumphant acclamation and its response:

‘O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,

for his mercy endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of Gods,

For his mercy endures forever.

Give thanks to the Lord of Lords,

For his mercy endures for ever.’ (Ps 135/136 vv 1-3)

Whilst their full use in antiquity isn’t always totally clear, looking at them we note that they fall into several clear types:

  1. Communal laments, where the group is formulating a response to disaster towards God, these can contain the so called ‘cursing’ psalms, raw and angry explosions at the most High or some defined enemy, but they also have many examples of protestation of innocence amongst other different elements. Whilst these might seem barbaric or revolting to modern sensibilities, such as psalm 108/109

    ‘Let his children be fatherless orphans,

    and his wife become a widow’ (Ps 108/109 v9)

    or the various imprecations of psalm 68/69 which spills out of a litany of distress when the psalmist is faced with a barrage of falsehoods and taunts resulting in a series of very vengeful utterances; they all end up in an expression of confidence in God. Isn’t this true self-understanding in a very safe space?

  2. The Hymn type, easily identifiable songs of praise for God or for the wonders of creation, or of specific acts in history, you can hear this in Psalm125/126 which is a song of joy;

    ‘Then was our mouth filled with laughter,

    On our tongues, songs of joy’ (Ps 125/126 v2)

    These lend themselves to song and are often set to very beautiful tones especially in contemporary settings.

  3. There are the ten Royal Psalms which refer to a King, never by name and rather obscure as to their use, although they may have a ritual element, for occasionally God is linked to the status of Kingship, this again isn’t clear; in historical terms it may have been to do with a restoration liturgy or some ceremony reinstating God as sovereign over the nation, often this is explicit as in; ‘I will extol you, my God and King,(Ps 144.145 v1).
  4. The individual thanksgiving psalms are mirrored by the most common type of all, the lament psalms either individually or communally, intended to express empathy for people suffering as a result of great loss.

Both these types explore in simple, direct, images and references, personal (or national) positive or negative experiences which lay bare our inner thoughts, so that we can make them our own in linking to them, a good example being psalm 101/102;

‘O lord, hear my prayer,

And let my cry come to you.

Do not hide your face from me

In the day of my distress.’ (Ps 101/102 vv1,2)

All of these psalm types have subdivisions, so that one psalm may hold several components together or move from one situation to another, but my point is that the compass of them is both broad and deep, that it seems, is why they are so attractive for us, poetry that speaks to so many inner and external events we can relate to.

But why did I put Exodus as a header? That is because of both the time and the nature of this pandemic, it erupted into European life as the Christian season of Lent began and comes to an apex of ferocity for many countries, just as Passover and Pascha are being celebrated. There is a grim link with the Exodus story of Israel, as we all find ourselves in an exilic moment, we too fear that angel of death which has passed through our communities, as now we too are being led out in trust and faith into a world that cannot return to what it was before this all began.

The whole story of Exodus and of Christ’s passion and death is being lived out in the here and now, somehow into all this verses and words from the psalms themselves have brought a clarity into our world of confused prayer, particularly where people are too stunned to find adequate words themselves. At a time like this, the real homily is laid bare before us on the TV and Radio, in the variety of media and the briefings of leaders, so that we have little need of sermons that try to be clever or suggest this is all God’s punishment, attractive as that may seem to some, instead the psalms provide for us one particular antidote, a safety valve of 150parts which allows expressions of anger, confusion, hate, all the rawness of fear and grief but manages to pull us back to where we eventually must be, forgiveness, compassion, trust with God.

THE PSALMS CAN CHANGE US!

Pope Francis in a dramatic service on Friday 27th March 2020, shared by the world’s media, in which he and one or two others remained alone in the vastness of the colonnade of Saint Peters basilica, blessed the world in what is known as Urbi et Orbi ,but before that he shared this meditation: ‘Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak, and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: ‘Do not be afraid’ (Mt.28:5). And we, together with Peter, ‘cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us’’ (cf. 1 Peter 5:7). That was his prayer, how then do we respond? I suggest that as ever a route into the psalms may give us the rungs on the ladder of hope; to the question, how do we respond to ‘do not be afraid’, an answer comes:

‘I trusted, even when I said,

“I am sorely afflicted,”

And when I said in my alarm,

“No one can be trusted.” (Ps 114:10-11/116b:vv10, 11)

There are many ways we can utilise this magnificent tradition of prayer, they repay our use of them as prayer forms, as homilies, as songs, as expressions of our own, our entering into their spiritual journey, our repetition of their cadences. In homiletics an exposition of a psalm can go a long way, but in one sense they have their own way of life, we have just to step into them and make them our own, they have that spiritual power to change us!

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