The poems contained in this book might better be called "Gods Songs" than Psalms. For if we think of them as the songs which God Himself composed for His people of all times and places to sing to Him, we have a much more accurate idea of what the Psalms really are than if we think of them as a collection of hymns written hundreds of years ago in a strange language. And, if we think of them as the songs given by God to His people, it is obvious that they must be more pleasing to Him, more beautiful, useful and satisfying to us, than any prayers [people] could compose by themselves.
If we were to find a book containing the very prayers that Our Lord Himself used during His life on earth, we should certainly begin at once to study those prayers with the most intense interest, to pray them with the most reverent attention. [Emphasis added.] What wonderful prayers they would be, to have been worthy of His voice, of His imagination, of His mind! But in the book of Psalms we actually do possess Our Lord's Own prayers: [Emphasis added.] the prayers that He said with His Mother and St. Joseph every morning, every night, every meal-time, every feast day during all the years of His hidden life, the prayers that He said with His Apostles during His public life, and at the Last Supper, the prayers that He quoted oftener than any other book of the Old Testament, the prayers that came to His lips on the Cross.
Or, again, if some scholar were to discover "Our Lady's Prayer-book," every Christian would want to have it published, so that he could own and use it. What a privilege it would be to study and pray the very prayers that Our Lady herself knew and loved, that she taught to her Divine Child, that she recited with Him and St. Joseph, that she prayed to Him all her years on earth after the Ascension. But whenever we pray the Psalms, we actually do enjoy this privilege; the Psalms were indeed Our Lady's prayer-book. And the glorious prayer of her own composing, the Magnificat, is itself a proof of how well she knew the Psalms and had made them her own, for their whole essence is summed up in this song of hers.
Or if someone were to assemble in one book the favorite prayers of all our favorite saints--of St. Joseph, St. Peter, St. Anthony, St. Therese--how popular such a book would be. But when we pray the Psalms, we are actually praying the favorite prayers of all these saints, prayers that they used and loved far more than prayers that may be called by their names.
Prayers given us by God, used by our Lord, by His Mother and all His saints, the Psalms are all this; and yet many of us, alas, were not brought up to have them in our hearts and on our lips, to know and use even some of them next to the Our Father and the Hail Mary. For while the Psalms have continued to be the main substance of the official prayer of the Church all through the centuries [i.e. the liturgy of the Hours], popular piety during the last few hundred years has certainly used the Psalms less and less with each succeeding generation. But the tide has now turned, thank God, and more and more lay people today, as well as priests and religious, are coming to know and love and use the Psalms as their own prayers.
And it is perhaps, at least in part, those very qualities of the Psalms which were responsible for their unpopularity during the last few generations which are now responsible for their great appeal to those who discover them afresh today. For the Psalms ... do not give the reader a warm glow of pleasant emotion, nor a comfortable sense of satisfaction with the way things are going with himself and the world. They do not bear out any notions he might have that progress is inevitably taking place with no effort on his part, or that "every day in every way things are growing better and better." Rather, the Psalms are strong, violent, [and] beautiful...; they describe things as they are, and they show us how things ought to be without any possible confusion...
In other words, the Psalms are realistic, realistic with God's Own realism. They present life as a struggle, not an armchair meditation; as a battle, not a tidy exhibition game. If we pray them consistently, they will not leave us unaware of any aspect of reality which we should hold in our consciousness as mature Christians, members of sinful and suffering humanity and also members of Christ, called to cooperate in His redeeming work. The Psalms will not let us ignore any part of God's plan for mankind; they will not allow us to be little or shallow-minded; they will not let us remain frivolous or lazy or self-centered. They will, instead, train us for real and Christian living in a real and unchristian world.
And the Psalms will also give us that training in true Christian hope which we all need, and now know that we need. Our special temptation today is not so much to shallow optimism as to despair. And if our piety has been that unawakened and childish kind which believes that God has promised to make every-thing go smoothly for us if we try to be good, then this temptation to despair will find us an easy prey. But the Psalms will help to lead us out of such immature piety into a real Christ-like trust in God's real Plan and real Providence. "Was it not fitting that Christ should suffer all these things and so enter into His glory?" is how Our Lord Himself summed up the message of Holy Scripture concerning Him. This is the lesson of the Psalms, the lesson we need so much today. God has promised to be with us in trouble, not in short-cuts around it; only after Christ has been with us in our troubles so that we may share in His sufferings, will He save us and glorify us; only by His Passion and Cross are we to be brought to the glory of His Resurrection.
So the Psalms give us real hope, not only for ourselves, but for all suffering, struggling, distressed mankind. They make us burn with God's Own desire for justice, for "rightness," for holiness; they send us out better fitted to be the intelligent and efficient instruments of His comfort to the afflicted, His care for the widow and orphan, His judgment for the poor and oppressed. And, at the same time, they take the futility and hopelessness out of our necessarily puny efforts, for they teach us that God will Himself fulfill them in His own good time, that Christ Our Lord is even now reigning, and that He will soon appear again in glory to make all things right and new.
We might agree, however, that all these values are to be found in the Psalms, and yet have no idea about how to pray them. But when we consider God's whole plan for the salvation of mankind, then we can begin to see how it is that these songs, written hundreds of years ago by people of an entirely different mentality and environment from ours, can yet be valid for our own prayer and praise.
For God has one and the same great plan for all men in all ages--salvation in Christ. And He has, accordingly, ordered the development of this plan in such a way that its preparatory stages in the Old Testament, its accomplishment by Christ, and its extension through the Church to mankind (and to us here and now)---all display the same,basic pattern and contain the same realities, but in different degrees of revelation and actualization.
The vital focus of God's plan is Christ Himself, the Incarnate Son of God. The central design of God's plan is Christ's redemption of the People of God: His Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven....
Before the Incarnation (Christ's Birth), all during the centuries of the Old Testament, God sent His word through leaders and prophets and events, to redeem His People from slavery, to form them, to teach them, guide them, forgive them, save them from the consequences of their sins again and again. And He did this in such a way that these deeds of His were at once a preparation for and a progressive revelation of the Redemption that was to be accomplished by the Incarnate Word [i.e. Jesus the Christ]. This is the same Redemption that Christ is even now extending to all mankind; the Redemption that will finally be completed in all its perfection when Christ returns in glory.
Holy Scripture is, then, the record of God's dealings with His People in the Old Testament and in the New, of the common experience of God and mankind. But it is not a mere record; it is God Himself, through His chosen instruments, the inspired writers, speaking to us about this common experience in order that we may enter more fully into His plan, that we may rejoice in it, praise Him for it, thank Him for it and give ourselves wholeheartedly to taking our part in it.
Many of us have a vague idea that, since God has revealed everything we need to know through Christ and the Church, there is nothing to be gained by meditating on what preceded His coming. This is simply a false impression. The New Testament itself, the liturgy of the Church, and constant Christian tradition all refer us to the Old Testament as well as to the New for instruction, for warning, for encouragement. "For whatever things have been written have been written for our instruction, that through the patience and the consolation afforded by the Scriptures we may have hope (Rom. 15:4)." "Now these things came to pass as examples to us (1 Cor. 10:6)." "Now all these things happened to them as a type, and they were written for our correction, upon whom the final age of the world has come (I Cor. 10:11)." [Meditating on the Old testament is worthwhile, but do not adopt from it anything rejected by Jesus, such as the law of the talon ("an eye for an eye" Matt. 5:38-41), or the dietary rules. See Mark 7:1-23 and especially 7:18-19.]
And therefore the Church, following the lesson given her by Our Lord Himself and the Apostles, has always given her children in the Liturgy itself the "Bread of the Word" from the Old Testament and the New; and she usually does so in such a way that the two phases of God's plan are given so as to show us how they explain one another....
For the wonders that Christ is doing for us here and now in the Sacraments are so great and marvelous that we cannot possibly appreciate them properly unless we take the means that God Himself has given us. Our need is not satisfied by abstract definitions, good as these are in their own place. We need to have our minds and hearts and imaginations informed by the actual concrete and vital "common experience of God and man" as God gives it to us in Holy Scripture and as the Church shows us how to receive it. We need to meditate on the images, the stories, the history of actual events, the metaphors inspired by God to describe spiritual things, the gradual unfolding and development of the great realities of our salvation. Otherwise our Christian living will be in danger of being dryly intellectual on the one hand and fantastically sentimental on the other, since only God can give us the right and true and properly affective ideas and images we need in order to become Christ's through and through.
It is no mere coincidence, then, in this age when the Holy Spirit through the voice of Popes and bishops, is summoning all the members of the Church, the laos, or people of God, to take their part in the salvation of mankind, that at the same time He is inspiring a renewal of active participation in the Liturgy and a renewal of the study and rightful use of Holy Scripture. For these three aspects of the Christian vocation all go together: taking our due part in the Mass, the renewal of Christ's redemptive work; understanding more and more fully, from the prayerful reading of Holy Scripture under the guidance of the Church, the riches of God's plan and what our part in it should be; and working to carry out that plan in the world.
But of all the books of the Old Testament, the Psalms are the mose frequently quoted by Our Lord and by the Apostles, and the most used in the Liturgy. For they not only contain all the realities of God's unfolding plan; they are also the response that God Himself has given us to make to His communication to us of that Plan and of His love. In the Mass, Christ makes Himself the Gift of His People to the Father. In the Psalms, the Word of God makes itself our prayer.
In the deepest sense, then, the Psalms are the songs of God's People offered to Him through our Head, through Christ. And they are the songs by which we are to respond to God's plan, to thank Him for it, to rejoice in Him for it, to show our sorrow and ask His forgiveness for having gone against it, to pray for its fulfillment in ourselves and all mankind. (Emphasis added.) It is no wonder, then, that the Church uses the Psalms in every Mass. And it is no wonder that they have always formed the main substance of her official prayer. Priests and choir-religious are bound to pray the Psalms in the Divine Office, so that the Church's praise of God through Christ will always be carried out on earth, joining with the unceasing praise of the Church... and of the holy angels in heaven. And when any member of the Church prays the Psalms, he is taking up his part in this unceasing prayer. We are also taking the best means to train ourselves in the whole art of Christian prayer, for the Psalms are a development of, a commentary on the phrases of the Our Father. And by praying the Psalms we are also taking the best means to train ourselves in reading the other books of the Bible, for, as St. Jerome said, the Psalms are the best summary of and introduction to a Christian's study of Holy Scripture.
Of course, whenever any member of Christ prays, with or without words, his prayer is united with the prayer of the whole Church; it becomes a part, so to speak, of that great action of prayer which is always ascending from the Church through her Head to the Father in the love of the Holy Spirit. But Christian tradition tells us that insofar as this ineffable prayer of the whole Christ can be expressed in human words and images and concepts, the Holy Spirit expresses it in the Psalms, for our use. When we pray the Psalms, then, we are in a special way joining in the prayer of Christ and the Church. And also, every Psalm is voicing the actual present experience of some members of the Mystical Body [of Christ]; and so in praying it we are in a special way praying with those members and for them. Though we ourselves are not actually suffering persecution, when we pray the Psalms which voice the sufferings of Christ persecuted in the Church, we unite ourselves with our suffering brethren and their prayer. When we pray the Psalms of longing for God's presence, we share in the desires of the holiest members of the Church on earth and we voice the longing of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. When we pray the great psalms of joyful praise, we unite ourselves with our ... brethren, the saints, including our own beloved dead who are already living in heaven. Nor does so praying the Psalms with and for all our fellow members of the Church stand in the way of our using them for our own personal needs. On the contrary, the more we pray them with the Church and her Head, and for the whole Church, the more we find them to be the voice of our own souls, fitting our own most personal needs from day to day. [Emphasis added.]
Experience also shows that it is better to pray the Psalms according to some definite scheme; if we only pray them as they seem to fit our needs and moods, we are in danger of praying them seldom, or not at all. The simplest method, perhaps, is that of going through the Psalter day after day, taking, for example, three Psalms every morning and three every evening (dividing the longer ones into two, three or more parts). And then, when the whole Psalter has been prayed in this way, during the course of about a month, one begins it again. Another method is to pray the Psalms in accordance with the arrangement of the Divine Office [i.e. the Liturgy of the Hours]. If we use the arrangement of the Roman Breviary*, we are actually joining in the prayers of our own priests: our pastor, his assistants, [and] our Bishop... If saying all the Psalms of the Office each day is too much of a burden, it is quite possible to say one, rather than all the Psalms, of each Hour. But the important thing is to pray them somehow, and to do so regularly. Then we will truly begin to find them, as Fr. Thomas Merton so beautifully says, our "bread in the wilderness," and as the Eastern Church calls the Psalter, "the Heart of God." [You can see a historical discussion of Prayer Books and Psalterium in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia. Also the Catechism of the Catholic Church sections 2585-89.]
In reading the Psalms as poetry, we have an advantage over every preceding generation of Christians. Centuries of scholarly research and study have resulted in the more perfect texts and the more perfect understanding of the literal meaning of Holy Scripture now available. Thanks to all this research, we can now follow the thought of each Psalm, and there are only a few verses in the Psalms whose meaning is still obscure. We need not, then, resort to that counsel of near despair which recommends finding some favorite verse or verses in each Psalm, and concentrating on these, not expecting or trying to follow the whole sequence of thought. This is, surely, not to do justice to the writer, or to the Holy Spirit!
We may wonder sometimes why God allowed His word of Holy Scripture to suffer so much from imperfect texts, translations and so on. The answer is, of course, that the history of the Word in Holy Scripture is analagous to that of the Word Incarnate. As Our Lord became "like us in all things save sin," as the Church now suffers the [difficulties] of a human institution short of complete destruction, so God's word has endured the hazards of all human literature. But it has survived; and it is today under-going, in the Providence of God, a kind of resurrection of renewed study and use among the faithful.
We may also wonder why God made it necessary for us to work in order to understand and appreciate His songs. Why did He have them written so long ago, in an idiom seemingly so different from our own And, again, the answer is that as Our Lord, in taking on a human nature, had to become a particular Man, of a special nation and time, born in a particular place, so God's songs had to be written by some particular human authors, in some particular language and idiom. God obviously must have chosen the most fitting language and the most suitable kind of poetic diction for His purposes. So it must be good for us to have to "Semidze" ourselves sufficiently to enter into the Psalmists' ways of thought and expression.
The Psalms were, as the name indicates, poems meant to be sung to a musical accompaniment...[probably the harp]. Some of them were composed directly for liturgical use in the Temple worship; some were later adapted to such use; none of them was to be read silently to oneself. When they were performed as public hymns, they were sung by choirs, probably several choirs, of both men and women, to the accompaniment of various kinds of musical instruments. We have no certain knowledge as to how they sounded when they were performed as their human authors firse intended, but we do know they were meant to be sung aloud.
PARALLELISM. The most essential characteristic of Hebrew poetry is what is usually called parallelism, or echoism. A Hebrew poet cannot say something once only and then go on to another idea; he always finds it natural to repeat. Consider, for instance, Our Lady's song: "My soul proclaims the Lord's greatness, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." The second half of the verse is the re-statement, the echo of the first. Sometimes the echo re-phrases the original idea; sometimes it says the opposite; sometimes it restates and advances the thought of the original. Sometimes whole lines echo other lines, and stanzas echo stanzas. In general, the chief kinds of parallelism follow the laws of association, or memory: similarity, contrast, contiguity, which is natural, since the Psalms were made to be repeated by heart, not read.
Another characteristic of the Psalms which may seem confusing at first is the Hebrew sense of time. The Hebrew mind did not think about time in the fairly neat categories of modern grammar. Whenever possible, dramatic events of the past are described as taking place in the present (like a Damon Runyon story, or what scholars call the "historic present"). And when God has prophesied that something is going to happen, it is described as already happening, or as accomplished. This often holds true also of the Psalmist's hope that God will rescue him. He prays while in terrible difficulties; he describes himself as receiving help and giving thanks; then, at the end of the Psalm, again we find him in trouble--for deliverance has not yet come in actual fact, only in his confident hope that it will come in God's own time. One might say, indeed, that the Hebrew time-sense is much closer than ours to God's eternal present. ...
There are various ways of classifying the Psalms, by author or "school," by literary genre, by their probable use in the worship of the Temple, etc. But for their use as our prayers, we might classify them roughly as follows.
PSALMS OF PRAISE. The Hebrew name for the Psalms is The Praises, and many of the Psalms are songs of unmixed praise. The Church uses these especially for [morning prayer], her hour of prayer for sunrise. [See morning prayer at Universalis.]
PSALMs OF THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL, recounting God's great deeds for His People, especially those of the Exodus, of the years of wandering in the desert, and of the occupation of the Promised Land. We pray these Psalms in gratitude for the wonders of our own redemption, and in sorrow for our repetition of the Israelites' sins of disobedience and mistrust.
THE SEVEN PENITENTIAL PSALMS.
PSALMS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, bringing into the light of God's Presence and God's plan the brevity, the seeming futility, the bewilderments of human life, especially the problem of the prosperity of the wicked.
PSALMs PLEADING FOR GOD'S HELP. When we first go through the Psalms, we may wonder if so many prayers for aid against "wicked and treacherous enemies" are really necessary in every-day life. But, as a matter of fact, the life of the Church on earth and of her members is one of almost incessant warfare "against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high." If we do not realize that we are constantly involved in this warfare, so much the worse for us. These Psalms, then, can do much to give us a truly realistic view of how much struggle our lives should contain against the evil in ourselves and in the world, while they teach us also how we are to ask God's help, constantly and confidently, in all our battles.
PSALMS OF THE SUFFERING SERVANT OF GOD, composed directly to prophesy Our Lord's Passion and its fruits (Psalm 21), or to ask God's help for some great human servant of God in his own sufferings which were a type of Christ's. We pray these Psalms with Our Lord in His Passion and for His suffering members.
PSALMS DESCRIBING THE CONQUESTS AND RULE OF THE MESSIAH. We pray these in praise of Christ, asking Him to hasten His return in glory. (Click here to see a larger image of David's Triumph by Raphael.)
PSALMS OF THE KING, written by or for David or one of his descendants, who as the anointed King of Israel was a type of Our Lord.
PSALMS OF LONGING FOR GOD'S PRESENCE, and PSALMS OF THE CITY OP GOD, the home of that Presence. We pray these Psalms in praise of the Church, and of Our Lady; in thanksgiving for the grace that has made us members of the Church; in longing for the vision and secure enjoyment of God's presence forever in heaven, together with all His saints.
[Editor's note: When a psalm prays for Israel, remember that we, the church, are the new Israel and so the psalm is praying for us, the church. The members of the church are also sons and daughters of Abraham. Finally, Jesus is called King of Kings, and Lord. He is also successor to David, from the line of David. When we pray for the King in the psalms we need to think of Jesus, the King. Finally, Jesus is the Word of God. Therefore, when we pray the psalms He is present in this word of God and present to us as we pray.
John 1:1 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it... John 1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth." NRSV.]
In order to pray the Psalms, it may be helpful to consider some of the key-words and themes, and to see how, as the new People of God, we find them to possess meanings that, in many cases, are far deeper and richer than was apparent before the coming of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the Church [at Pentecost].
THE LORD. The Psalms use a generic word corresponding to our word "God," and so translated. This is used for the one true God, for the idols of the heathen, for great spiritual powers, and even for powerful or "god-like" men. In Hebrew this word is EL,or Elohim, the latter a "plural of respect" [I suppose like the royal "we", but when the psalmist refers to the pagan gods he would use a plural because people believed in many gods in the ancient world. ( Cf. Ps. 84:7, Ps. 136:2) Even among the Hebrew people there were many who worshiped other gods in addition to the one true God. Because of this, God withdrew his protection and they were conquered and deported.]
But God also revealed His Own personal Name to Moses: "I am Who am," [Exod. 3:14] which in transliterated Hebrew is Yahweh. The Jews came to feel such overwhelming awe for this Name that they substituted different vowels between its consonants, thus making up a substitute word... to use instead of the Name itself, somewhat as many Christians feel it more reverent to say "Our Lord" rather than to use the Holy Name of Jesus. When the first translation of Holy Scripture was made, into Greek (called the Septuagint because it was done by seventy scholars), the great Name was not translated, but only paraphrased by the Greek word Kyrios, translated later into Latin as Dominus and much later into English as the Lord. In the Psalms, then, with few exceptions, titte Lord stands for I am Who Am.
When Our Lord said "Before Abraham was made, I am," it was clear to His audience from the Aramaic language, which is much like Hebrew, that He was calling Himself by the very Name of God. And when the Apostles called Christ "the Lord," they meant not only that He is the master, leader, king, but that He is God, the God Who revealed Himself in the Old Testament....
In saying the Psalms, then, "the Lord" is to be understood as the infinitely great He-Who-is, and as God-made-Man, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
GOD OUR ROCK, OUR FORTRESS, OUR SHIELD. The Psalms also use many metaphors in describing God and in praising Him, metaphors taken from the situation of a people constantly engaged in skirmishes and battles and private feuds in a mountainous, semi-arid country. The life of king David, in particular, provides a vivid commentary on both the natural and the warlike metaphors used in the Psalms. How often he was forced to seek refuge in caves in the hills; how often he needed all the weapons of defense and offense known to his time! [His prayers become our prayers when we are oppressed, face prejudice, suffer trial, and the assaults of the Evil One. When we who seek to do good, become the victem of evil, we call out for God to act.]
ALLELULA (Hallelu-Ja). From God's Own Name is derived the great shout of praise: Hallelu meaning to praise, sing, shout for joy; and Ja being a shortened form of Jahve. The Church uses the Latinized form, Alleluia, as her great cry of praise for the Redemption. And St. Augustine says that Alleluia will be the new song of the redeemed in heaven, and that, as Christians, we already have the privilege of rehearsing it here on earth.
THE NAME OF THE LORD. Ancient peoples felt that to know the real name of a person gave one a special relationship of intimacy with that person, and so of power, since the name expressed the real essence of a being. (We feel this in modern secularized society, also, as a matter of fact, and salesmen trade on it every day). To know the real name of a god, therefore, meant that he had given the people who knew it a special claim on his attention. So the Israelites were filled with wonder at God's goodness in revealing His Own Name to them, and saw it as a sign of His special favor. Often in the Psalms, instead of saying "the Lord," the Psalmist says, "the Name of the Lord," giving the added idea of "the Lord revealing Himself to His People."
GOD THE CREATOR. The Psalms bring all created nature into God's presence; they are filled with wonder at His wisdom and power, His providential ordering and care as displayed in created things. In the light of the New Testament and the Liturgy, we see in the wonders of God's making and ordering of the first creation, a picture and foreshadowing of His even more wonderful re-making of all things in Christ. This second creation began with the Resurrection of Christ and will be completed and appear in all its beauty after the resurrection of Christ's members and the Last Judgment, in the "new heaven and earth" of ever-lasting life.
It need hardly be said, perhaps, that the Bible was not written to teach us natural science, and that the accounts of creation given in Genesis, and in several of the Psalms (e.g. 103), are not meant to be formulae [i.e. it is not a history of how creation was actually accomplished], but rather vehicles for stating beautifully and memorably the truths God wishes us to realize about His creative action. So the general picture of the cosmos presumed in the Psalms is the one that was commonly held by people at the times when the Psalms were composed. And this picture is still valid for the purpose of showing man his place in the universe in relation to God and the holy angels above him, and to irrational creatures around and below him. In this picture, first we see God, high above all things; His court and His armies, the angels, in habit the highest heavens. Then come the "waters above the heavens" which, it was thought, God drew away from the earth as He was forming it, to make a kind of store-house from which to send down rain as earth needed it. Then came the firmament (sometimes translated as the stronghold of heaven), thought of as a solid dome across which the sun and moon and stars move in their courses. Then clouds and rain and snow. Then the birds of the air. Then the earth with its waters, out of which God raised the dry land; and the land itself, clothed with grass and trees, inhabited by birds and beasts and men. And the whole earth rests on the unfathomed "abyss." [In the Genesis story of creation, the waters represent the original chaos. Gen. 1:1-2 "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." NRSV.]
THE WORD OF THE LORD. Many times in the Old Testament, we find special mention of the Word of the Lord as the means by which He creates and orders both things and events. His Word is also one of the synonyms for God's Law, the revelation of His will to His people. When St. John, then, wrote "In the beginning was the Word...." he was showing Our Lord to be the fulfillment of one of the great themes of the Old Testament, to be Himself the incarnate message and effective means of action of God to mankind. And so, as St. Augustine says: "Since Christ is Himself the Word of God, each deed of the Word is a word to us."
THE LORD' LOVE, KINDNESS, MERCY, GRACE. These are various renditions of one Hebrew word, hesed, describing the attitude of God toward weak and sinful mankind, and especially His love for His people, the love which is the motive of all His dealings with us. The Old Testament records the progressive self-revelation of this merciful love, in spite of the infidelities of the People, as the love of a father for his children, even as the love of a forgiving husband for an unfaithful wife. But only in the New Testament does God reveal the fullness of this unmerited, forgiving, healing, re-creating love, by sending His Son to suffer and die for us. So St. John says simply, "God is love." And only in the New Testament is it revealed that the love of God is Himself a divine Person, the Holy Spirit.
GOD'S CHOSEN SERVANTS. God's inscrutable wisdom executing the design of His love is the reason for His choices all through his tory: of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; of Joseph among His brothers; of Moses and Aaron to lead the People out of slavery; of the Chosen People themselves among the nations of the earth, to be God's special "inheritance," to be the People of the Messias. This loving wisdom, again, chose David from among the sheepfolds to rule the People, to be the great "type" [i.e. archtype or precursor] and ancestor of the Messiah. This same loving wisdom chose and sent the prophets through the ages, and, finally, the last of the prophets, St. John the Baptist. So our Lady was "chosen," and Christ Himself is called in the Old Testament "My chosen Servant." Again, Our Lord chose the Apostles one by one, and St. Paul later was called His "vessel of election," i.e. of special choice. Each of us, also, has been called by God to the grace of Baptism and to membership in His people.
In both the Old and the New Testaments, it is clear that God chooses His servants to do some special work for Him. Where men turn His choice to their own self-interest, He rejects them as He did Saul. We should do well, therefore, to consider the mystery of God's choices in connection with our own vocation as Christians.
GOD'S ANOINTED. In the Old Testament, both the high-priest and the king were, by God's command, solemnly anointed with oil to consecrate them for God's special service and to give them the powers and authority of their offices. [In the sacraments, the baptised and confirmed are annointed as is a priest during his ordination.] (In all near-eastern civilizations until modern times, olive-oil was used for everything for which we use all the various forms of mineral and other vegetable oils and butter; and so oil is the symbol of healing, strength, ease in operation, and hence of prosperity and joy). Therefore the One-Who-was-to-come finally to carry out God's plan for His People was to be The Anointed, in Hebrew, the Messias; in Greek, the Christ, for He would be the great prophet, priest and king, the heir of all the promises made to David. By means of this Messias, God would give His Own People justice and peace and prosperity and glory, and all the nations of the world would be brought to the knowledge and service of God.
Click here or on the image to see a larger version of the Annointing of King Solomon, by Rapheal.
When Our Lord was asked, "Are You the Christ?" the question meant "Are You this Promised One?" But only in the light of Christ Himself and the teaching of the Church was it revealed how perfectly Our Lord is the King, Priest and Sacrifice of mankind. As the priest sings in the Preface for the Feast of Christ the King, God the Father, by the Holy Spirit, anointed His Only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, "with the oil of gladness, as Priest forever and King of all things; so that, offering Himself on the altar of the cross as a pure victim and peace-offering, He might accomplish the mysteries of mans redemption, and, having brought all things under His sway, He might deliver to the Divine Majesty a kingdom universal and eternal, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of justice, love and peace."
As Christians, we share in Our Lord's anointing by the Holy Spirit, in Baptism and in Confirmation. And our priests and bishops share in His anointing in a different and far more perfect way, in the Sacrament of Orders.
THE KING. King David himself, and every anointed king of God's People after him, was in his kingship a "type" and a fore-shadowing of Christ the King. When the Psalms, then, mention "the king" or "God's Anointed," we may understand the words as referring to Christ, and also to bishops and priests, and to all Christians in their degree. [See ccc 783ff.]
God'S PROMISES. The first and greatest of God's Promises, containing in itself the realization of all the others, is the Promise of the One-to-come, the Savior, King, Priest of His people.
A GREAT NATION. God also promised Abraham to make his descendants a great nation; and this promise was renewed to the whole People on Mt. Sinai, and again to David. In the sense of a "rich and splendid material kingdom," this promise was fulfilled in the reign of king Solomon. After the disaster of the Captivity, it was hoped that the restoration promised by the prophets would mean the restoration of such a kingdom, although the prophecies now seem to us clearly to describe a kingdom of God beyond the potentialities of mere human prosperity. By the time of Our Lord, truly humble and faithful servants of God--Our Lady, Simeon, Zachary--looked for a spiritual renewal of their people. But the great majority--even the Apostles themselves before the coming of the Holy Spirit--still hoped for a kingdom very much of this world, the establishment of God's People as a kind of super-Rome. Now we can understand that this promise is fulfilled in the Church, the kingdom of God which is in this world though not of it. But we, too, still look forward to the complete fulfillment of this promise in the City of God made perfect after the Last Day.
THE LAND. God also promised Abraham to give his descendants through Isaac, the land of Chanaan, or Palestine, as their inheritance. This promise was fulfilled in its literal sense by the conquering entrance of the People into the promised Land at the end of their forty years' wandering in the desert. Then each tribe received its due share, each family in each tribe its allotment. But the complete conquest of the Promised land and its surrounding territories, and the secure possession of them was contingent on obedience to God's Law. So the People held the land with greater or less completeness and security, according to their greater or less degree of obedience. Under King David and his son, Solomon, this promise also received its greatest material fulfillment. But in punishment of Solomon's sins and those of his successors, the kingdom was divided, invaded again and again, though with occasional spectacular deliverances in answer to humble prayer and a return to God's law. Finally, as the prophesied punishment of the infidelity and sinfulness of rulers and people, came the great disaster of the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, the laying-waste of the country, and the captivity of a great number of the People in Babylon. After seventy years, a band of Jews were allowed to return once more to take possession, to rebuild the Holy City and the Temple.
In Our Lord's time, the Jews owned the Land, but only under Roman dominion, paying taxes to Rome, being subject to a Roman census and to some extent, to Roman law--a fact which was bitterly resented by the "nationalistic party," the Pharisees.
In the light of this Promise, it is easy to see why the Psalms so often speak of possession and inheritance of the land as so great a blessing. When Our Lord promised that "the meek shall possess the land," He was in fact repeating one of the ancient promises of God to His People, but showing at the same time, by the whole context of this beatitude, that "the land" must be something other than possession of earthly property. We can now see, therefore, in the light of Christian teaching, that God's promise finally refers to the true home-country of God's children, the kingdom of heaven. Like the tenure of Palestine to the People of old, our possession by hope of this "land" is now contingent on our fidelity and obedience to God. Only in heaven, when the time of trial is over, will we enjoy it in perfect security and peace.
GOD'S REDEMPTION, SALVATION, SAVING HELP: HIS GREAT DEEDS AND WORKS. God also promised His people again and again His continued help in their needs and against their enemies; and the history of the Old Testament is a long series of fulfillments of this promise. The great deliverance of the People from their slavery in Egypt was itself the beginning of their history as a nation. This deliverance was accomplished by the wonderful "deeds" or "works" of God described in the Book of Exodus and recalled in many of the Psalms, in particular the plagues God sent to the Egyptians; the safe crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites while their enemies were overwhelmed by its waters; His feeding of the People with manna from heaven all during their desert wanderings, and bringing water for them from the rocks; the miracles accompanying the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai; and, finally, the entrance into the Promised Land.
This is the great and typical deliverance or redemption, of which later ones are seen as both echoes and developments. The long thanksgiving song of David, Psalm 17, for instance, describes the help God had given him all during his life under the imagery of God's appearance to rend the Red Sea and so to deliver His People and overwhelm their enemies. And the later deliverance from the captivity in Babylon is seen as another Exodus, so that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether a particular Psalm refers to one or the other event.
But the wonderful deeds of God in the Old Testament by which He delivered His People from slavery and danger were preparations and, so to say, sketches of His great deliverance of the new People of God from the slavery of Satan, by the wonder fui deeds of Christ's Passion, Death and Resurrection. St. Luke tells us that, at the Transfiguration, Moses and Elias appeared and talked with Our Lord about His "exodus," that is, His death, which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem. And so the New Testament generally, the Liturgy and constant Christian tradition, all see the original Exodus and its accompanying wonders as being the pictures, or types, of our Redemption (see especially the Exultet of the Easter Vigil). As the Israelites, led by God's presence in the pillar of cloud and fire (St. Paul says they were "baptized" in Moses, in the cloud and in the sea), crossed the Red Sea and so were delivered from their enemies, to become God's People, given His law, fed by His special providence, sustained by His special help, finally crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land, so by Baptism we follow Christ in His journey, His "passing-over" through the sea of death, coming out to a new life as members of God's People, nourished by the Holy Eucharist, living by God's Law, until we finally "pass through" the waters of death to arrive in the promised land of heaven.
As we pray the Psalms, then, we understand the references to God's great works and deeds, to His marvels and wonders, His redemption and deliverance, as meaning not only those of the Old Testament, but also their fulfillment in the New--all the works by which Christ accomplished our salvation and those by which He enables us to share in it,--the Sacraments and all His graces.
ENEMIES. God's promise to help His people against their foes was, obviously, understood to refer to external enemies of the people. But it gradually became obvious that those among the People who were disobedient to God's Law and unjust in their dealings with one another were also enemies of the true good of the People. In the Psalms, therefore, "the wicked," "the unjust," those who "rebel against God" and "the enemy" are almost interchangeable terms, the more so when, after the establishment of a king who ruled with God's authority, those who opposed the king were seen to be opposing God Himself.
During the later centuries before, and during the Captivity, the prophets made it clearer and clearer that sin is the chief enemy of God's people; external enemies are only God's instruments to punish His people's sins. Thus the way was prepared for the teaching of the New Testament that our battle is "not against flesh and blood, but against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness on high." [Eph. 6:12.] Now, following Our Lord's example, we are to love our human enemies, while we hate wickedness in every form and fight against it in ourselves and in the world.**
When we pray the Psalms, then, we understand "enemies" as meaning the Enemy [The Devil] of the human race and all his cohorts, the use he makes of human beings to try to thwart God's plan, the temptations we have to contend with, and the pride and self-will in each of us which war against our true welfare and the fulfillment of God's plan in the world. In this sense, we can say the "Cursing Psalms" with no distortion of the meaning. And, if many of the phrases seem too violent for us to use at all, even against the Evil one, let us remember that the Psalms were composed by people who commonly used violent and exaggerated metaphors, and who, also were accustomed to seeing violence openly displayed rather than mainly kept away from public view.
THE COMING OF THE LORD, THE ESTABLISHMENT OF GOD'S KINGDOM. The Psalms implore God to come now to help and deliver us, to judge in favor of the innocent, to destroy the wicked. But many of them also look forward to a time when the Lord will come in a new way to judge and rule the earth, to destroy the wicked forever, to establish His kingdom for eternity, to reward the good with secure peace, prosperity and joy. By this Coming all nations will be enlightened and will join God's own people in serving and praising Him. In the perspectives of the Old Testament generally, this "coming" is connected with the destruction of enemies, the security, justice, salvation and peace of the rule of the Messiah. This coming is, then, to be the final and perfect fulfillment of all God's Promises to His people.
In the light of the Incarnation, we know that Christ the Lord has already come to our earth, that He has "visited His people and wrought their redemption." We know, too, that He is still coming in His Church to all mankind, and that we are to be the heralds and means of this continual Advent."*** And yet Our Lord is still "He Who is to come" we look forward to His final coming in glory to establish His kingdom which shall have no end.
GOD'S FIDELITY (FAITHFULNESS) TO HIS PROMISES. It may seem strange to us at first that the Psalms so often praise God's faithfulness; we think that we should, perhaps, take it for granted. And yet what an incentive we should find to true hope and trust in God, what a defense against temptations to despair and doubt, in the thought of God's promises to His People in the Old Testament and the New--His promises to us--and His faithfulness to them. When the Psalmist is tempted to doubt, he considers God's great deeds in the past, and so draws courage and hope for the future. How much more we Christians, then, having all the lessons in trust of the Old Testament before our eyes, leading up to the great lesson of the Resurrection; having the pledge of our own victory and resurrection in the Holy Eucharist; having the examples of all the saints; and our own personal history of graces, --how great should be our hope and trust in God's fidelity to complete and perfect His work in us and for us, for the salvation of mankind and His own glory.
WAITING FOR THE LORD. The attitude of trustful and eager hope called in the Psalms "waiting" or "expecting" or "looking out for" the Lord, should, then, be a characteristic Christian attitude. We know that it is through Our Lord's Passion and Cross that we are to be brought to the glory of His Resurrection; we know that "by patience we share in the sufferings of Christ." So let us allow the Psalms to train us in this patient but eager expectancy, looking for the Lord to come to help us in our present difficulties, and looking for Him to come in His glory to make all things right and new. For the last word in the Bible is "Amen, come, Lord Jesus" [Rev. 22:20.]
THE COVENANT. God made His promises to Abraham in the form of a solemn covenant, confirmed by a sacrifice of animals offered by Abraham and accepted by God. The rite of circumcision was to be the "token of the covenant," the sign that Abra ham and each of his descendants accepted its terms. After the deliverance from Egypt, God made a covenant with the whole People on Mt. Sinai, through Moses' mouth: If you hearken to My voice and keep my covenant, you shall be My special possession, dearer to Me than all other people ...You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation ..." God gave them the Ten Commandments, His Law, the prescriptions for worship; He renewed His promises of the Land, and of His continued protection and guidance, if the People would obey Him. And the People accepted the Covenant: "We will do everything that the Lord has told us." Moses had sacrifice offered to God, and had the whole Book of the Covenant read again to the People, and they said again: "All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do." Then Moses took the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkled it on the altar and on the people, saying: "This is the blood of the Covenant which the Lord has made with you." [Exodus 24:3-24:8.] Later, at the darkest hour of Old Testament history after the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremias promised that God would make a new covenant with His people, a covenant which should be written in their hearts. [Jer. 31:31-33.] This promise was fulfilled when, at the Last Supper, Our Lord made the New Covenant, in His Own Blood [ Luke 22:20], the Covenant of love, ratified by His Sacrifice of the Cross. Each of us enters God's People, and becomes a beneficiary of this New Covenant by our Baptism; and is made able to take part as a member of the royal priesthood, the holy nation [see 1Pet. 2:9] of the Church in the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the New Covenant, the Mass.
GOD'S PRESENCE WITH HIS PEOPLE: HIS DWELLING, HIS GLORY. God also gave His People His abiding presence in some special way that foreshadowed the mystery of the Incarnation. As they went out from Egypt, this Presence (also sometimes called, mysteriously, the Lord's Angel) went with them in the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. When God gave them the Law at Mt. Sinai, His majesty covered the whole mountain with a visible cloud of glory, a glory that so shone in Moses' own face after his days of receiving the Law from God that he had to veil himself [ Exod. 34:32-35] in order not to terrify his own people.
God commanded Moses to have an Ark constructed, an oblong box about four feet long, two feet wide and two feet high, inlaid inside and out with purest gold. Within the Ark were laid the stone tablets on which God Himself had inscribed the Ten Commandments. On the cover of the Ark were figures of two Cherubim, also carved according to God's instructions, facing one another, with their heads downward and their wings outspread to form a kind of throne. This was called the Mercy-seat and was to be the site of God's Presence with His People. So, in the Psalms, God is sometimes called "He Who is enthroned upon the Cherubim." (We do not know what these figures looked like exactly; except that they were nothing like the silly cherubs of renaissance and contemporary pietistic art. They were probably more like the figures of Assyrian mythology, but in any case they were famous as having great beauty and impressiveness).
This Ark was to be carried at the head of the People as they marched through the wilderness; and, later, carried ahead of their armies into battle. But when the People were encamped, it was to be placed inside the Tabernacle, also constructed according to God's orders. This was literally a tent (the original meaning of the word "tabernacle as were all the dwellings of the People during their desert wanderings. It had an inside room, the Holy of Holies, and a larger outside space, called the Sanctuary, containing the Altar of Incense, and the Table of "Shew- Bread" containing twelve leaves of bread, renewed each week, "for a memorial of oblation to the Lord," a sign of the twelve tribes offering themselves and their possessions to the Lord. In the Sanctuary also stood a golden Candlestick with seven lamps always burning.
Around the Tabernacle itself was its Court, in which stood the Altar of Holocausts and a great kind of basin or pool for purifications. On the Altar of Holocausts were offered the various prescribed sacrifices, faint foreshadowings of the One Sacrifice of Christ. These included: Holocausts, or whole-offerings, in which the victim was entirely consumed by the fire; these were offered in adoration of God. Peace-offerings, made to thank God for favors, and to ask for further graces. Sin-offerings and trespass offerings, offered in expiation of definite sins and also for purification from legal defilements in general. There were also unbloody sacrifices of the fruits of the earth, of oil and wine; and solemn sacrifices of incense.
God commanded Moses to consecrate Aaron, his brother, as the first high-priest by a solemn anointing with special perfumed oil; and this oil was also used to consecrate the altars and sacred vessels. The other priests and ministers were all to come from Aaron's tribe, the tribe of Levi, which was to have no land of its own, but to be supported by the other tribes and the free gifts of the people.
When everything was ready, as God had commanded, "the Cloud covered the Meeting Tent, and the glory of the Lord filled the Dwelling."
During the conquest of the Holy Land, the Tabernacle was set up in a little town in the north called Silo. During Saul's reign, the Ark, carried at the head of his armies, was taken by the enemy, in punishment for the sins of Saul and the people. So God was said to make "His strength captive." But so many misfortunes struck the Philistines for their presumption in taking the Ark, that they sent it back and it was installed in the house of a priestly family in Gabaa.
When king David was finally king over all Israel, and had conquered Jerusalem to be his capital city, he had the Tabernacle set up in a place prepared for it on Mt. Sion, one of the hills on which Jerusalem was built. With great solemnity and rejoicing, the Ark was brought from Gabaa and installed in the Tabernacle; and there the prescribed worship of God was carried on henceforth. Because of God's Presence in the Ark, Sion is called "God's dwelling," and Jerusalem (literally, city of peace) "God's holy city." In practice, Sion and Jerusalem are used as interchangeable terms. And the term Temple, or God's shrine, was used for the Tabernacle even before the Temple was built.
Click here or on the image to see a larger version of Raphael's Building the temple.
Solomon, David's son, at last built the Temple with great splendor, on the model of the Tabernacle. When it was finished the Ark was placed therein and the Temple solemnly dedicated and "a cloud filled the house of the Lord. And the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord." [1Kgs. 8:10-11.]
This was the wonderful Temple that was laid waste at the time of the Captivity; and then the Ark, by God's command, was hidden in a cave in a mountain, and never found again. The temple rebuilt by Esdras and Nehemias, and the more splendid Temple, which stood in Our Lord's days, never had the visible sign of God's presence, the cloud and the Glory.
When St. John tells us that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His Glory ...," [John 1:14] he is using terms consecrated to the traditional presence of God among His People--the Dwelling, and the Glory that radiates from it. Moreover, the Greek word that he uses for "dwelling" literally means "tenting" or "tabernacling"; and is very similar in sound to the Hebrew word "shekinah" used for this Presence of God among His Own. Our Lord Himself, when He said that He could rebuild the Temple in three days, "spoke of the temple of His body" as St. John tells us. And, at the Transfiguration, the cloud and the Glory both visibly appeared once more surrounding Him. [Matt. 17:2.] So all the foreshadowings of the Old Testament as to God's dwelling with us are fulfilled in Our Lord Himself, Emmanuel, God-with-us, and in the Church, His Body and His Bride. So the Liturgy refers the praises of God's dwelling (in Jerusalem, Sion, in the Temple, and over the Ark) to the Church; and also to our Lady as the Mother of Christ and the embodiment, the concretion of the Church already brought to its final glorious perfection. And, as we praise God's presence in His Holy City, we also look forward to the blessed presence of God in heaven, in the new Jerusalem, the city of the just [ Rev. 21:2]. There we ourselves will share in the glory of the Risen Christ;"we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." [ 1John 3:2.]
THE LAW. God's Law, described as a path, a way--or as we say today, using the same metaphor, a "way of life,"--included all the prescriptions as to worship, moral conduct, personal and soicial justice, even of hygiene, as God had given them to Moses on Mt. Sinai: all summed up in the Ten Commandments [ Exod. 20:2-18], and in the two Great Commandments of love of God and neighbor. [ Matt. 22:34-40.] The synonyms used for the Law--decrees, edicts, judgments, promises, etc.,--all indicate various aspects of the Law, including its sanctions and its concrete applications. Our Lord did not come to destroy this Law but to "fultill" it, that is, to complete and perfect its lines of development, making it, as St. Paul says, a law of love and not of bondage, and transcending anything that could have been commanded before the Incarnation by His "new commandment" that we love one another as He has loved us. The Psalms show great gratitude to God for giving His People the Old Law; as we use these prayers, then, how great should be our gratitude for the new law of Christ's love, with all that it implies of trustful obedience to the Father's Will.
THE JUST, FAITHFUL, HOLY in the Psalms are those who fulfil God's Law. "Just" here goes beyond our use of the word as giving God and man their due, and means also all that we mean by true, and good,--sharing in God's own justice, justness, and goodness. The poor, needy, afflicted, are seen in the Psalms as special objects of God's care and love, and the particular beneficiaries of the justice and salvation to be brought by the Messias. Here, again, we find the foreshadowing of Christ's teaching and example.
THE ASSEMBLY. Frequent mention in the Psalms is made of "the gathering," "the great throng," the "assembly;" or as we would say, the congregation or church. The immediate reference was to a great crowd of worshippers gathered in the Temple for a feast-day (every Israelite was to come, whenever possible, up to Jerusalem for the great feasts). So the Psalmist often promises God to praise Him in the "assembly," that,is, to thank Him publicly in the presence of His People. These "assemblies" for God's worship were foreshadowings of the great gathering of the Church, both here on earth, and, finally, after the Last Judgment, when all the "just" will be gathered together forever in God's presence, to sing with joy to Him forever.
THE NATIONS. In the Psalms, the term "nations," or "heathen," or "peoples" or "tribes" means everyone not of the Chosen People, not descended from the twelve sons of Jacob. Some of these "nations" were great powers like Egypt, Assyria, Persia. But in the early Psalms, the term usually refere to the various inhabitants of the land of Palestine before it was conquered by the People, and those immediately surrounding it. The thought in the Psalms is that while, here and now, the "nations" are hostile to God and to His People, ultimately they will be brought to know, love and serve Him. So, as we pray the Psalms, we can use this term for all those who do not yet know Our Lord, who have not yet heard and accepted Him as their Savior.
SHEOL, THE PIT, THE WORLD BELOW. The idea of the hereafter in the Old Testament seems to have been a good deal like that of the Greeks--a shadowy, unsatisfactory kind of existence, in a world of shades, cut off from the "light of the living." Sheol is described as the land of forgetfulness, where no one remembers God or praises Him. Long earthly life was, then, greatly to be desired; and God is urged to grant it in self-interest, so to speak, so that He will not be deprived of the Psalmist's praises. But certain passages in the Psalms seem to indicate prophetic glimpses of the happiness that Christ has now won for us by His Passion and Death, by going down Himself into the lower world of death and rising again to the glorious and immortal life which He shares with His faithful.
Now, for the new People of God, the true death, the death to be feared, is the death of sin by which the Enemy takes men down to the true land of darkness, hell. When we pray the Psalms, then, it is this death to which we refer, from this "sheol" that we pray God to deliver us.
SUMMARY. The best summary of the chief themes of the Old Testament, and their opening-out into fulfillment in the New is to be found in the three Psalms, or "Canticles" of the New Testament: The Benedictus, sung by the father of St. John the Baptist in thanksgiving for the vocation of his child; the Magnificat, our Lady's song of praise for the Incarnation; and Simeon's song of thanksgiving for having seen Christ, the Nune Dimittis.
Luke 1:67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." Luke 1:67-79 NRSV.
Luke 1:46-55. And Mary said,"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." NRSV.
Luke 2:27-32. "Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel." NRSV.
To check the various scriptural passages, or to view the treatment of different translations, you can use the Bible Gateway, or the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Catholics can also check the Douay-Rheims which is a pre-Vatican II catholic translation in English. A better choice is the New American at the National Confernce of Catholic Bishops site.
** These psalms can be very helpful and moving to someone who is a victem of prejudice. We cannot hate individuals but we can hate their wrongness, and the actions of their group. Our prayer is that they change, but if they refuse then we pray for justice.
*** "See the excellent book ADVENT, by Jean Danielou, S.l. (Sheed & Ward)."
The text is by Mary Perkins Ryan and forms the introduction to The Psalms, the Fides Translation, Fides Publishers Association, Chicago, Ill. (1955). This is an excerpt of about 35 pages from a book of over 300 pages. It is used in reliance on the Fair Use Doctrine, 17 U.S.C. 107.
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