Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The balance of the liturgy

As you might recall, Benedictine liturgy involves the reading of all of the Psalms during a certain period of time (the monks here do it over two weeks), which means that we are exposed to all of the human emotions, both positive and negative, expressed in the Psalms. Last night, during Vespers, we read the following passage from Psalm 21.

“Psalm 21 7 For the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved. 8 Your hand will find out all your enemies; your right hand will find out those who hate you. 9 You will make them like a fiery furnace when you appear. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and fire will consume them. 10 You will destroy their offspring from the earth, and their children from among humankind. 11 If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed. 12 For you will put them to flight; you will aim at their faces with your bows.”

Upon reading this, I leaned over to one of my friends and said, “that’s tough stuff,” which of course is highly sophisticated theology-speak for “God should have fired his editor,” because obviously I know much more about being human than those crazy Israelites several millennia ago. My guess is that this passage isn’t exactly something that is read at your church on a regular basis. But the use of the Psalmody requires us to face all of the human emotions – I’m sure I’m not the only one who has wanted my enemies to be severely punished. (As an aside, it is somewhat curious how easily some Christian scholars today will try to explain away or justify the violence in other cultures and religions, but are so quick to condemn passages like this.)

The balance of the liturgy is demonstrated by the very next passage we read, which was the famous love chapter from 1 Corinthians 13. We began by singing a one line response, “There are three things that last: Faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.” The monk leading the chants would chant a few lines of the passage and then we would respond with the one line response. We responded four times.

It was if the liturgy was reminding us that while we may all feel the need for vengeance, it will not last and will not satisfy. Instead, it is only faith, hope, and love that will last. Our vengeance, like our enemies, is only dust. The message is reinforced by us reading the Psalm only once, while responding to the love chapter four times.

The liturgy is also in the way it addresses the particular needs for the time of day in which they occur. Vigils, which are at 6:00 in the morning typically use Psalms that involve resisting temptation or dealing with persecution, with the idea that we need God to help us be vigilant against those things which might cause us to sin – this morning we used Psalms 56, 70, and 71. Lauds, which occur as the day is breaking use those Psalms that address the glory of God’s creation and Psalms that praise God, like this passage from Psalm 57: “7 My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast. I will sing and make melody. 8 Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. 9 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. 10 For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds. 11 Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the nice example. The prayers of Vespers sometimes look back on the day and perhaps God’s accomplishments, so tomorrow night we’ll use Psalm 135. Now obviously not all Psalms fit in these categories, and so they have to be used at one time or another. But where the relevance to the time of day is obvious, the Psalms are slotted into the proper place.

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