June 4, 2014

Postfeast of the Ascension

Psalm 109

This difficult Psalm is read on Holy Friday at the Third Hour, in the context of Judas betraying Jesus, Peter and the disciples abandoning Him, crowds and religious leaders mocking and accusing Him, soldiers torturing and crucifying Him. He is abandoned and alone, surrounded by enemies.

Be not silent, O God of my praise!
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,

speaking against me with lying tongues.
They beset me with words of hate,
a nd attack me without cause.
In return for my love they accuse me,
 even as I make prayer for them.
So they reward me evil for good,
 and hatred for my love.
(Psalm 109:1-5)

But the next verses (6-19) are troubling because they are a violent curse against the accuser:

May his children be fatherless,
 and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg;

may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;

may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,

nor any to pity his fatherless children!
(Psalm 109:9-12)

It is certainly possible that this is precisely what the Psalmist intends. The Hebrew scriptures are fiercely unashamed about authentic deep feelings like this. But more likely, these words are the curse the accusers are putting on the psalmist. In any case, the teaching of Jesus transcends violent retaliation. Indeed, Saint Silouan says that love of enemies is the central and distinguishing feature of Christ’s teaching.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”(Matthew 5:43-45)

The enemies in this psalm are living by what they think is the power of their cursing. But the psalmist, however much he feels abandoned and alone, puts his trust in blessings, not curses.  “Let them curse, but do thou bless!” (v. 28). The Lord’s blessing overcomes all the curses that can be hurled at him. And more than that, the psalmist understands that everything that happens to him is not because of the power of the curses, but in the providence of God. The accusers don’t see this. They think their own curses, schemes, threats and violence are shaping events. Not so. God’s providence is at work in acts of redemption, but is equally there in times of failure and distress. “Let them know that this is thy hand;
thou, O Lord, hast done it!” (v. 27). And the psalmist accepts this in hope of a redemption he can’t yet see.

As we say in one of the prayers for the beginning of the day, “Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and the firm conviction that Thy will governs all.” 

* * *

Acts 1:20 quotes Psalm 109:8 (LXX) in referring to Judas, and the need to appoint someone else to take his place.

For it is written in the book of Psalms,
‘Let his habitation become desolate,
 and let there be no one to live in it’ (Psalm 69:25); and ‘His office [episkopen] let another take’ (Psalm 109:8)

Note that the Greek text is more precise when it uses episkopen, meaning “office of overseer.” The role of episkopos or bishop developed over time, but the essential vocation of oversight, witness and teaching remains.

The Pärts at the Chancery

Arvo Pärt
Arvo and Nora Pärt with Fr Leonid Kishkovsky and Fr John Jillions in Chancery Chapel

Yesterday afternoon, Arvo Pärt and his wife Nora stopped at the Chancery for a brief visit and rest before heading to JFK airport and their return to Estonia. It has been an exhilarating few days in the US, and their reception everywhere was enthusiastic. Indeed, they are surprised that Maestro Pärt’s music seems to strike a deep chord in people of the most diverse backgrounds. As he said with some amusement during the visit, “I get letters from atheists who say, ‘I don’t believe in God, but when I listen to your music I begin to have doubts.’”