George Herbert and the Psalms

Regular readers of this blog will probably be aware that the penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) have featured prominently here over the past year, or so. This is because of an ongoing project on these psalms. As I have spent time with these seven psalms I have become increasingly surprised at their generative potential in literature, liturgy, poetry, music, politics, and preaching. George Herbert (1593–1633) was an Anglican poet-priest and contributed, in his short life, to most of the aforementioned arenas. The Psalter appears to have been a major source of inspiration. More specifically, the language of the penitential psalms, and the traditional penitential lens through which they are read, seems lie behind much of his work too.

This short post is an encouragement to reflect on one poem and one poetic verse from Herbert’s pen which both respond to the Psalms. The aim is primarily to celebrate his poetry, albeit in just 83 words, on the day he is remembered in the liturgy. A second aim is a nod to the profoundly generative spirit of the psalms that has provided us with such a cloud of witnesses—an unceasing testimony of praise to celebrate and perpetuate the two testaments to Christ.

At the risk of straying from delight to dissection I will say a little about Hebert’s two pieces of verse. The first, Bitter-sweet, captures the life of faith and its two poles of complaint and praise. Whilst scholars have spilt much ink over such matters none can match this short poem’s sublime portrait of psalmic trust. It is a sublime microcosm of the Psalter in both form and content.

Bitter-sweet.
Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.

The second piece, the first of some thirteen verses, grasps the gasps of the penitential psalmist. Though as short as the above, it redolent with the seven psalms. We find the metaphorical travails of the penitent (Pss. 6:7; 32:3; 38:7; 51:8), their sense of distance from God (38:9; 102:2; 130:5–6; 143:7), and their all-encompassing day and night waiting for the living God of the penitential psalms (Pss. 6:6; 32:4; 130:6).

Home.
Come Lord, my head doth burn, my heart is sick,
While thou dost ever, ever stay:
Thy long deferrings wound me to the quick,
My spirit gaspeth night and day.
O show thy self to me,
Or take me up to thee!

Perhaps the choice of the 27th February to celebrate Herbert and its place in the season of Lent (most years at least) is a fitting one?

Malcolm Guite’s ‘David’s Crown’: A Review

Malcolm Guite, David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2021

Malcolm Guite conceived and wrote this book during the earliest months of the pandemic. There is an irony in this origin, for corona, a word that had eluded most of us until a year ago, can refer to a crown or coronet of poems. These 150 poems are a collection—one poem per psalm. They also combine to form a single poem. A 2,250-line epic which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a majestic response to the biblical Psalter, the original Davidic corona.

 

The Psalter comprises poems of very different lengths. The longest, Psalm 119, is around 200 times longer that the shortest, Psalm 117. Here in David’s Crown Guite adopts a poetic convention such that each poem is the same length and of the same form. In honour of the canonical crown each of his responses has fifteen lines, a nod to the 150 psalms. He also adopts another convention in following John Donne who linked seven poems, each adopting as its first line the last one of the previous poem. This is more than a clever and arbitrary stylistic whim. This convention celebrates another feature of the Psalter, the pairing of each psalm with its neighbours. The resulting concatenation within the Psalter is achieved in more complex ways than in Guite’s response—it includes various devices such as keywords pairs, repeated phrases, alternating patterns of day and night, matching interests and/or theological progression. As Paula Gooder reminds us in the introduction to David’s Crown, the Psalms also have a narrative that ties and binds them together. This can be seen as a journey of petition down to, and through, the low of Psalm 88, followed by a gentling rising path of praise. This culminates with Psalm 150’s unabandoned doxology.

The story within the Psalter is also the narrative of the Davidic kings and God’s kingship. Guite’s response reveals this story with a thoroughgoing Christian reading—this might be David’s Crown but in the 150 episodes we find Christ eclipsing David. This interpretive lens is, of course, that made by the Second Testament and many of the Church Fathers, including most notably Augustine and his interpretive paradigm of the total Christ (totus Christus). As Guite puts it, his work forms ‘a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spinea, the crown of thorns for us, and who has suffered with us through the corona pandemic [p.xv].’

So far, so good, this collection has a form that both echoes the 150 psalms it celebrates and has a coherent and insightful form. Is the execution as good as the conception? In short, the answer is a resounding yes. Each response is a delight in its own right. Doubtless readers will have different favourites. I particularly enjoyed the reflection on Psalm 39 because of its playful allusion to Leonard Cohen’s famous proverb about light and cracks. The response to Psalm 118, despite its brevity before its subject, works with many of the ideas and words found there in a beautiful fresh way. The 125th meditation is poignant, it is a prayer dedicating the collection as a thanksgiving offering. If each poem is a delight, then the whole can only be described as sublime. The single-minded form does not wear thin but rather provides a sort of theological and Christological perpetual motion—one reaches the end only to find that the last line of Psalm 150 provides the opening to the collection.

Guite explains that this is a response to the Coverdale version of the Psalms from the Book of Common Prayer. This is evident in the Latin headings to each poem and frequently in the language of the compositions. Nevertheless, is very much a contemporary poetry collection, it just knows how to cherish light from the past. There are allusions, both explicit and implicit, to the likes of John Donne, Julian of Norwich, John Bunyan, William Blake, Gregorio Allegri and Robert Alter. This peppering of imbibers and interpreters reminds us that behind these poems lie not just the ancient Psalms themselves but an age of their inspirational legacy—more profoundly still we perceive the Spirit breathing across some three millennia.

If you love the Psalter and enjoy poetry you will cherish David’s Crown:

So come and bring him all your nights and days,
And come into his courts with joyful song,
Come to the place where every breath is praise [p.150].

 

 

 

Psalm 51 and Saint Augustine

Psalm 51, sometimes known as the miserere, has also been given the epithet ‘Psalm of Psalms’ by some. As I have studied it and reflected on its place in Church history over the last twelve months, or so, I am increasingly persuaded that such a claim might well be justified. The accolade owes something to its fundamental nature as arguably the purest and most profound plea for God’s mercy in all of Scripture. It also owes much to the psalm’s title and its reference to David’s double sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah—events that occupy 2 Samuel 11–12. This background to the psalm, and David’s confession to the Prophet Nathan also alluded to in the title, gave rise to the identification of this prayer as the penitential psalm par excellence. This recognition of Psalm 51 as chief of the seven penitential psalms was deemed appropriate not only because of its assumed dependence on the pivotal biblical narrative, but it also fittingly lies fourth, and so in the middle, of the sequence of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. It was also judged appropriate that in the Greek and Latin traditions that its identity as Psalm 50 could be conceived as a sort of a psalmic Jubilee.

It is possible that the identification of the seven penitential psalms originated with Augustine although the first extant identification of the specific seven, mentioned above, as belonging to a closed group is in Cassiodorus’ Explanation of the Psalms [1]. In any case, Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 51 (50 in his Bible), in his Expositions of the Psalms [2], set the tone for exegesis of this psalm throughout the medieval period.

His sermon has often been neglected as a homily because Augustine reflects on its doctrinal contribution to what is generally termed original sin. But setting this aside and embracing Augustine as a faithful and earnest preacher proves to be a refreshing delight. The sermon comes across as a thrillingly tangible event despite more than 1,600 years lying between us and Augustine’s delivery (it was probably preached in the summer of 411). It comes to life in its early sentences as we hear him ask for quiet because his voice is struggling after preaching to a large gathering the previous day. We might well laugh as we note his acknowledgement of the preacher’s prevenient dilemma, the balance between saying enough to benefit a congregation but not so much as to ‘try its patience’. We also find out that the circus is in town and many congregants are absent and sampling its dubious pleasures.

Augustine sounds troubled that so many absentees will not hear his call to health that comes with repentance. He even urges those present to pass on the message to those that are not there. When it comes to the text he also sounds a little embarrassed to have to speak of the great King David as a sinner of some magnitude:

This woman Bathsheba was another man’s wife. We say this with grief and trepidation, yet since God wanted the matter to be written about, he does not mean us to hush it up. [3]

He must overcome his coyness because this psalm provides not only words of repentance but teaches too:

The story is not put before you as an example of falling, but as an example of rising again if you have fallen. Consider it carefully, so you do not fall. [4]

Augustine suggests that there might be two ways to hear of David’s immense sin. Firstly, his story might be misused as an exemplar of sin. Or secondly, and appropriately, as a as a warning to avoid sin by fleeing temptation. He is also at pains to point out that if any his congregation have already fallen into temptation and grave sin that they can still know forgiveness:

But if any who hear this have fallen already, and study the words of this psalm with some evil thing in their consciences, they must indeed be aware of the gravity of their wounds, but not despair of our noble physician. [5]

In this way, for Augustine this psalm carries a double grace, both as an exhortation to avoid sin and as a means to find the grace of Christ:

But as this psalm warns the fallen to be wary, so too it will not leave the fallen to despair. [6]

Augustine goes on to point to David as exemplar to those who have fallen into temptation:

Listen to him crying out, and cry out with him; listen to him groaning, and groan too; listen to him weeping, and add your tears to his; listen to him corrected, and share his joy. If sin could not be denied access to you, let the hope of forgiveness not be debarred. [7]

Anyone familiar with Augustine’s interpretative paradigm known as the totus Christus, that is the total Christ, might be surprised to hear how David eclipses Christ so completely in this homily. Elsewhere in his massive work on the Psalms he has no problem placing the words of sinners in Jesus’ mouth, for Christ can pray the words of his body the Church as well as words appropriate for him as Head of the Church. Augustine’s interpretation of Psalm 51 is an important reminder that Augustine is not a slave to one interpretative paradigm for the psalms. We can take comfort that the words of Psalm 51, though once David’s, can now be ours. In addition, when we pray them, in God’s mercy we can know the same bounteous grace that David experienced.

References
1. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms, three volumes, P. G. Walsh (translator), New York: Paulist Press, 1990.
2. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, six volumes, Maria Boulding (translator), John E. Rotelle (ed.), Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2000.
3. Expositions: Volume 2, p.411.
4. Ibid.
5. Expositions: Volume 2, p.413.
6. Ibid.
7. Expositions: Volume 2,p.414.

The Gospel of Eve: A Novel by Rachel Mann

Rachel Mann, The Gospel of Eve, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2020

I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of The Gospel of Eve. It is set in Littlemore Theological College, a fictional Anglican seminary just outside Oxford. The story takes place in the late 1990s, but it is narrated by Catherine Bolton in the present. Kitty, as she is known by her friends, joined Littlemore after completing a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Lancaster. The story concerns the first few months of Kitty’s time at the college and her relationship with five fellow ordinands, including the almost titular Evie. The apparent suicide of Evie is revealed in the first line of the prologue. Right from the outset the reader knows that her death not only drives the narrative but that this terrible event has ongoing consequences for Kitty.

This review will not give away anything further concerning the plot—this is vital, as one of the delights of this novel is that as it unfolds the reader must continually adjust their assessment of where the narrative will take them. The Gospel of Eve is beautifully written. College life and the broader context of Oxford are both captured with engaging effortlessness. It is a small detail—and difficult to explain—but Mann has a real gift for naming characters, contributing to the ease with which the minor players crystallise in their respective roles. The main characters are thoroughly three-dimensional in their complexity. There is not so much character development, as a chapter-by-chapter revelation of who they are. All of this works to make the central, and it must be said remarkable, plot development credible.

So much for the form, what of the content? Whilst this is certainly a novel that can just be read as an engaging page-turner it offers rather more than this. Barely below the surface lie the serious challenges posed by human frailty, all brought to life in what can only be described as a rich intertextuality. There are literary connections to theology, Church history, famous literary Oxfordians, and Dostoevsky. The religious literature of the Middle Ages occupies pride of place, and it functions on a number of levels. The three parts of the book each open with a short quote from medieval literature, and we soon realise that the frequent mention of the likes of Piers Plowman, Margery Kempe and Chaucer are not just incidental details of Kitty’s life. The love of literature is felt profoundly throughout, only to intensify in the story’s denouement. The most impressive aspect of this prevalent intertextuality is that there is no artifice only effortless flowing prose.

If the intertextual insights cast light it is all too often on the darkness of human aspiration and desire. All the characters in the story have embarked on laudable quests. For Kitty and her friends this is the wish to become closer to God and to minister to others. Indeed, at times, they come across as set apart from the rest of the college in their priestly calling. In the case of Professor Albertus Loewe, a donnish key influence on the six ordinands, his task is the formation of the next generation of clergy which includes the inculcation of a love of religious literature. Yet, we find that these positive pursuits are all, without exception, tainted in very different ways by the hardening of virtue with human obsession. This novel offers no simple answers to the human condition. What good novel does? Instead the reader has to decide for themselves what to make of the rich interplay between the story of the first Eve, the fate of Evie, and the lives of so many other Eves.

 

Children and Heirs of God

A reflection on Psalm 148, Luke 2:36–40 and Galatians 4:4–7.

Anna the daughter of Phanuel makes the briefest of appearances in the Bible, in what we call the Christmas story. Only here in Luke’s gospel do we meet her and get the briefest insight into who she is. One of the remarkable things we find out, in this small window on the life of a widow, is that she lived in lockdown.

For us lockdown has mostly, perhaps entirely, negative connotations. Being stuck largely within the confines of a single building with all the freedoms we normally taken for granted removed is painfully restrictive. Unlike us, Anna chose lockdown. Perhaps her humble circumstances as a widow helped her make the choice. Perhaps she just wanted a life of devotion to the living God of Israel.

Her confines were larger than ours—the parts of the temple complex she was allowed in were a lot bigger than a typical modern house and garden. Nevertheless, choosing such confinement seems odd to us. In church history others have followed Anna’s lead. There have been countless individuals and communities who have renounced normality, if there is such a thing. Many have chosen lockdown, or confinement in one place.

Julian of Norwich is possibly the most famous example. She lived in a single room within a Parish church (now St. Julian’s Church) for more than 20 years, until her death around 1416. She was what is known as an anchorite —someone so anchored to Christ that they choose to anchor themselves to a single place as an act of extreme devotion. So serious was this act of confinement in the Middle Ages that Julian had the last rites read for her before being ‘locked down’—she was literally dead to her old life. Like Anna her experience was not total self-isolation, for both Julian and Anna were judged prophets—they had a ministry to others.

After nine months of the Hokey Cokey (or Hokey Pokey) of lockdowns—national and local—we probably don’t have the metal bandwidth to consider such confinement as a choice. But for Anna, and Julian, this was the exact point of their lockdown. It was not just a life choice but was the way they felt best able to honour the living God. We perhaps dismiss the likes of Anna, before giving serious thought to their singular commitment to recognise the worship of God in Christ as a priority that eclipses all others.

Many Christian confessions describe the purpose of humanity as the unceasing praise of the living God through Christ. For example, the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith opens with the assertion that:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This sits well with the singular abandoned praise of Psalm 148. It chimes with the choice of Anna to live in the Temple grounds. It fits with the brave decision of countless men and women who have renounced everything for Christ.

Putting the words in a more modern vain:

Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This is certainly where things started in Eden and where they end in the Book of Revelation. In living in between, most of us don’t adopt the singlemindedness of Anna. She gave up distractions, whereas we have more than ever. And clearly this cannot be the normal call for all of us who know Jesus as saviour and lord. We would, however, do well to be inspired by Anna’s commitment and we should head the remarkable insight she is given about Jesus as the basis for the redemption of Jerusalem. Her insight might at first sound parochial—the redemption of the city, the place of her lockdown—but she perceived the bigger picture. For this child opens the way to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and the New Earth. This will be a place for day and night worship for all. Where there will be no more distraction from our primary calling.

Anna understood that the fullness of time had come. She understood that the child, Jesus, born of a woman and under the law was a gateway to redemption. Paul, writing from the other side of cross and resurrection explains this further: We are, in Christ, made children of God. Of course, we were originally made as God’s children, but we need to be adopted once again because of our waywardness and distraction. In the new relationship found through Jesus Christ we are restored to our original relationship with the Father. Our Father can once again look upon us with delight, as our opposition to him, that comes all too easily, is taken from us in Christ.

Contrary to what you might have heard, Abba is not Aramaic for Daddy. The word is far richer than this. It has all the intimacy of Daddy but at the same time the recognition of absolute Fatherly authority. This richer meaning of the word Abba is the heart of the gospel. It is the four-letter appellation for God that captures the mystery of the creator God in all his majesty and glory who has nevertheless adopted us in a father-child relationship.

We don’t tend to enjoy having authorities over us. We might well feel we are slaves to our government’s laws, restrictions, and guidance, to the point where for the first time we think consciously on a daily basis about such matters.

Such slavery, if that’s what it is, pales into insignificance before the slavery that is the human condition. Without Jesus Christ, and our newfound adoption, we would be slaves to sin and slaves to death. Whilst we still sin, and we will die, we are now slaves to neither. Neither sin nor death bars us from an eternity with Abba Father. We know Christ crucified, who put an end to the slavery of both sin and death. We have seen Christ resurrected as the promise of this reality.

As Galatians 4:7 says:

So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. [NRSV]

What did Anna inherit? What did Julian of Norwich inherit? What have we inherited? The same things as one another! Namely the steadfast hope of an eternity with our Father. We should rejoice here and now. We should avoid being distracted from both worshipping him and acknowledging his lordship. And yet our present reality pales before that day of glory when the one born of a woman, and born under the law, returns in splendour. God’s firstborn enables us all to be children and heirs.

Advent: Love

In our modern world there are those that would challenge the very notion of love. Sadly, we see regular evidence of the failure of love. We know of, and perhaps experience first-hand, damaged relationships, broken vows and ended marriages. In the news we see celebrities, and the famous, failing to model true love in this age. Too many people can testify to the darker side of love. For some love is just a synonym for lust or sexual coercion and abuse.

In the 1980s the pop duo Eurythmics captured the darker side of so-called love in a song which claims to define love. In the words of Love is a Stranger (1982):

It’s savage and it’s cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It’s noble and it’s brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you’re left like a zombie

Such a view of love might match some experiences of modern relationships, but it’s also a parody of the Bible’s most famous passage about love:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13: 4–7, NIV

Both Eurythmics and the Apostle Paul describe love. I know which definition I prefer. For Christians, Saint Paul has the final word because his understanding of love is its truest form – for it is a view of love defined in the very nature of who the God of the Bible is. As the New Testament claims elsewhere: God is love (1 John 4:16).

It is perhaps in worldly love that we see most clearly the damage of humankind’s selfishness. As broken human beings when we aim at patient-and-kind love it is only a matter of time before we fall into savage-and-cruel love. Which of us has not said something to our dearest in the heat of the moment? Sometimes such words cannot be forgiven and even if they can, they are seldom forgotten.

Of the estimated 107 billion people who have walked this Earth, it is only Jesus Christ who continually eclipsed selfishness with selflessness. Though we might want to fix our eyes on the baby Jesus as we think on the noble theme of love. To fix our hearts requires a broken Jesus on a cross.

As Jesus knew all too well:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13, NIV

Advent: Joy

Why are children so much better at showing joy than adults? We are accustomed to seeing regions of the world marred by war and poverty on our TV screens. Sometimes we see behind the reporter, conveying a story of woe and suffering, children playing with expressions of laughter and joy. I am not pretending that children do not suffer daily in such contexts but rather drawing attention to a child’s ability to make the best of a situation and find joy where we jaded adults would not bother to look.

Children unwittingly know the truth of R. S. Thomas’ poem The Gift:

Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me

only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.

So why is it we adults find joy so elusive? Do we all ask the world? So much of being an adult brings barriers that prevent us enjoying the simple things of life. Joy requires a sense of abandonment to something – this might be playing a game, enjoying being with friends, holding a tame animal, or making time to notice the beauty of creation.

As adults, worry, responsibility, selfishness, and dissatisfaction can be the things that form an impermeable barrier to joy. Perhaps the ultimate death knell of joy is that all too adult concept of cynicism. As adults our experiences in this life can enable us to become either wiser or just plain cynical.

A few days ago, we saw the first people being vaccinated against Covid-19. The UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was seen to shed a tear of joy on national TV. Some of the press and a well-known satirical TV show have questioned the genuine nature of these tears. We might do well to avoid such cynicism. Perhaps we might heed the biblical proverb:

The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy.
Proverbs 14:10, NRSV

This is one to chew over. It seems to allude to the difficulty in sharing another’s joy. And it is a warning that too often there’s a binary choice between a path characterised by bitterness or one on which joy is found. In this way it seems that joy is part of the choices that we make. Such choices are all to seldom made consciously. The Bible does more than just offer wisdom on choosing the path of joy, it promises that joy can come from a relationship with God. Paul puts it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . .
Galatians 4:4–5, NRSV

As we approach Christmas we remember the one born in the stable who makes such a relationship possible, the one who is truly Joy to the World.

Advent: Peace

In our culture, peace means, above all, a cessation of war and conflict. This prevails over the wider idea of peace that the Bible presents, captured in the Hebrew and Greek words, shalom and eirene. They include wellbeing, friendship, harmony, and vitality.

In terms of the more general meaning of peace, we all share a desire that war would cease. There are by some counts ten wars currently taking place around the world. If we factor in civil unrest and local armed conflict this number is much much larger. The results of war are not just the obvious fatalities and injuries of combatant and civilians. One result of large conflicts are refugees in their millions, and all the pain and suffering that comes with the displacement of entire populations.

The age to come which Jesus will bring with him is a time of peace. The Bible pictures this in its dramatic conclusion—The Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse of John. But what of peace here and now? Well we can pray for peace. We can give support to humanitarian relief organisations. The sceptic might ask what difference does this make? The person of faith wonders just how much worse things would be without our prayers and actions.

Isaiah prophecies of the infant Jesus:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. [Isaiah 9:6].

The end of war, civilian deaths, refugee camps, and atrocities, is only part of the reason that Jesus Christ is known as Prince of Peace.

Advent is a season of waiting for the Prince of Peace who has already enabled countless millions to find shalom over two millennia. Jesus firstly brings peace between God and humanity. He invites us to see that we all share a frustrating habit of building a wall between us and God; sometimes choosing open hostility to our creator. Jesus brings down this wall, not just in the age to come but here and now.

The wall of hostility between nations is also addressed now by Jesus. Jesus showed the way during his short life on Earth, by building a bridge between Jews and Samaritans in their centuries-old sectarian dispute. Whilst few of us can make a contribution to world peace that will be remembered two thousand years later, we can all contribute to the demolition of the walls that divide us, one from another. And if you can’t demolish a wall today can you at least reach or look across one, as a small step here, and now, to a world free of hostility? Such baby steps are a foretaste of the work of the Prince of Peace born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem.

Advent: Hope

At this time, even more than is normally the case, hope is in the air. Even the UK government is aspiring to offer us hope. The hope of a vaccine for Covid-19, and the hope of a Christmas in which family, friends, and hugs will be especially cherished. Perhaps this year a love of stuff and stuffing will be eclipsed by a love to be with others, and a love for others. Such a hope for the festive season, although encouraging, is not biblical hope. Although, of course, the love for family and friend accords with the love and relationships which are central to Christian hope.

So, what is this greater hope? The Apostle Paul said:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction. [Romans 12:12]

The hope that Paul says we must await in joy requires patience because it lies way beyond Christmas. This hope is characterised by love, but it lies beyond the earth. It is a hope in a new heaven and a new earth—a new reality—a place where love abounds, and friendship encompasses God, as well as family and friends. Perhaps we see the value of such things clearer after the events of 2020. Perhaps this is the gift of 2020 vision.

Such a hope is sometimes described as a sure and certain hope because of its foundation. It is founded on Christmas in as far as Christmas concerns God’s Son made flesh to dwell among us. It is founded on Easter too, in that the same Jesus was found to be God’s Son when he rose to life. The sure and certain hope of resurrection is our future hope.

In this way, our hope, is a future beyond our current earthly reality. Yet it is founded in the past events recounted in the Bible. But what of the present? The future hope, founded in the past, changes everything here and now. Christian hope provides new glasses, a God-given prescription to see the world anew.

No more tears. No more death. No more worries. No more frailty. No loneliness. Such a future hope puts the, all to obvious, fragility of our present into perspective. We can live life to the full now sustained by such a glorious future hope. This is the sort of 2020 vision we always need but we perhaps see it afresh this year.

Psalm 51: Miserere mei, Deus

For various reasons I have been reflecting on the penitential psalms for much of 2020. If this is a response in any way to Covid-19 then it has been an unconscious one. The grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143 together dates to before the time of Cassiodorus (487–585). Some attribute the group to Augustine (354–430) but Cassiodorus’ Expositio Psalmorum, or Exposition of the Psalms, is the earliest extant work that clearly identifies each of these seven as a closed group of psalms. The identification of seven such psalms is somewhat puzzling. There are other psalms, for example Psalm 25, that seem to fit well with the others due to its penitential concern. A convincing case can even be made that Psalm 25 is ‘more penitential’ than some of the seven. Some have argued that the link is God’s wrath, noting that all of them either (i) mention God’s anger, or (ii) are cited, or referred to, in the early chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans [1].

Whatever the original thinking behind their grouping they have been bound together in liturgy, sung worship, devotional commentary, and theological dispute ever since the sixth century. They can also be seen to display a certain symmetry befitting their sevenfold nature. The symmetry I refer to draws attention to the central psalm, Psalm 51. Either side of Psalm 51 the opening words of four of the psalms reveal two pairs. Psalms 6 and 38 both open with a similar address, generally made identical in their Latin liturgical titles as Domine, ne in furore tuo. In a similar way Psalms 102 and 143 have identical openings in Latin: Domine, exaudi.

Domine, ne in furore tuo unites Psalms 6 and 38 as the psalmist petitions God that he will not rebuke, despite his anger. In the penitential framework, implicit in the identifying of this psalm group, this anger is assumed to be the result of the psalmist’s sin. The opening of Psalms 102 and 143, in a similar vein, is a plea that God will hear and answer the fearful lamenting psalmist. Psalm 51 at the centre of the group, even without the framing provided by this symmetry, is the penitential psalm par excellence. Many commenters have gone further, seeing it as the psalms of psalms [2]. What makes Psalm 51 so special?

This psalm is one of the thirteen psalms that contains a biographic comment about the life of David. Though critical scholars make a strong case that such headings are late additions to the psalms, they have played an important role in Christian interpretation of the psalms. This is especially the case with Psalm 51 because it relates one of the most, if not the most, pivotal moment in David’s life. It condenses the terrible events of 2 Samuel 11 into a few words:

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba. (Psalm 51 heading, NRSV)

David’s adultery with Bathsheba might well have amounted to rape. Even without this possible dynamic, with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, we see David commit two conjoined sins. It is not just the depth of the iniquity of one so beloved of God that is notable here. It is the remarkable gracious forgiveness of the living God that transforms this psalm into something truly special:

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:13, NRSV)

Here in the heart of the First Testament we see grace at work. Psalm 51 and 2 Samuel 12:13 both highlight the acute generosity of God. The wider narrative of 2 Samuel 12 does, however, reveal complications in that Nathan has to tease the truth from David, and despite God’s gracious forgiveness, sin still has its unpleasant consequences.

This biographical heading and the narrative in 2 Samuel enable a penitential theology that sees David as a model penitent. In this way, the penitential nature of these psalms means that their words have been understood on the lips of Christ as he prays as his body, the Church. Both their use in confession and in a rich Augustinian tradition have made the penitentials, and especially Psalm 51, the inspiration for some remarkable music in a variety of traditions. The four examples mentioned below are as varied as the theological, doctrinal, and pastoral aspects of this psalm, known simply as the Miserere. The collision of sin, penitence, forgiveness, and grace defies any singular mood.

In terms of the Latin choral tradition Gregorio Allegri’s (c. 1582–1652) Miserere is perhaps the most well know. There is story that the detailed score for the various choral parts of this music was kept secret so that it could only be used in the Sistene Chapel. This was the case until one day a fourteen-year-old, by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, witnessed a performance and then subsequently wrote down the score from memory.

Howard Goodall’s recent Have mercy on me – miserere mei stands in the same tradition of use of the Latin text. Unlike Allegri’s work the vocals are supported by musical instruments. But like Allegri, it uses the beauty of music to invite reflection on the superabundant forgiveness and mercy found in Psalm 51.

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in his Miserere does something very different. His lengthy work from 1992 takes each word of the Latin text one at a time in its opening minutes. As each word is sung it is answered by a bassoon. This reveals the penitent petitioning God for mercy with disturbing slowness. Perhaps they are struggling with fear of God? Maybe they simply need to show the solemnity of their petition? As the work unfolds it provides a journey to the day of judgement and beyond.

We conclude with this post with mention of arguably the wildest interpretation of Psalm 51: Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The dependence here is of course more of a riff and there’s no hint of Latin. Psalm 51 awakens in me the immense gratitude and solace that despite my sin, in Christ, I can say with Cohen’s David:

And even though it all went wrong.
I’ll stand before the lord of song.
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

 

References

    1. Harry P. Nasuti, Defining the Sacred Songs: Genre, Tradition, and the Post-Critical Interpretation of the Psalms, Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, p.33.
    2. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72, John Wiley & Sons, 2018, pp.304–316.