Second Vespers of the Second Sunday of Lent
Holy Family Cathedral,
28 February 2010
In the Light of His Face
At Sunday Vespers in both December and January, we focused our meditation on Psalm 109 and 111 respectively. This evening, once again, it is the second psalm of Vespers that will draw us into the mystery of Christ. Not for a minute can I forget that is the Sunday of Our Lord’s Transfiguration on Mount Thabor; I propose, then, that we approach our meditation of the psalm in the light of His transfigured Face shining more brightly than the sun, the same Face that radiates invisibly, and penetrates our hearts, from the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Psalm 113 has two parts; the first, Psalm 113A, sung at Vespers on Sunday of the First Week, uses a lively poetry to describe the jubilation of nature as the children of Israel, bearing the Ark of the Covenant in procession, make their way into the Promised Land. The Western Church’s tradition refers to Psalm 113 by its opening words in Latin: In Exitu, “in the Exodus.” These two words link the psalm with today’s Gospel of the Transfiguration. We read in Saint Luke’s account of the glorious event on Mount Thabor: “and behold there talked with Him two men. And they were Moses and Elias, appearing in majesty. And they spoke of His exodus that He should accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:30-31).
The exodus of Our Lord, that is to say, His passion, death, and resurrection, completes and fulfils the exodus of Israel out of Egypt. No longer do we sing only of the exodus of Israel, for in Christ Jesus, people of all nations are called out of bondage in the Egypt of their sins.
Glory to God
Not to us, Lord, not to us the glory; +
let thy name alone be honoured; *
thy name for mercy, thy name for faithfulness;
why must the heathen say, *
Their God deserts them?
Our God is a God that dwells in heaven; *
all that his will designs, he executes.
Psalm 113B is divided into five sections. It opens with a confession of God’s glory: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory” (Ps 113B:1). Glory belongs to God alone because of his mercy and truth. The children of Israel experienced during their exodus the steadfast mercy of God, his utterly reliable love. The Lord glorified Himself by revealing His mercy in wondrous deeds. The psalm flings back right into the face of the heathen their ancient taunt, “Where is your God?” (Ps 113B:2).
The heathen have silver idols and golden, *
gods which the hands of men have fashioned.
They have mouths, and yet are silent; *
eyes they have, and yet are sightless;
ears they have, and want all hearing; *
noses, and yet no smell can reach them;
hands unfeeling, feet unstirring; *
never a sound their throats may utter.
Such be the end of all who make them, *
such the reward of all who trust them.
The next section takes on the perennial problem of idolatry. Man, left to his own devices, becomes a maker of idols. Idols are, the psalm says, “the handiwork of men” (Ps 113B:4). Look closely at verses 5-7. You will notice that the psalmist gives precisely seven descriptions of the impotence of idols. Why seven? Seven is the biblical number of perfection. (1) They have mouths but they do not speak. (2) They have eyes but they do not see. (3) They have ears but they do not hear. (4) They have nostrils but they do not smell. (5) They have hands but they do not handle. (6) They have feet but they do not walk. (7) No sound comes from their throats. By making use of seven affirmations, the psalmist is telling us that the idols, made by men are perfectly empty, absolutely and utterly nothing, deader than deadest of the dead. This section ends with a remarkable piece of wisdom: “If you make idols, you will become just like them. If you trust in idols, you will become just like them: empty, false, powerless, and dead.
Adoration and Trust
It is the Lord that gives hope to the race of Israel, *
their only help, their only stronghold;
the Lord that gives hope to the race of Aaron, *
their only help, their only stronghold;
the Lord that gives hope to all who fear him, *
their only help, their only stronghold.
The third part of the psalm (verses 9-11) is an exhortation to trust God. Trust is an expression of adoration. It addresses three classes of people: the Sons of Israel, the Priestly Order (the House of Aaron), and all who fear God, that is all righteous Gentiles. If you would worship God, trust him. Adoration without trust is hollow. A 17th century French mystic (Mère Mechtilde du Saint-Sacrement) put it this way: adorer et adhérer, “adore and adhere.” If you would adore God rightly, adhere to His will for you, and trust Him with your life.
The Lord keeps us in mind, and grants us blessing, *
blesses the race of Israel, blesses the race of Aaron;
all those who fear the Lord, *
small and great alike, he blesses.
Still may the Lord grant you increase, *
you and your children after you;
the blessing of the Lord be upon you. *
It is he that made both heaven and earth;
to the Lord belongs the heaven of heavens, *
the earth he gives to the children of men.
The fourth part of the psalm sings that God will bless those who bless Him. The tone is eucharistic. The praise that ascends to God as the people’s offering returns to them in blessings. All are blessed, “the little no less than the great” (Ps 113B:13). The praise we offer the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit returns in a superabundance of blessings upon our heads.
The Work of the Living
From the dead, Lord, thou hast no praises, *
the men who go down into the place of silence;
but we bless the Lord, we, the living, *
from this day to all eternity.
Psalm 113B ends with a solemn promise to worship and praise God. “But we who live will bless the Lord now and forever” (Ps 113B:18). Praise is the work of the living. Those who follow their idols down in to the silence will never know the bliss of endless praise. Man’s perfect happiness is in the praise of God.
The Tonus Peregrinus
Psalm 113 has the unique distinction of having its own proper tone in the chant: the hauntingly beautiful Tonus Peregrinus or Pilgrim’s Chant. It is the only psalm to which a particular musical tone is attributed. In exitu Israel de Egypto, * domus Iacob de populo barbaro. The Tonus Peregrinus is found in an almost identical formula used by the Yemenite Jews for the same psalm. It is one of the few chant formulae the origins of which can be traced back to a Hebrew model. This, of itself, is a compelling reason for our preserving it in the liturgy today, and passing it on to future generations.
The Currency of Adoration
Psalm 113 reminds us today that the worship of carved and artfully fashioned images are not the only forms of idolatry. Our culture is saturated with images; television, videos, DVDs and the internet flood the imagination with sights and sounds and, all too easily, feed new forms of a very old sin: idolatry. Whoever worships things made by man, more than the Maker of all things, is an idolator.
How does one know what one worships? The question is best answered, I think, by another one: where do you spend your time? For whom and with whom do you spend it? Time is the currency of adoration. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). Our treasure lies where we put our time. Time spent with idols makes us just like them: empty, sterile, and dead. Time spent with Christ, time before His Eucharistic Face, is transfiguring. It makes us like Him: merciful, fruitful, and gloriously alive to God.