|St Mary's Church, Lewisham, UK|
The public ministry of Christ, the true Temple
Monday in the Benedictine Office, I've previously suggested, can be seen as a meditation on the life of Christ from his birth to baptism and temptation in the desert.
Tuesday, I want to suggest, is an appropriate time to meditate on the public ministry of Christ, and particularly the growth in the spiritual life and holiness that comes from the imitation of Christ, as we stand in the footsteps of the disciples, hearing his preaching. In fact, the first very first psalm of Matins, Psalm 45, supports that idea quite nicely, asserting that 'God is in the midst of us', 'doing wonders on the earth' (Deus in médio ejus… Veníte, et vidéte ópera Dómini, quæ pósuit prodígia super terram).
The psalms of Matins and Lauds are full of references to the city of God, the heavenly temple, psalms which Christians have long interpreted as being about the desire for Christ himself. Indeed, Psalm 42, which is said at Lauds, forms the basis of the prayers at the foot of the altar in the traditional Mass.
One of the most distinctive features of the Benedictine Office, though, is the use of nine of the Gradual Psalms at Terce to None from Tuesday to Saturday (the older form of the Roman Office used Psalm 118 at these hours).
And on Tuesday, St Benedict goes further, arranging it so that all of the 'psalms of ascent' (Psalms 119-133), save for Psalm 128 (said on Monday) are said in order.
These psalms are thought to have been sung liturgically as the pilgrims ascended the fifteen steps of the Temple in Jerusalem on major feasts.
These psalms can also be viewed as pilgrim songs, appropriate perhaps for Christ's wanderings around the region as he preached.
But above all, the Fathers saw them as tracing the mystical ascent of the Christian in the spiritual life in imitation of Christ, who shows us how to climb Jacob’s ladder to heaven and grow in virtue.
The first of the group, Psalm 119, presents us with the image of an exile, a stranger living amongst antagonistic peoples, who has ‘lived too long in exile’. Hebrews 11 nicely summarises the story line that then develops:
Hebrews contrasts the story of the Old Testament figures who set out on this journey, but were not able to arrive at the destination because heaven was closed to them by Original Sin, with our situation, whereby the gates to heaven have been reopened by our Lord. But it also points to the key orientation of the Christian: living in the world, but not being of it; and focusing on laying up treasure in heaven, not in the here and now:
"Why then, since we are watched from above by such a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of all that weighs us down, of the sinful habit that clings so closely, and run, with all endurance, the race for which we are entered. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the origin and the crown of all faith, who, to win his prize of blessedness, endured the cross and made light of its shame, Jesus, who now sits on the right of God’s throne." (Hebrews 12)
Indeed, Christ is the 'third temple', as St John's Gospel asserts in a text that many of the Fathers regarded as the key to the interpretation to the Gradual psalms:
"Jesus answered them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again. At which the Jews said, This temple took forty-six years to build; wilt thou raise it up in three days? But the temple he was speaking of was his own body; and when he had risen from the dead his disciples remembered his saying this, and learned to believe in the scriptures, and in the words Jesus had spoken." (John 2: 19-22).
Vespers on Tuesday
Vespers on Tuesday features four of the gradual psalms, Psalms 129-132. Two of these (Psalms 130 and 132) are very short indeed - only three verses as they appear in Scripture, though lengthened somewhat in their liturgical presentation.
There is, arguably, a particular logic to the split between the gradual psalms used at the little hours and those at Vespers: Cassiodorus, St Benedict’s contemporary, suggests that the first nine of the group refer to our life on earth, while the next group look to heaven.
But there is perhaps a deeper logic to them in terms of their specific content and Christ's message to us:
- Psalm 129, De Profundis, is a hymn to God's saving mercy, for God looks not at our sins and merits but instead redeems us through his mercy;
- Psalm 130, Domine non est exaltatum cor meum, urges us to meditate on the necessity of humility, which Christ taught us by his willingness to take human form and die a dreadful death;
- Psalm 131, Memento Domine David, can be interpreted as an ode to the Real Presence and the importance of worship; and
- Psalm 132, Ecce quam bonum praises the unity of community life, urging us to love and serve one another.
(Psalm 3 &Psalm 94 said daily)
Psalm 47 (In Mass propers: Pt 1& Pt 2)
Psalm 49 (In Mass propers)
Psalm 53 (in context of Tenebrae, as Mass propers)
Psalm 58 (in context of Tenebrae)
(Psalms 66, 50 and 148-150 are said daily)
Psalm 42 (Judica me)
Psalm 56 (Miserere mei)
Canticle of Ezekiel (Is 38)
Canticle of Tobit (Tobit 13:1-10)
Introduction to Psalm 7
Introduction to Psalm 8
Introduction to Psalm 9 (Pt 1)
Ps 119 (Psalm 119 in the context of Vespers of the Dead)
Ps 120 (in Vespers for the Dead)
Ps 121 (Introit for 18th Sunday PP)
Psalm 129 (De Profundis) (as a penitential psalm/1, Penitential/2, Alleluia and Offertory for last Sunday after Pentecost)
Psalm 131 (Chrysostom on verse 1)
Compline (same psalms said daily)
Psalm 4 (in the context of Tenebrae)