|Duccio: The betrayal of Judas|
There are a number of reasons for this.
First it is quite a long day - Vespers in particular is the longest of the week, at 69 verses all up.
Secondly, it contains some of the more challenging psalms of the psalter, particularly at Vespers, with assorted bits of smiting (in Psalms 134&135) and bashing of babies (Psalm 136, By the Rivers of Babylon), all normally sung to Tone 3 which I always find rather disconcertingly cloying given the words.
Above all, though, the psalms of the day dwell on themes that are deeply confronting and counter-cultural, even (perhaps especially) within contemporary Catholicism, including the reality of malice and betrayal; the closing off of the Old Testament and the election of the Church; and punishment for sin.
So it is a hard day, I think, for us to meditate on. But an extremely necessary one.
We are all Judas's
The key theme of the day is, I think, man's malice, most particularly as manifested in the councils of the Jews plotting to kill Our Lord and the betrayal of Judas.
In the liturgy of Holy Week, Wednesday is called 'Spy Wednesday' because of its association with these events. It was a fast day throughout the year for this reason, and St Benedict certainly follows this very ancient tradition in his own prescriptions on fasting, making Wednesday one of the two days a week with only one meal for most of the year.
Does he echo the theme liturgically however?
Contemporary Orthodox (and former Trappist) theologian Patrick Reardon certainly thinks so in the case of Lauds at least, arguing that:
“Wednesday’s relationship to the betrayal of Jesus seems to be the major reason that Psalm 63 (Hebrew 64) has been associated with that day for many centuries. The Rule of St Benedict, in the sixth century, already testifies to what appears to have been the older custom of praying this psalm on Wednesday mornings at Matins.” (Christ in the Psalms, p125)
I agree, and think that the other psalms of the day can be prayed as a meditation on the rejection of Jesus by his own, and the consequences all this has had for salvation history. And of course this meditation must be applied to our own lives and times as well, for in our day many once again reject the Gospel; for we are all Judas's, crucifying Jesus through our sins; and we must all decide whether to accept God's choice of us for his own.
The consequences of betrayal
One of those uncomfortable, unfashionable truths Wednesday's Office confronts us with is not just the reality of our own betrayals of God, the sins we all continue to commit that crucified Christ, but also the consequences of those choices.
Several of the psalms of the day deal with the punishments God meted out to his people as punishment for their sins. The day opens, for example, at Matins, with Psalm 59, which describes a defeat suffered by the Israelites at the hands of the pagans because God is angry with them.
Indeed, the very opening verse of the first Nocturn at Matins sets the scene with these words: O God, you have cast us off, and have destroyed us; you have been angry...
The old and new covenants
The most immediate consequences of the rejection of God represented by Judas' betrayal though, was surely the fate of Jews of the time following their rejection of Christ.
The situation of modern Jews when it comes to the Church is sensitive territory these days, for many in the Church, swayed by the desire to promote inter-religious unity, advocate ideas that are at odds with both Scripture and tradition. But the traditional view, which as Fr Hunwicke has recently carefully set out (do go read his series of posts on this subject) is not contradicted by Vatican II's teaching on the subject, is that because the Jews of his time mostly rejected Jesus as the Messiah, the old covenant is closed off: the Jews are no longer the chosen people, for they are displaced by the Church.
The Church is based on the faithful remnant of the Jewish people of course, consisting of the apostles and disciples and their subsequent converts. But the Mosaic Covenant has been closed, and the Jewish people have been dispossessed just as the Canaanites were in their time, and their inheritance given to the new Israel, the Church, which is open to gentiles and Jews alike.
In fact Hbrabanus Maurus' early medieval monastic commentary on the Office Canticles reminds of us St Paul's discussion of those famously barren women of the Old Testament granted a child who is preferred over that of a hated rival as foreshadowing the closing off of the old covenant with the Jewish people, and the opening of the new to all nations (Galatians 4). Maurus says:
“But on Wednesday the Canticle of Anna the prophetess is sung, in which the expulsion of the perfidious Jews is set out, and the election of the Church of the gentiles is demonstrated.”
The idea that God chooses individuals and peoples as his own, and intervenes in history to advance his plan for them is something our egalitarian, aggressively secularist, society tends to shy at, but is repeated over and over in today's psalms.
The sentiments of the canticle of Hannah, with her rejoicing at becoming pregnant at last and bearing a son meant for great things is clearly the direct source of many of the verses of Our Lady's Magnificat, her own song of exaltation at being chosen to be the Mother of God.
And the first two psalms of Vespers celebrate God's interventions to choose the Jewish people out of all the nations of the world, to bring them out of Egypt, and bring them into the Promised Land. We can see them as foreshadowing the establishment of the Church.
A Redemption triptych?
In fact these two psalms of Vespers seem to me to form something of a deliberate triptych with the opening psalms of Vespers on Monday and Tuesday.
On Monday, Psalm 113 rehearses the parting of the Red Sea and Jordan as a type of our baptism, and the rejection of idolatry and election of Israel as a type of the Church.
On Tuesday, Psalm 129's concluding verse promises redemption through Christ.
Psalm 134 repeats Psalm 113's verses on the impotence of false idols, and takes us through the key events of salvation history.
Psalm 135 covers virtually identical ground, but concludes with a verse on God providing food to 'all flesh' that can be interpreted as the opening of the covenant to the gentiles.
They can also usefully provide a meditation for us on the nature of God, a theme continued in the opening psalm of Thursday (with Psalm 139 as a meditation on his omniscience and omnipotence).
Babylon or Jerusalem?
A key point to note is that Wednesday's psalms are strongly at odds with the modern idea that pretty much everyone will be saved, regardless of whether or not they have actually sought to follow Christ. Rather, they contain a clear message: stay faithful to God, and he will aid you; reject him, and he will reject you.
The Prime psalms in particular point to the need for prayers and grace, for heroic perseverance at a time when heresy, indifference and atheism are rife. Nowhere, though, is the choice that we must each make - between the city of God or the city of men - made clearer, perhaps, than in Psalm 136, By the rivers of Babylon, sung at Vespers.
Wednesday in the Office is, I think, something of a 'tough love' day, reminding us that just as evil men constantly circled around Jesus trying to trap him and find the moment to bring him down, so can we expect the same treatment. Worse, we can all be tempted to utterly betray Christ through our sins.
This hard message is, though, always tempered by the constant reminder that repentance is always possible: God's punishments are meant to cause amendment.
Out of death comes life: the seed must die
A second thread to the day is, I think, that God intervenes in history in order to bring good out of evil: our sufferings are for a purpose, and have meaning.
In particular, the Wednesday Office reminds us, as part of the weekly cycle on the life of Christ, that what is to come - Jesus' suffering and death - was a necessary sacrifice, made to reopen to way the heaven for us.
Psalm 64, a harvest hymn said at Lauds, and Psalm 137, the closing psalm of Vespers both reflect this theme, with Psalm 64 telling us that the Lord has ‘visited the earth, and have plentifully watered it; you have many ways enriched it’, such that the streams are full, and everything is set for a ripe harvest, surely a fitting image for the day on which Scripture tells us that Christ spoke to his disciples of the necessity of the wheat seed dying so that the new harvest could be planted.
Our Lord on Spy Wednesday
Yet in many ways the overarching image for the day is provided, I think, by the last verses of the last psalm of Prime, which describes evil men circling, waiting for the moment to attack, just as they did Christ throughout his ministry, but most especially on that final Wednesday before the first Triduum.
In keeping with these challenging themes, Wednesday's variable psalms end on a somewhat ambivalent note, with the words of Psalm 137 echoing Psalm 23 (the Lord is my shepherd), in speaking of the trust we can all have in God when things look dire - but also, perhaps, foreshadowing the abandonment that Christ faced on the Cross:
"Though affliction surround my path, thou dost preserve me; it is thy power that confronts my enemies’ malice, thy right hand that rescues me. My purposes the Lord will yet speed; thy mercy, Lord, endures for ever, and wilt thou abandon us, the creatures of thy own hands?" (Knox translation)
THE PSALMS OF WEDNESDAY
(Note: Psalm 3 &Psalm 94 said daily)
Psalm 67 (divided)
Psalm 68 (divided) (in the context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 69 (Mass propers; in context of Tenebrae
Psalm 70 (in the context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 71 (in the context of Tenebrae)
Psalm 72 (in the context of Tenebrae)
(Note: Psalms 66, 50 and 148-150 are said daily)
Introduction to Psalm 63 (Psalm 63 in the context of Tenebrae)
Introduction to Psalm 64
Canticle of Anna (Hannah) (1 Kings 2: 1-10)
Canticle of Judith (Judith 16: 15-21) (festal)
Introduction to Psalm 9 (Pt 2 aka Psalm 10)
Introduction to Psalm 10
Introduction to Psalm 11
Terce to None: as on Tuesday
Introduction to Psalm 134 (with links to verse by verse notes)
Introduction to Psalm 135 (with links to verse by verse notes)
Introduction to Psalm 136 (with links to verse by verse notes)
Introduction to Psalm 137 (with links to verse by verse notes)
Compline: same psalms said daily: 4, 90, 133