Tuesday, December 26, 2017

For the first day of Christmas: Introduction to Psalm 2

Picture
 British Library, Harley MS 603, folio 2r
Today I want to start a little mini-series, an offering for the twelve days of Christmas.

The series focuses on Psalm 2, which seems particularly appropriate for the season, and provides a good opportunity for us to reflect on the implications of the Incarnation for us.

In the Benedictine office, Psalm 2 is the second psalm of Monday Prime.

The structure and context of Psalm 2

Psalms 1, 2 and 3 are often interpreted as forming a block that introduces the whole book of psalms: Psalm 1 provides for us the model of the perfect man, Christ; Psalm 2 sets out his Incarnation and Passion; and Psalm 3 the Resurrection.

Most interpretators divide Psalm 2 into four parts: Verses 1-3 deal with the events leading up to the Passion; verses 4-6 the Second Coming and Judgment; verses 7-8 the Incarnation; and verses 9-13 are a call to right living under the kingship of Christ in the current age of the world.

The final verses of the psalm provide a series of instructions, particularly directed at those in position of authority, but applicable to all on how we should respond to God: listen to God’s teaching; serve the Lord with fear; accept correction; and most importantly, trust in God.

Reading Psalm 2: A prophecy of Christ, and of the calling of the nations 

Psalm 2: Quare fremuérunt Gentes
Vulgate
Douay Rheims
Quare fremuérunt Gentes: * et pópuli meditáti sunt inánia?
Why have the Gentiles raged, and the people devised vain things?
2  Astitérunt reges terræ, et príncipes convenérunt in unum * advérsus Dóminum, et advérsus Christum ejus.
The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord, and against his Christ.
3  Dirumpámus víncula eórum: * et projiciámus a nobis jugum ipsórum.
Let us break their bonds asunder: and let us cast away their yoke from us.
 4. Qui hábitat in cælis, irridébit eos: * et Dóminus subsannábit eos.
He that dwells in heaven shall laugh at them: and the Lord shall deride them.
5  Tunc loquétur ad eos in ira sua, * et in furóre suo conturbábit eos.
Then shall he speak to them in his anger, and trouble them in his rage.
6  Ego autem constitútus sum Rex ab eo super Sion montem sanctum ejus, * prædicans præcéptum ejus.
But I am appointed king by him over Sion, his holy mountain, preaching his commandment.
7  Dóminus dixit ad me: * Fílius meus es tu, ego hódie génui te.
The Lord has said to me: You are my son, this day have I begotten you.
8  Póstula a me, et dábo tibi Gentes hereditátem tuam, * et possessiónem tuam términos terræ.
Ask of me, and I will give you the Gentiles for your inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for your possession
9  Reges eos in virga férrea, * et tamquam vas fíguli confrínges eos.
You shall rule them with a rod of iron, and shall break them in pieces like a potter's vessel.
10  Et nunc, reges, intellígite: * erudímini, qui judicátis terram.
And now, O you kings, understand: receive instruction, you that judge the earth.
11  Servíte Dómino in timóre: * et exsultáte ei cum   tremóre.
Serve the Lord with fear: and rejoice unto him with trembling.
12  Apprehéndite disciplínam, nequándo irascátur Dóminus, * et pereátis de via justa.
Embrace discipline, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and you perish from the just way.
13  Cum exárserit in brevi ira ejus: * beáti omnes qui confídunt in eo.
When his wrath shall be kindled in a short time, blessed are all they that trust in him.


The Incarnation

It is worth starting our consideration in the middle of this psalm, with the seventh verse, since it forms the Introit for the first Mass of Christmas, proclaiming the Incarnation.

The date of the composition of the chant of the Introit is contested, but the use of the text itself at Christmas time goes back to at least the fourth century.



The declaration 'this day have I begotten thee' points us to a threefold mystery: the eternal generation of the Son from the Father; the Incarnation, and Christ's 're-birth' in the Resurrection.

In this Christmas season though, it is the second meaning that the Church particularly focuses on in the Introit in the Midnight Mass of Christmas, as St Cassiodorus explained:
Have I begotten thee signifies the nativity, of which Isaiah wrote: Who shall declare his generation?  He is Light from light, Almighty from Almighty, true God from true God, from whom and in whom are all things. 
The whole psalm, though, should be interpreted Christologically, as the psalm title  'A prophecy of Christ, and of the calling of the nations', attributed to Eusebius of Caesaria makes clear.

The Passion of Christ

The whole psalm, though, is relevant to the meaning of Christmas and it is for this reason that the opening verses of Psalm 2 will be familiar to many from their use in Handel's Messiah.



Handel's libretto here takes its cue from Acts 4, which provides a definitive context for the interpretation of the psalm, and so is worth reading through in full.  The relevant section takes places after Saints Peter and John are arrested for preaching the Resurrection:
...And it came to pass on the morrow, that their princes, and ancients, and scribes, were gathered together in Jerusalem [congregarentur principes eorum, et seniores, et scribæ, in Jerusalem]: And Annas the high priest, and Caiphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest.  And setting them in the midst, they asked: By what power, or by what name, have you done this?   
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said to them: Ye princes of the people [Principes populi] and ancients, hear:  If we this day are examined concerning the good deed done to the infirm man, by what means he hath been made whole: Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God hath raised from the dead, even by him this man standeth here before you whole. This is the stone which was rejected by you the builders, which is become the head of the corner.  Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved...
 But they commanded them to go aside out of the council; and they conferred among themselves, Saying: What shall we do to these men? for indeed a known miracle hath been done by them, to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: it is manifest, and we cannot deny it. But that it may be no farther spread among the people, let us threaten them that they speak no more in this name to any man....But Peter and John answering, said to them: If it be just in the sight of God, to hear you rather than God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.... And being let go, they came to their own company, and related all that the chief priests and ancients had said to them. 
Who having heard it, with one accord lifted up their voice to God, and said: Lord, thou art he that didst make heaven and earth, the sea, and all things that are in them.Who, by the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, hast said: Why did the Gentiles rage, and the people meditate vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes assembled together against the Lord and his Christ.  For of a truth there assembled together in this city against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel,  To do what thy hand and thy counsel decreed to be done. And now, Lord, behold their threatenings, and grant unto thy servants, that with all confidence they may speak thy word,  By stretching forth thy hand to cures, and signs, and wonders to be done by the name of thy holy Son Jesus.
As Acts makes clear, the kings and princes are those who plotted to kill Christ; their efforts were in vain, since by virtue of the Resurrection his message spread even more strongly - even in Acts 4 they decide to let the apostles go hoping that the whole thing might just go away even in the face of the miracles being done!

Verse 3 can be read either as the leaders of the world rejecting God's law, a burden they regard as too heavy, or as a call for us to reject their false laws, and choose instead the light yoke of Christ.

Psalm 2 in the Benedictine Office

In St Benedict's Office, the psalm is the second psalm of Prime on Monday, and fits well with the theme of Christ's kingship that runs through this hour.

The injunction to ‘serve the Lord with fear and trembling’(v11) provides the antiphon for Monday Prime and is particularly important in Benedictine spirituality as the first step on the ladder of humility (RB 7).  It can perhaps be seen as part of the preparation for the weekly renewal of monastic vows in the Suscipe verse said at Terce.

St Benedict also quotes this verse in his instructions on how to approach the liturgy (RB 19), where St Benedict talks about the sense of ‘reverence and awe’ we should cultivate when saying the Office.


And for verse by verse notes on this psalm, continue on here.

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