The social media gurus I’ve been looking to for assistance say that posting transcripts of the show is a Good Thing because it helps bring in the search engine traffic that a sound file alone won’t do. So here is a transcription of the first show. As you’ll see, the sentences in bold (the parts that were echoey in the podcast) are transitions and introductions to particular sections that I’ll use each show.
And, those of you who care about audio quality will be pleased to know that my production assistant has donated an old pair of ballet tights to the show, and subsequently helped me make a pop filter. That should improve things a bit for the next show which ought to be posted up in the next few days…
Again, the original audio version can be found here.
Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. Today, we’ll be talking about Psalm 25, verses 1 through 9, the psalm appointed for The First Sunday of Advent in Year C which this year falls on November 29th, 2015. The psalm will be read from the translation found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, but feel free to read along in whatever translation you prefer.
Hi, this is Greta; I’m a layperson at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Ten Hills—and I’m also the production assistant at the St. Bede Psalmcast. Here is Psalm 25:1-9 from the Book of Common Prayer:
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; *
let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.
2 Let none who look to you be put to shame; *
let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.
3 Show me your ways, O LORD, *
and teach me your paths.
4 Lead me in your truth and teach me, *
for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.
5 Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, *
for they are from everlasting.
6 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; *
remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.
7 Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
therefore he teaches sinners in his way.
8 He guides the humble in doing right *
and teaches his way to the lowly.
9 All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness *
to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
So, why is this psalm appointed here for this day?
The First Sunday of Advent is a big day liturgically. Advent is a four-week season that helps distract us from the Christmas shopping season. Actually, it gets us ready for Christmas the Church’s way rather than the culture’s way. Not only that, it also serves as the beginning of the church year. So—in a very real sense, we’re celebrating New Year’s Day for the church today. The word Advent literally means “the coming towards” or “the approach” and it refers to the coming of Christ. In a very obvious and basic sense, we are getting ready for Christmas, but there is actually a lot more to it than that.
Bernard of Clairvaux—he was a monastic reformer in the 12th century—he liked to talk about three different Advents of Christ that are all bound up together within our season of Advent: First, there is the coming of Jesus as the babe in the manager at Christmas. This is all about humility and simplicity and the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Second, there’s the coming of Jesus as Judge on the last day. This is all about glory and majesty and power. But then, between those two, is the hidden coming. Alright—this is the one when Christ is born within our own hearts. And that’s what Advent is, it’s a season of preparation, of careful watching, this is when we’re getting ourselves ready for these multiple comings of Christ into our life and into our world.
So—our psalm is one of the readings that is going to set the scene for this whole season.
This psalm appears in the context of three other readings: The Old Testament lesson is from Jeremiah 33:14-16 which is a prophecy that God is going to fulfill the promise that he made long ago to raise up a “righteous branch” for David. The New Testament Epistle is 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 which asks to strengthen the hearts of the church in holiness so that they will be blameless before God at the coming of Jesus Christ and his saints. The Gospel reading is Luke 21:25-36 which talks about the return of the Son of Man on the clouds with great glory to usher in the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls on his listeners to “be on guard” and “be alert at all times” in order that they may live faithfully and not be caught with their guard down when this great and terrible day dawns. As you can see, these readings are focusing around the final coming of Christ, so the point they keep hammering on is for us to wait for the promise, to keep awake, and to keep our eyes out because Christ is coming into our lives—we may not know how or when, but he’s coming!
Alright—but why this psalm? Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. One of them is that the lectionary is doing a bit of a throw-back. For some thirteen hundred years, the Western church has been singing this psalm on this day. We’ll come back to this a little later, but there were three different chants all taken from this psalm that basically kicked off the church year. This was kind of the theme song for the start of the church year. The opening lines of this psalm were the first song of the first Eucharist of each new church year and as a result, a lot of missals and chant books have the opening words of this psalm on beautifully decorated pages. There’s a link in the show notes to one from a 10th century chant book from Aquitaine in France—make sure you take a look at that. So, by appointing Psalm 25 here, the lectionary is giving a nod to that longstanding tradition.
Another reason—and likely one of the reasons that it was put here in the first place—is that St. Augustine in his reading of the psalm picked out one verse and applied it to the two different public advents of Christ. In the version Augustine was using the last verse that Greta read, verse 9, says, “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.”(Ours says “love and faithfulness, his said “mercy and truth”—not too different.) So, he took this and said, “For they understand the Lord as merciful at His first advent, and as the Judge at His second, who in meekness and gentleness seek His testament, when with His Own Blood He redeemed us to a new life; and in the Prophets and Evangelists, His testimonies. “ So—he’s connecting mercy with Jesus’s coming in flesh at Bethlehem and Christmas and then connecting truth with the coming of Christ as judge at the end of history. Thus, since St. Augustine made this advent connection with this psalm, it was a natural choice when the church was making programming decisions and thinking about what texts to use to kick off the season.
Thus, to sum up, this psalm is here because it’s got some serious Advent connections. It’s got a history of use in Advent, Augustine connects it with both the first and last comings of Christ, and it fits in with readings about waiting for the promise of God to be fulfilled and keeping to the path while we await the day of Christ’s coming.
Now, is there other information we need to help us understand what’s going on?
I do want to touch on one thing briefly. Cassiodorus reminds us (and we’ll talk more about him and his interpretation in just a second, I promise) he reminds us that this psalm is “mostly” an acrostic. Specifically this is an alphabetical acrostic. And what that means is that if you are looking at the psalm in Hebrew, you’ll see that the first letter of each line follows the sequence of the alphabet. So—the first line of the psalm starts with aleph, the second line with beth, then the third line with gimel, then the fourth line with daleth and so on through the rest of the alphabet. The only things is that we’re missing qoph which is the Hebrew letter for Q and that the author cheats a little bit with vav because there’s an aleph is in front of the vav but aleph is kind of “vowelish” so, I think we can let it slide.
So, this is a technique that we see in other places in the Hebrew Bible is well. It’s a particular form of poetry that often has a connection with wisdom literature and the scribal class. Partly that’s because it’s a visual game—this is something that you’d see as you’re reading—which means, you have to be able to read in order to get the joke. This is isn’t the kind of thing you can hear so it relies on the ability to read Hebrew in order to even recognize that this happening. We see this acrostic style in some other places. The poem in praise of the good wife in Proverbs 31 does this. Psalm 111 does this as does 112 and some others. The book of Lamentations is actually composed of four of these put together, and then the great granddaddy of them all is psalm 119 which takes this idea and just goes crazy with it. I’m sure will get to that on a later show. So—this psalm has got an acrostic structure which implies some wisdom connections and therefore the idea of reading and study and meditation.
Since we’re not the first Christians to read the psalms, what insights have others found within this text before we came along?
We’ve already talked a little bit about St. Augustine already so we’re going to go ahead and skip him for now. Let’s talk about this other guy I keep mentioning for a moment. So—Cassiodorus was a student of Augustine’s writings and after a big political career where he was basically prime minister for what was left of the Roman Empire in the west he retired and started up his own monastery and wrote a massive commentary on the psalms. This was in the sixth century. I’m sure I’ll do a show specifically on him in the not-to-distant future but that’s what you need to know about him for now. Right—so—Cassiodorus does an overview and breaks this psalm into three parts. For him, this whole psalm is spoken to God by the church. So—the speaker here is the church. In the first four verses, the church wants to know God’s intentions and ways. Then, in the second section, verses 5 through 10, the church asks for God’s kindness and mercy. Then, the third section—verse 11 to the end—expands on the idea that those who keep God’s commandments both deserve and will receive eternal rewards. So—that’s the big picture for Cassiodorus: there are three sections but the part that the lectionary gives us is only those first two sections where the Church is learning God’s ways and asking for God’s mercy.
A few points to note as we go along… First off, in several places the psalm talks about paths and ways; we see that twice in verse 3 and then again in verses 7 and 8 and 9 and 11. So this is a persistent image here in this psalm, that there is a way or path, and Cassiodorus connects this with the Law of God. And—it’s really interesting—there’s a great picture of this. The Utrecht Psalter is a really special manuscript from the 9th century. It was probably made in France near Rheims, and what makes it so special is that it has these line drawings in it that illustrate all of the psalms and the canticles that are in it, and these pictures are often drawing on the interpretations of Cassiodorus and Augustine. The image for Psalm 25 (and I have a link to that in the show notes as well) is terrific because front and center is an image of the advent of Christ, it’s Christ standing on the clouds of glory, but he’s handing a scroll of his ways to a guy who is clearly travelling on the way. So, you get this great Advent—and also teaching—image right up there front and center.
A few other things from Cassiodorus. He can’t resist taking a shot at heretics every once in a while. So, in verse 5 where it says that the compassion and love of God “are from everlasting,” he uses this to get a dig in at the Pelagians. When we say they are “from everlasting” we mean from the very beginning and Cassiodorus takes this to remind us that God’s grace was always around from the beginning and that even before we begin to intend something, God’s grace is at work in it, aiding us and give us strength. It’s funny—Augustine doesn’t actually go anywhere near there on this verse so Cassiodorus ends up sounding more Augustinian than Augustine does.
Two more quick things before we move on… Cassiodorus picks up both verse six which is in our section and verse 10 which isn’t and does something interesting. If the speaker is the church—and that’s how he’s reading it—then the Church is reminding God and us that it contains sinners in its midst. It’s not pure, it’s not only full of perfect people. And here he was arguing against certain groups who did have that perspective. He says, no, any church group who says that they have to be totally pure isn’t listening here to the voice of the church itself who is confessing that it is a whole mix of folks of all sorts and conditions. We’re in no way just a club for the pure and the holy.
The other point is that riffing off of verse 4, he says, “There are two factors that make good Christians: the first that we believe that God is our Savior, the second that we must await his recompense with patience all our lives.” So—these are key things that make us who we are. First, we gotta have faith (Hey, that could be a song…oh…anyway). Second—waiting, patience, that’s an element here that this psalm brings up.
So—now that we’ve looked at the lectionary, we’ve looked at the whole acrostic thing, we’ve talked a bit about Cassiodorus, it’s time to get down to the psalm itself.
How do we read this psalm on this day?
I think the best approach is to take the hint from Cassiodorus but also the Latin Mass Propers. As I said before, the western church has historically featured this psalm in the chants for mass for this day. And what they focus on is the first four verses. It’s about trust and truth. The end of the psalm actually goes in some different directions. I’d read it differently if we were reading whole thing—but we’re not. And since we’re not, then trust and truth are really at the heart of what we’ve got here.
Trust is about promises. God has made promises. Specifically—God made promises to Israel. That’s the whole “righteous branch” thing that we’ve got going on in the first lesson. But, there’s also an implicit promise that’s near and dear to the heart of the psalmist: “let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me…Let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes” There’s an implicit promise here that God is going to make sure that we come out on top. Well—on top of what, though? What enemies are we talking about, exactly? I think the psalmist would say literally enemies, like bad guys with swords or sneaky people with messed-up contracts. Readers invested in classical Christian Spirituality like John Cassian are going to say, no, he means the vices, those bad behaviors that we get tempted to do seemingly out of nowhere. Me, I’d rather go with Cassian on this one and I think that’s where the whole “truth” thing comes in. “Lead me in your truth and teach me.” Unless God has started handing out tactical advice, this sounds more like moral instruction to me rather than something that’s going to help us in an actual fight against real bad guys. “Lead me in your truth and teach me…He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.” That doesn’t sound physical at all to me, and knowing that this psalm is an acrostic and therefore has some connections to the literate, philosophical, scribal culture, I think a moral reading makes a lot of sense. So—we’re probably not actually talking about physical enemies here even though the psalm starts off sounding a lot like it.
So, we trust in the help of God and we trust in his teaching—and, really, that’s where the help comes from. That’s the content of the help in a really important way. Verse 9 nails it. That’s the last one we get and we stop once we get it: “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness.” Right? That’s our plumb line. That’s our measure. That’s how we can tell when we’re in the groove with God’s will: if love and faithfulness are the means, the method, and the fruit, then it’s a pretty safe bet that we’re going the right direction. If what we’re up to compromises either of these—love or faithfulness, then, we should probably give it a long hard look.
This all relates to Advent because we are moving into a season of preparation as we do so, we are thinking about the promises that God has made. We trust in those promises even while we wait in order to see them fully realized in our life and in our reality. At the same time, as we recall what things Gd has done for us, we have some work we need to do as well. Advent calls us to prepare by making ready for the coming of Christ both as the merciful incarnate Son of God and as the Judge who will judge us against his truth. As a result, this season calls us to pay special attention to the ways in which we walk, to inquire within ourselves if they are the paths we have been taught by God and to measure them against the definitive plumb lines of love and faithfulness.
So, to wrap it up: Psalm 25 is here to kick off Advent for us, just like it’s been doing for at least the last 1300 years in the Western liturgy. It’s about trusting in the promises of God, and it’s about learning the truth and carrying it out and the ultimate test of truth is rooted in the twin virtues of love and faithfulness.
So—that’s what we have to say today about Psalm 25, verses 1-9 as the psalm appointed for the First Sunday of Advent in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. Again, I’d like to give a big thank you to Greta for reading the psalm for us. If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes. You can find more of my thoughts at www.StBedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter (and there’s a link you can follow on my blog and in the show notes.) Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions.