How do we use Psalm 50 as Orthodox Christians?

#2 in a Series of Reflections on Psalm 50 during Great Lent

For those of us who are Orthodox Christians, Psalm 50 is not unknown to us.  How do we know it?  Because it’s everywhere!

The Church places an emphasis on certain prayers by prescribing that we pray them frequently. Examples include of course, the ‘Our Father’, ‘The Prayer to the Holy Trinity’ (Trisagion -Holy God, Holy Mighty…etc.) and hymns to Mary such as the hymn ‘It is right in truth to glorify You, the Birthgiver of God…‘  These repetitions are not just the ‘multiplying of words’ that Jesus warned about, but a way of increasing a kind of spiritual clarity and intensity by their repetition.  So when I say that Psalm 50 is like that, here are a few examples of places in our common Orthodox prayers where Psalm 50 shows up:

Morning Prayers – The traditional longer forms of the Morning Prayers include Psalm 50 as a way of ‘level-setting’ our day in seeking God’s mercy and avoiding sin.

Formal Liturgical Services – It is found explicitly in the middle of Matins and almost all the time, except during the Resurrection Matins at Pascha, which is not penitential but fully celebratory.  It is also found in Great Compline and the Midnight Office when these are prayed especially in monasteries.  As mentioned before, it is prayed quietly by the priest whenever he incenses at the Divine Liturgy and at the Cherubic Hymn.

Sacraments of Penance – In preparation for the Sacrament and as with other penitential prayers it forms a basis of a holistic understanding of the call to repent of our sins and our internal  penitential spirit in acknowledgement of those sins. The psalm helps us take our external offenses and internalize them.

Other Prayers and Spiritual Images: There are many penitential prayers in the Church, and most of them include language from Psalm 50 somewhere.  So even the verse that we pray during the first week of Lent when we recite the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, we say ‘Have mercy on me O God, have mercy on me.’  This is the first verse of Psalm 50, repeated.  The prayer ‘Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy.’ is repeated on the lips of Orthodox Christians constantly.  These are the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!”  spoken perhaps thousands of times a day quietly in the heart by Orthodox Christians. The spiritual ‘air’ of Orthodoxy is permeated with the penitential and humble spirit of Psalm 50. 

The Internal and external sin.

A disease can exist inside of a person’s body, but be invisible to others, or even unknown to the patient him/hereself. Similarly, when we sin it is not always external or known to others.  But all sin is always internal – sin is a matter of the state of our hearts.  Just like denial of a disease, we may choose to ignore our symptoms especially if they are not externally obvious to others. We will even hide our symptoms from a doctor sometimes, saying, ‘It’s not that bad.’

When we sin we may tend to view it just in these external terms – what we did wrong or against another.  Today many never even say ‘I did this wrong, or this evil – but more often skirt the issue saying, ‘made a mistake’. Sin is a mistake – a big mistake – but more than a mistake.  When we speak this way there is no internal sensitivity or awareness of sin or its toxic effects and in fact it is easy to cast our sin as caused by others.  However, our recitation of Psalm 50 for us is meant to be intensely personal – just as personal as each of our sins.

Because Psalm 50 arose from a specific event – David’s double sin with Bathsheba followed by the hideous murder of her husband, Uriah  – it prompts a review.  So our next step will be to explore this Psalm by seeking a  better understand of its context in the Bible narrative.

During this holy Lenten season, let’s pray for one another, that we will recognize our sins, and pray to God for forgiveness and in His mercy will be heard. +

Author: Fr Robert Holet - UOC of USA Office of Stewardship

A semi-retired Priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

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