All Things are New!

#19 of a Series on Psalm 50

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Christian theologians over the centuries have discussed, or maybe just as often argued, about the nature of salvation and trying to describe in a comprehensible way this most profound human experience which bears eternal consequences. What you end up with is a stream of internally coherent thoughts and ideas, which become theological ‘positions’, which try to explain the unexplainable.  As an occasional fan of theology, these days I’m wondering if the best we can do is revert back to metaphor and shroud it in mystery.  That appeals to my tendency to be lazy in thought – contrasted to that part of the nature of our human condition driven to probe and understand, conceptualizing things and processes, whether they be in the natural world through science, or the metaphysical and spiritual worlds through nebulous theologies.  

It’s with that sense that I try to skim through this verse, touching on it like the hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower as they prepare for their great sojourn south very soon.  The word ‘create’, from the Orthodox Study Bible’s translation above has a profound implication. 

A New Heart?

Everybody has a heart and when that heart is diseased, our only hope is to make it somehow ‘better’ and able to function at least moderately to ‘get by’.  That changed when the miracle of heart transplantation appeared with Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s work in the 1967. Before that, we always were just stuck with the heart we were given at birth. But when you’re so sick that your heart no longer works, you die.  Now there’s an alternative – get a heart transplant =  a new heart.  

Sin is a spiritual ‘heart attack’ which seriously compromises our heart’s function.  Now here I mean the heart as the center of our being, our soul mysteriously linked to our rational and emotional functions, and the seat of the greatest dimensions of our human condition – love, hope and faith, cognition and rationality, artistic aspiration, etc. – essentially bearingour personality and life itself.  When this heart has been wounded, our capabilities to live in goodness (righteousness) and in love and care of others collapses, and death is near.

In our theologies, and even in this psalm, we see references to the cleansing of a heart or, in some translations, a purification.  There is, however, in Christianity a very different theological ‘add-on’ to this idea.  The heart of the penitent is not merely purified, but instead the penitent is given the unthinkable – a new heart, spiritually.  To create is to take something that does not exist, and make it exist.  This idea is, I believe, conveyed in this verse – what the penitent person receives is a new heart.

But, as my metaphor above limps as they all do, this new heart is not merely like the transplanted heart from an unfortunate accident repurposed in someone else’s chest – as marvelous as that is (!) – but a new heart, in every way.

Judaism and Christianity

I believe that this concept has been a struggle since the earliest days of the Church. 

What is the nature of Christianity?

Is Christian teaching a ‘purified’ or a recycled Judaism taking its teachings to a new place ethically and with a new spiritual focus, centered in the teachings of Jesus?  The Council of Jerusalem[i], which wrestled with this fundamental issue, recognized two important things.  The Council realized that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism in the Risen Lord, yet had to remain in continuity with it, echoed in the Law and the Prophets and expressing this in distinctive worship (liturgy) of Jesus as Lord, a tightly bound community life and structure, and strong moral teaching based on the teachings of Christ – living a life pleasing to God.  But there was always a ‘Judaizing’ tendency in the Early Church, to be confronted by the Jew above other Jews – St. Paul himself, who was the voice of the Christian teaching regarding the evangelization of the Gentiles.  It became clear. Did someone need to become a Jew first, before becoming Christians?[ii]  Led by the Spirit, the Apostles through the Council was a profound, ‘No.’

The Death and Resurrection of Christ forever changed Judaism – in some ways bringing it to an end so that the fulfillment of Judaism in Christianity would emerge just as a death is necessary for a Resurrection to take place.[iii]  Hence, the old Judaic practices of the Law would give way to a completely new re-founding of the Revelation of God in the Crucified and Risen Lord, Jesus Christ identified as The Word of God Himself. It is this newness that St. Paul, emphasizes. Consider these two passages from Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I liv in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up fo me.” Gal. 2:20 

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” Gal. 6:15

Speaking forcefully to those who wanted to impose Judaism[iv] on those who had received Christ and come into the Church, St. Paul makes this powerful distinction – because becoming a Christian means a death of the old self (and its religious views and limitations) to allow the new creation to emerge.  Penance is that necessary death to the old self and our prior actions so that the new life can emerge. As Paul argues in much of the Epistle to the Romans, the old religion of Judaism is meaningless in regard to making one’s soul righteous – for that can only happen in Christ – by being ‘crucified with Christ’ unto death and receiving the new life, in the new heart of spiritual man born of water and the Spirit.

Baptized into His Death

This death, and the emergence of new life happens in sacramental Baptism. It is sacramental precisely because it ‘makes sacred’ the one who was previously dead (the essence of uncleanness in Judaic terms) in sin, and brought to new life and recreated – given a new heart.

As we can see, this newness is, in a sense, not new.  David had prophetically (under the inspiration of the Spirit through his penance) alluded to it in Psalm 50, with his language of creating a pure heart – as a re-creation – in the passage above. The Holy Prophet Ezekiel spoke of this as well:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  Ez. 36:26

This is why the imagery of death to self is so essential especially, as manifest in the renunciation of the Devil in the Baptismal practice (and ritual) and a confession of sins prior to Baptism.[v] This confession paved the way for receiving the new life, and the new heart, through Baptism.

In this regard, we can also consider the nature of Baptism itself.  Some teach that it is a type of symbol or ritual, like the Old Testament ritual washings, which has no real spiritual efficacy except that Jesus said to do it (Mt. 28).  The Ancient Church, as expressed in Orthodox and Roman Catholic teaching rejected such a simplistic understanding because the Scriptures had so much more to say about what Baptism accomplishes – the eternal incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Mystical participation of a person in the very life of the Risen Lord, the nature of the Church itself, etc.

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  (Rom 1:6)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2Cor 5:7)

It is this two phases of baptism into Christ’s Death – through a penitential confession of sins and sacramental Baptism, that the new Creation in Christ emerges. 

New Creation

This newly created heart exists in the man and woman who are the new creation in the Risen Lord.  In a rather involved, but fascinating account of the creation of man and woman (Adam and Even), St. Simeon the New Theologian[vi] makes a remarkable observation about the creation of Eve from the side of Adam. The act of creating Eve from Adam, before the Fall, is paralleled to the Lord’s taking a ‘portion’ of humankind for, and dare I say, unto Himself.  In His divine foreknowledge He knew that the old Man – Adam and those of his flesh – would die.  But the new portion set aside would be ‘reserved’ for the ‘new Adam – Jesus Christ’ and it would be en-fleshed in the Virgin Mary who would give flesh to the Son of God, the New Adam, to institute the beginning of the New Creation through the Incarnation and all that Christ would accomplish as the God-man.

This idea of a new creation is specially revealed in the beginning and end of the Bible, the first and last chapters– Genesis and Revelation.  Genesis 1 begins with the starting point of Creation of the cosmos and the human role of stewardship of the Creation being made in God’s image and likeness but bearing bodily form, unlike the angels.  Revelation describes the fulfillment of the cataclysmic end of the fallen world as it is recreated in a new way, in Christ, in the Church as the Bride of Christ.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed.  I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.”  Rev. 21:1

In some ways, this new creation idea is not new!  The prophet Isaiah spoke these words centuries before the coming of Christ,

For behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”  Is. 65:17

It is in this light that perhaps we can see the First Miracle of Jesus in Cana as pointing to what He was really to do in His ministry. His changing of the water into wine constituted a new creation of the water from something with a simple liquid, into something with a similar but fundamentally new and distinctive nature – wine.

Renewal of the Mind

While the final re-creation of the cosmos in Christ will encompass all beings and all things, the re-creation process has already begun in the central core of creation, the human heart – as David discovered and exclaimed through his repentance, “Create a pure heart in me O God!”  This echoes the prophetic cry of the early Church, prompting the faithful to cry out, “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 16:2) – anticipating the second Coming of Christ.

When we think of the New Creation, we may anticipate and long for the cataclysmic recreation of the world described in Book of Revelation. But the new creation really begins in a different way, not with trumpets and earthquakes, but with what St. Paul describes as the “renewing of the mind.”  (Rom.12:2)  This is prompted by tears flowing in repentance for offenses against God, and opens the doors of grace, and Christ Himself, to enter and refashion the human person in His likeness. Ω


[i] The Council of Jerusalem is described in Acts 15:1ff.

[ii] I cannot imagine how incredibly difficult this would be for someone to accept who was so steeped in Judaism as St. Paul. It would have seemed like an abandonment of the Hebraic Faith – except that full understanding of Christianity would point to him the narrow path of understanding how Christianity was truly fully Jewish in its Godly spirit, while certain external aspects would be superseded by incorporation in to Christ (and the Church).

[iii] Many of the Fathers of the Church see the tearing of the curtain of the Temple at the moment of Christ’s death as a sign of this radical end to the Judaism as it was known.

[iv] For a long time I’ve found it utterly strange that some Protestant congregations would have a type of Jewish Seder meal on the evening before Good Friday.  Despite the profound meaning of the Seder and its implications for understanding the Christian Passover (Pascha), to celebrate this instead of the Eucharist shows just how far the breakdown of theology has gone.  The Eucharist forever supplanted the Seder which had only served as a metaphorical forerunner of the Sacred Meal of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  It shows the importance of Liturgy as a spiritual stream of theological revelation.

[v] This raises the oft-debated question of the baptism of infants, which leads to the very important theological discussion of the nature of sin (and the Original Sin) which cannot be explored here.

[vi] See St. Simeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life, Vol. 1, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. In this effort to summarize a complete thought of St. Simeon I way well misconstrue or misrepresent certain aspects of it – hence my recommendation to go to the source.

Can You Face Him?

Icon of Christ the Bridegroom – M. Kapeluck


#18 of a Series on Psalm 50

Turn away your face from my sins; blot out all my iniquities.”

“Face it.”  

It’s an expression that we say to people when we want them to confront something they don’t want to look at.  It means confronting oneself with the truth about something that is (seemingly at least) bad, and we are reluctant to look at.  As human beings (unlike horses or prey animals[i]) our eyes are on the front of our face so to really focus on something we must look directly at it.  Hence the facial orientation is important and shows up in all kinds of ways, culturally, in literature and communications.  Your face is the key to your heart – and metaphorically, it’s the key to God’s heart as well.

Of late, I’ve done a little reading on autism[ii] – a developmental disease that usually presents itself early in life. The symptoms of the disease are psychological, neurological, physiological and social, including behaviors we would often call disruptive (like outbursts of emotion), social detachment and self-fixation. Researchers are finding that it is much more common than originally thought – and observable in some ways even in otherwise seemingly well-adjusted and even highly successful adults. The wide variety of behaviors and expressions of it have led to what is called the autism ‘spectrum’ which implies that wide variation in breadth and depth of symptoms.  Autistic people sometimes have unusual abilities in some areas, and skills and knowledge rightly applied can bring forth remarkable capabilities.

I mention autism because one common diagnostic characteristic of autistic people is that they are extremely uncomfortable looking someone in the eyes, face to face.  This is part of the social distancing which is seemingly innate in their being, even from an early age. It can either come from, or foster further, an inner sense of inadequacy and self-weakness, which the ego directs into avoidance behaviors.  Confrontation of that behavior may lead to an explosive outburst in self-defense. 

Over the years, when I’ve found myself in a ‘bad’ place spiritually[iii], my own behaviors will mimic this in some ways. The eyes avoid contact with others.  I am unable to face someone – directly and personally and literally cannot look them in the eyes in peace – especially those to whom I am directly accountable.  It actually becomes noticeable within and other people pick up on the behavior as a mirror of the inner state.  With repentance (especially Confession) one can be set back aright and ‘look forward’ again, not just down.  Sometimes people confuse humility with being unable to look someone in the eye.  It’s probably a sign of the opposite – an inner weakness perhaps due to the wounding of sin.

Now there is another way to meet someone face-to-face.  That is in confrontation – where the ego is exerting itself in a dominance battle with another person.  This is described almost universally in societies when we use the phrase, saying someone “blinked first.” In a stare down, whoever looks away first capitulates and crumbles before the other who then exerts dominance in other social ways.  

The Glorious Face of God

In this verse, David implores God to turn away His face from his sin.  David is essentially asking God to do what he has done, because the sin is so hideous to David that David must turn his face away from it.  Looking at the sin burns David’s heart, and it would seem that God must see David only as sin.  To David, he has ‘become sin’.  By God’s turning his face away from his sin, David has the possibility of separation from this fire consuming his identity – He can exist beyond and outside of his sin.  God can then look at him, and not see the sin anymore – if God turns His face from David’s sin.

Maybe?

The Face of God

The Face of God is oft-expressed in the Bible, as God’s manifestation[iv] of His personal being to human beings.  Because God in His essence is unknowable to us, His gaze is like a consuming fire.  In the Book of Exodus (Ex. 33:18-34:9) Moses longed to see God.  God instructs Moses that he cannot, but was only given the blessing to look at God’s ‘back-side’ as He passed by in the vision on Mt. Sinai.

“I will cause all My goodness to pass before you,” the LORD replied, “and I will proclaim My name—the LORD—in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” But He added, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” The LORD continued, “There is a place near Me where you are to stand upon a rock, and when My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

Moses, like every human, could not bear to see the face of God and live.

It might be helpful to see how the Transfiguration of Christ[v] begins to shift some of this teaching and understanding in the New Testament.  The same Moses (now deceased) appears in the vision with Christ and Elijah.  St. Matthew describes this saying,

And His face shown like the sun”

Now as we know, the sun is too bright to look at – and if somehow we do for very long we go blind.  These words describe the glory on the face of Jesus, as described in St. Peter’s epistle, as a personal testimony. (2Pt.1:16ff)[vi]  The glory of the moment was too great for the disciples to cast their gaze upon the glorious Christ, but they had to hide their faces.  In a powerful (but perhaps overlooked?) verse from St. Luke at the end of the scene:

Jesus came and touched them, and said, ‘Arise, and be not afraid.And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.

So, the passage really is about seeing the face of Jesus – first in his glory (His original form radiating His divinity) and secondly, in His human form, where He is recognizable as a man (only).  Looking at the face of Jesus allows them to identify Him, and allow his gaze to identify themselves as He sees them.

Behold, the Lamb of God Who Takes away the Sins of the World

In the Crucifixion narrative that follows shortly, the quote from Isaiah 52, which is read at Great Friday Vespers:

Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness.”

It can be said that one reason the Orthodox Church so values its iconography is that it gives the Christian an opportunity to view, mystically by grace, the face of Jesus.[vii]  Of course we know that the pigments and paints are not the face of Jesus but just as a photographic print or even digital pixels can form an image of the face of someone that can speak to us inwardly and powerfully, and inspire, or even convict us of our sin. When we pray before the icon of Christ, we are approaching Jesus – God Incarnate, face to face.

Looking at Sin?

As I mentioned above, its so difficult, even impossible, to look at sin. The horrific visions of human suffering wrought by sin in every age and so many cultures cause revulsion.  Seeing this (and sensing through our senses) causes us unbearable sickness.  I can’t imagine what anyone who experienced first hand the atrocities of the Holodomor, Auschwitz, the front lines of war or even the 911 bombings can bear it. Or watching the death of one’s child through violence.  Those who have born this must look upon this ‘sin’ daily – as the images are brought back to them in vivid suffering especially through experiences like PTSD.  They know the power of Evil. 

Behold Your Son

These words speak of the horror of the experience of Mary, the Theotokos, looking upon Her crucified Son.  In what ways does this not also reveal perhaps how God the Father ‘beholds’ His Son?  Crucified by sin, Crucified in love.   God would look upon His Son.   This may shed a ray of light on one of the most mysterious passages of scripture, and also misinterpreted, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2Cor.5:21)  [viii]

Because the Son, as the Lamb of God, had taken upon Himself the sins of the World, so those who beheld the Lamb of God, would have to look at the sin.  Confront its horror and injustice.  God would not turn His face from His Crucified Son, and hence would not and could not turn His face from the sins He bore.  And He would not turn His face from us.  In doing so, He would be unlike us – who cast our eyes away from our sins because we cannot bear it. 

In the Crucifixion, lies the only path to forgiveness and resolution of the sin of David, my sin, and the sins of the world. It is only when God looks upon us, even in our sins, and heeds to the words of the Son, “Father forgive them!”  that the power of sin over the soul of man is broken.  But the price requires a total payment in love – The Death of the Son.  God deemed the restoration of the heart of man as worthy of the ransom price paid.

It is perhaps, if any of this is true, possible to glimpse how the one who is on the path of salvation, Mary, is invited to do the same as the Father – to Behold the Son! (Jn. 19:26)  In all of the unspeakable grief and sorrow wrought by sin. How was it possible to not turn her gaze away.  But Jesus gives these words as a command – Look!  Don’t turn away.  You have within your heart the love sufficient to bear this with all its horror and sorrow. And through the humanity of her who did this, emerges a path to truly ‘behold’ Christ for all who would follow.  It is for this reason that the Vigil of Pascha/Easter in the Orthodox liturgy is grounded in the profound lamentation of Mary, and all who are beginning to open their hearts to the possibility of bearing the grief and love at this depth in their hearts.  And to see sin for what it really is and has done to humanity.

They Shall Look Upon Him Whom They Have Pierced

St. John’s gospel effectively concludes the Crucifixion narrative with this quotation, cited from the prophecy of Zechariah 12.  Following the piercing of Christ, and the image of the blood and water of the death of Christ (symbolic of the new life in Baptism and the Eucharist), St. John offers these words as another invitation to ‘Behold’ and to ‘Look upon Christ’ who was so pierced.[ix]   The followers of Jesus must look upon Him – and stop casting away their gaze, or amusing themselves with other things, or distractions – but shall take up the burden of the spiritual struggle with sin.

The Christian life means to look upon the face of Christ, as the first step in learning to look upon ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are, and even perceive what sin has done to us.  The light shining from the face, and from the tomb of Christ is the only way that we can possibly really look at our sins.  It’s because God has not turned away from us, even in our sins, that we can begin to see things as they truly are in a spiritual way. 

Closing Thought – Setting His Face to Jerusalem

In St. Luke’s narrative, adjoining the Transfiguration narrative, we hear these words, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  (Lk.9:51)  In this passage we see the mission and ministry of Jesus destined to fulfillment in glory (taken up in His Ascension), setting his face upon us in a new and total and loving way of self-sacrificing embrace of us all, and bearing the cross and pain of our sinfulness as the only way to be completely joined to us. 

He set His face not just upon Jerusalem, but upon you and me, and would not cast his gaze away until He could no longer – when He would say, ‘It is finished.’  And his eyes would close.  Ω

______________________


[i] The sight capabilities and their link to their behaviors as prey animals is a fascinating study of equines.

[ii] A growing body of research is coming available on this syndrome and the CDC can serve as a good starting point.  What has been called ‘Asperger’s’ disease is similar but presents slightly different criteria for diagnosis.

[iii] What I describe here personally has no reflection on the spiritual state of people with autism or anyone else.

[iv] I hasten to note here that we are in the realm of profound, mystical and theological teachings that I offer in only the most inadequate, incomplete and cursory way. The patristic teachings on the biblical passages on the human and mystical encounter with God is the place to explore this, as discerned through Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church and deemed worthy. Two references that come to mind are St. Gregory of Nyssa’s, The Life of Moses and St. Simeon the New Theologian’s, On the Mystical Life

[v] The Exodus passage above is read at Vespers for the Feast of the Transfiguration, and the presence of Moses with Christ (and Elijah) implies a change in the way that God relates in His awesome glory to humankind.

[vi] Many of today’s biblical scholars tell us that 2Peter was not authored by the Apostle.  Yet I find this passage so compelling as a testimony – he wanted his listeners to hear his story and discern its meaning from him.  Authorship has different aspects to it.

[vii] The Icon of Christ Not Made with Human Hands (Gr. Acheiropoieta) is one of the most ancient, according to Tradition given by Christ Himself to the pious Prince of Edessa, Abgar, which brought healing to him.  The tradition of ‘Veronica’s Veil’ bears this same type of image in Roman Catholic piety.

[viii] Space does not allow a treatment of this verse which was interpreted in certain Protestant traditions in such a literal fashion as to imply that somehow in the essence of Jesus’s being (which in Orthodoxy means his divine and human natures) that He transformed into the nature of sin itself. Such an understanding does is not compatible with the Church’s understanding.  Because the mystery of the working of the divine and human natures in Christ is an utter mystery, this must be passed by for now.

[ix] In light of this, Rev. 1:7 speaks powerfully of how the entire world will come to do the same thing  –
Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him–even those who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. So shall it be! Amen” The implications of this are profound.

Afflicted Bones

#17 of a Series on Psalm 50

“You shalt cause me to hear gladness and joy: the afflicted bones shall rejoice.”

In our last episode, we explored only the first part of this verse, the rejoicing over the sound of music.  This time, we’ll take a little bit broader look at the verse and how the two phrases link to each other.

You Did It

As I’ve attested all along here and by now some have quickly discerned, I’m no biblical scholar (but sometimes play one on church media). But I do find it interesting to compare Bible translations and wordings to try to ascertain meanings, including the interlinear translations of the ancient texts in their original languages.  In the case of Psalm 50, in Orthodoxy, we’ll usually default to the Septuagint Greek translation. One of the things that stands out in the translation above from the Septuagint version is the expression of the personality of God in action, “You cause me to hear gladness and joy…”.  In another translation I learned decades ago by heart, the second part read, “The bones You have crushed may thrill.” Even the New International Version uses this terminology, “Let the bones You have crushed rejoice.”

Now what strikes me about this is that many translations use the passive voice, but this is very different.  David’s state (mentally and bodily) are a result of God’s direct personal intervention.  In the first case, after his repentance, God is the one who causes David to be able to hear the sounds of music and rejoicing.  God, in effect, ‘restores his hearing’ as though he were deaf.  These translations show the personal, interactive, relational way that Hebrew and later, Christian thought saw God not as a passive onlooker as the penitent person ‘figured out’ his need for repentance, but rather was very active in the midst of it, imperceptibly perhaps. 

In the second phrase, this is even more striking.  David’s bones are crushed by God.  He is describing a state of deep pain and utter weakness.  Picture a distraught skeleton of a man, with no strength in his bones, frail and weak bodily as manifesting his weakness within of will and temperament. The verse is clear that his sin is the cause of this state of being.  But the ‘active’ translation says something else, God caused him to experience this crippling weakness (due to his sin). 

The bones You have crushed…

God has crushed him, and there is no mistaking it. The God whom David had known so well as strengthening him, giving him courage against his foes (like Goliath) in battle, could also crush him. Being crushed by God is life-changing or else life-ending.  This is a wonderful (right term) expression of the mysterious nature of God’s punishment as an exercise of His divine love.  There are a number of other passages in the Old Testament that echo these words, for example:

                Like a lion He breaks all my bones; from day until night You make an end of me   Is.38:13

                But You have crushed us in the lair of jackals; You have covered us with deepest darkness.  Ps. 44:19

                When it comes to being crushed in soul and body, I’m thinking that St. Paul could identify with these words.

The passage also echoes the famous passage in Ezekiel 37, another passage read in the Easter vigil services, portraying the restoration of the dead bones of fallen Israelites to life through the breath/Spirit of God – a prophetic anticipation of the resurrection of the righteous, and indeed all flesh, from the dead through the Resurrection of Christ.

Crushing Suffering and Sin

We know that how a God of love permits suffering is a mystery, and we also know that as we approach the suffering of others, as in the case of the friends of Job, we must absolutely withhold judgment in saying that God’s wrath has fallen upon a person because of their sin.  But I believe it’s clear that in David’s prayer to hear the song of rejoicing, he realizes that it is the self-same Lord who crushed him, who could, and even would, restore this song within him.  It was not just ‘in the air’ to be heard, but a sound from God communicating His divine love and favor once again.

This is a very, very difficult line to walk – discerning when certain events of life are a direct intervention of God as a means of punishment of people for their sins.  Usually we think of such punishment, as well, ‘punitive’ – where God is exercising His divine righteousness and crushing the unrighteous.  Sometimes we stand on the sidelines and applaud – like St. Paul, as he applauded the righteous stoning of the apostate from Judaism named Stephen who was proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth as some sort of new god. 

I think the difference here is that the realization is that of David himself within was the source of his words.  He knew that:

  • He had sinned.
  • God crushed him in punishment
  • God still loved him.
  • So much so that ‘joy and feasting’ would be sent by the same God in restoration.

Only the repentant can possibly understand how God works within one’s life in this way.  Conversely, this is why ‘the world’ as a whole never understands God’s punishment because it is intended by Him to lead those whom He loves to repentance.  We can learn how this sort of thing might be possible if we read the Book of Jonah.  While much of the focus for us is always the first part, I find it interesting that the Church reads this book pretty much in its entirety at the Orthodox Easter Vigil.  In doing so it’s possible to see the typology of Resurrection of Christ (from the depths) on the third day as Jonah emerged from the whale.[i]  So far so good.  But at the Vigil, we read the entirety of the book taking us from the seashore to Nineveh.  This recalls the whole reason for Jonah’s journey to be undertaken at the command of God – to warn the Ninevites[ii] to repent of their sins.  In hearing Jonah’s words, the people repented and the King declared an edict calling for a total fast in the city and repentance in sackcloth. 

Because of these actions – the prophecy of Jonah, the hearing and response of the people and the king leading to repentance – the city was spared.[iii]  This external action became a sign of the inner state of the people or at least their spiritual trajectory for a time.  Jonah was slow to understand God’s working, even as his prophet, and the book of Jonah explains how God taught him Jonah the true nature of God’s righteousness and punishment which in every case, even for those not part of the Covenant, was intended to be a blessing leading to repentance, not mere vindictive punishment, as Jonah envisioned it.

And Today?

Much of what has been written in this series has been intended to be very personally oriented.  Repentance happens in the human heart.  Yet the prophecy of Jonah, and others, points to how entire peoples can, with the power of the Word of God proclaimed righteously in a holy, prophetic way, be led to repentance being spared from being ‘crushed’.  Not only are individuals ‘crushed’ but also families, communities and even nations.  As I mention above, ‘Only the repentant can possibly understand how God works within life in this way.’  Since the beginning of wisdom is the ‘Fear of the Lord’ (Prov. 9:10) it follows that this repentance is other than a restoration of a person, or a nation, to spiritual Ground Zero – the fear of the Lord. 

Uncertain Times

We live in an age of great uncertainty, and many global events that are creating strife to countless millions of people.  Just in the past week or so, there have been great earthquakes in Mexico (Mt. 24:7).  There are ongoing terrorist attacks and rumors of war, including the overthrow of governments in places like Guinea in Africa. Increasing tensions in the Middle East and complete societal change overnight in Afghanistan. Our own nation has suffered a barrage of stifling heat and raging fires in the West and drought that has drained the great reservoirs of like Lake Mead serving all of the water needs of Las Vegas, not to mention the swath of destruction caused by Hurricane Ida from Louisiana to New England followed by Hurricane Nicholas in the same region.  The global Covid pandemic shows no sign of letting up – infecting hundreds of thousands and killing thousands globally, every day. The Bible speaks consistently, particularly through the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation on how God’s punishment works, giving the people who so suffer the opportunity to repent before the End comes – which is the Second Coming of Christ.  While some look for ‘another’ prophet, as Jesus warned, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. Heed them.’  (Lk. 16:19) 

The call is clear – it is always a call to repentance.  Repentance, even broadly across families, communities and even nations, is possible.  Prophetic spiritual leadership is necessary – by people who have walked, on their knees, the path of repentance that restores the song of joy, to one’s heart, to one’s family and to one’s nation.  Ω


[i] The Jonah narrative is recalled daily in Ode 6 of the liturgical hymn called the Canon of the day, and there’s always a reference to Jonah in that liturgical poem as a framework for understanding some dimension of the Church’s teaching relevant to the day. 

[ii] Nineveh was a very large, ancient city, appearing early on in Gen. 10. The land (Assyria) and its inhabitants appear in a number of biblical books and several of the prophets, including Nahum, prophesied against Nineveh and its wickedness. Yet, the Ninevites had no real connection to the Hebrew Covenant, but they are invited to repent and be saved through the words of the Prophet.  One group hears Jonah and the city is spared.  Yet the words of Nahum, perhaps at a different time, to different leaders, would not be heeded and Assyria would be made desolate. The Jonah prophecy is an anticipation of the evangelization of the whole world by the Word of God through the Apostles, another favorite dimension of the Paschal celebration at Easter.

[iii] Some Syriac and Oriental Orthodox traditions, have a wonderful practice called the ‘Nineveh Fast’ which is held for three days several weeks prior to the beginning of Lent, to recall the image of Christ in the tomb as prophesied by Jonah’s time in the whale. Nineveh was on the East bank of the Tigris river – what is now Mosul, Iraq.

The Sound of Music

#16 of a Series on Psalm 50

Let me hear the sound of joy and feasting

The Sound of Music – 20th Century Fox

This verse, on its own, might sound a little strange.  Given our technology today, we can hear the sounds of joy and feasting anytime we want!  We expect this – and if we can’t hear the sound for some reason – the computer or device or streaming Wifi fails, we get angry and frustrated, instantly! Sadly, this typifies how we are unattuned to the ways of the biblical culture and times, or the even commonality of our human condition before our information age.

The ‘hearing of joy and feasting’ is something very common to our human condition. Every culture – from primitive societies to the high societies of the Victorian age, as well as our own, has its own expressive music. To hear joy and feasting is to have our spirits lifted up – to celebrate and exult! Many of us Baby Boomers in America grew up with the movie version of the musical, The Sound of Music, which expressed the simplicity of life and joy through song, magnificently portrayed and sung by Julie Andrews. And the theme of the movie (based on a true story) was the tension when the music could no longer be heard the same way, when the Nazis rolled into Austria.  The simplicity of life and joy through music would be squelched – a sign of the arrival of dark, sorrowful times. I find it tragic, that as this was written and the Islamic jihadist Taliban rolled back into Kabul this week, that one of the first things they did was torture and kill a man widely recognized in Afghanistan as a gifted folk musician whose work expressed the beauty of Afghan culture.

There will be no tolerance of joy and singing.

The true spirit of Christian living typifies this musical, lyrical way of living – a life expressive of  worship (doxa) and praise, singing and celebration. In Orthodoxy, there is a liturgical movement that leads us to this state of singing and celebration through the daily office, primarily Vespers and Matins[i].  While each service has its moments and movements, the entire worship follows the psalter during the festal vigil leads us from Psalm 1 at Vespers to a climactic chanting of the last 3 celebratory psalms – 148, 149 and 150 at Matins.  Psalm 150 gives us something to hear and listen to:

Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre,
Praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe,
Praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
    (NIV)

This is what we’re supposed to be doing in life – our very purpose for existence, to join in all creation giving praise to God.[ii]   The Matins Service follows Psalm 150  with the ancient hymn called the Great Doxology, which brings the psalmody to fulfillment by expressing the New Testament faith – the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the Incarnation, and the Paschal Mystery.  This leads the Christian Church to the joyful and climactic fulfillment of divine worship, the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Are we There Yet?

This all sounds good. But are we really there?  Do we readily, at all times, ‘hear the sound of joy and feasting’ in our hearts and open our lips in praise and thanksgiving to Him?  What are we actually listening to anyway?  Is our song taking us there or taking us somewhere else,[iii]  a place of despondency and loneliness – leading to an inner deafness when one can’t hear the song of spiritual joy anymore. 

David wasn’t there. Yet.  His heart could not worship God because of his sins.  The din and clamor of his sins created too much noise within. Those sins held him in sadness and depression.  His heart sagged.  Deep in his sorrow, he longed to be able to hear the sound of joy and feasting – the celebration of the Hebrew worship that he knew so well because the very psalter flowed from his heart.  Yet, now, in his sin he could not hear, and could not sing.  But he longed to. 

Hang it Up

We hear this very expression of sorrow and silence in reading these verses from Psalm 136 (7)

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
For there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord, while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

How poignantly this portrays the captivity of the Jewish people.[iv]  It was a spiritual captivity, not just a physical one. They ‘hung up their harps’.  In our jargon today, to ‘hang it up’ is to quit in despondency. There was no place for joy and singing in their misery.  And it was a time of sorrow[v] for the Hebrew people, that, despite the ceaseless warnings of the prophets that remained unheeded, they were overwhelmed by their enemies and exiled to Babylon.

But the song of the Lord was not lost – it remained within, but in a sense, inaccessible.  This is perhaps one of the greatest losses which proceed from sin – whether for the Jew before Christ, or the Christian who has sinned, or backslid into the realm of darkness. We know what our life was like, and how our hearts resonated with the rhythm of divine joy.  But no more – and if we are prompted to do so (even by the captors) we cannot.  And no, you can’t fake it. So also with David, he so longed to hear this sound of joy again in his heart and proclaim it with his mouth.  His repentance would heal him, and put the song back in his heart, and open his mouth once again.

Approach

We’re given another powerful image of this in the Gospels.  When Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son, he describes how the Prodigal Son turns back to His Father, and his Father’s house. And with this return and restoration there is cause for great celebration.   It is described this way,

Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.”    (Lk 16: 25f)

So, the elder son heard the ‘sound of music’.  But he couldn’t really hear it, or accept it.  His heart wasn’t there.  Instead, it sent his head spinning into anger, expressed through his words of hatred and unforgiveness for his brother.

Restored in Our Hearing

David is different though, because he is repentant. This makes that song accessible to him again, as it is given to him again by the Lord, as it was for the Prodigal Son. We should also note, from both the Prodigal Son parable and the David’s prayer, that this song is not merely personal but also communal.  The Coming of Christ in the flesh was proclaimed by the worship of the Angels in Bethlehem, that humankind could join in the heavenly celebration and worship in a new way (See Lk 2). When we hear of the worship of God in its fullness, we find it in the Book of Revelation, where all of the angels and saints and all creation joins in the full celebration and worship of God in holiness and all purified humility.  In scripture prayer may be private, but worship is communal. At our Divine Liturgy, we get a foretaste of this celebration of heaven – and we prepare for it with our prayers of repentance and confession, ‘that we may sing the thrice Holy Hymn to the life-creating Trinity.’[vi]

Lawrence Welk, the band leader, used to always end his show with these words, ‘Keep a song in your heart!”  Perhaps our priests should share this exhortation with the flock as they come forward after the Liturgy to kiss the cross and receive the blessed bread, and say ‘Keep a song in your heart!’   Perhaps not just the songs of a fallen world, but the song of praise that echoed in the heart of David and thunders in the Church.  Ω


[i] This is one of the reasons that I wanted to celebrate Vespers and Matins at least on Sundays in the parishes I served. This crescendo of worship gets us to the place spiritually, in the temple, of being ‘ready’ to worship the Lord in spirit and truth.

[ii] The entirety of the Psalter carries this as its theme.  There are countless verses which expand upon it.

[iii] There is probably no better expression of what a group of people is really all about than how it is expressed in its music.

[iv] The Orthodox Church affords this psalm a very special place in the Matins services on the Sundays preceding Lent. When we are in sin, and prior to our penitential exercise, the song of salvation has grown inaudible.

[v] I find it ironic that there is rarely a place for a ‘sad song’ in popular music today, even in churches.  It seems that everyone just thinks everything is supposed to be upbeat and happy, happy.  But the sad song, like Psalm 137, was inspired by truth because it was brutally honest about where the people were. It was necessary to acknowledge that, and why they were there, before a ‘new song’ could be heard.

[vi] From the Cherubic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy.