One of the strongest links binding Jews and Christians is Israel’s Prayer Book: the Book of Psalms. The Psalms permeate the Church’s liturgy. They are chanted or prayed at every Eucharist. They provide the ongoing cantus firmus for the Liturgy of the Hours.
Every fourth week at Tuesday Vespers, the Church prays Psalm 137, uniting with Israel in her bitter lament at deportation and exile. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion!”
Here, as everywhere, the Church gratefully draws upon the riches of Israel’s spiritual legacy in its own liturgy. However, it would be more accurate to confess that too often it does so only partially. For, in the case of some of the Psalms in the Breviary, a willful truncating and excising has been inflicted.
For example, of the nine verses of Psalm 137, three have been eliminated. The Psalmist’s lamentation at the dire fate that has befallen Israel is cut short at the point where he hurls the terrible imprecation against his foes: “O daughter of Babylon. . .happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
Thus, rather than confront the harsh invective of the Psalmist, the Breviary chooses to ignore it. And it does so at its peril. For the psalms in their unedited fullness incomparably express the scope and urgency of our need for redemption. To diminish the depth of the human predicament serves only to trivialize the salvation that Jesus effects.
Bereft of the Old Testament’s anguished struggle for faith, the Gospel can appear existentially rootless. It loses the spiritual challenge to hold in an always fraught tension both justice and reconciliation, both truth and mercy. For compromising justice and truth only leads to a counterfeit mercy and a contrived reconciliation.
It is only in Christ that so arduous a commitment can be endured and resolved. Saint Augustine, in his Christological praying of Psalm 137, transposes the final verses of the Psalm into an exploration of the spiritual struggle that every Christian confronts, the struggle against his and her wayward desires and simmering animosities.
Then, drawing upon Paul, Augustine daringly identifies Christ as the rock of resolution, leading not to death, but to new life. “Let the Rock conquer. Be built upon the Rock, if you desire not to be swept away either by the stream, or the winds, or the rain. . . .Dash these unholy desires against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ.” (1Cor 10:4) Augustine does not engage in excision or denial of spirit-rending verses and urges, but shows the way to their transformation in Christ.
These considerations arose as I pondered the Vatican’s response to the recent martyrdom of the three Christians in the Basilica of Notre Dame at Nice this past week. Matteo Bruni, Director of the Holy See Press Office, declared: “Terrorism and violence can never be accepted. Today’s attack has sown death in a place of love and consolation, like the house of the Lord. The Pope. . .prays for the victims and their loved ones, so that the violence may cease, so that we may return to look upon ourselves as brothers and sisters and not as enemies, so that the beloved people of France, united, may respond to evil with good.”
The Gospel surely calls us to more than such a pallid response, such an anodyne appeal to respond “to evil with good.” Where, in this bureaucratic Vatican-speak, does one find that “parrhesia” extolled in theory, but so woefully missing in action?
The Spirit surely calls the Church to name the concrete evil that afflicts us and to celebrate the surpassing good for which we long. Let us not wander in the wasteland of empty abstractions, nor refrain from speaking of conversion to Christ, the true Rock of our salvation.
In hope of finding a more robust reflection, one turns to the pope’s “Angelus Address” on the Feast of All Saints. The readings of the day seem providentially directed to the martyrdoms perpetrated that very week.
The reading from the Book of Revelation offers for prayerful contemplation the striking image of those whose garments had been washed white in the Blood of the Lamb. And the Beatitudes of the Gospel culminate in the blessing pronounced upon those “persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”
And, so as not to deprive contemporary disciples of the lasting challenge, the Gospel concludes: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.” Because of me. No nameless “evil” is envisioned, but hatred of Christ. No nameless “good” is proclaimed, but rejoicing with Christ.
The yearning for the denunciation of very specific evil, however, and the annunciation of distinctive Christian hope proved vain. In his Address, the pope spoke of the second and third Beatitudes, of the blessedness of mourning and meekness. Though valid, these generalities could have been written months before the tragic event in Nice. They were pitifully inadequate to the concrete reality of desolation and lamentation experienced by so many of Christ’s disciples who look to the Successor of Peter to confirm them in the faith.
In his short comments after the Angelus, Pope Francis made mention of the armed clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh and of the recent earthquake in the Aegean Sea. But nary a word about the Christian martyrs of Nice.
Paul, Apostle and Martyr, wrote boldly to the Corinthians: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1Cor 4:1) Not as dispensers of a graceless consolation – from which Christ has been all but excised.
*Image: Jews Mourning in Babylonian Exile by Eduard Bendemann, 1832 [Wallraf–Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany]