Psalmody and Advent: Praise and Lamentation

(This is Neil.) I’m sorry for not having posted more often. There has been much else to do, and, besides, an encyclical on hope to read. I’d like to post a little here on the theme of Advent and hope. As will be obvious, I’m indebted to an article published in Worship last year, “Psalmody and Advent,” written by the Catholic deacon and philosophy professor Garth Gillan.

Professor Gillan focuses our discussion on the words of Zechariah:

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestors, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:72-73)

Gillan insightfully notes that Zechariah “does not rely on the experience of a generalized anxiety before the idea of death.” Zechariah is concerned about the “hands of our enemies” – he speaks from the perspective of really being “preyed upon.” The hope expressed in the Gospel of St Luke is for a restored relationship with God whom we might come to serve without this terrible “fear” of violent death.

Professor Gillan goes on to say that it is in the psalmody of Advent that we see the “relationship of praise to lamentation” and can see through the eyes of the vulnerable yet still hopeful Zechariah. This relationship is essential because, as Gillan says,

No liturgy is an authentic response to the gospel if in enumerating the great acts of God it forgets the threat of death at the hands of enemies and the despair of the sick or if in lamenting the sorrows of mourners and pleading for life in the face of torturers it fails to be aware of the merciful love and justice of the Lord of the universe.

We encountered this relationship in the Introit to Advent from this past Sunday.

Gillan writes about it:

Psalm 24 forms the Introit for Advent and places the season in the context of that relationship: “To you, Lord, I have lifted up my soul. My God, I put my trust in you. Let me not be put to shame, nor let my enemies laugh at me; for none of them who wait on you shall be confounded.” Before this antiphon, comprising the first three verses of the psalm, is repeated, the fourth verse is sung using a psalm tone setting it off from the antiphon and thereby throwing into relief the sense of the first three verses. The same psalm is used for the gradual after the first lesson and for the offertory. Psalm 24 is an individual lament in which the subject of the psalm, in waiting upon the salvation of the Lord, trusts that he will be delivered from his enemies, pleads for the forgiveness of his sins and asks to be taught the ways of the Lord. In commenting upon the latter, St Augustine says: “And what ways will He teach them, but mercy wherein He is placable, and truth wherein He is incorrupt? Whereof He hath exhibited the one in forgiving sins, the other in judging deserts. And therefore, ‘all the ways of the Lord’ are the two advents of the Son of God, the one in mercy, the other in judgment.” Whether Augustine’s commentary on verse 10 influenced the choice of the psalm for the First Sunday of Advent is most likely beyond proof, but his interpretation of the ways of the Lord corresponds to the economic and eschatological horizons of the season.

Of course, many of us do not live in Zechariah’s conscious “fear” of the “hands of our enemies.” We might not find ourselves desperately praying for liberation from that “fear” through the peace of the coming of God in Jesus Christ. How is any of this relevant? I think that if we are honest with ourselves we will recognize very similar fears – perhaps the danger of social, professional, financial, and psychological failure and destruction, if not the actual shedding of our blood. Experiencing shame and the laughter of others might not sound so far-fetched to many of us after all.

Professor Gillan gives us some other very important advice regarding this thorny question of relevance:

The experiences covered by the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity belong to those whose lives are at risk due to their economic and social conditions. The scriptures are not written from the point of view of the wealthy or powerful, although they have served their needs in cultic celebrations and in consolidating political legitimacy. The only option for those who hear the word of God and respond to its urgencies is to live in solidarity with those whose lives are at risk. Psalmody speaks from that position.

Perhaps we should really meditate on that “solidarity with those whose lives are at risk” this Advent.

What do you think?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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