June 13, 2014

Psalm 115

O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.
(Psalm 115:9-11)

Psalm 115 is most likely an antiphonal hymn that was sung back and forth by the clergy and congregation.

The verses above are a refrain that includes three “classes” of worshippers present in synagogue and Temple: the faithful of Israel, the clergy (“the house of Aaron”) and the “God-fearers”. This latter began as a synonym for a faithful believer, but it became a technical term for those Gentiles who admired and worshipped the God Israel but had not formally converted (which for men required circumcision.) Acts frequently mentions the God-fearers, notably Cornelius, “A centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household” (Acts 10:1-2).

The psalm contrasts the dead idols of the pagans with the living God of Israel, who is present personally and communally among the people of Israel. God is the Lord of the universe, but He is also present with His people on earth, a point emphasized in the ancient Greek translation. The Hebrew Verse 3 reads: “Our God is in the heavens;
 He does whatever He pleases.” The Greek expands this:

Our God is in heaven above;
And both in heaven and on earth.
All things whatsoever He wills He has done.

Pentecost, Armenian illuminated manuscript

The composers of the hymns for the feast of the Ascension used this last verse as the prokeimenon at vespers to show that the Ascension completes Christ’s work on earth, preparing us to receive the Holy Spirit. All things whatsoever He wills He has done.

By Your nativity You revealed Yourself;                 
by Your sufferings in the flesh, You arose from the dead,   
trampling down death by death.                         
You ascended in glory, filling all things!             
You sent us Your divine Spirit,//                   
that we may praise and glorify Your divinity.

Father Robert Taft at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary

Fr Robert Taft, SJ

Last night I went to Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. The Society for Oriental Liturgy (SOL) has been meeting there this week and last night the founder of SOL, Father Robert Taft, 82, gave a public lecture reviewing his life and scholarship. Father Taft, a Jesuit, is the leading scholar of Eastern liturgy today, and many in the audience of scholars were his doctoral students in Rome, including SVS Professors Paul Meyendorff and Father Alexander Rentel. Father Taft has been studying Eastern Liturgy in all its forms since he was first sent to serve in Iraq in the 1950s.

Father Taft became convinced that “liturgy is the soul of the Christian East” and pursued the study of liturgy in large part as a bridge-building effort between eastern and western Christianity. He stressed that this ecumenical dimension—not popular in pre-Vatican II Catholicism—shaped his approach as a scholar in several important ways. First, laying aside confessional prejudices and being led by historical evidence, seeing truth wherever it was to be found. Second, giving the best interpretation to what other faith traditions have to say for themselves, rather than taking them at their worst. Third, shining the light of criticism on ones own traditions. And finally, treating others with fairness and love.