March 11, 2014

Psalm 81: water in the wilderness

Sing aloud to God our strength;
 shout for joy to the God of Jacob!
Raise a song, sound the timbrel,
 the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day.

I tested you at the waters of Mer′ibah…
I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

(Psalm 81:1-3,8,10)

I once heard Father Alexander Schmemann answering questions after Liturgy in a parish. When he was asked, “What’s the closest denomination to Orthodox Christianity?” he replied, “Orthodox Judaism.” Psalm 81 gives at least one clue why that might be true: a rich tradition of joyful liturgical worship.

Booth Tabernacles
Booth for feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot)

Psalm 81 most likely came out of the Jewish feast of Tabernacles (Booths, Sukkot), remembering God’s care for Israel during the forty years in the wilderness. They had a precarious existence (hence pious Jews live in a fragile booth, or sukkah, during the seven days of the feast), but despite their murmuring, God accompanied them, fed them and gave them water to drink. Most famously, at the height of their complaining, Moses struck the rock at Meribah (“the waters of strife”) and fresh water poured forth.

There is an ancient Jewish tradition that the rock then followed the tribes of Israel on the rest of their journey. Saint Paul later picks this up: “For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4).

Thus water, the feast of Tabernacles and Christ are closely connected. Indeed, it was on the last day of this feast that Jesus spoke of the indwelling fountain of living water that his disciples would receive:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)

Pool Siloam
The Pool of Siloam

At this point, the Oxford Annotated Bible has a note about the celebration of the feast in Jesus’ day, and it’s worth quoting. “For seven days water was carried in a golden pitcher from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple as a reminder of the water from the rock in the desert (Num 20:2-13), and as a symbol of hope for the coming messianic deliverance (Is 12:3). Jesus is the true water of life, who turns the symbol into reality (Is 44:3, 55:1). Believers become channels of life to others, through Christ’s Spirit given at Pentecost after he was glorified (crucified, risen, ascended.) The gift of the Spirit is a mark of the Messianic age (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:14-21).”

Even God cannot just “command” joy any more he can command any of the other fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). They are the fruit produced by the Spirit of God who dwells within.


His Beatitude returned to the Chancery from Washington DC on Sunday night. Today he’ll meet with Chancery staff to catch-up. Tomorrow afternoon, Father Eric Tosi and I will drive out to Saint Tikhon’s Seminary to meet with OCA students. We did the same at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary at the end of January to get to know seminarians and so they would have some sense of personal connection to the OCA Chancery.