March 5, 2014

Psalm 78

The Lord awoke as one asleep, and arose saving us.
He smote His enemies upon their backs, everlasting shame He gave them.
He rejected the dwelling of Joseph, and He chose not the tribe of Ephraim.
He chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion which He loved.
(Psalm 78:65-68 [LXX] Holy Saturday, Communion Hymn)

He rained down on them manna to eat,
 and gave them the grain of heaven.
Mortals ate of the bread of angels;
 he sent them food in abundance.
(Psalm 78:25)

In the Orthodox liturgical tradition these two sets of verses from Psalm 78 link the Resurrection of Christ with the Holy Communion we have with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.

Bread for the Eucharist

When our Lord spoke of giving His flesh for food, He recalled the manna given in the wilderness. By eating “the living bread” His disciples already taste the life of the Resurrection.

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51)

The manna miracle in the wilderness comes as part of the retelling of the story of God’s dealings with His difficult people. Time and again they are crooked, rebellious and unfaithful. They forget what he has done for them. They test him continually. They speak against Him sarcastically in their hearts while flattering Him with their tongues. They presume on their divine chosenness.

Centuries later Saint Paul reminds the believers in Corinth that they too must be wary of presuming on their new-found special relationship with God. Their baptism and Communion are not magic.

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink…. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Orthodox sacramental life presupposes a synergy that weaves our ascetic effort with the work of the Holy Spirit to purify our conscience and reshape our life according to Christ. As we pray in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts:

Sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification that cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with heart illumined of these divine, sanctified things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Thy Christ Himself, our true God, who has said, whosever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in Him; that by thy Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Thy all holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed, or word or thought and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Thy saints, who have always been well-pleasing to Thee.

* * *

Some comic relief. Verse 68:  He smote His enemies upon their backs… Other translations have “their rears.” The Jerusalem Bible uses “their rumps,” and adds the helpful note that this particular incident of divine smiting refers to the hemorrhoids God inflicted on the Phillistines when they interfered with the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 5:6f). 

The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

Presanctified Liturgy
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, Fr Basil Summer in St Sergius Chapel, 2013

This morning in Saint Sergius Chapel we will celebrate the first of our Presanctified Liturgies for Great Lent. Tonight will be the third installment of the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete. His Beatitude is at Saint Tikhon’s Monastery.