Psalm 118 (119)

Once upon a time, and a very bad time it was, there was a fashion among (some) Benedictine communities to omit the section of the Rule that constitutes the so-called liturgical code (effectively, chapters 8 to 20, though some grudgingly conceded that 19 and 20 might be read) and to shorten the number of psalms recited each week, distributing the psalter over a two- or four- week cycle. At the same time, others in the Church decided that some psalms are just too violent for Christian lips to utter, so the Roman Office lost the cursing psalms completely. We, by contrast, have continued to say the whole psalter every week and enjoy a spectacularly good curse on Saturdays, though we do not follow exactly Benedict’s arrangement of the psalms. I am grateful, however, that we have continued to say Psalm 118 (119) in all its glorious repetitiveness as it ducks and weaves around the Law and the beauty and majesty of God. Yesterday and today the Rule reminds us of the importance of this psalm (cf RB 18). What it does not do is remind us of what I consider to be the best commentary on the psalm, that of St Ambrose.

In 22 chapters, variously described in translation as homilies or sermons (expositio in Latin), Ambrose dwells on the presence of the Word in the text of the psalm. He is discursive, but never boring. He takes us down some unexpected roads, but like his younger contemporary Augustine, whose Enarrationes on the same psalm are also well worth reading, he has a consistent theological purpose in view. There is a sustained emphasis on the unity of the Word with the Father and the Holy Spirit, such as one would expect at a time when Arianism flourished; there is a wonderfully rich ecclesiology, often expressed though a Marian typology linked to the Song of Songs; and there are Platonic and Pauline elements (e.g. in Ambrose’s account of the ascent of the soul and the Christian’s participatio in the imago Dei) that leave a lasting impression on the reader.

So, this morning’s challenge from the cloister is this: try reading Psalm 118 (119) straight through, then look at Ambrose’s commentary. If you do not already know Ambrose’s work, I guarantee you will find much that will transform your view of this psalm.

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