Psalm 24: 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 Peter 3: 18-22
March 5, 2006
Nestling Under the Shadow of God
Today the sacred liturgy transports us into the desert: an arid wilderness, uncharted, inhospitable, and haunted by evil spirits. This being said, the tone of today’s Mass is reassuring and full of confidence. Psalm 90 (Qui habitat) runs through the Mass of the First Sunday of Lent from beginning to end. “He will give thee the shelter of his arms; under his wings thou shalt find refuge, his faithful care thy watch and ward” (Ps 90:4-5). The desert is, paradoxically, the very place where, cut off from all else, we experience the closeness of God. The opening verses of Psalm 90 have, in the translation of Ronald Knox, a note of intimacy that may escape us in more familiar translations:
Content if thou be to live with the Most High for thy defence,
under his Almighty shadow nestling still,
him thy refuge, him thy stronghold thou mayst call,
thy own God, in whom is all thy trust” (Ps 90:1-2).
Christ Praying in Us
This is the psalm that today’s liturgy places in the mouth of Christ. This is the prayer of Christ that exorcises the desert, that cleanses it, and that sanctifies it. The liturgy places the same psalm in our mouths. We repeat it; we pray it; we sing it; we allow it to inhabit us. Held in the heart, it becomes Christ’s own prayer for us, and with us, and in us, to the Father. Psalm 90 functions today as a sacrament of the prayer of Christ. It is that by which we are given a holy communion with the prayer of the tempted and lonely Christ, the means by which the prayer of Christ himself can inhabit all our moments of temptation, loneliness, and fear.
The Psalm of the Day
Psalm 90 occurs no less than five times in today’s Mass, not counting the oblique references to it in the Gospel itself. It is clearly the psalm of the day. The Church gives us Psalm 90 as we prepare to go into the desert. It is a mother’s provision for the son going off to war. “Take this,” she says, “keep it close to your heart, and when, all around you, the battle rages repeat it, knowing that I am praying it with you.” “Though a thousand fall at thy side, ten thousand at thy right side, it shall never come next or near thee” (Ps 90:7).
Psalm 90 is one of the few psalms that we find used universally in both East and West on a daily basis. When we discover that the practice of the Church is to pray a given psalm every day, it must be because that psalm has, in the light of experience, been found indispensable.
The Noonday Devil
In the East Psalm 90 was assigned every day to the Sixth Hour, that is noon. This particular choice was inspired by verse 6: “Thou shalt not be afraid of . . . the arrow that flieth in the day . . . or of the noonday devil” (Ps 90:5-6). The fathers and mothers of the desert identified the noonday devil as the evil force that attacks those who are “burned out” and weary. The noonday devil insinuates thoughts of dejection and of disgust for prayer and the things of God. The noonday devil whispers dark thoughts and plants them in the mind: thoughts of discouragement, despondency, and despair. “Give it up. What’s the use? Why go on? It all means nothing. You’ve been taken in, deceived. There is nothing on the other side. There is no hope for you. Your life is a failure. You are beyond redemption. You are not salvageable.” These are the classic temptations of desert-dwellers from Saint Anthony of Egypt to Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, tempted to suicide during her final illness.
The Terrors of the Night
In the West, thanks to the Rule of Saint Benedict, Psalm 90 was assigned to Compline, the last prayer before going to bed. While Eastern Christians focused on the “noonday devil,” Western Christians were more struck by the references to darkness. “Nothing shalt thou have to fear from nightly terrors . . . from pestilence that walks to and fro in the darkness” (Ps 90:5-6). The terror of the night: what child has not known the terror of mysterious evil beings lurking in dark closets, hanging behind the curtains and hiding under the bed? What city streets are not haunted at night by demons of violence, addiction, loneliness, and lust? How many people lie awake at night tormented by anxieties, ruminating old hurts, and fearing new ones? The ancient Compline hymn resonates with the psalm: “From all ill dreams defend our eyes, / From nightly fears and fantasies; / Tread under foot our ghostly foe, / That no pollution we may know” (Te lucis ante terminum).
Beasts and Angels
Besides the noonday devil and the terrors of the night, there are in Psalm 90 two other images that we find also in today’s Gospel: wild beasts and angels. The psalm says, “He has given charge to his angels concerning thee, to watch over thee wheresoever thou goest; they will hold thee up with their hands lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone” (Ps 90:11-12). Angels!
Now, the beasts: “Thou shalt tread safely on asp and adder, crush lion and serpent under thy feet” (Ps 90:13). In a single sentence Saint Mark evokes the mysterious reality of the Son of God set around with wild beasts and angels. Jesus, he says, “lodged with the beasts, and there the angels ministered to him” (Mk 1:12). Saint Mark’s wild beasts are those named in Psalm 90: the asp and the adder, the lion and the serpent.
The wild beasts of the gospel and of the psalm are figures of the fallen angels, the demons who haunt our desert wildernesses. Cassian explains that “one is called a lion because of his wild fury and raging ferocity, another an adder because of the mortal poison that kills before it is noticed” (Conferences 7.32.5). Saint Peter speaks of the devil as a lion in a text that the traditional liturgy of Compline associated with Psalm 90: “Be sober and watch well; the devil who is your enemy, goes about roaring like a lion, to find his prey, but you, grounded in the faith, must face him boldly” (1 P 5:8). While the lion seeks to intimidate by roaring, the viper is silent and deadly, striking quickly and without warning. The attacks of evil spirits on us are real. Saint Paul says: “It is not against flesh and blood that we enter the lists; we have to do with princedoms and powers, with those who have mastery over the world in these dark days, with malign influences in an order higher than ours” (Eph 6:12).
In the fray of spiritual comba and the wastelands of sin, the angels too are present. They watch over us, ready at every moment to rescue us from the treacherous lures of evil. The angels sent by the Father to minister to Christ in his temptations are sent to minister to us in ours. I am struck by this ministry of angels to the tempted and suffering Christ. Saint Mark points to their presence in the desert; for Saint Luke, it is in the garden of Gethsemane, that “an angel from heaven appears to Jesus, strengthening him” (Lk 22:43).
It is good, at the beginning of this Lenten season the Prayer Over the Oblations will call it “the beginning of this sacrament of Lent” to recall that while we are tempted and attacked by the noonday devil and the terrors of the night, the angels speak to us of the sheltering hand of God, the hand by which we are protected, nourished, and even caressed.
Promises of Glory
The last part of Psalm 90 we hear the promises of the Father to the suffering and tempted Christ. They are just as truly his promises to each of us in our hour of testing. “He trust in me, mine it is to deliver him; he acknowledges my name, from me he shall have protection; when he calls upon me, I will listen, in affliction I am at his side, to bring him to safety and honour. Length of days he shall have to content him, and find in me deliverance” (Ps 90:16).
Driven by the Spirit into the Lenten desert with Christ, we are full of confidence. Already the brightness of the Resurrection shines on the horizon, filling us with hope. The Preface of the Temptation of the Lord that you will hear sung in just a few moments contains a phrase that, I think, illuminates every struggle with sin, every test and every experience of desert, with the hope of glory: “ . . . that, celebrating the paschal mystery with worthy minds, we may, at length, pass over to the Pasch that has no end.” We will celebrate the paschal mystery with worthy minds if, beginning today, we fill them with the prayer of Christ, a prayer given us in the psalm, and made perfect in us by our sharing in the Holy Sacrifice.