catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 6 :: 2007.03.23 — 2007.04.06


Discovering the Psalms during Holy Week

We tend to focus on the gospels during Holy Week, and appropriately so. But I never realized how meaningful the Psalms are for remembering Christ’s suffering until I reflected on two resources we developed at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship: a series of worship services called Psalms for a Lenten Journey, and a new book by John Witvliet called The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship.

I was surprised by how many echoes of the Psalms there are in the week before Christ’s death. And I was struck that part of the failure of the travelers on the road to Emmaus to recognize Jesus is their failure to recognize him in the Psalms: “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms,” Jesus tells them, “must be fulfilled.”  With this theme in mind, and these materials in hand, I’ve been reflecting on the Psalms this season of Lent, and preparing to hear their echoes during Holy Week.


Palm Sunday: Psalm 118

"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!"

One of the most puzzling days on the church calendar to me is Palm Sunday. It's a day of paradox and self-parody: a confusing, illusory moment of triumph before defeat, jubilation before agony, embrace before rejection. On the lips of the people as Jesus rides into Jerusalem are these famous words from Psalm 118: "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." They are said on Jesus' own cue; he says in Luke 13 that Jerusalem "will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'" The words from the psalm were, by that time, well established as a psalm for liturgical procession, according to Carl Bosma, but the crowd was thinking politics, not worship. They were thinking Psalm 118, not Psalm 22.

Jesus wants to give us some cues that this victory parade is not what it looks like. He asks for a colt, not a stallion, so that as he rides, he looks, in Scott Hoezee's words, "a tad ridiculous with his feet nearly scraping the ground as the colt lumbered along." And he enters Holy Week not with "hosannas" echoing in his ears, but tears welling up in his eyes. "As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it.” Is he weeping for the city, for the misguided hurrahs that lined his path into it, for his own suffering that is now less than a week away? It's one of the many questions we have on Palm Sunday. But maybe the tears—those Palm Sunday tears—say enough.


Monday: Psalm 1

"The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish."

Psalms is one of the most self-contradicting books of the Bible. It starts off with Psalm 1, with its tidy moral worldview—the righteous prosper, the wicked wither. By Psalms 3 and 10, the psalmist is saying that it’s the wicked who seem to be prospering and the righteous who are in danger of blowing away. He accuses God of failing to enforce Psalm 1’s moral rulebook.

Holy Week gives us the greatest contradiction of all: Jesus, the righteous one, the only human being who never did "take the path that sinners tread"—the only one who ever perfectly kept his part of the bargain of Psalm 1—this righteous one ends up condemned. Psalm 1 talks about a tree, but the only tree we see this week is running with innocent blood.

Of course, a closer look at Psalm 1 shows that the prosperity promised to the righteous is not constant, but seasonal. Righteousness "yields its fruit in season." Wickedness—so weightless that it blows away—is short-term. After a Holy Week of barrenness, which by Saturday has even the disciples wondering if they bet on the wrong team, Sunday will bring us a harvest like no other.


Tuesday: Psalm 32

"Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered."

I didn't like this verse at first. Forgiveness is a cover-up? Forgiveness is like the rug in our upstairs office that strategically conceals the stains of our last owners' pet? Shouldn't the forgiveness we claim in the cross be more like a carpet cleaner?

The key is who ends up doing the covering, and who doesn't. At first the psalmist tries to cover his tracks, but the guilt lodges in his gut: "while I kept silence, my body wasted away." Only when he abandons the pretense, and "did not hide my iniquity," can he get anywhere. Oddly enough, the word for "hide" is the same Hebrew root, ksy, used for "cover" in verse one. It's the same action, but a different agent—not the deceptive hand of the stubborn, but the hand of mercy, the hand with nail holes in it.  "Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered," Jesus says in Matthew 10. It's a threat to the delusional, but a comfort to the honest: "steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord."


Wednesday: Psalm 91

"For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone."

Will Psalm 91 be on Jesus' mind in Gethsemane tomorrow? It was this psalm that Satan, who does some of his best tempting when he's quoting Scripture, quoted to Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4. Jesus rebuked Satan, but tomorrow night, when his disciples are snoring and it's just Jesus and the Father, Jesus will long to curl up under the soothing promises of Psalm 91: "For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his [feathers], and under his wings you will find refuge." It may sound a little audacious or paranoid for Jesus to ask God for an exit strategy, but the truth is that it looks downright biblical when you read Psalm 91: "Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. … I will rescue them."

Neal Plantinga points out that, as with so much poetic hyperbole, Psalm 91 is prone to abuse and misunderstanding. God, a forcefield around us, making us impervious to suffering? As Plantinga says, Psalm 91 is hardly a magic bullet. The promise doesn't serve our interests, but God's, and Jesus knows that when he ultimately yields, "yet not my will, but yours be done." Because Jesus walks into "the snare of the fowler, the deadly pestilence," we have our refuge.


Maundy Thursday: Psalm 116

"The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’"

If there's one word I would use to describe the mood, the feel, of Maundy Thursday, at least to me, it would be somber.  We grimly listen to the narration of Jesus being hauled from trial to trial, then betrayed and denied, then led away to be killed. We listen to it all with a knowing dread, like watching a horror movie for the second time and knowing who's at the door. This aura of mournfulness provides a healthy balance to the cheeriness of Easter; maybe we need the contrast to give that bright morning some emotional depth.

But Psalm 116 also calls us to jubilant gratitude as we line the road to Golgotha. Tonight, as we see Jesus stumble under the weight of the cross on the path to death, we say more fervently, “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.”

It is a night for sorrow, not shouts, to be sure. But it is a night to bow in quiet, humble gratitude, and murmur in awe, "What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”


Good Friday: Psalm 22

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? … He did not hide his face from me." 

I used to think of Psalm 22 as a sad psalm and Psalm 23 as a happy one. The truth is, both psalms go back and forth between the terror of the valley of the shadow of death, and the fierce assurance of God's presence.

Laura Smit points out (MP3) that in the biblically literate culture of Jesus' time, you only had to say the starting line of a psalm to invoke it in its entirety (the way, perhaps, I can say "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …" and your mind promptly completes the rest of the hymn). Smit argues that Jesus wasn't sound-biting Psalm 22 on the cross. He was invoking the opening line and the lines that followed, including the some exact prophecies of crucifixion details: "my tongue sticks to my jaws" and "for my clothing they cast lots." 

But more importantly, Smit says, Jesus was also invoking the yet’s: "yet you are holy"; "yet it was you who took me from the womb"; "for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him."

Smit says Christ was invoking the praises as well as the terror of Psalm 22. The theologians will have to duke it out over this point, but maybe, just maybe, when we take Psalm 22 in its entirety, Jesus is giving us a different message from the cross than we tend to hear: not that he was abandoned by God, but that even though he felt abandoned by God, God never did, and never would, actually hide his face from him. 

Today, when Jesus gasps, "It is finished!" we feel speechless, but maybe we can finish the psalm Christ started, and say in quiet awe, "Future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it."


Easter: Psalm 2

"‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. … I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession."

Easter comes as a relief to us, after the grim reflection of the past few days. The tomb bursts open, and so do our souls. 

Easter comes as a relief to us, but it comes as a kingdom to Jesus. In Acts 13, Paul identifies Psalm 2 as an Easter psalm, and this psalm is all about royalty.

"‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.’” That’s the outcome of Easter, the outcome of the “nations conspiring,” the “peoples plotting”; it is all “in vain.” The God who wept over his mutilated Son on Friday now laughs, not only out of joy, but out of triumphal scorn, the reversal of the soldiers mocking Jesus just a few nights ago: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision."

Christ is not only resurrected today, but coronated. From tomb to throne. From corpse to crown.

Nathan Bierma is communications and research coordinator for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: Connecting This Life to the Next. He is blogging a series of meditations on the Psalms at CICW’s Worship Weblog.

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