Tenebrae

This morning’s Psalm according to the Daily Office in the BCP was Psalm 55.  Some of its content, with which I am familiar, struck me as particularly pertinent to the Tenebrae service my home church is having tonight, which is a bit of Divine Coincidence, really, because there doesn’t seem to be any one traditional day for that service to be held (though I suppose most American Anglicans seem to prefer it on Wednesday after all).

The Tenebrae worship liturgy is centered around the abandonment of Jesus by the Apostles on the night of His betrayal.  As Psalms and lamentations and other songs are sung, candles are extinguished one by one until only the Christ candle remains, which is then taken from the room (though not snuffed out completely).  It is very possible that Psalm 55 will be among the passages we read or sing tonight; I don’t know.  Whateverso, a few verses stood out to me that merit further meditation.

12For it is not an enemy who taunts me—
then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
then I could hide from him.
13 But it is you, a man, my equal,
my companion, my familiar friend.
14We used to take sweet counsel together;
within God’s house we walked in the throng.
15Let death steal over them;
let them go down to Sheol alive;
for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart.

These verses are tough to read in any setting.  I know that “enemies” in the Psalms are usually meant to be spiritualized (contrary to how most biblical writings should be understood), but it’s difficult to get by this “familiar friend” who “took sweet counsel” with me.  And that is precisely the point here – it is not an enemy that causes this grief, but a friend.  In context of today, the Tenebrae connection is obvious: this is depicting a close friend’s betrayal, in the same way that Judas betrayed Jesus.  We can hear Jesus’ voice praying these words.  Bonhoeffer would certainly agree, given his theology of the Psalms as the prayers of Christ and the Church, as well as ancient Israel.

20My companion stretched out his hand against his friends;
he violated his covenant.
21His speech was smooth as butter,
yet war was in his heart;
his words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords.

Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss.  He called Jesus by his proper title and greeted him warmly that night, but behind him were men with drawn swords.

What do we get out of this, then?  Certainly there are times in our lives when we are let down by friends, disappointed by friends, even betrayed by friends (if not as dramatic as in Judas & Jesus’ case).  But other than join Israel and Jesus in crying out to God with the words above, what is there for us?  Let us pray on with Psalm 55:

22Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
23But you, O God, will cast them down
into the pit of destruction;
men of blood and treachery
shall not live out half their days.
But I will trust in you.

There we go, it’s a call for perseverance.  The whole season of Lent has a special focus on taking up our cross and following Christ, and that only intensifies now during Holy Week.  But the great thing about biblical calls to perseverance is that they’re almost always accompanied with reassurance, and this Psalm is no exception.  God sustains us; He never permits us to be “moved.”  But Jesus was still crucified, still died.  Paul was still arrested and dragged off to Rome.  Peter was still crucified upside-down.  Ignatius of Antioch was still thrown to the lions.  God’s people still get martyred even today.  But just as their faith was not defeated unto death, neither will they be moved in the judgment.  We persevere not because we will be blessed in this life, although there often is great blessing and joy in the Christian life; we persevere because we will be blessed forever in the resurrection life.

As for that last verse, it is often difficult for us to read (let alone pray) Psalms that call for the destruction of the wicked.  Surely we can be more loving to our “enemies” than that?  But just like how our perseverance was about our final reward, not a present blessing, the destruction of the wicked is a final judgment, not a present destruction.  In some cases, like ancient Israel, there were real enemies trying to conquer them that they did want God to smite.  But most of us aren’t engaged in defensive warfare with other lands, but spiritual warfare against the spiritual forces of darkness.  We’re trying to save lost souls, not kick them while they’re down.  So when we pray for God to cast the wicked “into the pit of destruction,” we’re praying for His righteous judgment on the Last Day.  And especially, we pray it in contrast to the Christian hope.  That judgment of destruction was for us, too, before we became one with Christ.  Acknowledging that it’s a real judgment helps us to remember how merciful our salvation is.  Christians don’t live in the fear of hell, but in gratitude of our sparing from hell.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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