Disclaimer: Please take this post in the mirthful manner I intend. I do not intend to be argumentative or to directly oppose the writings of a fellow blogger and priest whom I respect and appreciate. Frankly, I hope and piously think Father Ryland is correct, but for reason stated below, I wonder if his stated, and my hoped-for conclusion is correct, namely that Angels sing. Here is a link to his post: Can Angels Speak or Sing? – Fr. Ray Ryland
In his brief article Father concludes that angels can both speak and sing. This is the most commonly held view, to be sure. I have no doubts that they can and do speak, and that God provides some way for them to do that when interacting with us. But has for singing, I am less certain and here’ why:
1. There is no Scriptural verse that I have ever read that describes them as singing. Even in the classic Christmas scene where we depict them as singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” the text indicates that they SAYING (Gr: legontōn) the song not that they sing it (cf. Luke 2:13). If you can find a Scripture text that shows the angels singing please share it, but I’ve looked for years and can’t find it. Here too I state this humbly and may be wrong. If so you will help me.
2. The catechism doesn’t say that angels sing.
3. The liturgy of the Church does not to indicate that angels sing. Perhaps the closest that we come are the prefaces. There is reference to the “song of the angels” (the Holy, Holy, Holy) but they are said to “say” this song. The most common ways of describing what angels do regarding the heavenly hymn, Holy Holy, Holy are with are phrases such as: Sine fine dicentes (saying, without end), Clamantes (shouting), ingaudioconfitentes (declaring in joy), Concinunt – This is about as close as the Latin gets to saying they sing. It can be translated “they sing” but can also be translated “they agree in saying” or “they say together.” There is also a phrase that comes up in the prefaces which says, cumque omni militia caelestis exercitus hymnum gloriae tuae canimus (and with all the heavenly hosts we sing the hymn of your glory). But the “we” who sing is us. That the angels are referred to as singing is not clear. It may well be a gloss on Psalm 137:1 In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises Lord.
4. I cannot say I have comprehensive knowledge of the Fathers of the Church so here I cannot definitively declare they never indicate that angels sing. Perhaps you can assist in this regard?
5. Though there are references to nine “choirs” of angels, the word choir here means “order” or “group.”
6. It would also seem that, having no bodies, they cannot sing. For to sing is to cause the vocal cords to vibrate, causing the air to vibrate as well. While it is true that angels are said to talk, and do other things such as blow trumpets, it is unclear if this is meant literally or analogously. It also is possible that humans hearing or seeing angels were able to do this through a temporary grace from God. St. Thomas effectively argues that angels do sometimes assume bodies, (Pars Prima, 51.1). Even if this is the case, they are still never said to sing.
So here is my proposition: “Angels don’t sing.” Perhaps singing is a particular glory of the human person; a capacity unique to us, a very special gift. In the heavenly liturgy I propose to you that it is we who will sing, and not the angels.
But please this is only a proposition about a matter not essential to salvation! I have thought about it for years. I do not declare it with pride as though I am certain I am right. The long and consistent belief of the faithful should not be easily set aside. But for the reasons stated I want to propose this for your consideration. How say you?
It is hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.
To be sure, every era has had, and has needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.
However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.
Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. Ratzinger paraphrased an insight of Gandhi’s, applied it to his analysis of our current times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:
I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.
Today – I would like to add – we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth.…
The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to man. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. . . .
Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).
This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.
As Ratzinger pointed out, though, we too often are preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world. But the liturgy – good and proper liturgy – trains us in all three and accomplishes the balance that is so often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.
Read and carefully consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection. It will bless your soul; I know it has blessed mine.
This past Sunday featured a reading from 1 Corinthians 6 that was unfortunately vague in its English translation. The text said, “Avoid immorality,” (1 Corinthians 6:18) hides the more specific meaning of the text. “Avoid immorality?” It may as well have said “Do good and avoid evil.” Nothing could be more vague.
For the record the Greek text is Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν (Pheugete ten porneian) which is accurately and easily translated: Flee fornication (sexual immorality). It is a powerful admonition in the Greek, and just about every other English version of the Bible, except the Revised New American Bible (RNAB). I checked twenty other translations, and they all say “Flee fornication” or “Flee sexual immorality.”
It is a clarion call to chastity that is so necessary to hear in this sex saturated culture? Sadly our vague lectionary translation misses a teachable moment.
Fundamentally there are two problems with this translation.
In the first place, πορνείᾳ (porneia) (which is a specific reference to sexual immorality) is translated vaguely as “immorality.”
Immorality can mean practically any sin. If I were to say, “That group is immoral,” I could mean almost anything from it being greedy, or racist, or violent, or just promoting some sinful activity. Frankly sex is not the first thing that comes to mind when the word immorality is encountered.
But πορνείᾳ (porneia) is a specific word referring to sexual immorality. Usually it refers to pre-marital sex (fornication), but sometimes it may be used to refer to other sexual sins, depending on the context, like incest or adultery.
So problem one is that “immorality” is so vague as to be inaccurate.
In the second place “avoid” (as in “avoid immorality”) is profoundly weak as a translation of Φεύγετε (pheugete) which means, quite simply, “Flee!” It is a present, active, imperative verb in the second person plural. As an imperative it is thus a command, and merits the exclamation point: You (all) flee!
Strong’s Greek dictionary of biblical terms defines the verb as “to flee, escape or shun.
One might argue that “avoid” captures the word “shun” which is the third meaning. No it does not. “Shun” is a strong word, “avoid” in English is exceedingly more vague. “Avoid” says, “other things being equal, you ought to steer clear of this, if it is not too much trouble.” “Avoid” is friendly advice. “Shun” indicates a strong detestation.
Flee, which is the first first meaning is an unambiguous command of warning, one which calls for immediate action due to something that is more than a small threat.
This Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó) is used 29 times in the new Testament (see here) and in no case is “avoid” the best or proper translation. In fact to use “avoid” would yield often times unintelligible, sometimes comical results. Consider some of the following verses and mentally try to substitute the word “avoid”
The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt (Matt 2:13)
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism he said unto them O generation of vipers who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come (Matt 3:7)
And they that kept [the pigs] fled into the city and told every thing and what was befallen to the possessed of the devils (Matt 8:33)
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet stand in the holy place whoever reads let him understand Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains (Matt 24:16)
the disciples left [Jesus] and fled. (Matt 26:56)
the woman fled into the wilderness (Rev 12:6)
In other words “fled” or “flee” is the first, and best translation of the Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó), followed by “escape.” “Avoid,” just doesn’t capture what is being said.
Pastorally, this is a lost moment for Catholics with the translation “Avoid immorality.” Not only is the meaning obscure, but the imperative voice of the Greek is almost wholly lost by the vague and suggestive “avoid.” Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? (cf 1 Cor 14:8). The clarion call of this text is to get way as far, and as fast as possible, from fornication. This trumpet-call is reduced to barely a kazoo by the translation, “avoid immorality.” And even if a listener does finally get that “immorality” here means “sexual immorality” he or she will hardly be moved by the word avoid.
The bottom line is that 1 Corinthians 6:18 (Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν. πᾶν ἁμάρτημα ὁ ἐὰν ποιήσῃ ἄνθρωπος ἐκτὸς τοῦ σώματος ἐστιν· ὁ δὲ πορνεύων εἰς τὸ ἴδιον σῶμα ἁμαρτάνει) is better and correctly translated as:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.
Flee fornication. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but the fornicator, sins against his own body.
In other words, Run! Flee! Head for the hills! Get as far and as fast away from fornication as you can.
Do you get it? Probably not if you heard the Lectionary version last Sunday: Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Not exactly a clarion call.
This is surely something to bring to the attention of the Bishops as a new Lectionary is prepared. Rest assured I will surely bring it to the attention of a few bishops I know. I pray you might do the same.
Painting at top: St. Paul Writing at his Desk by Rembrandt
The Following are “Five Advent Reflections” I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent
1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says: Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.
2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)
In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .
3. Waiting for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:
He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).
Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!
4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).
Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.
And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name. Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)
In the Office of Readings for Corpus Christi there is an antiphon rich in meaning yet at the same time mysterious:
I will give to the one who is victorious the hidden bread and a new name (Antiphon 1 from Lauds).
It is drawn from a longer text in the Book of Revelation, in the letter to the Church at Pergamum:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it(Rev 2:17).
Let us examine the many wonderful elements of the longer text.
He who has an ear, let him hear …
Jesus used these words often in the Gospels, especially in His parables. The expression seeks to appeal to those who have a soul that wants to hear. Obviously, all humans have ears, and most of us can hear, but that does not mean we listen or are willing to listen. Many have hardened their hearts and have thus acquired an ear that is deaf to the teachings of the Lord. Jeremiah says, To whom can I give this warning? Who will listen to me? Look, their ears are closed, so they cannot hear. See, the word of the LORD has become offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it(Jeremiah 6:10). Jesus also describes many people as ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven(Mk 4:12). St. Stephen rebuked the people of his day: You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did(Acts 7:51). Therefore, with this expression, the Lord addresses Himself to those who will listen and carefully ponder, for He is about to express truths that are only heard when the soul seeks to hear and is spiritually minded.
… what the Spirit says to the churches.
This means you! Although it is Jesus who is speaking, He is speaking to John through the Holy Spirit. He is speaking to the “churches” that is to the gatherings (e.g., parishes, dioceses) of all the faithful everywhere. So, He is speaking to you.
To the one who conquers …
Who is the one who conquers? John answers this elsewhere: Who then conquers the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God(1 John 5:5). Hence, through faith we conquer and seek to be among those who have spirits able to hear what the Lord teaches.
I will give some of the hidden manna, …
The Church, in placing this antiphon prominently in the Office of Readings for Corpus Christi, clearly sets forth that the “hidden manna” is the Eucharist. Some in the past have sought to link this to the ciborium of manna that was placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the tables of the Law and staff of Aaron. Moses had said to Aaron, Take a jar and fill it with an omer of manna. Then place it before the LORD to be preserved for the generations to come(Exodus 16:33). The ancient Ark of the Covenant disappeared during the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and has never been found. In this sense, it—and the vessel of manna that was within it—are hidden. This explanation fails to appreciate that the ancient Ark pointed to and is fulfilled in Christ. The old Ark was said to carry the presence of the Lord in Israel, but Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant, carrying in her womb and later her arms the very presence of God in Israel, our Lord Jesus Christ. The staff of Aaron the High Priest points to the true shepherd’s staff of our Lord. The stone tablets containing the Law point to Christ, the Word made Flesh, the perfection of God’s truth, and the fulfillment of His Law. The small jar of manna points to Christ, who is the true living bread come down from Heaven, who now dwells with us truly in His eucharistic presence in the ciboria within our tabernacles. Christ Himself said that the manna in the desert pointed to Him and that He is a perfect manna:
So [the crowd] asked Him, “What sign then will You perform, so that we may see it and believe You? What will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “give us this bread at all times.” Jesus answered, “I am the bread of life. … Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And this bread, which I will give for the life of the world, is My flesh”(John 6:31ff).
Just as the ancient manna sustained the ancient Jews in their journey through the desert, so now Christ, our true and perfect manna, sustains us on our journey through the desert of this world to the Promised Land of Heaven.
Why is this manna, who is Christ, called hidden? It is “hidden because its truth is accessed and seen only through faith. To the worldly, the Eucharist seems nothing more than a wafer and some wine, but to the faithful, Christ is seen, whole and entire. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote,
I adore you devoutly, Godhead unseen, who truly lies hidden under these sacramental forms…. Sight, taste, and touch all fail, but only the hearing is safely believed; I believe whatever the Son of God has said, and nothing can be truer that the word of Truth Himself …. Jesus I look on your veiled presence and I pray that what I so ardently long for may come to pass, and that I may see your face unveiled and be happy in the vision of your glory(selected verses from Adoro Te Devote).
So, this hidden manna, Christ Himself, is given to us! Though hidden to earthly eyes, His true presence is grasped through faith.
… and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.
The most likely historical reference here is to the ancient practice of issuing admission stones, sometimes called tessera hospitalis(hospitality stones) that functioned much like admission tickets do today. A hospitality stone was a small stone with some markings on it, which gave to its possessor admission to an event or gave him a claim of hospitality from the one who had given it. That it is called white is a reference more to its brightness than its color. The Greek word is λευκός (leukos), which means lightsome, bright, shining, or dazzling. One might think of a shining pearl or diamond.
There is a theory among some scholars that the glistening stone may also be akin to the Urim and Thummim, white and black stones worn by the high priest behind the square breastplate. The breastplate of the high priest was square and had twelve jewels (see depiction above). On each of these jewels was written the name of one of the tribes of Israel. The mysteries surrounding Urim and Thummim stones are many but seem associated with blessing or curse and with determining outcomes or seeking God’s will. The Urim may have been a diamond, as no diamond appears on the front of the breastplate. It is said that on it a name was written and only the high priest knew what this secret, unutterable name was. Most think it must have been the name Yahweh, the ineffable Name of God.
But what is this “new” name spoken of in this text? Many suggest that it is some special or hidden name that God has for us who bear the stone. However, the text does not say that the name pertains to us and, if the historical reference to the Urim has any hold, the name likely refers to the Lord. Further, Revelation 3:12 says of those who overcome this world: “I will write upon him the name of my God…I will write upon him my new name.”So, it is not likely a new name by which to call us, but rather the Name of the Lord God.
How is the name new? In one sense it could be that we understand God’s holy Name in a new manner, but contextually, “my new name,” seems to refer to Jesus, and Jesus is Lord! Of this Name, the Book of Revelation is full:
He has eyes like blazing fire, and many royal crowns on His head. He has a name written on Him that only He Himself knows(Revelation 19:12).
And He has a name written on His robe and on His thigh: King of kings and Lord of lords(Revelation 19:16).
And they shall see his face and his name shall be on their foreheads(Rev 22:4).
Only the Lord fully knows His name, for in the ancient world a name pointed to the deep mystery of a person. We are privileged to receive the Name of Jesus as members of His Body. The text speaks to us in hope that as we are more fully immersed in Christ as a member of His Body we shall come to know ever more deeply the glory of the Name of Jesus and understand that there is no other name given to us by which we can be saved. There is power and deliverance in the Name of Jesus, and He shares this name with us, bestowing on us Himself, the Hidden Manna, the stone glistening with His beauty, glory, and clarity. Blessed be the Name of Jesus!
Such a rich meaning in such a brief antiphon from Corpus Christi!
I will give to the one who is victorious the hidden bread and a new name(Antiphon 1 from Lauds).
One of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.
But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.
Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:
Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).
Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).
Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58, 83, and 109) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.
Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”
A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?
While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.
St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:
First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.
Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.
Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.
So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)
To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).
Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.
It is as if God is saying,
I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.
It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.
As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.
Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.
Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 ) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.
A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center shows the rather unsurprising fact that sermons at Catholic masses are much shorter than those at Protestant and Evangelical services. The Catholic News Agency reports:
An analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons, given across a variety of Christian denominations during the months of April and May this year, found that the median length of a sermon was 37 minutes, but for Catholic priests, the average length was just 14 minutes.
Pew found that historically black Protestant sermons had the longest median length of 54 minutes, while mainline Protestant sermons were an average of 25 minutes long, with evangelical churches falling in between at 39 minute [sic] per sermon (CNA).
Catholic clergy are generally considered to be poorer preachers than their Protestant counterparts, and I would argue that the shorter sermon length has something to do with that. The expectation that a sermon be brief, about twelve minutes, affects what is said and how it is said. It also makes a number of forms of preaching, some of them among the most satisfying for the congregation, impossible.
Some years ago, a brother priest asked one of his parishioners who had left for a large Protestant denomination why he had done so. “They teach the Word,” was the man’s answer. We can certainly lament that the man would not have left the faith had he understood the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but people also have a hunger for God’s Word effectively taught and presented. For this reason, a good sermon deeply rooted in a biblical text is very satisfying. Long before I was ordained a priest, I listened to recordings of Protestant preachers like Adrian Rogers and Tony Evans. I marveled at how these men could take a text and teach from it line by line, creatively applying it to life. Even if I did not agree with every point they made or thought that they missed something that a Catholic would see, they saw the text as full of meaning and served up rich spiritual fare for their listeners.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen had this ability, too. He’d find a crucial point most others would miss and develop it beautifully. I remember once he noted that the disciples had forgotten to bring bread with them on the boat and emphasized the detail in the text that said, “They had only one loaf with them in the boat.” With the authority that only Sheen could command he proceeded to say, “And the loaf was Christ, who alone is our necessary Bread.” From this insightful teaching he went on to develop four aspects of it.
This sort of teaching and preaching takes time. I would argue that the relative inferiority of Catholic preaching isn’t just that Catholic clergy are poorly trained; it is also the limited time tolerated by the faithful. With such an abbreviated length, Catholic sermons tend to present a single principle drawn from the readings without being able to fully develop it. Good biblically based preaching usually involves going through a passage in the following steps: read it, analyze it, organize it, illustrate it, and then apply it. This sort of preaching isn’t likely to happen in a twelve-minute homily.
I also am told by many Catholics that priests need to teach more from the pulpit. There is a very long list of topics that they want to hear preached about more. I would argue that this also requires more than a mere twelve minutes.
I do not say that every member of the clergy should preach longer. Some simply don’t have the skill to do so. Others are in situations were a longer sermon is not possible due to the overall Mass schedule. There are also going to be ethnic/racial differences that factor in. So, neither do I argue that longer sermons teaching in depth out of a biblical text should be used in all situations. However, I do argue that if they want the “better” sermons of the denominations noted for excellent preaching, more Catholics might want to consider tolerating a longer sermon, at least at certain Masses.
I have spent most of my priesthood in predominantly African-American parishes. In such congregations, longer sermons are assumed. The people have high expectations of the sermon; they also interact with the preacher through encouraging interjections such as “Amen” and “All right now.” In these settings I routinely preach about thirty minutes; it is a great luxury. This permits me to preach through a biblical text examining its stages or exploring several aspects of the teaching it sets forth. Most of you who read my Sunday sermons posted here or listen to them onlineknow this. One sermon might cover four aspects of discipleship derived from a Gospel pericope. Another might explore the stages of faith the man born blind goes through in the Gospel of John. Most of my parishioners would be surprised if I gave a ten-minute sermon, wondering what had happened. Once when I gave a short sermon a woman playfully rebuked me, saying, “Father, you left too much fruit in the tree this morning. We need a better harvest next week.”
Some Catholics have told me that they think long sermons are a mistake no matter who is in the pulpit because the purpose of the Mass is not to be a glorified bible study; it is an act of worship. Perhaps, but isn’t the Lord being worshipped when the faithful are attending to His proclaimed and preached Word with devotion?
Over the years, I have found that people have pretty strong opinions about sermons, both length and content. I suppose the best way for me to end this piece is by saying that perhaps we can all make a little room for one another in the Church. Some priests preach longer and are good at it. Some are not and better off keeping the sermon short and to the point. Other priests preach brilliant, memorable homilies that are quite brief. Vive la différence! Even in my own parish, not every liturgy is the same: our 11:00 AM Mass runs well over an hour, while our 7:00 PM Mass is no longer than forty-five minutes. Hence, in my own sermons, both content and length vary.
The one thing that is most clear to me is that rigid declarations that no sermon should be longer than a certain number of minutes (8, 10, 12, or whatever) are disrespectful of legitimate differences across cultures, liturgical traditions, and even personal temperaments. Pastors and congregations can and should work out their own situations and provide variety even there. Live and let live.
This sermon clip shows that, when I have to, I can preach in under four minutes. This was a half-hour TV Mass and only four minutes for the sermon is allotted. I certainly don’t consider it one of my better efforts and would liked to have developed the possibility that St. John did have supernatural grace. But all that one can do in so brief a moment is to throw out a few thoughts and exit gracefully. In my written online sermonI developed, in three stages, going from the imperfect gift we merely want to the perfect gift that God is actually offering. In my recorded parish homily, given the generous time allotted in that setting I was able to sample well from the Prophets as well as the Gospel text itself.
There is a text from the Acts of the Apostles that sets forth quite well some of the qualities of the Sacred Liturgy. Although the “liturgy” cited in this passage is not a Mass, the description should apply to all our liturgies; from the Liturgy of the Hours to baptism, from a penance service to a full sung Mass. Let’s look at the passage and learn from it the power of liturgy to deliver, instruct, and transform us and the world.
About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” He asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family (Acts 15:25-33).
Determination – About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened … Here they are in an awful place, a deep dungeon with rats and filth all about, and yet they are singing.
An old hymn reminds us to persevere in praise: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul, it is well.’” Yes, happiness is an inside job. There may be times when we don’t feel emotionally ready to praise God, but we have to command our soul. In the words of the psalm, I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).
Note that this is communal not personal prayer, and thus it is a kind of liturgy. They are singing hymns, a form of communal and liturgical prayer. More literally, the Greek text says that they were singing praises (humneo) to God. “Hymn” comes from humneo. Perhaps they were singing psalms or perhaps they were singing newly composed hymns such as we see in Philippians 2:5-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, or Colossians 1:15-19. But note their determination to praise the Lord anyway. Such praises will bring blessings, for when praises go up, blessings come down.
The Church must always be determined to celebrate the liturgy. The last thing we should ever consider stopping is the Mass! Recall how many priests and bishops locked up in prisons were earnest to obtain even the slightest scraps of bread or drops of wine in order to celebrate the Mass. Recall the many martyred priests during troubled times in England who risked everything to celebrate the Holy Mass. We must always be determined to pray, and whenever possible, to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, even at great risk.
Disturbance –… suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook … Does our worship rock this world to its foundations? It should. The world ought to know and experience that we are at prayer! We should rock this world with our refusal to be discouraged at what it dishes out.
Further, good prayer, preaching, and the simple presence of the Church ought to shake things up a bit. It is said that a good preacher will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Each of us has a little of both within us.
Note that the early Christians were often arrested for being “disturbers of the peace.” They said politically dangerous things like “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord.” Religiously, they upset the order by announcing that many of the old rites were now fulfilled. Temple worship was over. Jesus was the true temple and Lord, and the Eucharist now supplanted the lucrative temple rites. Morally, the Church shook things up by demanding love of one’s enemies and that people no longer live as did the pagans, in the futility of their minds. These things and more tended to disturb the political, social, and religious order. Liturgically, we gather to celebrate and learn many earthshaking truths and to be liberated from the hold of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Yes, the presence of the early Church was a kind of earthquake. When the Church is strong she not only consoles; she disturbs and even rocks things to their foundations by the simple declaration, “Thus says the Lord” and by our praise of Him who is true Lord and Sovereign King, far outranking all other kings and those who demand our loyalty and conformity.
Deliverance –… all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. The liturgy of praise and worship of God should effect an ongoing deliverance. The prayer of the Church in her liturgy should set people free: prison doors swing open, chains fall loose, and increasing freedom is granted to faithful.
I am a witness to this and I pray that you are as well. I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word Made Flesh in Holy Communion, and deep abiding fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cells of anxiety are no longer. Deliverance is what happened to us when the Lord took us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.
Dignity –When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” The liturgy we celebrate is that of the Catholic Church. The term Catholic refers to the universality of the Church’s mission. All are to be called.
One effect of the liturgy on us should be that we neither hate nor exclude anyone. Paul and Silas do not gloat over the misfortune of their jailer. Knowing his dignity, they call out to him, even at the risk of their lives.
The Church, too, seeks the welfare and salvation of even our most bitter opponents. Our liturgy is celebrated not only for our friends but for the whole world.
The Church is Catholic; all are called. Painting a picture of the Church, Scripture says, I [John] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9). I realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 34-35, 43).
Discipleship –[The jailer] asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.
Making disciples (not just members) is the primary job of the Church. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Lord, but the word “disciple” also comes from the same Latin root (discere) as the word “learning.” Thus, the Church in her liturgy not only worships the Lord, she instructs the faithful and supplies the sacraments.
Note that the jailer asks for light. Do not think of this as merely a practical request. Asking for light is asking for the enlightenment that comes from Faith and Baptism. The Church in her liturgy and by her witness supplies light and acclimates the faithful to that light.
The jailer, having asked for the light, been instructed, and become accustomed to the light, is baptized.
Here, then, are some goals of and a description of true liturgy, one that rocks the world and yet delivers the faith, forming the people in the beauty of God’s grace. Do you and your fellow parishioners see the liturgy this way or do you see it as distant, even boring? See what this Scripture passage teaches about the truest goals and nature of every liturgy, great or small, in the Church.