Friday, February 06, 2009

Athanasius on the Psalms

Recently I revisited a beloved little book, On the Incarnation, written by St. Athanasius (296 – 373 A.D.). Athanasius is a profoundly influential pastor and Bishop within the church. In 325 at the Council of Nicea, he took a significant role in helping the church to understand and proclaim that Jesus was human and divine. The heresy that he countered was known as Arianism, which understood Jesus to be a great example, but not God in the flesh. Athanasius helped the church form the Nicean Creed which we find as #717 in our hymnal and serves as a concise confession of what we believe about God. (You can read more about St. Athanasius by going to: www.ccel.org/a/athanasius/

In the copy of On the Incarnation that I have there is an appendix which is a letter that Athansisus wrote on the interpretation of the Psalms. Like many other interpreters of his time he viewed all of Scripture as pointing to the person of Jesus, as its first task. Each book of the Bible he held pointed to Jesus in some particular way, just as it told a particular message of its own. The Psalms he noted were a little different, “Each of the books is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast the Psalter (Psalms) is a garden for which, besides its special fruit grown also some of those of all the rest.” The Psalms span pre-creation to the celestial city and everything in between.

But there’s more to the Psalms than revealing the fullness of the story of God and the human story. One purpose of the Psalms is to be sung or prayed in private and in public. The scripture tells us to “give thanks always” (I Thess. 5) and the Psalms provide the fitting words to say. “In fact,” writes Athanasius, “under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.” Further he writes, “the marvel of the Psalter is that, barring those prophesies about the Saviour and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another persons feelings were being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up.”

Since reading Athanasius’ work I’ve been re-visiting the Psalms. I’ve been reading the Psalm numbered for that day of the month, and then using that number to skip through the remainder of the Psalms. At times I’ve found them speaking to different matters, of creation, of repentance for sin, of seeking God in tough times, of seeing God’s righteous arm descend upon the wicked, of pleading for mercy for the wicked, of joy at God’s great and grand mercy. At other times they speak with a solitary voice – in God is our trust, and He is indeed trustworthy to walk with us through the valleys of life and set before us a good table.

Let me encourage you to join me in re-visiting the Psalms, especially during the season of lent. Hear and sing the good news delivered to us through these many writers and let these words shape your heart. Jesus knew the Psalms, and on the cross he quoted from Psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many believe that in saying the first line Jesus had the whole Psalm in mind, which concludes with trust and praise and a look to future generations. Let us listen to and sing the Psalms and may our hearts and bodies be shaped by the truth of God’s word. “For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone.” (Athanasius)

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