3 August 2020

Psalms (4) VENITE, Psalm 94/95

"For the LORD is a great God: and a great King above all gods."

I am going to assume that the learned readers of this humble blog are aware that the Name of the Hebrew God was not uttered aloud in the periods with which we are concerned; that when a reader came across the Four Letters YHWH, he actually uttered the word for "Lord" ... and that this convention continued in Latin and Greek. And that, brilliantly and helpfully, Bible translations in the Anglican tradition derived from the King James Bible signify this by rendering YHWH as LORD in upper-case letters. So, in verse three of the Venite, as Neale/Littledale point out, the literal rendering [I slightly adapt] is "For YHWH is a great El, and a great King over all Elohim."

It is depressingly easy, when saying the Divine Office in Latin or English, to forget the significance of LORD, Dominus; perhaps subconsciously to assume that it is simply a stylistic variant upon "God". I find I have to make an effort ... But if we do make this incorrect assumption, we miss innumerable nuances. Because when we say "He is the LORD our God", we are saying that our God is YHWH. Not one of the other options; not one of the other gods.

And YHWH is associated with His City and with His Temple. So we often find, as in this psalm, that a reference to Him may be textually close to a reference (explicit or implicit) to His Temple. And when, as so often, there is reference to His Name, this means the Name which is associated with His People, His City, and especially His Temple.

It is an exclusive, unecumenical, term. Our God is YHWH, not one of the gods of the nations. And I feel that it would Marcionite heresy to forget this at Mass. Gratias agamus Domino, Deo nostro emphasises precisely the point of the psalmist: "Let us give thanks to YHWH because He is our God ... we have no truck with any others". And we affirm our full place in the Hebraic heritage. It is possible that, in verse 4, when we say that "the strength of the hills is His also", we are claiming for our God YHWH the 'High Places' which the fertility deities of Canaan had taken over for their cult. Neale/Littledale refer to "the overthrow of heathen temples, and the rearing of Christian shrines on the eminences of Tabor, Sinai, Athos, and many another famous hill".

Perhaps for centuries, women and men of our culture have thought of Idolatry as a happily long defeated error; a primitive folly of earlier and 'less advanced' ages. Preachers have rescued and redeployed traditional polemic against idolatry by telling us that we should not be worshipping Money or Ambition or whatever. And that is perfectly fair, even necessary.

But how very singular that in our own 'advanced' and 'sophisticated' age, the ancient idolatries in their earthiest forms have crept back among us, looking curiously like the shapes they took in the time of our ancestors, in Canaan of old. A new fashion for "the indigenous", feeding upon a new (and proper) guilt about capitalist assaults upon the rain-forests, has bred a diabolical respect for the numina of  'Amazonian' and other cults. Who, if they exist, are demons.

'Pachamama' ... or whatever ... is not the Name above all other names; it is also not an equivalent for that Name.

The second half of the Venite warns us about the dangers of falling into idolatry. This is the same warning S Paul gave his gentile converts in Romans 11: 21 and I Corinthians 10. It is the warning of all the Prophets, bound up in The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. 

How fitting that every priest of the Latin Rite says the Venite every day at the start of his Office.

It is God's warning for today.

2 August 2020

Pope S Horace I?

Browsing through the Bull Munificentissimus Deus, in which Papa Pacelli defined the dogma of our Blessed Lady's Bodily Assumption, I noticed a particular phrase on the very edge of the formal definition itself.

The pope explained that one reason for the definition was personal: he wished to leave a monumentum aere perennius of his burning love for the Theotokos.

A 'memorial more long-lasting than bronze' is the exact phrase used by Quintus Horatius Flaccus as he concluded the first three books of his Carmina: a work by which he hoped to secure immortal renown as the man who spun the 'Aeolian song' of Sappho and Alcaeus into Latin poetry.

I wonder whether any other Infallible pronouncement of the Church's Magisterium has ever been introduced in such a way. It is not easy to imagine Trent beginning with something juicy by Catullus, or Nicaea I being introduced with a line from Aristophanes.

... um er ... genre confusion ... um er ...

And just you get this gigantic coincidence: Horace's birthday was December 8, Feast of our Lady's Holy and Immaculate Conception.

When Pope Leo XIV issues his mighty Constitutio Dogmatica Apostolica necnon et Synodica cancelling e radicibus the entire (ita dictum) "Magisterium" of PF, I wonder what might be a suitable literary quotation to accompany it.

Surely somebody can offer a helpful suggestion? It doesn't have to be from Juvenal or even Milton.

1 August 2020

Psalms (3)

Curiously, we do not know how the Venite (Ps 94 Vg/LXX = Ps 95 MT) was used in Temple worship. But we should take seriously the opening word, which implies motion. (I mean that it is not like the English "C'mon let's have a singsong".) We are to "come" somewhere; we are to move to where God is to be encountered. Nothing is more subversive of true religion than the "spiritual" notion that we need not do more than discern a ubiquitous god. The whole point of Creation is the endless variety of objects and times and places. Exclusively "Spiritual" commerce between an ego and a monad effectively denies the credal affirmation of God as Creator.

Does the Hebrew text point to the Temple Mount upon its lofty rock? We are, literally, urged to make a joyful noise to "the rock of our salvation". But the Septuagintal translation, followed by the Vugate, renders "rock" as "God"! This is an example of how, throughout the Psalter, concrete and vivd terms such as  rock, shield, fortress are replaced by more respectful terms. It has been suggested that one motive may be a desire to avoid encouraging idolatry. (If so, the policy might be said to have failed in the case of Wordsworth and the tradition of English Poetic Landscape-and-Weather Worship.)

S Jerome, pointing out that the word Salvation shares its root with the Name Jesus, neatly suggested that we might translate "rock of our Salvation" as "Jesus our Rock". This might open up interesting links with the Rock which Moses struck open in the Wilderness and thereby to devotion to the Sacred Heart. If, on the other hand, we stick with the version in the Breviary, Deo salutari nostro, an appetite for elegant intertextualities will remark upon its similarity to Mary's phrase near the beginning of the Magnificat, Deo salutari meo (the Greek Bible offers the same parallelism).

"Venite". So we are to come into His presence; Neale/Littledale point out that "coming before His Face" often implies coming before God with Sacrifice (Micah 6:6). "The chief constituent of the sacrifice of Thanksgiving  ... was an oblation of cakes of fine flour and wafer bread, and thus we may justly see in this place a prophecy of the Sacrifice of the New Law, that Eucharistic oblation of praise and thanksgiving wherein CHRIST is Himself offered in a mystery to the FATHER".

In fact, to be pedantic, Leviticus 7 is saying that the 'cakes' accompany  the Thank Offering. Canon Arthur Couratin, long-time Principal of Staggers, used to irritate Protestants who chattered on about "sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving" by pointing out that in the Law, Sacrifices of Thanksgiving tended, as he put it, to have four legs and say "Baaahaaah".

How fittingly do Byzantines refer to the Eucharistic Host as the amnos.

In verse three, Neale/Littledale remark "The force of this verse is somewhat weakened in all the versions, by their failing to give the precisepoint of the Hebrew". I save this for next time.