Psalm 118, Easter 16 Apr 17

All this was written long ‘BCE’, of course. But the idea is carried forward to the New Testament, with Jesus revealed as the stone in the first letter of Peter, appropriately enough as the apostle who was named ‘stone’: “To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,’ and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word … But now you are God’s people … now you have received mercy.” (I Pet. 2:7-10)

Freiburg-im-BreisgauVisitors to ancient cities like York enjoy discovering quaint and remote features: the Shambles; archaeological remains of successive eras under the cathedral; hidden misericordiae within, saints and gargoyles without. The Shambles provides just a hint of the chaotic life in early times; narrow alleys, stalls, clamour, smells and all sorts of behaviour, seen and unseen. Fairness and justice were features of common law but may have felt a little out-of-place here.

Justice

These overhanging buildings, now nicely renovated and refreshed, are only about 500 years old. Concepts of justice were built into English common law long before then. The Magna Carta of 1215 is a famous example. Well before that, biblical precepts were being absorbed into official and secular mores by early rulers.

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

In the 11th century Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) wrote them into draft proclamations by King Cnut. The British Library notes: “The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents.”

God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York, and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations. The psalms tell us that the concepts of justice and equity emanate from the just Creator spirit at the beginning of time.

Building blocks

So here are some of the biblical building blocks of justice in the modern rule of law. They are fundamentally strong in this country despite some glaring blind spots. On the whole, however, despite centuries of law-making around the world, justice is still rough, equity lacking. And as for equality, the struggle must go on. Buyers of The Big Issue, an Australian charity magazine, may have seen a special edition devoted to the growing gap between rich and poor. Will such truths ever convince societies and governments? That corner-stone appears in verse 19. The stone that was rejected became the chief cornerstone of a new world of faith, a new system of justice and life. There is not always a keystone at the top of arches but it’s common enough. However arranged, a key block is the chief cornerstone in holding a structure together.

The Easter story opens a new chapter of this search for justice and justification. We hear every year from Psalm 118 that Jesus was the building block, despised, rejected but destined to be the basis of a whole new world and a whole new way. This way recognises and compensates for our essential inability to keep the scales of justice and equity in true balance. Here is how that enduring and powerful text looked in the 1540 Henry VIII Psalter:

Psalm 118:22 (modern numbering), Henry VIII Psalter, BL Royal MS 2 A XVI

This detail is included it not only for its intrinsic value but also to note that the Latin ‘caput anguli’ suggests it’s not the ‘chief’ in terms of size or weight, but the head at the top of the arch or corner of walls, holding it all together.

Music'Laudate Dominum'; detail from a motet by Lassus

There are dozens of classical settings of this psalm, including some classical pieces by Renaissance and later composers. Lassus wrote one called Dominus mihi adjutor, starting with text from verse 6. There’s one for 16 voices, four quartets, by German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) that runs to 50 pages in one modern transcription. All parts are shown on each page so there are but four bars per page; those pages would flick by quite fast but it’s still a major work. Praetorius (whose family name was originally Schultze, of rather less superior airs) was a German Lutheran. So, in a way, was Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther wrote a lot of words — poems, sermons and ideas — but also several songs, including the well-known Ein feste burg, ‘A mighty fortress’, based on (you guessed it) a psalm, in this case 48. So he was quite capable of running up a good harmony. Perhaps he spied verse 17 of this psalm from a hundred paces and was moved to write the short and sweet four-part motet, Non moriar sed vivam. No doubt the text fitted his mission perfectly:

I shall not die but live, and tell the works of the Lord.

Plaque on the rebuilt Damenhof where Luther advocated the centrality of justification by faith.

A building in Augsburg bears a plaque recording the fact that therein, Luther defended himself before the Papal investigation of 1518. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as we know (well, he was a bit rough on the Pope) and he went into hiding.

By way of contrast, in style if not underlying message, The Building Block by Paul Stookey mentioned above has long been a favourite. A cantor sings paraphrased verses, the people responding with joy, vigour and, of course, good harmony parts.

As a reading for Easter, there are a swag of settings in Psalms for all seasons to choose from. An old favourite tune suggested therein is ‘This is the day‘. It’s quite repetitive, but this suggests a possible antiphonal approach, one group serving a phrase (con brio of course) and another group volleying it back.

NCH presents one of Carolyn Jennings simple and effective refrains: “The righteous shall enter the gate of God.” Verses may be sung to a double tone.

One thought on “Psalm 118, Easter 16 Apr 17

  1. Pingback: Psalm 99, 22 Oct ’17 | Psalms in the South

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