My God : owning and being owned in the Psalms

Longing and belonging
psalmist and God's face
me and my God

O God, you are my God, for you I long, sings the psalmist in Psalm 62/63, most beautiful of the yearning psalms.   ‘My Lord’ or ‘my God’ is  a very frequent way for him to address the Almighty.   It is a distinct and deliberate declaration : ‘I say, ‘You are my God” (Ps 30/31).  Sometimes God is labelled as belonging to someone else, nearly always Jacob (e.g. Pss 113/114 and 145) but overwhelmingly often the psalmist refers to God just with a direct possessive.   And we’re still doing it; look at the words of many hymns (O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder;  My God loves me;  My God, accept my heart this day, and so on and on).


What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)

But what is the meaning of the possessive in this context?   To jeer at someone and ask ‘Where is your God?’ is hurtful and insulting (Ps 41/42), described as ‘taunts’.  Is it adding to the insult by implying that God is only one among many, that everyone has their own and this one of yours has no power, or is it more the implication that this one mighty God that we know about will not intervene?   What about the danger of reducing God down to only human size? 

In some cultures with multiple gods, there are little gods as well as big ones.  There were small family-specific gods, the lares and penates, in a Roman household, and indeed that is a useful label for particularly prized possessions, indicating a value to the owner that is not necessarily monetary.  We have some lares in our house, a couple of particular much-loved pictures,  the wooden stork in the stairwell, a brass snake, and so on.  (That last one sounds positively biblical, but it’s Indian and belonged to my mother’s family.)  

But now this is God that we are talking about.  We know that the psalmist is well aware of the difference in scale (and everything else) between him and God (‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ (Pss 8 and 143/144)), but he keeps claiming God in the way he addresses him. What does it mean, ‘my’ God?

Abel and Abraham
making sacrifices to seal the bargain
If x then y

Obviously the relationship between God and man is not one of equals, but this is precisely how God himself describes it when he makes covenants in the Old Testament.  ‘They will be my people, and I will be their God’ – there are so many instances of this that I am simply attaching a link here to a list of them, including St Paul’s references to them in his Epistles.  The concept is of a reciprocal duty : humans will do sacrifices (in the early days) and then move on to thanksgiving and virtue, as God tries to explain that these mean more to him than dead sheep and goats (cf. Ps 49/50).  The relationship is drawn as a legal agreement or covenant, and it is always ratified by a sacrifice. 

The New Testament changes the basic rules, and we certainly don’t need to do any more blood sacrifices because of Jesus’ once-for-all self-giving, but the idea that the reciprocal agreement is earthed in a sacrifice (and then maintained by a sequence of further sacrifices, like Abraham’s trail of altars on his journeys) goes back to the earliest days of the patriarchs and is consummated rather than simply changed by Jesus.  It’s a long learning process through salvation history and across both Testaments.  Jesus is still trying to pass on the same message when he quotes Hosea 6.6 in Matthew 9.13 : ‘Go and learn what this means,’I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.  But the reward is great; the other half of the bargain is that the Lord promises to be ‘their’ God.

An offer you can’t refuse
Elijah, angel and bread
Angel delivering groceries to Elijah as well as a message

The mutual obligations are all-embracing, but the psalmist is very clear that it is worthwhile.  The Lord’s promise to be the God of his people means protection, a strong right arm fighting on their side, rescue from the pit whenever necessary, an ever-present help in time of trouble, even food and drink when otherwise unavailable (manna and the quails for the Israelites, and supplies for Elijah, in the OT; the feeding of the hungry crowds in the NT), and in the end happiness for ever, though details on the afterlife are wisely never given.  So accepting the deal and asserting reciprocal ownership is a frequent feature of the psalms.  Like Pascal’s wager, the deal is too good to turn down.

I will be so good to you

The balance is crucial, and it lends itself particularly well to the parallelism of the poetry in the psalms.  I claim you as my God, and therefore you have obligations towards me.  Repeatedly we see the Lord being put on one side in the balance and on the other side we might have ‘the poor’ or ‘the blind’, ‘widows and orphans’ or ‘the just’; sometimes (as in a battle) God holds the mid-line between the forces of evil  and ‘those who fear the Lord’,  and he is total protection.   So we have in Ps 99/100: He made us, we belong to him, / we are his people, the sheep of his flock (v.3).  Ps 139/140 : I have said to the Lord : ‘You are my God.’/ Lord, hear the cry of my appeal!   Ps 85/86 : You are my God, have mercy on me, Lord.   Ps 94/95 : Let us kneel before the God who made us / for he is our God and we / the people who belong to his pasture / the flock that is led by his hand.  Whether we are sheep or people, we have a duty to God, and his corresponding duty is to take care of us, because we belong to him.

Shepherds and sheep
I like the little black sheep
He, the Lord, is our God (Ps 104/105)

Because the psalms are so personal, there are more references to ‘my God’ than to ‘our God’, but the plural possessive is fairly common too.  ‘My God’ is not a claim to exclusivity.  He actually defines the group.  This is why it is so significant when Ruth says to Naomi, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God'(Ruth 1.16).  She is choosing to change all her previous allegiances to become an integral part of her mother-in-law’s tribe, accepting every article of faith as her own.  And the lonely foreign widow is taken into the group and becomes one of the Christ’s ancestors; her God is indeed the same God.

God’s presence and his very self

One of the features that makes God different from all the other gods that the Israelites come across is that he is with his people, even while they are still nomadic.  He does not belong to only one place, like other gods, because his place is to be at their side.  They take the Ark of the Covenant with them on their wanderings, not because they think the Lord is actually in the box, but because the tablets of the Law remind them that he is always there with them in some form, visible (pillar of fire, pillar of cloud) or invisible (a still small voice).  In the New Testament, under the New Covenant, even the name insists on this : Emmanuel, God-with-us.  This is one of the strongest pillars on which the psalmist’s relation to God rests.  You are my God because you are here with me, wherever I am.

Thou the Ocean, I the billow
light and dark

It does imply ownership, but a reciprocal ownership, and it’s not so much a grammatical possessive as more of an ethic dative.  You are God for me, that is the crucial basis of our relationship. It is like when Julian of Norwich describes Jesus saying to her ‘I am the ground of thy beseeching’, or like the psalm which says ‘In your light, we see light’ (Ps 35/36), or like G.M. Hopkins’ poem comparing Our Lady to the air we breathe (‘Be thou then, O thou dear /Mother, my atmosphere).  It is less an assertion of ownership and more an expression of love, on both sides.

You were made for me

This is in fact how we often use ‘my’, claiming someone or something because they are particularly dear to us.  My husband, my mother, my daughter, my son, my friend, my home, my country.  It defines the relationship but also indicates how strong the feeling is.  There is a lot of this in the psalms.  God doesn’t need telling or reminding, but it is reassuring for us to affirm the relationship, and it is an expression of love.   You can say ‘darling’, and you can say ‘my darling’; the feeling and the message are subtly different.

Titles and Thomas
A tender moment : doubt no longer

The titles for God are often given as a doublet in the psalms.   ‘O Lord our God’, twice in Ps 8, ‘O Lord my God’ in Ps 29/30 and Ps 39/40, even a triple in Ps 83/84 : ‘Lord of hosts, my King and my God’.         There are many examples.  ‘My king and my God’ also occurs in Pss 5 and 43/44 and elsewhere; ‘the Lord my (or your) God’ is frequent.  But we have to wait for the apostle Thomas in the New Testament for ‘My Lord and my God’.  I don’t know whether this is because the various translators along the way wanted to keep this as something special, or whether it’s unique to the (Greek) gospel as distinct from the (Hebrew) psalms, but either way we can and do see here a wonderful and unique expression of love and faith where the effect is world-changing but also intimate.  This is why it is one of the Eucharistic Acclamations in Ireland, but unfortunately not for the rest of us.  I’ve written tunes for all the others, but I haven’t managed this one yet.  It’s daunting;  five short words which mean so much.  The double possessive does not mean ‘You belong to me and to no one else’.  It means the same as the line in Amazing Grace : [I] was blind but now I see.  It means everything.

 

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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Stations of the Cross : #WomenWereThere

Big in Lent, but available all year

Although most of our churches have the Stations of the Cross on their walls all the year round, the devotional exercise ‘doing (or praying) the Stations’ tends to receive more emphasis in Lent.  This is because it is a way to organise our meditations around ‘the way of the cross’ (another title for the Stations, Via Crucis in Latin, or Via dolorosa, the grievous journey).

the full set

In the days before travelling became possible for everyone and not just the rich, it was a way of going on pilgrimage without leaving your own parish church; nowadays it might remind us of donning a VR headset to enter a different reality.  Your imagination can take you to the place, make you one of the crowd, help you to understand what was going on.  It is a sentimental journey in the best sense; like in St Ignatius’ Exercises, you are trying to harness your senses and your sentiment to deepen your appreciation of what is going on, from the moment when Jesus steps onto the moving pavement of Roman imperial law, through the crucifixion and his agonising last hours, to the final moment when his poor body is lifted down from the cross and entrusted to Joseph of Arimathea to be placed in the tomb.

Devotional practices

The Church has many devotional practices apart from the official Mass celebrations and the Daily Office, and the Stations of the Cross are one of these.  They are approved of, but not part of the liturgical worship of the Church.  Some popular devotions are very old, some much more modern; the Counter-Reformation was a rich source of them.   Many devotional practices are linked to particular feasts : penitential processions in Lent (very important in Spain), processions for a local saint on his feast day,  specific pilgrimages (Montserrat, Levoca).  Processions to honour Mary, or as part of the celebration of Corpus Christi used to be common, years ago, and some people are trying to revive them.  But the Stations of the Cross have never gone out of fashion or needed reviving.

Franciscans and the Stations
outdoor station

Like all the best Catholic traditions, there are different stories about how, when and where this particular devotional practice began.  Retracing Christ’s steps, as nearly as they could be traced, in Jerusalem, is the obvious first version.  Then it seems to have developed (mid-fifteenth century onwards) as a series of outdoor shrines in sequence, varying considerably in number.  There is definitely a link with the Franciscans,which makes complete sense, given the Franciscan emphasis on the Passion and responsibility for the Holy Places, along with a gift for making religion accessible and memorable; they are also responsible for cribs.  The order cannily acquired a Pope-sanctioned monopoly to install them inside churches in 1731, and at this point the number of stations was also fixed at fourteen.  British bishops were allowed to bypass the need to involve a Franciscan in 1857, presumably because there were not enough Franciscans in the UK at the time, and the right was extended to other bishops in 1862.

Genuinely popular devotion

As a devotion, it is much loved.  Of all the pious exercises connected with the veneration of the Cross, none is more popular among the faithful than the Via Crucis (Directory on popular piety, 131).  The fourteen pictures, surmounted by crosses, line the nave or aisles in every Catholic church and many others.  Many outdoor versons survive, some even in Britain, as in Aylesford Priory in Kent, so that there is actually an element of physical travel, even if brief.  Occasionally there is a fifteenth station, for the Resurrection, but usually they start with Christ before Pilate and his condemnation, and end with his body being laid in the tomb.  When the number was fixed, so also were the scenes, though there is (and clearly always has been) some local variation.

Changes to the line-up

Some people are dubious about some of the Stations, because not all the elements are narrated in the Gospels.  Only eight of the Stations have exact Gospel references.  Pope Saint John Paul II introduced the ‘Scriptural Way of the Cross’ on Good Friday 1991, which he then used many times, and this is the version that Pope Benedict XVI endorsed and promulgated in 2007.  There is also a ‘New Way of the Cross’ popular in the Philippines, though not yet officially recognised.  These new versions are intended either to bring the narrative closer to the Gospel narrative or to allow for more emphasis on certain aspects of the Passion, but I think they are missing the point, and there is no rush to exchange the traditional Stations for the new version.  After all, we do have the exact Gospel narrative read out to us repeatedly in Holy Week, but the traditional Stations of the Cross are a folk retelling of the story of the Passion.  This is one of the things which gives them their value; they do not limit the narrative, but try to consider the events of Good Friday in a warmer, more human way.

A way to tell the story effectively : Stations 1 to 3

This is reflected in the classic story-telling techniques we can see in the narrative of the Stations, and especially in the non-Gospel elements. The narrative starts, as I said, with Jesus stepping onto the Roman judicial process like a conveyor belt.  His fate is literally sealed by the authorities, and he sets off on a quest which will end with his death.  He collects the cross in the second station, a crucial token or symbol, and the overwhelming presence in the background from now on.  The third station :  he falls, for the first time.  This fall is nowhere in the Gospel narrative; in the Stations, Jesus falls three times (stations 3, 7 and 9).  Of course he does;  this is a story, and the hero is doing something amazingly hard and difficult.  His suffering has to be made manifest.  Story elements very often come in threes : three sons, three princesses, three bears, three pigs, three aspects of the wolf-grandmother in Red Riding Hood (ears, eyes, teeth).  Three temptations in the desert; three denials (and later, three declarations of love) by Peter;  and now three falls, so that we realise how heavy the cross is, how tired the Lord is, how near to death and no chance of rescue and escape.

Jesus falls three times
Assembling the group : Stations 4 to 6

At the fourth Station, Jesus meets his mother.  The canonical objection to this is that it is out of sequence, because Our Lady is mentioned as being present at the foot of the cross, but here this encounter is nearer to the beginning of the story, because it is so important and it emphasizes how unable to help everyone is, even the person who loves him so much.  Her grief strengthens ours.

outdoor station of Simon helping Jesus

The fifth station is Simon of Cyrene being compelled to help Jesus (Mtt 27.32, Mk 15.21, Lk 23.26).  John’s Gospel does not include this detail; indeed, he stresses that Jesus went out ‘bearing his own cross’ (Jn 19.17).  Simon is the classic passer-by who is roped into the story; he has come in ‘from the country’, he has no idea what’s going on, he is constrained to help, he would rather not be there, but you don’t argue with the Romans.  As countless sermons and indeed commentaries on the Stations have said, Simon is Everyman; he represents us, and we aspire to do freely and lovingly what he was forced into.

Veronica coming to help

So here is a male helper; now we have the sixth station, and we need to balance the story, we need a female helper.  The sixth station is Veronica, who comes up of her own volition and wipes Jesus’ face.  We know nothing definite about her at all; she may well be pure invention; but she has a valuable role in the story as a representative of all the ministering women who are taken for granted in the story of Jesus’ life and death.  For me, this is one of the real values of the Stations of the Cross.  They put some (even if only archetypically) female representation back in the story.  Here is Veronica, identified at various times with the woman with the haemorrhage, the wife of Zacchaeus, or even Martha of Bethany.  She wipes Jesus’ face, covered in sweat, blood and tears.  One theory suggests that Veronica was invented as the back-story of the vera icon (see what the syllables did there), the piece of cloth, to encourage more pilgrims to see the miraculous relic.  I don’t think the image on the cloth is the most important part of this story; I think the more important message is the compassion and love shown by the action.  But Veronica loses her place in the Stations in the papal rewrite and in the Filipino version.  

Halfway : Stations 7 and 8

The seventh station is the second fall.  Repetition without change, so the story is darkening towards the climax.  Even with Simon’s help, Jesus is too weak to keep walking securely. 

another outdoor station : Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

The eighth station is when Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, a meeting in Luke’s Gospel (23.28ff) though not in the others. The women are weeping for Jesus, but he warns them to weep rather for themselves and for their children.  Luke gives a similar warning by Jesus on three separate occasions : he weeps over Jerusalem as he approaches it (19.41f),  and some days later warns those listening to him of the coming fall of the city (21.21f), this second time again with a particular female emphasis (‘Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days’ (v.23) – and how can we not be reminded of those poor women in the attacked maternity hospital in Mariupol).

Moving swiftly to the end : Stations 9 to 14

The story has speeded up now that the cast is all assembled.  The ninth station is the third fall, and by all the rules of story-telling, this means that the end is coming.  By the next station, we are in the setting for the last scene, and events follow swiftly.  Jesus is stripped (tenth station), he is nailed to the cross (eleventh), he dies (twelfth), he is taken down (thirteenth) and laid in the tomb (fourteenth).  These are the traditional stations, a sequence of actions (or pictures) rather than words, and the women are there, prominently, in four of them.  In three of them, the woman is in the very title of the Station.

was ever grief like mine?

The fourth one I would add is the Thirteenth Station, where Jesus is taken down from the cross, because traditionally his body is brought down and given into his mother’s arms, as in the classic Pietá.  The awkwardness of the pose is part of the point; you can’t put a grown man comfortably on the lap of his aging mother, but of course she would want to hold him.  If you bear in mind the relative sizes of the figures, it is fascinating to see how different artists have tried to solve this problem.  Mary is an almost looming figure here, bigger than the body of her son.

Writing the women out of the picture

So there are many women present and crucial in the traditional line-up of the Stations.  People praying the Stations will find others like themselves, even the women; this is a genuinely popular devotion, reflecting the (whole) congregation as well as the crowd in Jerusalem that day.  The net result of both the rewrites, however,  is to reduce the incidence of women. In the new stations, only the meeting with the women of Jerusalem is kept in; and Jesus is shown in the Twelfth (Filipino Eleventh) Station entrusting Mary and John to each other.  Otherwise it’s all man-to man encounters, with Judas, Peter, Pontius Pilate and so on.  This is the same pattern as in the Gospels, where Jesus is unusual in being happy to speak and spend time with women.  It always makes the apostles uncomfortable (cf. Mtt 15.23), one reason why the women hover on the edges and do not come forward until the men have all gone away.

 
…but they were there

We know that the women were there. You have to read between the lines of the Gospels and pick up every casual reference, but it is clear that Jesus’ group of wandering scholars and hangers-on included several women, even if we hear almost nothing about them. Until the end, that is, when Matthew, Mark and Luke all remind us of their continuing presence : Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. (Matt 27.55).  These women had followed Jesus and ministered to Him while He was in Galilee, and there were many other women who had come up to Jerusalem with Him.  (Mark 15.41).  But all those who knew Jesus, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching these things.  (Luke 23.49).   John names the four women around the cross, but keeps his cast small.  We have already noted his omission of Simon of Cyrene.

Many women

These are not just a few women, they are many, even ‘many other’, so we have a substantial female presence here in Jesus’ life and work, doing all the background stuff that everyone takes for granted.  Luke explains much earlier that there were women in the group, indeed an essential part of the group : the Twelve were with Him, as well as some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities : Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s household manager Chuza, Susanna, and many others. These women were ministering to them out of their own means (Luke 8.1-3).  Luke notices women more than the other Gospel writers, and I know it’s only pious tradition, but I do wonder whether it’s because he was a doctor, and so possibly slightly more observant and less hidebound, possibly also aware of the value of observing and recording as he went along.  Presumably, as well as paying for everything, they have also been doing the washing, the cooking and all the other things included in ‘ministering’, but we only rarely hear of them speaking or doing anything out of the ordinary, except when Jesus takes their part, as he does when Mary of Bethany chooses to sit at his feet rather than doing some more ministering.

#WomenWereThere

I think one reason for the enduring appeal of the Stations of the Cross is the (restored) presence of the women in the story.  They stay present in the story as long as they possibly can, helped by their unimportance and relative invisibility.  They cannot give any comfort beyond that of love and prayer, but they are determined to do that.  They hang about, unable to go away, even after Jesus has died; when Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to bury the body, the women are still there even after he has finished and gone :[He] departed.  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre (Mtt 27.61; Mk 15.47). The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments (Lk 23.55f).  They  leave only when they have to go and prepare the things they will need to lay out the body, and to observe the sabbath rest day.  Then they hurry back even before first light.  We know what happens after that.  Jesus appears to the women and changes their mourning into dancing, as the psalm says (29/30 v.12, that wonderful resurrection psalm).  They have earned their place in the Stations of the Cross.  Long may they keep it.

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

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