Blessed is … the man?

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Sermon for Septuagesima: readings here.

Ashrei ha’ish:” blessed is the man; so begins the first Psalm, which S Jerome calls a gateway into the Psalter, that great virtual Temple compiled for an exiled people: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” Now, I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but looking into this, I’ve found that ish specifically refers to a man, singular: adam is apparently the preferred term for “mankind” or people in general. We’ve got a parallel phrase in today’s reading from Jeremiah (17:7), and it’s even more specific: “baruk ha geber” literally means “blessed is the man,” but geber refers to a young, fit and courageous man: a warrior type. Now, I don’t want to make too much of this, but you’ll notice that the translation we’re using in church (the NRSV) has translated both of these words for “man” as “they:” the translators have made an editorial decision to treat the words as referring to people in general and have gone for a non-gender specific, plural term.

But by doing that, they’ve masked something really important for our understanding of the readings today. Because one very influential ancient way of reading these texts – in fact, the way both St Augustine and St Basil read it – is to see the “man” mentioned here referring to a very particular man: that is, to Christ, the Messiah. Given that Psalm 2 is all about the coming Messiah, that would seem to be a fair interpretation! The whole Psalter is then framed in terms of the Law (or Torah), and the Messiah, which is basically the story of the Bible in a nutshell. But our translators have hidden that possibility from us, which is one reason why I’d always recommend the RSV over the NRSV if you want to read something like what the biblical authors actually wrote, rather than what modern translators think they should have written. 

So why these readings now? I must confess, until I looked at the more accurate translations, I was stumped. But when you see that Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 are talking about the Messiah, it makes more sense. Christ is like a tree that is planted beside the flowing waters of the Holy Spirit, the water of life that flows from the throne of God, and he yields his fruit in due season. Well, today, we do in fact shift to a new season. Up to now, from Advent through Epiphany, we’ve been focussing on the Incarnation of Christ and his manifestation to the gentiles. But today is anciently called Septuagesima, as you’ll find if you look at a 1662 Prayer Book – meaning that we’re roughly 70 days before Easter. So, since Lent marks the 40 days before Easter, we’re now in the pre-Lent season: and that’s why our readings turn a corner, as it were, from thinking about the Incarnation – the growth of the tree, as it were – to Salvation by the Cross, and so to the unceasing fruits and evergreen leaves of the Resurrection described in the Epistle (1 Cor 15:12-20). 

But surely, you may be thinking, those fruits are for all of us, so why am I making such a big deal of referring the Old Testament passages to the “one man”? Well yes, certainly the fruits of eternal life are offered to everyone. Everyone is given the chance to walk in the way of the righteous. The problem is, as both the history of Israel in the Old Testament and our general human experience most patently attest, we’re not very good at it. And that’s putting it mildly. For who among us can say, honestly, that we have never, to take up the first lines of Psalm 1, followed the advice of the wicked, walked the way of sin, or sat around heaping scorn? None of us! There is only one. Just that one righteous man, who was God, and came to dwell among us. The one who did not just show the way of the righteous, but was and is the Way, the Truth and Life eternal. It is through Him alone that we are justified; through being grafted onto the trunk of his tree, as limbs of His Body the Church, that we too can be nourished by the water of life, the Holy Spirit, which He draws up through his roots. Only then can we bear the fruit that will last. The happiness and blessing of the many comes only through sharing in the happiness and blessing of the One who is rooted in the Kingdom of His Father. Ashrei ha’ish indeed.

The alternative to this blessing is to be cursed. On this, Our Lord’s words in Luke 6 are completely consonant with the Old Testament readings and S Paul, which should serve as a caution to those who habitually drive a wedge between any of those three. “Cursed is the man,” says Jeremiah, “who relies on things of the flesh.” “Woe,” says Our Lord, is what awaits those who rely on their riches, their plenty, their affability, their reputation. “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,” says the Apostle, “we are of all people most to be pitied.”

But note carefully: it is not God who curses us. We curse ourselves. We imprison ourselves with our addiction to things of this world, slaves to our devices and desires. We poison our own hearts by our belief that this world offers all we need. And as we take what we want, while others starve, the poison spreads – another translation, incidentally, for the “company of scorners” in Psalm 1 is the “seat of pestilence.” Sin is a virus far more harmful than Covid, and it starts in the human heart. Believe me, I know, and I accuse myself here.

But just imagine if, instead, we really did enjoy those blessings that Our Lord is offering us. I’m not just talking about the fruits of eternal life in the future. Imagine if we could enter a spiritual poverty so deep that we really were not trapped by our possessions and our appetites. Imagine being so liberated from the need for self-promotion that we really could count it a blessing when people despise and insult us. Can it be done? 

Yes. I believe so. There are times when I have a taste of that, and my pride and avarice are subdued: and those are the times, without exception, when I have been most diligent in prayer. A real treasure for me is the Psalter – and the way the 1662 BCP office of morning and evening prayer takes me through the entire psalter consecutively, every month, is what I think makes it the best daily office in the whole Christian church. It’s that daily focus on the Psalms, and the reading of them in their intended order, taking me every month through the whole of salvation history: that is, the love of the Law embodied in the Messiah for our salvation. 

So! It’s Septuagesima: time to start thinking about what we are going to do for Lent, and how we are going to walk more closely on the Way of Christ. There’s fasting, obviously, and almsgiving to consider. But the priority must be prayer. Now is the time to think about what daily practice you might want to embark on. Perhaps praying through the Psalms might be a part of that? For the Righteous One born to Our Blessed Lady spoke first to the Jews, and his echoes through their ancient songs of praise, welcoming us to the eternal Temple where He, the Living Word, is our sole sustenance and salvation. 

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