Psalm 121 and longing for the house of the Lord

The Jewish people naturally hated their seventy years’ captivity in Babylon. Essentially, they had been ethnically cleansed from Jerusalem and taken to Iraq. In Psalm 121 we can feel their joy and expectation at being set free and finally making their way back to Jerusalem. Their joy was focussed particularly on being able to go to the Temple and worship God once again according to their ancient rites. The psalm verse of the Introit on Laetare Sunday is,

“I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord.” (Ps 121:1)

It was not a happy-clappy jaunt to meet friends, share the good news and have a cup of coffee afterwards. The ritual celebration of the sacred liturgy was everything. It had been torn from them and they longed to worship once again in the way God had given them.

The young people who had never experienced it were excited to take part for the first time in their lives; we can only imagine the tears of the older people who could remember it, now at last being able to return. Psalm 83 captures how this prospect would have moved them: “My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord.” (Ps 83:3) It then hints at an eternal desire:

“Blessed are they that dwell in thy house, O Lord: they shall praise thee for ever and ever.” Ps 83:5

On Psalm 121, St Alphonsus comments,

“In this psalm is expressed the joy that the Jews felt when they heard that they were to leave Babylon and be released from captivity. Every Christian may use this psalm to stimulate his desires for heaven.” (The Divine Office. Explanation of the Psalms and Canticles. Psalm CXXI.)

St Alphonsus was taking up what Paul preached when he said that the Jerusalem of his time, even with freedom of worship, was in slavery, whereas the Jerusalem which is above is free and is our mother because it is Christ who has made us free. (Gal 4:25-26, 31)

The spiritual understanding of the psalm did not begin with St Robert Bellarmine and St Alphonsus. They explained it on the same lines as St Augustine in his Enarrationes in Psalmos, and used the same scripture texts as he did, texts that are found in the introit, epistle, and offertory of the Mass of Laetare Sunday. This way of thinking about the psalms, is found in detail in St Augustine at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries, but forms part of the apostolic tradition itself. The psalms are all applied to Christ and to our spiritual life from the beginning of the Church, and Christ Himself uses this kind of exegesis in the gospel.

Thanks be to God, we can each week, and some of us each day, rejoice to come into the house of the Lord. There has been some time over the last year when many Catholics around the world have longed and yearned to return to the house of the Lord, pining to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass once again. This experience should help us also to long for heaven.

St Robert Bellarmine speaks sternly of those who do not long for heaven:

“Now, “the sensual man perceiveth not the things that are of the spirit of God,” and, therefore, on the approach of death, or the termination of his exile and pilgrimage, instead of rejoicing, is troubled and laments, and justly, because, as he did not choose during his life time “to dispose in his heart to ascend by steps,” he cannot possibly expect to go up to the house of the Lord on high, but rather fears to go down to the prison of the damned, there to be punished forever.” (Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Psalm 121)

We have the great good fortune to celebrate the traditional form of the Mass, which Fr Faber described as, “the most beautiful this side of heaven.” I expect that many of you share that sentiment as I do. Yet like the Jews of old, we are always called like to ascend, to go up, to lift up our hearts (Sursum corda) higher and more fervently.

As we endeavour to train our feeble minds to resist distractions, to prepare better for what we are engaged in when we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice, to receive Our Lord with greater love, and to thank Him sincerely afterwards, we beg Him to help us by His grace, to ascend in spirit towards the heavenly Jerusalem our Mother. May we one day continue our sacred assembly there in the company of Our Lady, and all the angels and saints.

May Our Lord make us worthy of the most glorious of all our introits, when, as we hope, He welcomes us into His courts with the words, “Come ye blessed of my Father.”


PICTURE CREDIT: Wikimedia. The Heavenly Jerusalem. Giusto de' Menabuoi (14th century). Padua Baptistery. Public Domain.

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