July 19, 2009

Psalm 23

The Lord is my Shepherd! Now St. Athanasius explains that unlike the rest of the scriptures that explain what to believe or how to live, the psalms reveal the holy affections that God stirs in our hearts. This psalm is called to mind especially in the death of those we love. There is something about this psalm that reveals the holy desires God grants us in the face of death.

My heart turns to this psalm today because of the readings at mass, and because of a conversation with good friend who lost his son a few months ago. He said that there were not very many people who were willing to drink from the Cup of the Lord. What he meant was that there is something austere and sobering in the taste of the Cup of Salvation. I knew what he meant. I can still see him praying psalms over the body of his son through the night at his Eastern Rite Parish and I remember communion at the funeral liturgy. It was like passing through the shadow of the valley of death.

What is awesome about our Christian faith is that it is in this shadow that the Lord prepares a banquet for us. It is in the very face of death, whether we are actually dying or not, that the Lord offers us the same cup he drank the night before he died. The cup of the new covenant, the blood of the Lord, at this most difficult of times, is offered us.

Some people tell me that they are not really afraid of death, just the suffering beforehand. Can't that suffering be escaped? Yet, attempts to escape it are dehumanizing, and betray us. The truth is suffering and death go together. They do cause us great fear. Something deep inside us rejects them. We want to fight against them. They are our enemies. But we do not have to face them alone. Holy Communion is called the medicine of immortality and a sacred banquet precisely because it gives us the life of Christ even in the face of our own suffering and death.

There are curious things about the banquet that is offered in the shadow of death, in the presence of our enemies. First, the nature of a banquet including especially the drink shared is that banquets are never enjoyed alone. There are always others present at a banquet - toasting is an experience shared with others. The banquet and cup of psalm 23 suggest that following Christ, though we go through the dark valley, is a pilgrimage that is taken together with his whole body. We are never alone. The second thing about a banquet is that even if sorrowful circumstances occassion it, there is always an element of joy in it -- as if to say, as bad as things are right now, this sorrow is not the deepest reality about life -- we have something wonderful to live for.

In psalm 23, it is in the presence of our enemies, these enemies of suffering and death and any other monster that comes with them, that the Lord spreads a banquet before us and gives us am overflowing cup. This cup can be thought of as the cup that Jesus asked be taken away from him, "But not my will, your will be done." It can be thought of as the cup Jesus offered the night before he died. For those with faith, the cup that the Lord invites us to share is a cup of mysterious joy. It is always a joy, even in sorrow, to possess the Lord. And in sorrow, the Lord gives us himself in a special way. To this end, St. Catherine of Sienna will even speak of being inebriated with the blood of Christ.

This mysterious joy is renewed at every Mass but especially on Sundays, the day we remember the resurrection of the Lord. Today, going through twitter, I found a tweet from a young woman asking for prayers for her recently deceased father. He died in Saigon. I did not know who she was, but I understood where she was. I thought of Joel Barstad's words about the cup of the Lord and how few want to drink it. But he chose to drink it, and we his friends drank it with him, because he and his family stood with his son in the shadow of death. May Greg Barstad and the father of this young lady whom we do not know, and the souls of all the faithful departed dwell in the house of the Lord forever.