First Sunday of Christmas

A lot of praising has been going on before we get to the 148th Psalm, and now we sense the Psalter rising to a climactic crescendo, pulling out all the stops. 

December 30, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 148

A lot of praising has been going on before we get to the 148th Psalm, and now we sense the Psalter rising to a climactic crescendo, pulling out all the stops. 

The Psalm tantalizingly suggests that a lot of praising was going on, not merely before the 148th Psalm, but before there were Psalms, or songs, or words or even people. St. Augustine pointed out the heavens have always been praising, but the Psalmist wished “to add his own exhortation” to that — as if you come upon people doing a good thing and enjoying it, you like what they are doing and you say “That’s the way! Keep on doing it!” 

All of creation, simply by existing, is a chorus of praise to its Maker. The sun marks the days, the moon the nights, time and space the evidence of a noble, good Creator. Stars, creatures, running water, snow, wind, trees, hawks and caterpillars: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). Both things bound by gravity and the canopy above form an all-enveloping circle of praise — what Hans-Joachim Kraus called a “double choir.”

How appropriate that the lectionary fingers this Psalm for the first Sunday after the birth of our Lord. Manger scenes and Christmas pageants feature not merely people, but mooing cows, braying donkeys, baa-ing sheep, cooing doves, as if the animal kingdom has awakened to its purpose and delight. St. Francis declared that on Christmas, all animals should be give twice their normal feed.

Speaking of Francis: we cannot hear Psalm 148 without recalling the picturesque twist he put on its images in his Canticle of the Creatures. With deep affection, he speaks of the heavenly bodies as family: brother Sun, sister Moon. This personal relationship, this sense of kinship, is what we have lost over many centuries of building, paving over paradise, stringing up things electric.

Francis did not speak adoringly about flowers. He spoke to the flowers, and encouraged them, as though they could understand, to praise the Lord. When walking by a field, he would turn and address stalks of corn, hilly meadows, a running brook, and even the wind rustling through the trees, exhorting them to serve and praise God joyfully.

What we may not realize is that in the winter of 1224-1225, Francis was physically miserable: nearly blind, his lungs riddled with tuberculosis, in constant pain, exhausted from the cumulative effects of fasting and rigorous travel. Mice were infesting the house, and he was emaciated by sporadic bleeding from gaping wounds in his hands, feet and side, with the only medical attention available being of the medieval sort that did more harm than good. Professionally he was stricken: the friars were bickering, in constant turmoil, showing every sign of the eventual ruin of his movement. Emotionally, he was drained.

And yet, instead of sinking into despondency, instead of pleading with God to fix what was broken in and around him, Francis pleaded with the Lord — not to cure him, but to help him bear his illnesses patiently. God’s reply? Francis “was told in spirit” he would receive a “great and precious treasure,” and a promise to “be glad and rejoice in your illness and troubles because as of now, you are as secure as if you were already in my kingdom.”

That treasure began to take shape in consonants, vowels, syllables, with a musical note, a phrase, a melody; his trembling, aching hands took up a pen and began to write a song of eloquent rejoicing in the delights of God’s kingdom: “Be praised, my Lord, for the blessed Brother Sun who gives us the day and enlightens us through You… for Sister Moon and the stars, formed by You so bright, precious, and beautiful.” And so began Psalm 148’s most beautiful stepchild.

Verse 2 invites the angels to praise. That’s all they’ve ever been doing, of course, and it will be our giddy pleasure to join their magnificent concert of praise forever. The angels enjoy a peculiar advantage. They were there, and the first to sing, when Jesus was born; and they were there, and the first to give testimony, when Jesus was raised from the tomb — the first and most trustworthy witnesses to the pillars of our faith, the foundations of our hope.

Elie Wiesel said, “If an angel says ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better look out: a big assignment is on the way.” Our big assignment is to praise — and we begin by confessing how alien this is to us. Partly we struggle to find our way to praise because in our media culture, everything gets praised: cars, a bar of soap, a smartphone.

But also, we are burdened by a false image of a machine-God who exists to do our bidding, a functional deity whose sole purpose is to give us a boost if asked. We praise what we cannot and would not control or manipulate; we praise what is awe-inspiring and exponentially beyond our grasp; we praise the truly beautiful, and the immensely wise. We get out of our selves for a time, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Finally in verse 13, the Psalm rather cockily declares, “They shall praise the name of the Lord,” “they being all things and people.” They shall? Is the Psalm hoping they might now? Or does the Psalm blush and insist that if only they paid attention to God they couldn’t help themselves? Or is the Psalm speaking eschatologically?

Many now do not think to praise, or they forget to, or they do not love the Lord Jesus, or they think they are masters or victims of their own fate. But eventually, at the end of the day, they will with all creation praise: “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10).

Psalm 148 thus assists us in doing what we inevitably will do, and so the praise we tender today is a session of choir practice for our eternity with the angels when all will be prayer and praise.