Commentary on Psalm 146:5-10
Many Advent wreaths feature a pink candle for the Third Sunday of Advent — and it’s called “the Mary candle.”
The lectionary even offers her song, the Magnificat, as an alternative to the Psalm reading for the day. Here we’ll stick with the Psalm, and ponder it as one of the many songs Mary learned when she was growing up, that she knew by heart, that she sang to her son Jesus as he was growing up. If she sang when she visited Elizabeth, or at any other time, it is because she knew the Psalms. We might try to imagine what her voice sounded like. Maybe not a big powerful soprano with vibrato, but something quieter, crystal clear, and tender.
Singing praise is something of an act of defiance in a bitter, cynical, make-it-happen world. Praise is the antidote to despair, and praise transports us close to the heart of God and therefore changes where we are. Commenting on our Psalm 146, Walter Brueggemann wrote that “Singing is our vocation, our duty, and our delight. We name this staggering name — and the world becomes open again, especially for those on whom it had closed in such deathly ways — the prisoners, the blind, the sojourner, the widow, the orphan. The world is sung open.”
Verse 5 indicates that what gets opened up is, first of all, “happiness.” This seems too trivial, too self-centered, too glib. But God yearns for us to be happy, not in any transient, trivial sense, but more like joy, and sense of good delight that grows organically out of a life deeply rooted in God. The Hebrew word translated “happy” is ashre, which is the very first word of the entire Psalter. The prayers in the Psalms somehow are about us becoming happy, or as ashre is often translated, “blessed.” Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the same thought. “Happy/blessed are the poor in spirit.”
A few years ago, my daughter and I visited a mostly ruined medieval sanctuary at the Bolton Priory. We entered as sightseers, armed with cameras. But an attendant at the door handed us a card and asked us to pray for just five minutes. The card bears many lovely prayers, such as “Humbly and sorrowfully I crave thy forgiveness … for every weakening thought to which my mind has roamed … ” Weakening thoughts protrude and poison our minds.
Our Psalm is about keeping the mind focused on God — where there is life. The final petition of the Priory prayer card said “So let me, O Lord, be with Thee, and be happy.” They should edit out that comma. Happiness is to be with the Lord, and if you are with, close to, one with the Lord, then and only then are you happy.
Psalm 146’s mood of happiness has as its foundation that God helps. There is good cause to trust in God’s help because this God created everything, brought order out of chaos, light out of the darkness. We do not ponder the magnificence, order, magnitude and beauty of creation often enough or we would understand why and how God can and should be leaned upon for help. And as the Psalm opines, this God “keeps faith forever.” This trust is hope, and hope here should be distinguished from optimism, that sunny fantasy that everything will be better tomorrow.
Hope, as Christopher Lasch explained so well in The True and Only Heaven, is not the naïve thought that tomorrow will be better. Hope has braced itself, and is thus prepared to cope if tomorrow isn’t better. It may take some time. And hope doesn’t depend on you and me getting our act together and fixing things, like optimism does; no, hope depends on God, not us.
This God delivers “justice for the oppressed.” Surely many if not most of those who first sang this Psalm had themselves been sorely oppressed. God’s justice isn’t blind doling out of what’s fair. God loves; God is personally invested in the oppressed, the needy, the marginalized, being included, having enough, flourishing. This and this alone is the justice God brings.
Fascinating: this God gives food to the hungry. We know this, right? We say a blessing before the meal. But there is much more. How God gets food to the hungry is complex. God created a world that could be fruitful; people used their ingenuity and hard work to make food grow; someone harvested, someone packaged, someone put it on the shelf, someone purchased and then cooked the food. God uses a plethora of people to get the food to your plate when you are hungry.
So what does God use now to feed the hungry, and we now mean the desperately hungry, in our world? No use praying for God to float the food down on them. There is a long route with many hands involved — including ours. An old Haitian proverb says “God gives, but God doesn’t share” — the idea being that God has given us enough, so it’s up to us to divvy it up so everyone gets some.
And the way God gives food then is through the people. How do we give food? We could drop it off, or send it. But John Wesley commended that it is better to deliver aid than to send it. Sam Well’s marvelous A Nazareth Manifesto explains how so many of our fine mission endeavors actually cripple those in need. We are to befriend them, to be with them, to walk the journey together as beloved community. Surely this is God’s preferred way of providing food to God’s hungry children! If we figured this out, then the eyes of the blind truly would be opened!