Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dr Pusey on the Psalms - Dr George Westhaver (from the Church Observer)

If there is something that really annoys me, something that leaves me feeling cheated at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, it is the growing practice of truncating the Psalmody of the Office. I have discovered this even at Sung Evensong in some of our great cathedrals, at the very time when many Christians of less liturgical traditions are rediscovering the power of the Psalter, as well as its Christological sense. The archive of this blog already contains a wonderful piece by Thomas Merton on the use of the Psalms in our daily prayer. Today I share with you an important article on Dr Pusey and the Psalms, written by Dr George Westhaver, Principal of Pusey House. It was published in the Easter edition of the Church Observer, the Church Union magazine.   

EVEN if his role as a leader of the Oxford movement was more than a decade away, the year 1828 was a momentous one for the young Edward Bouverie Pusey. In that year, at the age of only 28, Pusey became the Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford. Also in 1828, and after ten years of delay and frustration due to the scruples of two sets of parents, Pusey was finally able to marry Maria Baker. In the same year he was ordained both deacon and priest and became a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral.

The combination of these events is particularly fitting. For Pusey the prayers which described his marriage to Maria Baker as symbolic of the mystical union of Christ and the Church were not pious utterances to be left behind on the wedding day, but expressive of the basic reality which shaped his life and guided his work both in the University and in the Church. The union of the human and divine in Christ, the communion of the body of Christ with her Head, and the gift of the real and ineffable presence of the same risen and ascended Lord in the apparently weak symbols of bread and wine were for Pusey different aspects of one and the same mystery.

In the Incarnation, in the Church, and in the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, “Christ dwelleth in us and we in Him; whereby He is one with us, and we with Him”. Pusey struggled to adequately express this fundamental idea: “This is the comfort of the penitent, the joy of the faithful, the Paradise of the holy, the Heaven of those whose conversation is in Heaven ... spiritual peace, kindled hope, assured faith, burning thankfulness, that our Lord Jesus Christ, not in figure, but in reality, although a spiritual reality, does give Himself to us, does come to be in us.”

The prominence which Pusey gave in his sermons to the Incarnation, the Church, and the Sacraments also shaped his understanding of the Bible. For Pusey, the importance of the Bible extended beyond the information it conveyed, beyond even its role, in the bosom of the Church, as a teacher of saving doctrine.

Pusey also taught that the Bible has a kind of sacramental power by which it can serve as an instrument of communion, a means of participation in the divine life. In other words, the Bible does not just teach about the Incarnation, but rather, these “earthly words ... are full of the Word” and so communicate life to the members of his Body, the Church.

In particular, Pusey emphasised the importance of reading and praying the Psalms. He argued that both the New Testament and the writings of the early centuries of the Church encourage us to see the person and the work of Christ as the primary subject matter of the psalms.

For Pusey, finding Christ in the psalms means seeing how the whole of the Old Testament, the struggles and trials of the people of Israel, their hopes and failures, were prophetic both of what Christ accomplished and taught by his Incarnation, and of his manner of presence in his body through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

If the Holy Spirit illumined David and Moses and the authors of the psalms, if the psalms have any place in the Bible, then the Spirit which inspires them testifies of Christ. This testimony is never incidental or secondary, it is the most important thing. This approach builds on the words of the Risen Christ to his disciples on the first Easter day when he told them that his teaching and work was prophesied in the psalms as well as in the law and the prophets (Luke 24.44).

However much modern approaches have changed the way people understand the Bible and the psalms, the prominence of the psalms in Christian worships, and especially the selection of psalms for particular days of the Christian Calendar, arises from this traditional approach which Pusey represents.

At the same time, Pusey’s emphasis on the psalms as prophetic of Christ does not mean that one denies the significance of the context in which they were written. Rather, the more we know about the authors of the psalms and the historical events which they describe, the more we will understand the particular way in which they reveal or speak of Christ and the Christian life also. While sometimes the psalms seem to be without any form or comeliness that we should see Christ in them (Isaiah 53.2), by the light of the Resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit we recognize their profound beauty and truth.

Hearing Christ in the psalms is a form of recognising the risen body of our Lord which is changed and made both more real and spiritual by the resurrection, but it is not destroyed. It is also because of this transfiguration of meaning that the Christian can read the curses of the psalms as expressions of the Christians struggle against sin, as words which reveal the character of love and the voice of Christ.

Pusey’s interpretation of Psalm 40 exemplifies this approach: “I waited patiently for the Lord: and he inclined unto me, and heard my calling. He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and day: and set my feet upon a rock, and ordered my goings. (Ps 40.1-2)” He finds in this psalm the prayer of the Son who waited patiently on the Father and who was raised on the third day from the pit of hell.

Pusey also finds here a description of the risen life of the Christian, how the Father “out of the mire and prison house of sin, raised us in Christ, and in Him, our Rock, gave us power to stand firmly, and in Him directed our steps toward himself”. The psalm which speaks of the Head also speaks of the Body: “Since then”, argues Pusey, “He has taken our nature, and joined it to Himself it is nothing strange but rather in harmony therewith, that the words wherein He speaks, should so include us, as at times to belong to us rather than to Himself.”

In this Pusey draws on a principle which he found in St Augustine and in his fusion of Christ’s description of marriage with St Paul’s interpretation of the union of man and woman as symbolizing the bond between Christ and the Church:“If therefore He Himself hath said, they are no more twain, but one flesh, what wonder if, as they are but one flesh, they should have but one tongue, and the same as being but one flesh, the Head and the Body”.

Pusey also emphasizes that the Psalms served as the prayers of Christ during the time of his earthly ministry: ‘“Thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption” (Ps. 16.11). While Old Testament prophecy reveals what the Incarnate Son would accomplish and the Gospels describe his acts or communicate his teaching, “the Psalms (to speak reverently) shadow forth to us a reality beyond all thought, the thoughts with which He communed with his Father”’.

The psalms which both speak of the Head and serve as his prayers have a kind of “sacramental force as being used in Him, and being his words in us, addressed to the Father as the words of the Son”. Sharing in Son’s communication with the Father by praying the Psalms is a sacramental reading by which the members of the Body grow in holiness and, Pusey adds, are “fitted to receive the mind of the Spirit”.

Pusey is well known for teaching that the Incarnation, the union of Christ and his Church and the communion of the life of Christ through the sacraments were different aspects of the same reality. He also described the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms, as possessing a “mysterious virtue”, a power analogous to the “holy mysteries”, to the sacraments, to serve as a means of communion as well as a form of revelation.

One might challenge the ardour of his language and the precise form of his argument. At the same time, we can learn from him the great privilege of praying the psalms in Christian worship and expect to find there not only the prayers of our own hearts, but also to hear and encounter the risen and ascended Lord.


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