Hebrew

Buried within Evelyn Underhill’s Worship lies an interesting gloss on the relationship between the Christ event as absolute rupture and its abiding connection to history. According to Underhill, the ritual enactment of the Jewish Psalter forms the basis for a proper understanding of apocalyptic. Christianity brought something absolutely new into the world, yet paradoxically did so on the basis of what came before.

The Jewish Psalter became the first hymn-book of the Church, and still remains the backbone of its ordered daily worship: the reading and expounding of the Old Testament, stressing the historical character of the Christian revelation, as from the beginning a vital part of the ministry of the Word. Thus Christian worship, though from one point of view it was indeed a “new song”, from another accepts and completes the devotion of the synagogue, and shows forth in its fullness the spiritual mystery towards which the sacrifices of the Temple looked. Here as elsewhere the revelation of God, breaking in upon history, accepts and clothes itself in historical forms (194).

For Underhill, there is no reason to cast an either/or between historical continuity and the absolutely new. The unique characteristic of Hebraic poetry, symbolism and Temple imagery is to hold together the new and the old, to “carry forward the gifts of the past” (215). Underhill convincingly shows that this principle is operative throughout the entire New Testament corpus.

But more than simply forming a conceptual link between the new and the old, the liturgical rite of the Psalms have abiding significant here and now. As Jesus knew and prayed the Psalms and as the God of Israel was being formed in him, so too are we to know and pray the Psalms, letting Christ be formed in us. The Psalms provide a sacramental window into “the depth and breadth and height of the devotional landscape within which the historic incarnation took place, for it is the gate which admits us to the inner world of Israel’s spiritual experience: the world into which Jesus was born, and in which the real preparation of the Gospel was made” (215). In this sense the Psalms cast us back into history and in the selfsame act back into the Christ. As Underhill so beautifully expresses, the Psalms give voice to “the broken middle.”

If, therefore, our worship is true to the totality of its Judeo-Christian inheritance, it will not be all bright and clear, thin in color, humanistic and this-world in feeling. It will retain the ancient sense of cloud and darkness, otherworldly fire and light, which still lives in the Psalter; the awe before sacred mystery which is with us yet never of us, the deep sense of imperfection, and above all the unconquerable trust and the adoring love for a God who has set His glory above the heavens and yet is mindful of the children of men” (216). 

Advertisements