Today’s Entrance Antiphon offers us the first three verses of Psalm 24(25): To you I lift up my soul, O my God. This same text is given in the lectionary as the Responsorial Psalm after the first reading; or, in the Roman Gradual, as the Chant at the Offertory. Being the Entrance Antiphon for the First Sunday of Advent, we are presented with this text as the first words in the first Mass of the new liturgical year. In the corpus of Gregorian Chant for Mass that we have in the Graduale Romanum, our text has a magnificent setting, justly celebrated; and of course it’s the first Chant on the first page. As the Chant indicates, in full accordance with the mind of the Church, we are supposed to sing this text, and several times, not merely say it aloud once.
Ad te levavi animam meam - to you have I lifted up my soul, O my God.
The Gregorian composer sets this Introit in the eighth mode. He makes it a most triumphant song, expressing complete confidence and trust. The flow of music in the first phrase strongly highlights the words Te, Deus meus - You, my God! So we are left in no doubt at all as to where the composer’s gaze is fixed; and no doubt either what effect this gaze has on him. He is certain of God, of God’s power, of God’s readiness to help him at all times. And so we begin our new liturgical Year with this strong affirmation and reminder, which is surely by no means unnecessary for us. We start again now, as it were, from the beginning, looking up to God, and doing so with complete confidence.
Behind all that uplifting proclamation there is actually a presumption, not very far below the surface, that we find ourselves starting from a very low point. I lift up my soul to you O my God, we sing. I need to do that, because otherwise my soul, far from being lifted up, would be entirely cast down. Before we start singing, as it were, our situation is presumed to be rather dire. Left to itself, our soul would find itself situated somewhere flat on the floor, or deep down in our boots. And why would it not be? Fast forward from the time of the Old Testament Psalmist to our own day, and the year 2018 in particular. I don’t know what you think, but as I see it in many ways this has been rather a dreadful year. There have been plenty of things happening, or not happening, in 2018 to depress our spirits, deflate our hope, sap our confidence. We look around and see crisis on every hand, and weak leadership, and an apparent universal slide downwards. Plus, if I dare say, the world seems to be growing old, and we along with it. If a homilist were to tell us to cheer up because everything is just fine, really, or getting better all the time, we might be tempted to throw something at him.
This homilist has no intention of saying anything like that today. But he will quote the words of this Psalm, and invite us to take them very seriously. The Psalmist looks up, precisely amid the surrounding waste and gloom. He looks to God alone. Not to an impersonal and unknown deity up there in the sky, but to his God, the God of Israel; the God we know as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We’ve been reading in our refectory these past months a biography life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a Protestant Pastor and theologian who was involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. As the war drew to its end, Bonhoeffer was confined in a tiny, dark, underground Gestapo dungeon, waiting for execution. There he prayed the Psalms, as he always did. His fellow prisoners who survived the war tell us that he was unfailingly an example of most wonderful courage, patience, cheerfulness, sheer human goodness. Amid the darkness, Bonhoeffer looked up to God; he lifted up his soul, his heart, his mind to God. That of course is the definition of prayer. Bonhoeffer trusted, with confidence, which was quite compatible with knowing he would be executed any time. This attitude was not just a psychological trick, designed to help keep the spirits up. It was an act of worship, and a resolute walking in the truth.
So we too look up to God: amid the winter darkness; amid the darkness of our world; amid the chaos of our times. We look to the God who dwells in inaccessible light, in whom there is no darkness at all; to the God who is truth and goodness and beauty; who made all that is; from whom we came, and to whom we must go. We know he is powerful enough to do all things, and he can ensure we are not put to shame. Our hope will not be disappointed.
Nor, says the Psalmist, let my enemies triumph over me. For us, these enemies are in the first place the dark forces at work within ourselves. Enemies like despair, bitterness, anger, self pity: they will not triumph over me, because I refuse to let them; because I look up to God; because I know that the light shines amid the darkness, and the darkness is not able to overpower it.
In today’s Gospel Jesus bids us look up, and look forward, towards his own coming in glory. Terrible things will occur as a prelude to that; but we are not to be dismayed by them. We have confidence that when he comes it will be as our Saviour, our liberator, as the fulfilment of all our hopes, dreams and desires, as our glory and joy and eternal reward.
In the meantime, very oddly, in order to see him clearly, as well as looking up, we need to look down. For our God has come to us in humility. He came as a new born baby, lying helplessly on the floor in an outhouse. To him then we lift up our soul. We lift our hearts and souls up to him; not just to his majestic power in heaven, but also according to the measure of his humility, his lowliness, his love of us to the end. Then we pray the next verse of our Psalm, which will guide us through th coming year: Vias tuas, Domine, demonstra mihi - Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths: that I may walk in them always.