A Psalm for the time of Covid

Psalm 42

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

Truly a beautiful psalm and perhaps how many of us are feeling these days. The Cross that we celebrate this week does provide the usual theological answers that we Orthodox are so good at dispensing. But the psalm stands on its own, separate from church theologies, as a true testament to the human desire for God in the midst of desolation and abandonment. On the Cross Jesus did not remember Psalm 42; he remembered Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 42 is not a psalm of despair. It is a psalm for those days and times when we do feel alone. So perhaps it is a psalm you can relate to during these times of Covid-19. 

Perhaps you are thirsty for God; for any sign from God that things will be alright in a while, in just a little while. Perhaps you are missing not being at Liturgy in person and you also are asking, When shall I come and behold the face of God?

The face of God, dear friends. You seek the face of God. Devout Jews encountered the presence of God when they gathered as a nation, as a community, at the Temple in Jerusalem:
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

The joy, the sheer exhilaration of people gathering together was an experience that brought them face to face with God. Is that something you have ever experienced when we gather at Liturgy? I wonder, how many of us have experienced what the man in Psalm 42 experienced and was now missing. Christ is present. The Spirit of God is present. The Spirit comes upon us and upon the gifts we offer, so that we may receive Christ himself in the bread and wine. And God’s love permeates all. You know what is a high point for me in the Liturgy? Maybe THE high point some Sundays? At the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, when we say, “Hallowed be thy name.”

There is nothing holier than God’s name. Nothing! In ancient Israel, the name of God was only pronounced once a year, on the Day of Atonement. And even then, only by the high priest inside the Holy of Holies, behind closed doors so to speak! When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the priesthood came to an end and so did the solemn speaking of God’s name that one time a year. To this day, Jews do not even write the word God complete. They usually leave out the ‘o’.

Αγιασθήτω το όνομά σου. This Hallowed be thy Name is a profound cry of our souls as we also thirst for God, the living God! The man in Psalm 42 is literally a man on a hunger strike in the prison of his mind, starving for God. He chooses to be starving! We have to choose to be starving and thirsty for God. So when we say, Hallowed be thy Name, we are expressing this deep desire that God’s name be the deepest, most profound reality that we can utter with out mouths. “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts.” I love that line. From the depths of our own existence we cry out to the depths of God’s existence.

We are messengers of God’s presence when we see the face of God in each other. And as we go out into the world, others should see the face of God in us. We are the messengers, but I fear that we have forgotten the message! And that’s part of the reason why I’m sharing Psalm 42 with you today. Not only because it shares our experience of loneliness and isolation. But because memory is at the heart of this psalm: Memory of the Temple, memory of the crowds at worship and celebration, memory of God’s presence, memory of God’s help and salvation, even memory of God’s remembrance!! Yes, we don’t want to be forgotten by God. We forget him and we forget the message of who we are and why we are here, but God forbid that God should ever forget us: I say to God, my rock (note the strength of rock), “Why have you forgotten me?” And then a final question and affirmation:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Igor Levit is one of the biggest names in classical music. His newest recording came out last Friday, Encounter. His choice of solo piano pieces came out of his own isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. In introducing his album, he wrote: “The restricted isolation in the weeks since mid-March 2020 was often difficult for me too. As an artist, however, I have never felt so free, so open in my life as on those days when I often only decided half an hour before the live stream what I would play in my house concerts. Being able to make music without any compulsion and spontaneously choosing works in which all questions about love and death, loneliness and the possibility of real love for others are examined, has given my piano playing a level of freedom that I had never before experienced in this form.”

As I contemplated Igor Levit’s words and listened to this beautiful album, I thought of Psalm 42. And that was the impetus for this sermon. Because what Igor Levit says about how his own isolation drove him to new depths of expression is what I find in Psalm 42. I offer this psalm to you to drive you to new encounters with God and new thirst for the living God, and a more creative use of time during this time of pandemic. “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” Ask that question from the depths of your being as you contemplate the depths of God when you hallow God’s name. May all prayer bring the face of God closer to you. Amen.

This was preached as a sermon on Sunday, Sept. 13th. The audio file of the sermon is included here:

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