Sihon, Og, et al.

Before Vigils each morning I put on the coffee, make my bed, and turn on my laptop. I check my email—answer the urgent, delete the spam—and move on to a news site to see what’s going on in the world. This is probably a mistake. By the time my interior Vigils bell has rung, the world is, as Wordsworth put it, too much with me, and my opening “Oh God, come to my assistance”, instead of lifting my heart to God, is horribly earthbound, tied down to current events local, national, and international. This morning it was the situation in Ukraine, the impending war, the world order, and geopolitics in general. So I tucked a plea for peace into “Lord, make haste to help me” and moved on.

But God had more to say. The psalm this morning was 136 (“O give thanks to the Lord for he is good”), a litany of praise and thanksgiving in which the refrain (or the anaphora, to be poetically correct) is “for his love endures forever”. It starts out with the cosmic (“…whose wisdom it was made the skies…he who made the great lights…”), but within four stanzas quickly shifts to the historical (“The firstborn of the Egyptians he smote…”). It becomes a poem about how Eternity works through Time, about how Divine Wisdom works through the inanity of what we call current events. It’s about remembering the redemption woven through slavery, through exodus, through the desert.

But it’s also about forgetting. Midway through the psalm, tucked under “Kings in their splendor he slew…” are Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, the king of Bashan, who, except for their mention here and in Psalm 135 (probably by the same author), a brief passage in the Book of Numbers and a one-sentence citation in Deuteronomy, would be utterly lost to history. As I read about these forgotten potentates this morning, I was reminded of a couple of my favorite lines from Psalm 2: “They arise, the kings of the earth…He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord is laughing them to scorn.” So, while God does indeed work through our history, our culture and politics, our current events, he doesn’t seem to take them all that seriously. Humans are by nature drama queens. It comes with Original Sin. But for God the only drama is grace.

It’s certainly no coincidence that the Incarnation occurred during the rise of the Roman Empire, the most powerful, inhuman concentration of hubris and greed the West had yet seen; no coincidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Augustus wanted to know how many taxpayers he had in his client states; no coincidence that he was condemned to death because Pontius Pilate didn’t want to roil the waters with the imperial politicos back in Rome. Yet Jesus had remarkably little interest in politics. His parables lean heavily toward agriculture and everyday occurrences, and when they do address human social interactions (The Shrewd Steward; The Laborers in the Vineyard), often fly in the face of commonplace human conceptions of justice. When he stood before Pilate—certainly the prime opportunity for a discourse on the evil of the Empire or the perils of human ambition in general—the Synoptics say he remained silent (I suspect he was praying), while St. John says he simply reminded the governor that he actually had no power at all. Then again, he had already delivered his discourse on politics—one sentence: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Caesar can take every penny we’ve got, but he can’t touch the spark of eternity God has placed at the very heart of us.”

Every morning I say a prayer I found in The Benedictine Handbook [] based on Chapter 72 of The Rule. At the end I make small colloquy asking St. Benedict to bless my Benedictine life and the Benedictine community throughout the world, asking specifically “that we might be the light of Christ in these Dark Ages.” Historical nomenclature, of course, is always up for grabs. It turns out that the Dark Ages weren’t really all that dark, that the Renaissance was actually more retro than renewal. I suspect God is laughing at this sort of thing as well. The point is: we’re always in the Dark Ages; we’re always in the Renaissance. Whatever time we’re in, however we perceive it or choose to call it, our task is the same: to sanctify the tiny chunk of time we’ve been given, moment by moment, breath by breath, psalm by psalm; to hold in remembrance and remind the world that “his love endures forever.”

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