By Matthew Allen
Joy and judgement, two themes tied up closely together in Psalm 96. But how can judgement, hardly an idea that instils positive emotions of any sort, let alone joy, be so fundamental to the redemptive message of the text?
If anything, judgement is fraught with connotations of hellfire and brimstone. In what seems, at first, a counterintuitive mixing of two barely compatible subjects within the psalm, the writer is, in reality, developing a cohesive theology of reconciliation.
A question older than Christianity itself takes the stage: How does God restore sinful humanity to a right standing before him? As with many a Bible passage, there is much in Psalm 96 that surprises.
But the progression to joy via judgement is perhaps, though it seems an unlikely progression on the face of things, less puzzling to those who belong within the ‘high church’ tradition of Christianity. For the Anglican, Lutheran or Catholic reader, God enacts his reconciliation of wayward mankind — his invitation, through judgement, into joy — through the Eucharist, or the Blessed Sacrament.
Whenever the faithful celebrate the sacred mysteries, as the body of Christ is broken and his blood poured out, an event of cosmic significance unfolds under the parish roof. No matter how many times a believer may participate over the course of a lifetime, the meaning of the Eucharist remains profound as on the day of their Confirmation.
To those in attendance, God unveils the heights of his powers to bring blessing out of weakness. More than this, God’s work of reconciliation is built into the rhythms of daily life, the simple act of showing up for Eucharist. ‘Shew forth his salvation from day to day,’ the Psalmist enjoins in verse 2. The dawn of salvation is in the ringing of church bells.
For the purpose of this article, ‘high church’ is an adjective. It embraces Anglicans (like myself), Lutherans and Catholics. In obedience to verse 8, ‘Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name,’ these traditions place great emphasis on the offering up to God the Father of Christ, ‘our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.’
And with Christ appearing in the holy gifts of bread and wine, we truly ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,’ as verse 9 commands. Because it incarnates great theological truth, indeed infuses the real presence of Christ himself, into the physical world, a service of Holy Eucharist is also an aesthetic experience. It immerses the believer in beauty itself.
Nothing compares to parish ministry for binding believers to the community on their doorstep. And the chance to receive God’s grace in a local setting, as in verse 6, is the wonder of church done within the parish model. ‘Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.’
Seldom do theologians remark on how contrary to prevailing political ideology an emphasis on the nearby parish really is. Whereas modern liberalism, the midwife of globalisation, is eroding our sense of place (Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed 77-82), the Eucharist is an invitation to witness miracles just around the corner.
John Wesley gave to Methodism his famous phrase, ‘The world is my parish.’ This, while noble, is at odds with genuine parochial ministry. Caring for the wider world, indeed maintaining dialogue with a global Communion, does not exclude the vital concept of local parishes as a special category.
Psalm 96, notably in verses 4 to 5, banishes cosmopolitan polytheism in favour of Israel’s national monotheism. But its aperture is narrower still. ‘Bring an offering, and come into his courts,’ verse 8 invites the reader. This imperative language insists that the reader draw near to God, specifying the place of encounter: God’s own house, be it cathedral or chapel.
The sacramental drama never was a travelling roadshow, communion for the housebound excepted. Rather, the joyful feast is the mainstay of the local parish. And so, settled in the pews, the first act of Eucharistic theatre begins.
Judgement: ‘Of things exactly as they are’
Verse 13 portrays the coming of the Lord as an event unfolding in the present, ‘for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth.’ As if to emphasise the immediacy of God’s in-breaking, to drive home the absence of delay, ‘for he cometh’ occurs twice.
When it comes to the return of Christ, as understood in the popular imagination, Christian music has had a huge impact. Some evangelical minds — thanks to a 90s praise band favourite! — are captive to the rapturous vision of a glorified Christ, ‘riding on the clouds, shining like the sun, at the trumpet call,’ to take his place as the cosmic judge.
While the Nicene Creed certainly endorses this apocalyptic portrait, with all its attention-grabbing appeal to the senses — ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’ — there is also much to be said for Flannery O’Connor’s pointed observation, ‘Every day is judgment day,’ which gets lost amid colourful prophecies, even doomsday predictions, of the Second Advent. What is overlooked, however, in painting judgement as a single day of reckoning?
Perhaps O’Connor’s intuition arises from the novelist’s Roman Catholic background and her attendant sacramental beliefs. There is a case to be made that for those whose regard for the sacraments is high, as O’Connor’s was, as an American cradle Catholic, the presence of God’s judgement is more easily discernible wherever it appears.
The whole point of a sacrament, after all, is to make visible the course of spiritual realities in the life of the believer, thereby making perceptible the abstract. One such truth is that of judgement, and nowhere else in Christian practice is the shock of God’s judgement — and the grace it releases — more palpable than in the Eucharist.
When a thing is judged, it is revealed utterly for what it is. Judgement brings a thing into the light in order to receive the appraisal of the same God who made it, leaving nothing concealed. And the focal point of God’s judgement here on earth, where matters of judgement are translated, is the altar of sacrifice.
From the lofty position of the chancel to the lifting of the chalice by the priest, Eucharistic practice crystallises attention onto the sacramental act. Indeed, sacrifice and visibility come as a pair in Hebrew scripture.
Transparency before God is a salient theme of Genesis 22, the perplexing narrative which narrates the binding of Isaac on Mount Moriah. ‘In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.’ On the altar there can be no room for pretence. Bread is bread. Wine is wine.
Blessed are you Lord God of all creation:
Through your goodness we have this bread to set before you, which earth has given and human hands have made.
Blessed are you Lord God of all creation:
Through your goodness we have this wine to set before you, fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
Only then, having been judged, after the moment of true recognition, can anything be transformed:
It will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed be God for ever.
It will become for us the cup of salvation.
Blessed be God forever.
What is the standard by which God judges? In verse 13 lies the answer, ‘He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.’
Righteousness, the truth of how things are, the ordering logic that God has written into the fabric of the universe, is the balance in which the Creator weighs all things. And when the sinner sees the divine light, is revealed for who they are, and finds forgiveness, God shares the gift of his presence, by which all who repent are transformed.
From beginning to end, God is blessed: in creating and in restoring. ‘Behold, I make all things new.’
Joy Through Judgement
For what aim does God remake his creation through judgement? What objective could be so important as to form the goal of God’s redemptive purpose?
Once more, Psalm 96 has the answer, though the passage is not a linear presentation of a logically reasoned argument. At the top of the psalm, oddly enough, is found the purpose towards which the judgement it envisions is directed.
O sing unto the Lord a new song:
Sing unto the Lord, all the earth.
Sing unto the Lord, bless his name;
Simply joy. Modern education preaches ‘critical thinking’ mistrust of straightforward answers, but even the most hardened cynic would scarcely deny the simple beauty of living in pursuit of divine joy. There is no higher purpose — in a world where the goalposts of success are constantly shifting — than to worship God ‘in spirit and truth.’
(On a side note, this verse, John 4:24, when poorly interpreted, gives the impression that God is demanding his people to bring something to the act of worship without having been assisted by grace. This is not the vision of the Eucharist. God supplies the Spirit and God reveals the Truth.)
Nothing is more exasperating, few things less fulfilling, than bending over backwards on the daily to fit whatever this week’s definition of success happens to be. But when the real purpose of life is rediscovered, happiness follows naturally.
Reformed theology expresses this in the Westminster Catechism’s first response, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.’ In one short sentence, the Catechism has nailed the meaning of life!
But the same, as the Psalmist will show, applies to creation in its totality, as the world erupts in joyful song. With praises rising from every corner of the globe, verses 11 to 12 spirit us away for a bird’s-eye tour of all creation.
From the heights of the heavens, we plunge to the earth, sail the roaring seas, glide over fields, and alight in a leafy wood. A fizz of celebration bubbles up from every direction.
Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof.
Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein:
Then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice.
Not a soul-destroying city scrubland in sight. Urban despair is nowhere to be seen. ‘The former things are passed away.’ While these vivid images of a natural world restored seem distant from a time-worn chapel on a rainy day, the Blessed Sacrament it accommodates, the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into spiritual gifts, brings the new creation within tantalising proximity.
‘Happy are those who are called to his supper,’ filled with joy to hear the song of a young creation, judged and reconciled, on the move towards its eternal destiny. This is the joy of the Eucharist.
O Sacrament most Holy,
O Sacrament Divine,
All praise and all thanksgiving,
Be every moment Thine.