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Giving Thanks with the Psalmist (Ps 116:12)
Psalm 116: 12
‘What shall I return to the Lord on account of his forbearance towards me?’ (Ps 116:12)
Lectio: What the Word says in itself
This simple line in a Psalm of thanksgiving contains great wealth. Note that it is a question. This Psalm was part of a series of Psalms used at major feasts, and in that context, questions were important. Some of the rituals for these feasts include questions from the young so that the older can repeat the stories of the importance of the festival (as at Passover).
The psalmist gives thanks for ‘forbearance.’ The word in Hebrew comes from a term that means ‘to do something for someone,’ with overtones of forgiveness. The motive for this thankfulness is not simply a general goodness but a personal and real sense that God has done something for the one praying, has come into ‘the snare of death and the pangs of Sheol’ with the gift of a mercy and a forbearance, even in the midst of loneliness, betrayal and affliction. This thanksgiving is genuine and born of a deep experience of loneliness and betrayal. The psalmist has found new life in this act of thanksgiving.
Meditatio: What the Word says to me/us
In recent years, there has been a growing sense of the importance of reading the Psalms in the context of the whole book of Psalms (the Psalter), rather than only in the life-context of the Psalm. Let us consider two important aspects of the place this Psalm holds in the Psalter.
As noted above, this is one of a series of Psalms. Punctuated with Alleluias, these Psalms were sung in the context of the major feasts, particularly the Passover. Some ancient Jewish sources link this set of Psalms with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Temple, and it has certainly an important role in the ritual of the synagogue and the prayers in the home for Passover. This clearly sets this Psalm in the context of a celebration of freedom. The prayer is the prayer of one who is set free – free from the snares of death, free from the pangs of Sheol, free from anguish and distress, with the quiet confidence that the Lord will protect ‘the simple’ – a term referring to those who are willing to learn, rather than those who are naïve or credulous.
The second aspect of the placing of this Psalm is its proximity to ‘the Great Psalm’ (Ps 119 – the longest and most complex psalm in the Psalter). These words of thanksgiving and this seeking of wisdom are to be seen as a preparation for the reading of this Great Psalm, often described as the ‘linguistic temple.’ In a sense, the answer to this question will only come in the reading of the Great Psalm: what can we do to thank God for his forbearance and for his mercy? We can live by torah, aware that our lives and our actions, our decisions and our deeds have a focus and a direction. The real act of sacrifice, the real raising of the cup of salvation, is in the act of praise: all aspects of our life, not just individual acts of piety or charity, but everything, becomes part of the torah of our life.
Oratio: What the Word leads me/us to say
Lord, often our lives can fall into the pit of loneliness, betrayal and fear.
Help us to discover your forbearance in those moments of ‘the pit and the pangs.’
Help us to discover the hope that rises with thankfulness and gratitude.
Help us to find our direction in praise of you, as we raise the cup of life and call on your name.
Contemplatio: Being transformed by the Word
The silent echo of this Psalm conveys the dynamism of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a raising of the cup of life to the God who comes to meet us in the darkest pits of our own distress and anguish.
Actio: Putting the Word into practice
As an act of thanks to God, offer a cup of salvation to someone this week – maybe a cup of soup to a homeless person, a mug of tea after a long day’s work to the plumber or painter whom you have contracted, a cup of coffee to a colleague who might be shy or reticent, or a glass of good wine with an old friend whom you take the time to meet. Each of these can be part of the existential sacrifice of praise that allows us to rediscover the direction of our life.
Rev Dr Sean Maher is Parish Priest in Naas, Co Kildare