Meditations on the Judica Me (Psalm 42) of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite

Pictured below is photo I took on a recent Autumn pilgrimage through the south of France.  We had Mass on the French Riviera in Nice at Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur (aka the Église du Gesù), under the care of the priests of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. Throughout Mass I kept thinking how important it is for Catholics to understand Psalm 42.  The thought came to me: have Catholics been taught much about it?  It is such an important and powerful prayer.  It is at the heart of the beginning of the Extraordinary Form.

I would like to share a few words about the art of this sometimes overlooked prayer.  One of the mighty strengths of the pre-Vatican II liturgy was the role this prayer played in the spirituality of the people.  Meanwhile, it was one of the first things the reformers culled from the liturgy.

The psalm plays a crucial role in the liturgy of the Mass and Latin Rite spirituality.  By placing it at the beginning of the rite, Mother Church in her wisdom gives us to understand there is something important here.  With sentiments similar to those of David, we approach the altar.  It summarizes the human experience.  We can see the similarity between our condition and that of David.  The psalm forms an excellent introduction to the sacred mysteries of the sacrifice of our salvation.  It voices our solemn acknowledgment of our own helplessness as well as our firm belief that through God's love and grace we shall be saved.  It is in this liturgical sense that the psalm must be explained.

Photo: OC-Travel
Psalm 42, also called the Judica Me, could also be titled, "Hope in God!"  The Mass ordinarily begins with the recitation of a short part from this beautiful psalm from the Old Testament.  It was written by King David, most likely when he was in exile from Jerusalem on his flight from his son, Absalom. With the historical facts we can easily understand the literal sense of the psalm.  It perfectly summarizes our common human experience: grief and sorrow in distress, confidence and trust in God are the answer. Absalom was an ambitious and treacherous son, whose aim was to be king in place of his father.  A stately figure, he won the hearts of the people through flattery and had himself proclaimed king in Hebron.  He set out with an army to take Jerusalem from David. The news was brought to David that, "all Israel is on the side of Absalom."  David was crushed.  There was nothing he could do but to flee.  A figure of the Redeemer, he took his way across the brook Cedron and walked barefoot while weeping up Mt. Olivet, and then fled across the Jordan. In Psalm 42 David gives expression to his feelings.  Of the injustice and humiliation of the situation.  In his distress he finds relief in the thought of the unfailing justice and mercy of God.  There is faith that God will take care of everything. David's thoughts wander back to the tabernacle on Mt. Sion which the Lord had made His special dwelling place.  How David had loved this holy place, even in his youth when, as a poor shepherd by from Bethlehem, he tended the flocks of his father on the plains of this land. An important point: David's love of God and of the tabernacle had increased in the course of his years as he beheld himself chosen to be a leader of Israel and blessed in so many ways. Affliction has come upon him and he knows it to be deserved for his sins.  Nevertheless, the rebellion is unjust on the part of his son - it is an offense against God and the rightful king. David prays and firmly hopes that God will not forsake him and that justice will prevail.  Then he will return to Jerusalem and give thanks to God for his deliverance from the power of the rebels. With these thoughts he consoles himself and rejoices in the anticipation of the final victory of his cause, which ultimately is the hope and salvation of  the world, the sacrifice of Our Blessed Lord on the Cross.

We, too, are threatened by enemies and help can come to us only from heaven.  For us the unholy nation is the devil and the world.  The deceitful and treacherous man is right within us - our human nature inclined to evil and swayed by concupiscence. We have experienced in our whole being the misery and distress of the rebellious attacks of our enemies.  We flee before them now and seek refuge, where alone it can be found, with God in the mystery of His love upon the altar.  We are led to the altar.  The altar is our home.

I could write a long treatise on this subject.  Suffice it to say how sad indeed the world would be, if there were no church, no altar, and no tabernacle.  How intense is our love for the house of God!  Our confidence in the power of prayer.  Our faith in the value of the Mass.  Our refuge at the altar of sacrifice.  The body may grow old and decrepit, but the soul is immortal and never ages.  In a more exalted sense, youth, never-aging vigor and strength in the spiritual life are infused into the soul through grace.

The liturgical act and this prayer give us a glimpse of heaven, of the immortal, glorious life of eternity.  What deserves our special attention is that this spiritual youth is inseparable from joy. Where spiritual joy prevails, there is also courage and energy, orthodoxy in teaching, readiness to work, perseverance on the rough and stony road of this life, enthusiasm and loyalty in the service of God to the end. This youthful vigor and optimism can be seen in the lives of the saints.  Let us pray for a return, of all of this.  Then we will have authentic renewal.

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