The Songs of Ascent

Kristen and I want to thank our friends and family for your prayers this past month, as Charles Maximus had a congenital branchial cleft cyst removed from his neck, which then got infected, requiring a second surgery and an overnight stay in the hospital. It’s a learning experience to have your child undergo general anesthesia; especially as someone who has induced general anesthesia in numerous animals over the years. In any case, Charlie has fully recovered with a virile scar to show for his troubles.

Aside from our adventures in and out of the hospital, the last month has been essentially more of the same – I (John) am still seeking to complete my work by the end of July; Kristen is taking care of the boys and working through the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. We continue to prepare for August, when we intend to leave Ames for Oklahoma and begin to raise support full time in order to be able to move to Ethiopia as soon as possible.

In the meantime, while the Western Church celebrates Easter this weekend, in the Eastern Church, we begin Holy Week this weekend, celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus on Saturday and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday*. In any case, the period that we call Great Lent ended Friday (March 30).

29790646_10209819427717345_6703191697234883663_n

Grumpy Orthodox Cat tells it like it is.

One aspect of our Lenten devotions that has had an especially profound impact on me this Lent has been our weekly (at least) reading of the Ascent Psalms. Psalms 120-134 consist of a series of short psalms that are believed to have been written upon the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. These psalms serve as a series of meditations that simultaneously address two types of ascent in their original context: first, and most naturally, the ascent of those climbing Zion in order to reach the newly-restored temple in Jerusalem. Secondarily, it addresses the ascent associated with returning to Israel following their exile in Babylon.

The first of these psalms, Psalm 120 (or 119 in the Greek), reads:

An ode of the Ascents

1 In my affliction I cried out to the Lord, and he heard me:

2 Rescue my soul, O Lord, from unjust lips, from a treacherous tongue.

3 What must be given to thee, what must be added to thee against this treacherous tongue?

4 The warrior’s arrows sharpened with hot coals from the desert.

5 Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar,

6 So long has my soul been exiled.

7 I kept on being peaceful with those hating peace, when I spoke with them they kept on hating me for no cause.

Donald Sheehan’s translation, from the Greek.

Notice how verses 5 and 6 are translated here: “Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar/So long has my soul been exiled.” These are psalms meant to be sung while climbing out of the pit; while returning home from exile; while approaching the Lord in order to make offerings to him, to glorify him, to praise him, and to seek succor from him. These themes of return from exile are found throughout:

“I was delighted in those who had said to me: We shall go to the Lord’s house” (122:1)

“Our soul has escaped like a sparrow from a hunter’s snare, the snare has been shattered and we have escaped” (124:7)

“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion; he who dwells in Jerusalem shall be forever unshaken” (125:1)

“When the Lord had brought back the captives of Zion, we became like those who are given great comfort” (126:1)

And so on.

During Lent, we read these psalms at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful service, but it can be easy to miss the profundity of what is happening. During the weekdays of Lent, communion can only be given from a “presanctified” host – that is, the Eucharist must have been prepared beforehand, at the previous Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. During the Presanctified Liturgy, a number of actions are taken by clergy to prepare this presanctified host for communion; the Ascent Psalms are read while this is happening.

We read these psalms, then, as a community, in preparation for Holy Communion during Great Lent. We read these psalms as we ascend to the Lord, as we seek to return to him from the exile of our rebellion. We read these psalms and are filled with joy, because the Lord is welcoming us back from this self-imposed exile: he’s welcoming us home, to Zion, to Jerusalem, whose “temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”


*The reasons for this difference between East and West are somewhat complicated (and unfortunate). Essentially, both agree that the date for Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. However, many of the Eastern churches have not adopted the Gregorian calendar for their liturgical observances, so that there is a 13 day difference between the date for the spring equinox. In addition, the date for the full moons was established based on problematic predictions made centuries ago, rather than on astronomically correct observances. These differences account for different calculations between East and West for Easter Sunday every year, despite the fact that both use the same foundational criteria to make the calculations.

Advertisements