Wednesday, July 03, 2024

When a Liturgist Was King

A presidential debate recently occurred in a nation-state that some consider the modern world’s first democracy. Though I did not watch the debate, I have read enough about it to recognize that this is an appropriate time to reflect on the benefits of hereditary monarchy.

The Middle Ages produced many kings and queens of the first order, and many also of the second (or third, or fourth...) order. Dante, for one, had grown weary of monarchs—“regi, che son molti, e ’ buon son rari” (“kings, who are many, and the good are rare”; Paradiso 13). Anyone who had that much close contact with Italian politics can be excused for growing a bit cynical. Likewise, anyone who has endured close contact with modern electoral democracies can be excused for reminiscing, perhaps with immoderate affection, on the days when a king reigned for life and left the kingdom to his heir.

The halls of Christendom are adorned with heroic kings, holy kings, even sainted kings. Their exemplary lives, which have ennobled monarchy itself, are a precious inheritance and deserve our greatest admiration. And yet, the ruler who most excites my imagination—the one that seems the very incarnation of human monarchy, in all its mysteries and contradictions—was born long before the Middle Ages, and even before Christ Himself. His name was David.

David is anointed by Samuel.

He was a shepherd and a warrior, an adulterer and a murderer, a penitent and a poet, a prophet and a king. He is the archetypal religious musician: a harpist (1 Samuel 16, 16), a singer (2 Samuel 22, 1), and a composer (2 Samuel 23, 1). He brought prosperity to Israel, death to Goliath, glory to God, and an example of faithful, pious, courageous leadership to princes of all ages. Nowhere else in the great works of literature is such a monarch to be found. The charm and power of his life story is beautifully expressed in Psalm 77, a masterpiece which I elsewhere described as “a soaring journey in verse through Israel’s epic history and tempestuous relationship with God”:

[The Lord] appointed David his servant,
      and took him up from the flocks of sheep,
out from the ewes in milk he brought him,
      to be the shepherd of Jacob his people: of Israel, his possession;
and in the innocence of his heart,
      he pastured them, he led them forth: with the skill of his hands.

David refuses Sauls arms. Courtesy of the Institut de recherche et dhistoire des textes - CNRS.

To live in the days of David was to live in the reign of a liturgist. I don’t mean that David was a liturgical scholar (though he must have been); that is but one definition of “liturgist.” Two others are attested: “one who advocates the use of liturgy,” and “one who celebrates divine worship.” David was a celebrant indeed:

And David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David with joy.... And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod.... And it was so, as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, that Michal the daughter of Saul looked out at the window, and saw king David leaping and dancing before the Lord. (2 Samuel 6, 12-16)

“Leaping and dancing”—this is not the solemn, celestial liturgy of traditional Christianity, to be sure. The New Covenant is not one with the Old; it is the fulfillment of the Old, just as the sublime poetry of the Catholic Mass is the fulfillment of David’s joyful dance in procession with the Ark, which in the sacred author’s bold metonymy is simply “the Lord.” No metonymy is needed when speaking of the Catholic priest, for he faces the tabernacle, and thus his angelic dance—a dance of the soul rather than the body—is seen by the Lord Himself. And I, a layman, can only imagine how the priest’s heart must leap with wonder and holy fear when he leans in close and whispers to the Beloved—and in a mystical sense, to himself, for he speaks in the first person, and acts in persona Christi—“this is My body.” The bread, now God, is lifted up into divine Life, and the priest, now victim, is lifted up onto the Cross, there to complete, as St. Paul says, the sacrifice of his Lord.

It’s easy to overlook, I think, this mysterious mirroring of the eucharistic oblation: the sacramental Christ and His sacerdotal servant, gazing at each other in that liturgical embrace of mutual self-sacrifice. It is said that Padre Pio suffered grievously while offering Mass. King David was all gladness on that day when he processed in homage to the Ark, but his royal vocation led him through the via crucis as well. Postbiblical Jewish writers were reluctant to accept that David was a sinner; they sought an almost mythical hero—a supernaturally innocent king who would more perfectly prefigure the messiah. They didn’t realize that his sins were prefiguration, for David suffered agonies on their account, much as his divine Descendant suffered agonies for sins that, though not His in commission, were made His for the sake of Redemption.

David slays Goliath and brings his head to Saul. Courtesy of the Institut de recherche et dhistoire des textes - CNRS.

The Scripture says that David “was girded with a linen ephod.” This is the garment of a priest. Though not of the sacerdotal class, David was anointed by God, and his kingship was a sacred one:

And they brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, in the midst of the tent that David had pitched for it: and David offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. And when David had made an end of offering the burnt offering and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts. (2 Samuel 6, 17-18)

O how dull and desolate is the timeworn face of modern secular politics when we must compare it to the warrior-king of Israel, dancing before the Ark of the Lord “with all his might”! Eyes alight with interior fire, he exchanges his royal robes for priestly vesture, offers a pleasing sacrifice unto the Lord, blesses his people in God’s holy name, and sends every man and woman home with “a cake of bread, and a portion of flesh, and a cake of raisins” (2 Samuel 6, 19).

This was a fine liturgy indeed, with a fine gift from the king—and it was also a vivid foreshadowing of liturgies to come, when a pure and perfect sacrifice would be offered, and the people would receive the flesh of the incarnate God.

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