For the next several Mondays we will be studying the Psalms as the fundamental manual of Christian prayer. I have brainstormed a long list of topics that seem important in appreciating the richness of the Psalms: topics including battle, Jerusalem, the poor, truth, guile, bribery, justice, kidneys, and heaven. But rather than going through this list abstractly, I think we can appreciate it more by examining a particular Psalm.
Thus the next several weeks we will read very carefully through Psalm 26, trying to hit all of those themes as they arise here.
Psalm 26 has an important part in the liturgical tradition. Right in the middle are the words, in one of the old Latin translations, “Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas,” I will wash my hands among the innocent. The Psalm was thus used for centuries in the part of the Offertory Rite where the priest washes his hands – in fact, if you google “lavabo,” you will find that there are various hand-washing devices named for that line in Psalm 26.
The revision of the Missal after Vatican II shortened this ritual, and thus now only quotes one line of the Psalm, where the priest used to say most of it. But the Psalm itself in its entirety would make a magnificent Offertory Hymn, for a parish rediscovering the beauty of the Psalms, or a private devotion at that time. It is an easy length to memorize.
An interesting sidenote: the Psalter is of such importance to the Church that there have always been disputes over translations. When St. Jerome set about producing the Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate – or “vernacular” translation – there was already an old Latin version of the Bible, based on the old Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint.
Jerome produced a better version of this translation. The Psalms from that revision, “iuxta LXX,” or “from the Septuagint,” became the “Roman Psalter.” But then he retranslated the Psalms, this time not from the Greek but from the Hebrew original. This one was adopted, among other places, in France, and so called the “Gallican Psalter”; it was also used by many religious orders.
Later Jerome made a third translation. And there was a new translation made at the time of the Council of Trent, and Pope Pius XII requested yet another one, by the great Cardinal Bea, in the decade before Vatican II. All this translating makes it confusing to say which is the “official” version – but testifies to the Church’s great love for this revealed text.
The meaning of the Lavabo rite is obvious enough: just as we wash our hands before handling important things, so too is this symbolic of how we should wash our souls before handling sacred things. But Psalm 26 takes us much deeper.
The Psalm maintains a rich tension between our goodness and the Lord’s mercy. The last section begins, “I will walk in my innocence. Redeem me and have mercy on me.” Which is it? Am I innocent, or do I need redemption and mercy? The Psalm’s answer is clearly both.
Indeed, though it begins by saying, “I do not sit with the wicked,” by the end it proclaims, “do not abandon me with sinners.” The Psalm takes us deeper into the struggle for righteousness. I do not want to be wicked – but I fear that, without the Lord’s help, I will be. Lead us not into temptation! Deliver us!
Similarly, it opens, “be just to me.” This is a mighty claim, as if I count myself truly deserving. But though it next says, “I walk in my innocence,” the following line shows the way to righteousness: “trusting in the Lord, I have not fallen.” (We might add, but when not trusting in the Lord, I have!)
The Psalm takes us deep into the relationship between righteousness and worship. “Your goodness is before my eyes, and I walk in your truth.” Our “walking” is hemmed in on two sides. On the one hand, we walk in light of God’s goodness to us. On the other, we recognize that truth belongs to him: it is he who makes right and wrong.
Perhaps the culmination of the Psalm is in the words, “Lord, I love the dwelling place of your house, and the place of the tent of your glory.” Worship is defined as simply being in God’s presence.
But that makes us long to “openly proclaim praise, and tell all your wonders.” We wash our hands, and our lives, so as to be able to see his goodness more clearly.
In the weeks to come, we will examine each line of this Psalm in greater depth.
What is your favorite Psalm?