Let Your Face Shine Upon Us
For many centuries, among Western Christians, Psalm 66 (Hebrew 67) was recited at the break of dawn each morning, invariably as the first psalm of Matins. Thus, just as the sunlight began to break through the darkness on the eastern horizon and to extend, bit by bit, its ever-ranging rays still further to lands in the distant west, holy Church employed this psalm to summon all these myriad peoples to proclaim the praises of God: “O God, have compassion on us and bless us, and let Your face shine upon us, to make known Your way upon the earth, and Your salvation to all the nations.” Twice during this psalm will come the double refrain: “May the peoples bless You, O Lord, may all the peoples bless You.” Just as God begins, at the opening of the day, to cause His sun to shine alike on both the just and the unjust, all the earth is invited to laud His universal mercy.
The God of the Bible, in the definitive covenant that He has given us in Christ, has brought to perfection and fulfillment the promises contained in all of the earlier, preparatory covenants of sacred history. One of the earliest of these was the covenant with Noah, that primeval compact of God with “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” This ancient arrangement of grace, described in Genesis 9:16 as berith ’olam, “a covenant forever,” has never been abrogated, nor can it be, for it rests solely on the infallible promise of a gracious God. Using the specific technical expressions “give” (natan) and “establish” (haqim), Genesis describes this covenant as both gratuitous and permanent (cf. 9:9, 11, 12, 17).
Symbolized in that heavenly “sign” (’oth) of the rainbow, it is God’s covenant with creation itself: “While the earth remains, / Seedtime and harvest, / Cold and heat, / Winter and summer, / And day and night / Shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). As such, it is a universal covenant, for Noah is the father of us all. God’s covenant with Noah, moreover, is universal in two ways—in space and in time.
First, space, and all that it contains. The covenant with Noah is the Lord’s guarantee that His disposition toward His creation will forever stay gracious, that His grace will be hierarchically expressed in the very structure of the natural universe, linking higher and lower natures in a wise and eternal order, and placing all of it under the governance of a provident God.
In particular, the human being, who stands near the top of this covenanted hierarchy of natures, remains forever the special object of God’s salvific attention, and the contract with Noah found its fulfillment in the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the preaching of the Gospel. The very movement of the sun across the sky was regarded by St. Paul as symbolizing the advance of the apostolic proclamation (cf. Rom. 10:18). God’s everlasting mercy is written in the heavens. This was the persuasion that prompted St. Benedict of Nursia, in the sixth century, to prescribe the praying of Psalm 66 each morning at daybreak, that God would let His face shine on all peoples of the world and show them His way upon the earth.
Second, time. As we have seen, Genesis 9 lays particular stress on the permanence of God’s covenant with Noah. It is the contract that binds each generation to both the generations gone before and those yet to appear. History itself thus becomes hierarchical, as each new generation, learning its language (and therefore the structured patterns of thought and evaluation) from the one preceding it, submits in faith to the accumulated wisdom of ages past, and then, it is hoped, enhances and further refines that wisdom for the children still to come. The covenant with Noah is, thus, our sacred partnership with history—what Edmund Burke calls “the contract of eternal society,” extending down through the centuries, joining the living with those who have already passed on, with those yet unborn, but most of all with the God who wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
This permanent and universal covenant with Noah is the foundation for what the Romans called “piety,” the cultivated, deep, heartfelt respect for our stewardship of tradition, for the ancestral associations whence derives our identity, and for the gracious God above who sanctions the order of the world and invests it with the majesty of His wisdom.
Reprinted from Christ in the Psalms by Patrick Henry Reardon (Ben Lomond, California: Conciliar Press, 2000).
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“Let Your Face Shine Upon Us” first appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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