Dust, Hope, Psalm 90 & Lent

Having taken a Wisdom Literature course this past semester, I have decided to share with you my three Scripture Reflection assignments that I have written for the course. There will be slight revisions as in this case, there is a slight Lenten modification for this psalm. For the full text of Psalm 90, on which this reflection is based, click here.

Psalm 90 stands out among all the psalms not particularly for the content but for the style. Although several characteristics common to Hebrew Poetry are to be found here, they phrases have a distinct cadence. What is even more remarkable about this psalm is that it is attributed to Moses, making this the single psalm bearing his name.

This psalm could have been used to mark the great tragedy of Moses, who never experienced the promised land himself. Whereas the events of the Exodus would become the basis for one of the high liturgical feasts of the Hebrews, it would make sense that a liturgical prayer to honor Moses in this way would fit in their tradition. Moreover, as many of the Hebrew Scriptures were written in the time of the Babylonian Exile, this particular psalm would have taken on a particular significance during that period as well as other periods of difficulty during their history.

In a brief glance, this psalm highlights God’s sovereignty, against human frailty amidst trials. This psalm is a communal prayer of Israel as indicated by the terms we and us. God’s boundless strength and endless life are extolled, contrasted with a swiftly dying humanity. Despite a somewhat reflective somberness, this psalm is permeated by a solid hope which bursts open at the conclusion.

We see this interspersed contrast of God’s time and humanity’s time. God’s time sees the sum of our thousands of years as insignificant. This comparison is meant to highlight the transcended infinity of the life of God.

As we see the human person compared to dust and herbs that die at the end of a day, we are meant to get a sense of the fragility and precariousness of human life. Although this prayer evokes a lament, it culminates in a great prayer of hopeful anticipation. As is typical in lamentation Psalms, a lament is concluded with Thanksgiving for God’s love, compassion, and mercy.

We have an image of God portrayed with great power, strength, and immortality, evocative of confidence for the human gripped in a fragile brief life. Further, the solidity of God’s eternity becomes a firm foundation of hope for those who pass away so quickly. The end of this psalm has a series of petitions for their prosperity, principally characterized by hope. The conclusion of this psalm describes a life characterized by God’s favor, in contrast to the essential difficulties which compose human existence. These petitions of prosperity evoke hope as well as further concrete confidence.

God’s gratuitous love, eternal power, and our need for hope prove a powerful and balanced message for us today. While the “Prosperity Gospel” becomes an attractive message for a culture obsessed with acquiring material goods, the gratuity of God’s goodness stands in contrast. Not only can it become an egotistical fixation for us to focus on our own goodness, it turns God’s eternal power into an object for manipulation.

This psalm illustrates that death is a great equalizer, and nobody will be spared from an untimely end. Self interested prosperity is not necessarily effective in the long run, when the fate of the have-nots will be the same. When our obsessed desire to acquire things, and even righteousness consumes our own need to hope.

These days, we have not been given a reason for confidence to hope for a better tomorrow. I believe this psalm matches the somber feeling of death that can overcome our awareness each year during the winter, when we can see all of natural life wilt and wither. The “holiday” season itself becomes the season of absolute stress in the minds of most people.

While Lent, the season of preparation, is trumped by instantaneous holidays of indulgent in the moment, Mardi Gras, Saint Patrick’s, Spring Break, there is nothing of lasting value to look forward to. As we live in a time of instant gratification, not only do we lose out on patience, but also lose out of the good cheer of having a tomorrow to look forward to. Since we seize pleasure for the moment, we trap it in the past, since we cannot prolong the pleasure of fixing it to our future. In ashes, we fix our hope to the future of the New Life in the Resurrection of the Christ.

The person who has their anticipatory hope fixed on a future joy can much more easily endure stress than the person who does not. When people can believe that a bright future awaits them, as this psalm suggests, they can have the courage to face their struggles. Even our mournful penance is not without the vigorous character of satisfaction in God’s good promises.

Finally, this hope roots one in the solid goodness of God most high, empowering individuals to themselves embody God’s gratuitous goodness and love. If we dare to have confidence in a brighter future, then that compels us to witness hope to those who may not have a bright future. As in the case of many young people looking for new ways to give to the needy, it is up to us to verify this gratuitous goodness with hope to those who have only seen the herb wilt, and not seen God’s gratuitous favor.

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