The Light of Your Countenance

In the translation provided in our official OCA Divine Liturgy book of the festal material for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross there exists a puzzle. All of the material there is quite appropriate to the feast—the psalm for the First Antiphon is Psalm 22, which begins with Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”, the refrain for the Second Antiphon is “O Son of God crucified in the flesh, save us who sing to You: Alleluia!”, and the Prokeimenon uses Psalm 99, with its reference to the cross as Christ’s divine foot-stool. Everything pretty much fits in with the festal theme of the day—everything, that is, except the verse of the Communion Hymn, from Psalm 4: “The light of Your countenance has shone on us, O Lord”. It is a wonderful thought—the blessing that comes from God’s presence rests upon us, like light from the warming sun. Who wouldn’t want the light of God’s face resting upon them? But what does it have to do with the cross, which is the theme of the day? That is the puzzle.

The puzzle is solved when we back away from the English translation of the Hebrew which our current book provides and use the Greek translation of the Septuagint instead, which was almost certainly the version used by whoever chose this psalm for the koinonikon for the day. In Greek Psalm 4:6 reads not “The light of Your countenance has shone upon us, O Lord”, but rather “The light of Your countenance has been signed upon us, O Lord”. A Christian reading the text could hardly fail to see in that verb the sign of the cross, for when we invoke the divine presence by making the sign of the cross upon ourselves in faith, God indeed responds by blessing us with His presence.

It is easy to make the sign of the cross casually, and even carelessly, especially if we sign ourselves many times during the Divine Liturgy. We can make it sloppily, with our fingers not even rising to our foreheads, or touching our shoulders. One priest I knew in seminary referred to such sloppiness by observing with disgust, “It was if the person doing it were swatting away flies.” But we are not swatting flies; we are invoking the awe-inspiring gift of the divine presence, which was made possible for us sinners through Christ’s death on the cross. We should therefore make the sign of the cross deliberately, reverently, mindful of the Master and His sacrifice. The light of God’s countenance can indeed rest upon us in blessing, illumining our darkness, and lighting up our way. But this gift was purchased for us with a fearful price, and the feast of the Elevation of the Cross reminds us of this. We should therefore sign God’s presence upon us in the same spirit with which we approach the Chalice—in the fear of God and with faith and love. For every time we bless ourselves with this Sign we stand in the shadow of the Lord’s cross, and in its eternal light.

10 comments:

  1. Good evening! I too, have heard this comment about flies being shewed away – in reference to making the sign of the Cross in a sloppy and rushed way. Interesting how one word not interpreted correctly, can change the whole meaning to our Scripture passage. I remember attending a Bible Study class several years ago, and each person at the table had a different version of the Bible! This made for very difficult unity and even myself had a Bible where the Psalms were broken down in different places having different Ps #’s, so this made it difficult to locate passages being quoted. This is not good……tks for your teaching! God bless you…..

  2. Dear Fr Lawrence, thank you for another fine scriptural meditation, in this case on some of the Psalmody used for the feast of the Cross.
    Since you mentioned the translation in “our official OCA Divine Liturgy book” (by which I imagine you’re referring to the 1967 Liturgy Book which was published by the Metropolia, the precursor of the OCA), I thought it worth mentioning that about a year ago that translation underwent a significant revision. The 1967 text is no longer in print (nor has it been for some time). The 2017 publication of St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press: Hieratikon, vol. 2: Liturgy Book for Priest and Deacon, is now the closest thing to an official Divine Liturgy book the OCA has.
    Since I’m one of its co-editors, I’ll leave it for others to discuss its merits and defects, but I will point out that on p. 317, the koinonikon for the Exaltation of the Cross now reads: “The light of thy countenance has been signed upon us, O Lord.”

    1. Dear Father Herman,
      I am pleased with the opportunity to tell you that our parish clergy use the St. Tikhon’s liturgy book, and it is indeed a blessing. God grant you many years for more such work!
      in Christ,
      Dn Nicholas

  3. Fr. Lawrence, the OSB has 4:7 “O Lord, the light of Your face was stamped upon us”. I think I recall your mentioning that there are variant translations of the Septuagint and you referenced the one you to which you gave most credence.

  4. P.S. The Psalter of the Seventy, Translated from the Greek Septuagint by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery uses the “ hath been signed on us” language. Given that, is Psalm 4 hugely prophetic or is there some other nuanced connotation of the word “signed” or possibly both? Thanks

    1. My guess is that the LXX is trying to reference Numbers 6:27, where it says that after a blessing God will “put” (Greek epithesousi) His Name on them, and “stamped” or “signed” (Greek esemeiothe) seemed to them a synonym. I don’t see how prophecy could enter into it.

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