A thousand days elsewhere: reading Psalm 84 on Ash Wednesday 2021

Today, Ash Wednesday, millions of seasons enter Lent, a penitential season preparatory to the celebration some weeks hence of the Pascha, the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

Many Christians who follow a monthly cycle of morning and evening readings from the Psalms read Psalm 84 last night. It is a suitable preface to this season. 

PSALM 84 
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts! 
My soul longs, yes, faints 
for the courts of the LORD; 
my heart and flesh sing for joy 
to the living God. 
Even the sparrow finds a home, 
and the swallow a nest for herself, 
where she may lay her young, 
at your altars, O LORD of hosts, 
my King and my God. 
Blessed are those who dwell in your house, 
ever singing your praise! Selah 
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, 
in whose heart are the highways to Zion. 
As they go through the Valley of Baca 
they make it a place of springs; 
the early rain also covers it with pools. 
They go from strength to strength; 
each one appears before God in Zion. 
O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; 
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah 
Behold our shield, O God; 
look on the face of your anointed! 
For a day in your courts is better 
than a thousand elsewhere. 
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God 
than dwell in the tents of wickedness. 
For the LORD God is a sun and shield; 
the LORD bestows favor and honor. 
No good thing does he withhold 
from those who walk uprightly. 
O LORD of hosts, 
blessed is the one who trusts in you! 

(ESV) 

What does the pilgrim journeying through Lent seek? This psalm does not mention things that other psalms often mention: protection from enemies, healing from sickness, and general prosperity. This psalm is all about presence, isn’t it? Primarily and directly, the highest and holiest presence: The Presence, the presence of the living god whose name was given to Moses from the burning bush. That is all, and that is enough. The place where that Presence dwells is lovely beyond words. That Presence—remembered, hoped for, or experienced here and how—brings joy and inspires singing.

But other presences flock around The Presence in this psalm. The dwellers in the house of the Lord are plural—many—and each is a surrogate or complementary or reflective presence of The Presence. They are given to each other as traveling companions on the highways to Zion, as mutual guides on the way to The Presence, as mutual consolators in the absence of The Presence, and, when the destination is reached, as concelebrants in the very courts of the Lord, sharers in the joy. 

There are times for withdrawal from the presences into The Presence; there are times for a salutary solitude. But the extended mutual absence we have experienced during corona-time is unnatural to us because we were made for Being Together. With regard to the physical presence of our fellow pilgrims, we have been living the Thousand Days Elsewhere. During our long absence, how we long for return to the presence of our friends, extended family members, co-laborers, and neighbors! 

But even now The Presence is available. Now, during our extended Lent, our Thousand Days Elsewhere, is a time for inviting, seeking, longing, fainting for the Presence, for the sun and shield. And it is a time for walking uprightly, for trusting, and for pondering whether and how we are walking uprightly and keeping faith. Even while physically absent one from another, we can help and accompany each other in the inviting, seeking, and pondering. 

Lent is upon us. As you (we) walk through the Valley of Baca, may it become for you (us) a place of springs. 

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