One of the main characteristics, particularly of Matins and Vespers during the church year, is the reading of the Psalms--the Psalter. Unfortunately, this practice is mostly omitted from our parish practices, very often under the guise of "it takes too long".
Well, it is true, the reading of the Psalms takes time, and especially if we follow the appointed Kathismata (the enumeration of which Psalms to read, and when, in the Orthodox services, named "Kathismata" because all those except the one reading them in the church are welcome "to sit"--really!).
Normally, the Psalter--the Book of Psalms, the hymn-book of the Church--is read once each week, divided morning and evening into these groupings called Kathismata (singular=kathisma). During the Great Fast, this reading is intensified, and the Psalter is appointed to be read twice per week. Surely this says something about the importance of the Psalms in our lives, and we would do well to take or make the time to read them.
But what I want to share with you today is not so much a lecture on the Psalms or a finger-pointing about our neglectful liturgical practices. Instead, I wish to point out the first Psalm appointed to be read in the Kathismata for the first day of Great Lent.
Now, to begin, I should mentiont that this is no surprise. It is the same Psalm appointed to begin the readings of the Psalms on every Monday of the whole year--it is not chosen simply for today, Clean Monday. Here is Psalm 24:
The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas,and established it upon the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false, and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle! Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!
In the first verse, we hear the last words of our funeral--the one's offered by the priest as he tosses a large shovel-full of dirt onto the coffin in the ground--fffummmmp. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; the world and all those who dwell therein.
The saints encourage us at every move to remember our death. How appropriate for the first words of the Psalm on the first day of our exile from Paradise.
But death and resurrection, the Cross and the Empty Tomb are never separated for us, "Before thy cross, we bow down in worship, O Master!, and thy holy resurrection we glorify!"
The final verses of the Psalm are also last words. They are the last words said in darkness at the Paschal Vigil. Having left the darkened church with the light of Christ disbursed by candles, and having processed around the church singing "Thy resurrection O Christ our Savior, the Angels in heaven sing...", we finally read the Resurrection Gospel at the entrance to the church, the massive doors closed. Having proclaimed that Christ is Risen!, the priest pounds on the doors, "Who is the King of Glory? The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory!" And having this exchange three times, the doors are thrown open, the brightness and lightness of the Paschal feast flows out of and into the church, and the morning service begins...
So, on this first day of Great Lent, let us have before us our own tomb, the reality of our own death, but despairing not, let us remember Him who is the King of Glory!