03 July 2022

Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
3 July 2022 (Psalm 130, ‘De Profundis’)

‘De Profundis’ (1943), the haunting Holocaust tour de force by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), draws on Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Third Sunday after Trinity. In the Calendar of the Church, 3 July also celebrates Saint Thomas the Apostle.

Later this morning I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 130:

Psalm 130 is the eleventh in a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות‎ (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 129.

Psalm 130 is often known as De Profundis from its opening words in Latin in the Vulgate. The psalm has been set to music by composers such as Handel, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Purcell, Schoenberg, Bach (as part of the Cantata BWV 131), Franz Lizst, John Rutter and Arvo Pärt, and it has inspired a famous love letter from prison by Oscar Wilde, a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle, and poems by Federico García Lorca, Alfred Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Baudelaire, Christina Rossetti, CS Lewis, Georg Trakl, Dorothy Parker and José Cardoso Pires.

This is one of the Penitential psalms, recited during the Ten Days of Repentance. It is a prayer for deliverance from personal trouble, but it ends with a message to all people.

The psalm opens with a call to God in deep sorrow, from ‘out of the depths’ or ‘out of the deep,’ a graphic phrase signalling closeness to despair or death, used only in one other psalm, Psalm 69. These depths are the chaotic waters, symbolising separation from God, as in Jonah’s prayer from the stomach of the great fish (see Jonah 2: 2). May God be attentive to my pleas.

God forgives, so he shall be revered. The psalmist makes the powerful and paradoxical point that God is to be held in awe not because he punishes but because he forgives. If God were to record all our misdeeds, how could anyone face him? He is merciful by nature, so I eagerly await his help, his word. I wait for him as watchmen guarding a town from enemy attack.

Perhaps the psalmist has now received a message for the people:

O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;
With him is plenteous redemption
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins

Psalm 130 was long associated with funerals and the prayers for the faithful departed. In deep sorrow, the psalmist cries to God (verses 1-2), asking for mercy (verses 3-4). The psalmist’s trust (verses 5-6) becomes a model for the people (7-8).

The depths from which he cries in verse 1 is Sheol, the place of the dead, or a metaphor for total misery; the depths of the sea are an image of the realm of death. In verse 3, the use of the phrase ‘our sins’ is a shift from the singular/personal to the plural/communal, which occurs again in the final two verses. In verse 4, the experience of God’s mercy leads to a greater sense of God.

De Profundis (1943) is the title of a deeply moving illustration by the Jewish and Polish-American artist Arthur Szyk, and it is his haunting Holocaust tour de force.

It was created spontaneously in the midst of war, as reports surfaced of the atrocities of the Holocaust but while an Allied victory was still uncertain. It was distributed widely in the US in an effort to combat anti-Semitism in the US.

Like so many other Jewish artists, Szyk drew on the Bible and Christian iconography to create his Holocaust imagery. In 1943, he made use of several different allusions to Biblical passages and the figure of Jesus for De Profundis, a work that dramatised the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and raised the issue of the painful legacy of Christian antisemitism.

In this work, Szyk draws on Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.’ With its gripping picture of dead and dying Jews, this is a cry for divine, or perhaps allied, intervention to end their tragic suffering during World War II.

In the Genesis story, God asks the murderous son of Adam ‘Cain, where is Abel thy brother?’ (Genesis 4: 9). From late antiquity or even earlier, through the Middle Ages and after, Christian writers and artists frequently compared Cain to the Jews, as a people rejected and cursed by God, and they compared the killing of Abel to the crucifixion of Jesus.

However, in De Profundis, Szyk turns this analogy upside down, pointing the finger at the non-Jewish world. He included Jesus and the symbolic ‘Wandering Jew’ among the mass of the dead and dying in De Profundis. The artist seems to be reinterpreting how those who see this should view the two, investing them with new meaning.

Since the late 19th century, Jewish artists had depicted both Jesus and the ‘Wandering Jew’ in far different ways than had Christian iconographers or rabbinic authorities. Painters such as Maurycy Gottlieb and Marc Chagall reclaimed Jesus for Jews, seeing him not as the Messiah but as a representative of his people who maintained Mosaic traditions.

Szyk’s Jesus in De Profundis, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, is in this tradition. Yet Szyk also wanted the viewer to see that Jesus was a Jew and the Nazis would have murdered him just like the two Jews he holds. He wears the crown of thorns and bears the marks of the cross on his hands, the traditional symbols of his torture and death.

In De Profundis, Szyk produced an image designed to sear the eyes and scour the soul. The personal passion and professional purpose driving De Profundis are extraordinary. It is a damning statement, yet it is endowed with grace and beauty worthy of the dead.

Szyk died in New Canaan, Connecticut, on 13 September 1951. In the decades after his death, he received little attention from museums and galleries, and his life and work were largely overlooked, apart from a small number of collectors, curators and scholars in the field of Judaica. Yet, generations of Jewish families at Passover were reading from his popular illuminated edition of The Haggadah.

Recently, Szyk’s De Profundis (1943) was paired with Marc Chagall’s pre-war lament, White Crucifixion (1938), to spark a discussion within Christian scholarly circles about Holocaust responsibility.

‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord’ (Psalm 130, ‘De Profundis’) … in the depths of a cave on the Greek island of Paxos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Psalm 130 (NRSVA):

A Song of Ascents.

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week is ‘Tackling Poverty’ and is introduced today by Niall Cooper, Director at Church Action on Poverty. He writes:

‘All of us can help end poverty in this country. As Christians we are invited to celebrate a vision of life in all its fullness.

‘And we can end poverty. Even in these daunting economic times, we have the wealth, expertise and resources to refashion our society so that everyone can live with dignity, agency and power.

‘2022 marks 40 years since Church Action on Poverty was founded, but rather than dwelling on past achievements, we are using the anniversary to look ahead.

‘For millions of fellow citizens, things are likely to get significantly harder over the coming months as they face the biggest drop in living standards for a generation. In these difficult times, where do we find our hope?

‘That is why, over the coming years we will be working with people and communities struggling against poverty across the UK to build dignity, agency and power together. Our goal is to expand the Your Local Pantry network to over 200 member-run Local Pantries, enabling over 30,000 members to access good quality food, giving them dignity, choice and hope.’

Sunday 3 July 2022 (Trinity III, Saint Thomas Apostle):

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Creator God,
Grant to us, like Thomas, who have not seen,
That we may also believe
And confess Christ as our Lord and our God.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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