Apart from their grouping under a shared, descriptive superscription, “Song of Ascents,” the psalms numbered 120-134 seem a motley crew at first glance, unconnected, even fractious: some are individual laments, others collective thanksgivings; some laud the joys of domesticity while others the glories of the assembly at worship; communal doxologies contrast with a single penitent’s cry for divine mercy; personal pleas for deliverance from enemies are juxtaposed with hymns of gratitude for national protection.
Yet the designation “Song of Ascents” indicates their commonality and interrelationship, for all are psalms of pilgrimage – toward and into God. And as such they are hymns for an upward journey experienced on two levels simultaneously, the outer and visible, and the inner and unseen. Outer and visible, since pilgrims traveling on foot to Jerusalem, whether coming from north or south, east or west, must physically ascend through hill country. For though not itself one of earth’s great peaks, Mount Zion presents a sometimes arduous climb, whether approaching via Roman road or overland. But also inner and unseen, for pilgrimage entails a moment-by-moment commitment to rise to the new life which is God’s gift to us in Christ. The temple to which we make ascent is the Lord’s own crucified and risen body, of which we are members.
The “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” of which Paul speaks is made in humility in walking through life, day to day: feet treading the ground of reality, of paradox, upward ascent implying true groundedness. Humility stilling the soul (the word humility derives from humus, the soil, earth, and clay from which we come). Speaking of fears, trials, losses and hopes, dreams and lasting meaning. Making the ascent to God’s dwelling place in pilgrimage, we learn that it is very much within, trusting in humility as a child on its mother’s breast, nurtured, caressed, kissed, sung to, suckled.
Psalm 131 comes as an oasis on the way, a place of respite for the journey, a reminder of the Holy One who has preserved us in life to this very moment, and who promises life yet more abundant, even beyond our wildest imagination, when the pilgrimage ceases. This hymn of humility invites us to revel in remembrance of God’s love, which first brought us into being and which at this moment as always delights in our companionship.
“O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks,” we pray, first confessing our forgetfulness in acknowledging ourselves as entirely dependent on God alone, a vital truth which we often refuse through our illusion of self-sufficiency.
“I do not occupy myself with great matters, or with things that are too hard for me,” the Spirit prays from deep within. And though we have occupied and still do so occupy ourselves with reactive, unconsidered words or actions, the Source of all being invites us to rest from our striving and wait patiently upon Love.
“But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” Here in the midst of pilgrimage we come upon an image of God unique in the scriptures: God as the nursing, nurturing mother; God gently rocking and calming the weary and hungry child who seeks the security of unconditional love. We pray to return to the child-like dependence, even vulnerability, by which alone we enter the kingdom and the security of God’s embrace.
And so our journey in prayer comes full circle: “O Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.” We travel on in humility, joined to the community of God’s chosen, and knowing even now of our union with the One to whom we ascend. The stance of waiting is pregnant with expectation, the hopeful assurance of seeing things which are now hidden from our sight. It is to trust in God’s unfailing generosity, which ever provides not what we think we need, but what we actually need – in the right degree and at the right time. The unexpected is made visible to the contemplative heart, which watches and waits on God in all circumstances.