This week’s responsorial comes from Psalm 24, which apparently accompanied a ceremony of the entry of God (by way of the ark of the covenant) into the Temple, followed by the people. The people had to affirm their fidelity before being admitted into the sanctuary.
The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it.
The opening verses proclaim who the Lord is: the creator and maker of the whole earth.
Saint Paul appeals to these words to show that there are no unclean foods, contrary to the view of some Jewish Christians: “Eat anything sold in the market, without raising questions on grounds of conscience, for ‘the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s’” (1 Corinthians 10:25-26).
For he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
Near Eastern cosmology informs the imagery employed here. In various myths from that tradition, we find a primeval struggle between gods of chaos and deities who would establish order. Chief among the former were Yam (the Hebrew word for “sea”) and Nahar (Hebrew for “river”). In the myths, a vibrant young warrior-god conquers the chaotic waters, establishes dominion over the universe, and assigns the celestial bodies their places in the heavens.
The similarities between such a myth and this psalm are obvious. However, in the psalm, the focus is the earth, which the ancients believed floated like a saucer on the cosmic waters. This earth and all those who live on it belong to the LORD.
Such a claim would not be made if there were any doubt about the LORD’s sovereignty. This is the deity who exercises dominion, and this would only be the case if the LORD were the victorious warrior who conquered the chaotic cosmic force.
Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD? Or who may stand in his holy place?
These verses would have come from an entrance rite at the temple, which begins with an exchange of question and answer. As pilgrims approached the walls of the city, they put this question to the Levite priest at the gate.
One whose hands are sinless,
The priest replies by stating the conditions to be met.
According to the strict regulations in Israel’s cultic tradition, only those who conformed to the prescriptions of holiness, or cultic purity, were allowed to enter. These prescriptions generally governed external regulations. Hands that had not touched tainted objects were considered “sinless.”
whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain.
However, here external conformity is not enough. An appropriate inner disposition is required as well.
Note how the polarities of chaos-order have been transformed into those of unclean-clean and then unworthy-worthy.
He shall receive a blessing from the LORD, a reward from God his savior.
Such is the race that seeks him, that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.
God is identified as the God of Jacob and savior of the chosen people, clear allusions to both the ancestral and exodus traditions of Israel. These epithets are not only divine titles, they are also reminders of God’s special election and care of his people.
Fidelity to the prescriptions of the religious tradition was the primary way of faithfully living out one’s role as a covenant partner of God — the covenant associated either with the ancestors (Genesis 17:2) or with the exodus tradition (Exodus 19:5). The blessing and reward flowed from such fidelity, from the people’s desire to seek the face of God, to be united to God through commitment and devotion.
In today’s liturgy, the Church applies these descriptions of faithfulness to those who have reached the heavenly Jerusalem: all the saints in heaven.