Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Psalm 68

In about 800 someone inscribed the opening words of Psalm 68 (a little crudely written, and slightly misspelt) on a gold cross or possibly on a strip of armour decoration. The same words also occur in Numbers 10: Arise, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and those who hate you be driven from your face. If the cross was taken into battle against a pagan army or even a rival Christian army, then this could almost have been a talisman.

It is one of three Psalms attached to my Canon’s stall in Lincoln Cathedral so I read it often. The poetry of the Psalm is striking. It goes on to wish that evil is dispersed in the way that smoke disappears and the way wax melts at the edge of the fire. A modern reader can interpret this either as being God’s gracious work (it goes on to see him as defender of orphans, widows and the poor in a way that Isaiah and the New Testament would like) or his vindictive work (anticipating dipping our feet in the blood of our enemies while our dogs lap it up in a way that seems to justify holy war).

But, either through defeat in such a battle or by other means, the strip of gold (alongside similar metal work removed from a number of swords and other crumbled crosses) came to be part of a single hoard (collection? booty?) buried in what is now Staffordshire, and discovered by a metal detector last summer. There is an irony in the Psalm itself promising that through God’s victory even those back at home who have never been part of the battle will be among those with booty such as a dove’s wing covered in gold.

I had to be in London yesterday for a meeting about the Inspiring Communities programme here which was held near the British Museum, and I saw the strip of gold and its inscription there (the Museum has temporary custody of hoard on behalf of the Treasury) and was incredibly moved by it. Just a handful of the items were on display, including part of an eagle’s wing covered in gold (which may be part of the decoration of a shield). It was worth the trip to London just to see it, although it doesn’t make the regular recitation of the Psalm any easier.

I haven't got an appropriate picture, but this is one of the lectern in the Lady Chapel at St Michael's (previously in Bishop Edward King Church) which I took last week.

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