Why is a Psalm About Creation Proclaimed on the Feast of the Apostles?

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By Msgr. Charles Pope • May 3, 2018

Thursday’s feast of Saints Philip and James, like that for almost all the apostles, contains passages from Psalm 19. This has always intrigued me because this psalm is not a reference to human preaching or witness at all, but rather a reference to the wordless witness of creation.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:2-3; 4-5).

While it is true that the voice of the apostles has gone out to all the earth, that is not what this psalm is really about. There is a kind of daring and glorious transposition of meaning. The witness through the words of the apostles is joined to the wordless witness of creation. Why? Well, are not the apostles—indeed all humans—part of creation? And if the lower parts of creation proclaim the glory of God, do not we as well?

Here, then, is a beautiful reminder of the two books of revelation: Scripture and Creation. It is also a reminder that we are part of that creation. Creation isrevelation, as St. Paul reminds us:

For God’s invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Romans 1:20).

Yes, the whole universe shouts, “Order! Consistency! Intelligibility!” Our bodies and all the delicately functioning systems on this planet echo back this refrain. While I do not ask scientists (as scientists) to affirm the biblical and Christian God, the existence of consistent order in the universe is obvious and serves as the basis of the whole scientific method.

If things were truly random, scientists could not propose theories, test results, or verify them; repeated experiments would not turn out similar results. The scientific method presupposes order and consistency within a verifiable range. Thus, while scientists need not draw conclusions as to how this order came about, it is wholly inappropriate for them to be dismissive of believers who conclude from this order that someone must have ordered it so.

Yes, what a glorious and magnificent thing creation is! To this believer, it loudly proclaims the existence of God, who made it.

The beautiful hymn “The Spacious Firmament on High,” which I have seldom heard in Catholic parishes, takes up the voice of creation—especially that part of creation we call the heavens or the sky. It is based on Psalm 19, and to me it is a minor masterpiece of English poetry. It was written by Joseph Addison in 1712.

The hymn was written before skeptical agnosticism and hostility to the very notion (let alone existence) of God had taken deep root in our culture. It also comes from a more sober time, when it was accepted as obvious that creation is ordered and therefore ordered by someone in a purposeful and intelligent manner. We believers call that “someone” God.

Consider the beautiful words of this song and its reasoned conclusion that creation shouts the existence of its Creator.

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display;
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth:
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice;
forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Why is a Psalm About Creation Proclaimed on the Feast of the Apostles?