by David Romanik
In the past few months, one of my spiritual and parental practices has been to sing Compline to my youngest daughter as I put her to bed. Compline is, at once, a beautifully intimate and wonderfully grand service, one that captures so much that is powerful about our faith. Found beginning on page 127 of the Book of Common Prayer, the service is adapted from the monastic offices appointed for the close of the day, and it includes a set number of Psalms and brief readings that can be selected at the discretion of the Officiant. All of the Psalms are appropriate for the time of day, but I have found that I have been returning to Psalm 4 repeatedly over the past few months. I have found the last three verses to be particularly resonant:
Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD.
You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase.
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; *
for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety.
I suspect the Psalmist’s exclamation at the beginning of the sixth verse summarizes where many of us have been in recent months. With an ongoing pandemic, protests over racial injustice, and a rancorous election season, I imagine that many of us have had moments in which we articulated a hope to see better times. What is interesting is that the Psalmist offers two seemingly distinct solutions to this condition. On one hand, he cries out, “Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O LORD”. Based on this verse, it would seem that the only way we can be saved is if God intervenes on our behalf at some point in the future. At the same time, the Psalmist avers, “I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep”. In this verse, the Psalmist seems to be describing the present, rather than looking toward some future redemption. The implication is that we can find our peace when we recognize that it is God who makes us dwell in safety.
Over the past year, I have thought more about what it means for a place to be “safe” than I have at any other point in my life. It occurs to me that “feeling safe” is often a shorthand for “not having to worry about what might happen”. We generally think of a place as “safe”, in other words, when we don’t have to think about whether it is safe or not. Of course, that definition simply does not apply anywhere these days. Indeed, the places we generally go to feel safe (i.e., places where we can be among those we love) increase our risk of exposure to a potentially deadly virus. However we choose to respond to this risk, there is no place we can go without acknowledging it. This was the reality for Mary and Joseph as they sought a place to bring the Christ child into the world all those years ago. Despite the claims of artists and storybook authors, the stable in which our Lord was born cannot have been a particularly pleasant or safe place to be. There is no way that Mary and Joseph, impoverished subjects of a brutal empire, were free from worry. And yet, it is into this context that God becomes part of the human experience. It is in Christ that God chooses to make the humblest of circumstances a place of refuge. It is in Christ that God chooses to dwell among us, filling our uncertain world with joy and peace.
Ultimately, there are two kinds of safety: the fleeting safety that comes when we are able to ignore the sorrows and uncertainties that surround us; and the deep awareness that we can find peace because God has become part of the human experience. My prayer is that, even as we pray to see better times, we will trust that the God who has come to dwell among us will make us live in safety.