The Psalms and the book of Revelation are two of the most interesting books in the Bible; just ask Dr. Michael Barber, accomplished Biblical scholar and founding Chair of the Graduate School of Biblical Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego. He is also a professor of theology and scripture who specializes in the Psalms and the book of Revelation; he’s written books on both topics which have become staples of Biblical school programs throughout the nation.
The Denver Catholic Biblical and Catechetical Schools are honoring Dr. Barber at this year’s Servant of the Word Gala on Feb. 5-6. He’ll be imparting his vast Biblical wisdom during a workshop at Christ the King Parish in Denver, and trust us: hearing him speak on the Psalms and the book of Revelation is worth the price of admission alone. We sat down with Dr. Barber ahead of his visit to Denver and talked shop.
Q: As a Biblical scholar, you specialize in the Psalms? What drew you to the Psalms in the first place? Why did you choose to study them so closely?
A: There’s really no book of the Bible that is read more frequently at Mass than the Psalms. Think about it: every time you go to Mass, there’s a responsorial Psalm. Yes, it is true; every now and then you get a responsorial Psalm that isn’t taken from the book of Psalms. However, the vast majority of the time, the responsorial Psalm is actually, shocker: a Psalm. Thomas Aquinas actually said that in some ways the Psalms contain the entirety of Catholic theology. I’m paraphrasing there, but he definitely saw the Psalms as a uniquely important book. The New Testament quotes the Psalms more than any other book, with the exception of Isaiah. And of course, the Psalms make up the prayer of the Church, they make up the Divine Liturgy. John Paul II said, “the Psalter is the book par excellence of the prayer of the people of God.”
Q: The Psalms can be a difficult book to dive into. What tips do you have for someone who wants to dive into the Book of Psalms but isn’t quite sure how to?
A: One reason I really like studying the Psalms is because in studying the Psalms we can see in a real, practical way what it means to implement the rules for Biblical interpretation given to us by the Second Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council talks about the need to recognize the historical context of the Bible, so when we pray the Psalms, we want to recognize that these Psalms were used in various circumstances in Ancient Israel. We want to apply a historical study to understand the historical context that the Psalms emerged out of. We want to read the Psalms in light of the whole rest of the Bible. In the Catholic perspective, we can see how the Psalms are, for example, fulfilled in the New Covenant, and that’s the way the Church reads the Psalms. We also want to pay attention to the living tradition of the Church. We can learn quite a bit from the early church fathers, learning how they applied the Psalms to the life of the Christian. We can pray the Psalms in that spiritual sense and that’s also very fruitful. Finally, we want to pay attention to the analogy of faith and recognize how what we have in the Psalms coheres with all the truths that God has revealed to us. When we pray the Psalms and we’re offering God thanksgiving for his work of redemption, we can understand how his work of redemption in the psalter is also applicable to his work of redemption in the sacraments and in the other ways the Church teaches that Christ saves us.
Q: The Monastic tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours is increasing in popularity. Do you teach Liturgy of the Hours as part of your curriculum?
A: Absolutely. In fact, I’ll be talking about it a bit when I come out to Denver. The Liturgy of the Hours is a way of extending the liturgy of the Mass; in other words, how to keep the graces going (laughs). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says we do that especially through the Liturgy of the Hours, which are primarily composed of Psalms. What we want to see as Catholics is how the Psalms can be read ultimately as prayers of Jesus. When we start looking back at the Psalms we see how they were used at, for example, the feast of Passover. We know Jesus would have prayed Psalm 116 the night before he died because that was a prayer you prayed at Passover. Even today, in the Mass, when we celebrate Holy Thursday, we read Psalm 116, the very Psalm Jesus would have said at the Last Supper. It’s amazing to understand the historical backdrop and then realize that Christ himself as an ancient Jew would have prayed these prayers in various contexts, and once we understand that, we can better relate to the Psalms and pray them ourselves because now we’re seeing them as the prayers of Christ.
Q: Another of your specialties is the Book of Revelation and the end times. As I’m sure you’re aware, the state of our world today is leading to speculation that we’re nearing the end. What are your thoughts on this?
A: First, I’d like to remind everybody of what Jesus says: no one knows the day or the hour (laughs). We always want to stay clear of sensationalistic readings of the book of Revelation because there has never been a time in Church history when there weren’t people saying, “Oh, this is it.” But, there’s a reason people have always thought they’re living in the time of the book of Revelation, and that is because in the book of Revelation, we hear over and over that Christ is coming soon. So how do we understand that? I would suggest that rather than reading the book of Revelation as a commentary on the local or national news, we should pay attention to what Jesus says in Revelation 3. He explains, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). Jesus links his coming with a meal because Jesus is coming to us in every liturgical celebration of the Eucharist. It’s always true that Christ is coming soon because although yes, he’s coming on the last day, every time we celebrate the Eucharist, Christ is coming. It’s not a coincidence that in the book of Revelation, Jesus’ coming at the end of time is described with imagery taken from the liturgy of Ancient Israel. You have incense, priests and altars, and the idea is that Christ’s coming is associated with the Eucharist, and ultimately, I would say that meal is the Eucharist.