Law is the theme for the Lent psalms (Year B)

Patterns in the Lent psalms for the third cycle

The Law is the recurring theme in the Lent psalms for Year B.  Year A puts  penitence in the foreground, and Year C celebrates mercy, but in Lent B we focus on the giving and receiving of the Law, and in case that seems too dry, its beauty and power.  This might seem a slightly odd idea, but there are lots of psalms with the Law as their theme, and Lent B doesn’t come close to using all of them.

Procession
people queueing up to go to church in Lent
Three Lectionary years, three Gospels
St John on Patmos, far away

We know that the Gospels follow a three-year rotation in the Lectionary.  Year A is Matthew, B is Mark, and C is Luke.  Mark is shorter than the others, so there is room for some of the Gospel of John to eke him out to a whole year’s length, though the other years do also borrow from John.  The Gospels were written at different times (John’s much later than the others), for different audiences (Matthew talking more for a Jewish audience, Luke for a Gentile), and stressing different aspects of the same story (Matthew Jesus’ teaching, Mark the events of his life, Luke famously the ‘Gospel of mercy’, about grace and forgiveness).   John comes from a different time and even place (Patmos), looking at the narrative of Jesus’ life from a different perspective.  So obviously all that is going to affect the story told across the six weeks of Lent.

Supporting and framing the Gospel

The First Reading is taken from the Old Testament to illuminate the Gospel from the angle of salvation history; the Responsorial Psalm is a response to it; then the Second Reading is usually from the Epistles, showing how the early Christians were grappling with some of the same problems that we have today in our own communities.   The Gospel is framed by these three separate pieces of text, like a painting on an easel.   The Psalm has been carefully chosen for its place out of the whole Psalter, and that is why I think it is worth investigating themes and cumulative effect.

First Sunday of Lent B

The First Readings for each of the Lent Years take us on a tour of salvation history following the line of the patriarchs.  It’s very clear in Year A ( Adam > Abram > Moses > David ),  and a bit more to-and-fro in Year C, because we focus on Moses, going forward and back in time.   In Year B, we start back in Genesis, this time with Noah.  But not the story of humanity’s wickedness and God’s plan to punish them by sending the Flood; this reading is about afterwards, about the setting up of a covenant, a legal bargain or binding contract, between God and the survivors, with commitments and obligations on both sides.  And we have the rainbow as a token of God’s promise that he will never again send a flood to destroy all living beings (note : not just the humans).

Psalm 24/25 for 1 Lent B
Noah's Ark
safe amid perils, in a very spaceship ark

The response to this reading is the Psalm 24/25, Lord, make me know your ways, […] teach me your paths, one of the alphabetical psalms, so quite long.  This is just an extract.  God is offering a covenant and we are keen to accept it and promise that we will follow it.  This psalm is familiar; it comes up regularly, most recently just a few weeks previously (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time B), though with a different Response.  We are extolling God’s ‘ways’, his rules, ideas, patterns, habits; this word can cover almost anything, but the request is for God to show us his ‘paths’ (three times in this short extract), his rules to follow.  It makes a good introductory, in this first week of Lent.  God’s ways are the right way to do anything, founded in his goodness and love for us; once we know what they are, obedience is all.  The Response is the next verse after the end of the stanzas we have here :  Your ways, Lord, are faithfulness and love for those who keep your covenant.  This is admirably on message, but quite long, so it’s important to give the congregation (if you are lucky enough to have one, and they may join in) enough time to grasp it before they have to sing it back.  I tried to keep it quite brisk so that it has a bit of momentum to help. 

Exotic Ark
another gorgeous ark

The second reading is when Paul talks about Noah.  The Gospel Acclamation is interesting, because it’s Jesus’ words in answer to the first temptation in the wilderness.  Here it almost counts as subliminal messaging,  because Mark’s account of the encounter with the devil in the desert is only three lines long and has none of the dialogue.  You can see why Matthew and Luke decided to amplify the story, but Mark is always in a tearing hurry to move on to the next event.

Second Sunday of Lent B
look at the tension in the scene

The First Reading is still in Genesis, but a different patriarch this time, Abraham.  It is the excruciating story of the nearly-sacrifice of Isaac.  With sons myself, I find it difficult not to get caught up in the problems of this story, but the point is surely that this is a test for Abraham on how seriously he takes God’s word, and as soon as he passes the test, God amplifies the covenant with more and more blessings and rewards.  Abraham’s obedience means that the covenant has been strong enough to carry the weight placed upon it, and it can be developed, carried forward and built upon.

Psalm 115/116 for 2 Lent B

This psalm in this position actually helps us to understand what is going on in the first reading.  The words in the stanzas are acutely pointed : I trusted, even when I said:/ ‘I am sorely afflicted.’ / O precious in the eyes of the Lord / is the death of his faithful […] My vows to the Lord I will fulfil… and you can imagine Abraham’s gritted teeth, if it was going through his head also.  But the mood is set by the Response, which is unusually taken from a different psalm.  In fact it is the last verse of the previous psalm (the Hebrew text does not put a break between them, so you could argue it’s not from a different psalm really, but this is one of the areas where the numbering is moot and very confusing) :  I will walk in the presence of the Lord / in the land of the living.  It is an expression of absolute confidence.  I have sung it at funerals and always found it extremely comforting to think of heaven as ‘the land of the living’. 

The middle stanza develops again the covenant idea, with rules and rights : Your servant am I […] you have loosened my bonds – and then the psalm goes on to make promises of thanksgiving : I make a sacrifice to show my gratitude, I call on the Lord’s name and make vows which I will fulfil in Jerusalem.  We have a working contract here.  Abraham trusted God even when it seemed mad to do so, and God did not let him down.

The second reading is the beautiful bit from Paul ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?‘ but again we find ourselves in the language of laws and courts. ‘Could anyone accuse those that God has chosen?  When God acquits, could anyone condemn? [..] at God’s right hand [Jesus] stands and pleads for us.’ (Romans 8.32f).  The Gospel (and Acclamation) are the Transfiguration, the glory of God made manifest, like the rainbow in the first reading.

Christ shining whiter than wool, brighter than light
Third Sunday of Lent B

The First Reading this week is from Exodus (so we’ve moved from Noah, to Abraham, and now to Moses), and it is where God lays out the Commandments.  This is earlier than the occasion where God writes them down on the tablets.  This reading here is only part of the instructions which God issues;  he continues for another two chapters.   These later commandments don’t make it into the ten on the tablets,  but contain among other things the touching detail about returning someone’s cloak at sunset if he has left it with you as security, as otherwise he will have no blanket. So here we have the great Law set out properly for the first time, in God’s voice, accompanied by peals of thunder, lightning, a smoking mountain, and the sound of trumpets : the law in majesty.

Psalm 18/19 for 3 Lent B
Law in 2 scrolls
Lord, how I love your Law

The answering psalm is a hymn of praise for the law itself, listing its perfections, extolling its beauty, celebrating it.  Several of the psalms are on this topic, especially the longest psalm of all (Psalm 118/119)and we may have to make an effort of imagination to understand how beloved the law was, especially in times of exile and persecution.  It’s like having a sheriff in the Wild West (see Blazing Saddles or Dodge City); it’s like Sir Thomas More’s explanation to Roper in A Man for All Seasons, even though there he’s deliberately drawing a distinction between man’s law and God’s Law.  Any law is your protection so long as you are among people who obey it.  Before Jesus brought his Good News, the only way to please God was to keep the laws that you had been given, because that was God’s own word.  The Response is not taken from the psalm itself, but from John’s Gospel, and it’s the second half of what Peter says when Jesus asks the apostles whether they will also go away, after a group of disciples have left, which always sounds very forlorn.  Peter answers, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life’ (Jn 6.68).  So the stanzas celebrate the Law of the Old Testament, and the Response links it to the message of Jesus.

Crucifixion scene on a living tree
The tree of life, still green

The second reading is St Paul explaining that this does not mean success in human or worldly terms.  Jesus was crucified; but God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, his weakness stronger than our strength.  It doesn’t contradict the message of the psalm, but it prepares us for future events.  The Gospel is Christ throwing the merchants and moneylenders out of the Temple, taken from John’s Gospel.  Here we see God’s law being broken in his own house,  and Jesus registers his protest, even though presumably the merchants were able to set up again once he had gone.

Fourth Sunday of Lent B

This is mid-Lent Sunday, where Mass starts with the words ‘Rejoice’ and the priest wears pink, but the First Reading (from Chronicles) changes the mood immediately, with its account of the sins of the priests and the people (including a reference to defiling the Temple, linking to the previous week) and the breaking of the covenant.  God has allowed Israel’s enemies to sack Jerusalem, destroy the Temple (another link to Christ’s words the previous week) and carry the people off as slaves, to suffer in Babylon.  But the final paragraph sends a message of hope, when Cyrus, king of Persia, proclaims to the people that God has ordered him to build a new Temple in Jerusalem, and he calls all the faithful to come to it, in words which ring down the ages: ‘Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him! Let him go up.’.

Psalm 136/137 for 4 Lent B
Initial letter Super flumina
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

But that is in the future, and the psalm (By the rivers of Babylon) is a response to the collapse of the covenant and the years of exile and desolation.  I’ve already written a blog on this psalm alone, because it is so beautiful and resonant, so here I will just say that there is no reference to law in the words at all.  The people are broken by what has happened to them, and this is shown by the fact that they cannot sing.  All their songs are the songs of the Lord, and they belong only to the land that the Lord had given them to live in and the city where God lived with them, a visible sign of the covenant which they did not keep.  This psalm is hard to sing.

The second reading returns us to hope, as Paul explains that God’s love means that we have all been saved by grace as God’s gift, despite our sins.  The Gospel continues and reinforces this, in Christ’s words to Nicodemus (one of the borrowings from John’s Gospel).  The emphasis is not on condemnation but on salvation, and of the whole world.  The legal words this week are in the Gospel (‘On these grounds is sentence pronounced’ Jn 3.19).

Fifth Sunday of Lent B

We are back with the law again even in the Entrance Acclamation (Give me justice, O God, and plead my cause..), and the First Reading continues the legal theme.  The prophet Jeremiah brings God’s message that he will make a new covenant with his people.  It’s a really interesting reading, with God repeating four times in a short reading, ‘It is the Lord who speaks’, so that we are in no doubt about how serious and authoritative this is. God reviews the history of the previous covenant, explains what went wrong and sets out his new plan for his people. ‘Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts’, and he will do this for every single individual, so no one will be left out or ignorant, and it ends with a promise that God will not only forgive iniquity but even deliberately forget it.  This reading is from Jeremiah, but the tone is so positive and encouraging that you might even call it joyful. 

Psalm 50/51  for 5 Lent B

All this encouragement is in the future tense, though.   The Responsorial Psalm follows the same curve as the First Reading, starting with what went wrong and expressing contrition, but then moving forward to renewal and a new start, and even daring to look forward to some joy in the last stanza, though I have to say the last couplet makes me smile : ‘that I may teach transgressors your ways...’, when God has just said (via Jeremiah) that ‘there will be no further need for neighbour to try to teach neighbour’.   Motes and beams, and human nature means we’re all still struggling with that one.  Paul explains that the suffering of Christ led to the salvation of everyone, and the Gospel (John again) is Jesus’ words about his approaching ordeal, though in unclear terms still.  His hearers include some Greeks who have come to see him, so his audience is widening even as his end approaches.

Crucifixion
terrible things can happen to good people

The next Sunday is Palm Sunday, with the reading of the Passion and Psalm 21/22.  It will come as less of a shock than it does in Year C, because the readings through Lent have prepared us for the Law to take its course, and the atmosphere has been more sombre.  We have celebrated the Law, but we have also seen what happens when the covenant is broken.  There will be a new covenant, but that means there has to be a sacrifice, as there was for the previous covenant with Abraham in Week 2;  and the victim supplied for it is the only one who is not at fault.   This beloved Son is not rescued at the last minute.  This is shocking. It is meant to be.

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Hannah and the first Magnificat : 1 Samuel 2

Hannah’s Magnificat

The Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd (Tuesday of Christmas week this year) is the Canticle from 1 Samuel, and although you will never have sung it before as a Sunday psalm, the words are oddly familiar. It is solidly reminiscent of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s chant of joy when she goes to see Elizabeth, which we also don’t use as often as we might, but it is much earlier in date. It is another chant of joy by a mother, but this one is voiced by Hannah, one of the great Mothers of Israel.

from left to right, Hannah, Penninah with children, and Elkanah
Women’s words?

I have to put in a disclaimer here, because of the culture in which the Bible was written and its great age.  It is most likely that the words of both Hannah and Mary herself have been mediated through a male writer, and we have no way of knowing what is authentically women’s words and what is artistic recreation, but as I have said before, there is so little even ostensibly by women in the Bible, that we have to grasp at what we can get. 

Women's voices singing
women singing, a rare picture

So I am taking both Hannah’s words and Mary’s in good faith as women’s words.  Traditionally, her mother taught Mary to read, but we don’t actually know whether she was literate, and it’s very unlikely that Hannah was.  So someone else must have written the words down; but they are given to us as women’s words, in the same way that Shakespeare’s heroines speak women’s words.

Familiar words, unfamiliar speaker

As I say, the most striking thing about Hannah’s words is how familiar they are, even to Christians who barely know Hannah’s name and story.  Part of the narrative is prescribed reading just once in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (Holy Family Year C).  It finishes before Hannah’s prayer/song, but tells only a small part of the story even so.  I know I’ve talked of Hannah before, but only briefly, as one of a group (Women’s voices in the Bible).  Here I’d like to pursue her further, as she has a great story, which is worth studying.

Who is Hannah?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah.  She has no child.  Her barrenness is her defining characteristic at this stage in the story.  Her co-wife is Penninah, who has several children, but even so Elkanah prefers Hannah. He goes up to Shiloh once a year, to make a sacrifice to God.  Elkanah hands out parts of the sacrifice to all his family, so Penninah and her children all get some of it, but Hannah gets only one portion, because she has no children.

Hannah sad and Penninah just possibly flaunting

Penninah taunts Hannah, and this happens year after year.   Hannah is reduced to tears and understandably does not want to take part in the meal;  Elkanah indicates one possible aspect of the problem when he says to her with quite stunning insensitivity, ‘Hannah, why do you weep?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

Childlessness in the early Old Testament

With all its limitations in approach (it’s always solely the wife’s fault or problem), the Bible in its early stories is surprisingly aware of the anguish that can be caused by involuntary childlessness.  From Eve’s desire for another son after the death of Abel, to the unsavoury jealous byplay between Hagar and Sarah, one fertile, one barren, and the similar  arguments between Leah and Rachel, which can only have been exacerbated by their being sisters, children are seen as not only God’s gift, a sign of favour which can be given or withheld, but the greatest gift, justifying almost anything. 

Sarah and Hagar
Sarah and Hagar : Sarah by now has a child, but the comparison is still fertile versus barren

Lot’s daughters make him drunk so that they can have children by him, because there is no other man available.   Tamar wants a child so much that she disguises herself as a prostitute and leads her father-in-law astray (she has twins).  These women will do anything to get a child.  There is a poignant moment in Genesis 35, where Rachel is delivering Benjamin :  ‘In her difficult delivery the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; you have another son here”. 

Rachel and Leah
Leah with child and Rachel without

Rachel dies, and is mourned with great grief by Jacob, but there is no suggestion that the child was not worth all her suffering in her own eyes; her only fear is not having a son.  Obviously, there is the practical viewpoint that a child will look after you when you are old and weak, but there is more to it, as a child-bearing woman in those days often didn’t make it to being old and weak.

Hannah prays for a child

So Hannah, like Sarah and Rachel, knows that only God has the power to give her the son she craves.  After everyone has had dinner, she slips away from the hall, and goes to the temple.  Eli the priest is sitting there by the door.  Hannah weeps and prays, and then makes God a promise : if he will give her a son,  she will give him back to God for the whole of his life, and his hair will never be cut (a symbol of this dedication).  Then there is a fascinating little exchange between Eli and Hannah.  She is praying under her breath; her lips can be seen to move but her voice cannot be heard.  Eli ‘therefore supposed that she was drunk’, and upbraids her harshly.  Hannah replies in a most dignified and impressive way.  ‘And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD’ (King James 2000 Bible. Some of the other translations are more modern and colloquial, but the dignity is constant).  She explains that she has been speaking from her grief and resentment.   Eli does not apologise (look at the situation and who is speaking to whom here), but to his credit, he does answer respectfully and kindly : ‘Go in peace, and may God grant what you ask’.  Interestingly, she doesn’t tell him what she is asking for, and he now behaves with tact.  She goes back to the hall, her sadness relieved.

Hannah praying with grief and resentment

Samuel is born
Hannah with Eli (and the Ark of the Covenant)(top), then Hannah with Samuel (and a midwife)

The family returns home, Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel.  The following year, she decides not to go on the annual pilgrimage because Samuel isn’t weaned yet, but she explains to her husband that when he is, she will bring him to Shiloh and present him to God in the temple, and leave him there.  Elkanah says, ‘Do as you think fit’.  We are told nothing about Hannah’s feelings, and it’s difficult to imagine them.  She has longed for this child, but he will not be hers to keep even as briefly as usual.   A ‘weaned child’, even in those days, is still quite little, easily able to fit on a lap (cf. Psalm 130/131:2). At this age, she gives Samuel up.

Hannah a real woman, not just a representer

In a way, it’s not Hannah’s feelings which are important here, because we aren’t thinking about her as an individual but as a representative of the heroic qualities she demonstrates.  It’s just like in fairy stories, where again, the longing for a child is frequently an engine of the plot (Snow White, Tom Thumb, The Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and so on).   None of these stories dwells on the yearning of the would-be parent(s).  The situation is stated and we move on into the story.  Hannah’s story takes us very quickly into the next stage.  She longs for this child so much as to beg God for him, and at the same time she promises to give him up.  Hannah is ready to give her son to God if she can only have a son to take away the reproach of her childlessness.  This does not make her a self-obsessed monster lacking maternal feeling, it is to show first how good God is to her when asked, and second how generous he is (after giving up Samuel, Hannah goes on to have five more children, three of them sons).  But what I find fascinating is the way the story is told and the tension between the events as they unroll and the human nature of the woman.  Some of it we can glean from Hannah’s words, some from her actions and the way they are recounted.

look how little he is
Le style, c’est la femme

Unusually, we are given all Hannah’s words in direct speech.  (I regret that we don’t have any answer to Elkanah’s first question, but it’s probably just as well.)  We hear first what she says to God, where she is simple, passionate and direct as she makes her vow. She is full of grief and resentment, and she says so.  This is a real relationship with God, person to person, which can cope with the stresses of reproach and challenge.  Then Eli questions her and she answers him, again with simplicity and directness.  Later she tells Elkanah what her plans are in relation to Samuel, and he agrees without any cavil. After Samuel is weaned, she takes him up to the temple, with various gifts.  There is no evidence that Elkanah takes any part in this trip; Hannah is an impressively independent woman in context.  She goes to Eli and reminds him, again with great simplicity and directness, of their previous meeting.  Then she says the crucial sentence twice. ‘Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life.  He is made over to the Lord.’ (1 Sam 1:28)’.  Then there is one more performative sentence (There she left him, for the Lord;  alternative translation in several other versions, There he worshipped the Lord) and then there is her Magnificat.

Hannah offering Samuel to the Lord
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

I find the simplicity and understatement of all this extremely moving.  We have learned that Hannah is a woman of dignity and self-respect, and she is doing this because she has promised, not because anyone has made her.  She is a strong woman with agency.  We know that she loves her son.  In another very touching detail later, we discover that each year when the family comes back for the annual sacrifice, she brings Samuel a new little tunic, having worked out how much bigger it needs to be this year.  There is so much in that tiny detail, and you can imagine the love that would have been woven into the cloth and sewn into the seams.

Two women, two Magnificats

Hannah’s prayer starts, like Mary’s, with a declaration of God’s might. She quotes the psalms (God is a rock, there is none like him), and moves swiftly to a celebration of his power to turn everything upside down.  Here the sequence is as in Mary’s Magnificat: we move from a statement of God’s power to his crushing of the powerful and raising the weak, the sated going hungry and the starving having their fill, the raising of the poor and humbling of the rich.   Mary’s words are more individual and powerful.  She is talking about what God has done for her, now, in this time;  Hannah’s words are more general (and more repetitive), as she describes what God does and has done repeatedly through history.  She also has one specific couplet which only makes sense if you know the context :’ the barren woman bears sevenfold,/ but the mother of many is desolate’.  It comes in as another example of God’s reversal of the current order, but it is chilling.  Hannah’s Magnificat is an Old Testament version, compared to the pure redemptive NT joy of Mary’s.  Jesus refers to the barren only once, and on the way to the Crucifixion, where he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, and it’s a passage to show how dreadful things will be : ‘The days are coming when they will say,’Blessed are the barren” (Luke 23:29).   This is a topsyturvey again, but a fearsome one.

Hannah’s Magnificat : form

We do not use all Hannah’s words in the Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd, because it is even longer than Mary’s Magnificat (and we omit parts of that, when we use it as a psalm), but we use all the parts which chime with Mary’s later version.  We have the first four lines on God’s greatness, then the six-line stanza about turning things upside down, and the later lines which continue the same theme.  It comes out as a psalm of four stanzas, a six-liner followed by a four-liner, twice.  The Response is tweaked to emphasize the similarity between the two Magnificats : Hannah’s Response as prescribed is ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my Saviour’, given as v 1 of the psalm but in fact that is simply ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and the reference to a Saviour is absent.  Mary’s first lines, on the other hand, are ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ‘(Luke 1:46f), so we are definitely pushing the parallels here.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour
Giving it a tune

Setting it to music was difficult, but I think mainly because I would have liked to be able to do it so much better.  Setting women’s words is a rare privilege for me, but there are various essential limitations when you are writing a tune for a Responsorial psalm, especially for a weekday.  It can’t be too difficult to grasp or to sing.  Technically, this one has unequal verses, which means the tune needs to have room to expand and contract.  It seemed to fall naturally into a Handelian sort of shape, but the problem with that is that Handel is so much better at setting joyful women’s voices than anyone else (except Bach), so it’s embarrassing.    There is some laughing in the tune (verse 1), and at one point the tune itself has to turn topsyturvey because the words need it to go up when the rest of the verses take it down (end of stanza 3).  And I had to change the Response, because I first thought it started on an unaccented syllable (‘My’), but that didn’t work with the shape of the verse ending, so I had to allow the ‘my’ a certain stress.  It felt right after that; Hannah is a strong woman, and her words have a characteristic directness.  So I wasn’t satisfied with it when it was done, but at least it now has a tune and can be sung.  And I had a chance to find out more about Hannah, and write about her, an early Christmas present I had not expected.  Because she was worth it, definitely.  Happy Christmas.

crib scene in illuminated capital
the joy of a baby….and music as well

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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