The story in the Advent psalms and readings, Year B

The Advent readings
woman with finger over mouth
No singing in church

Some of us can hear our readings and our psalms live at Mass, but even if we can only have broadcast services or reading the text for ourselves, studying them is an encouraging thing to be doing, particularly during this strange no-music Advent which seems to be what most of us are condemned to. So I thought I’d go through them and see what’s particularly interesting about this year’s readings, now that we have started Year B, which is the year when we read our way through Mark’s Gospel.

First Reading  in Advent is always one of the prophets

Luckily the texts are rich in encouragement and beautiful images even without any musical help.  Each year of the Lectionary, A, B or C, has its own distinct set of readings.  Year A (which we just finished at the feast of Christ the King) starts with the early part of Isaiah, his vision of everyone streaming towards the lifted-up Temple with joy and excitement.   Year B (which began with the First Sunday of Advent) starts with a reading nearly at the end of the book of Isaiah, the longest prophetical book of the Bible, and indeed the longest book of all, sixteen chapters more even than Genesis.  Year C, when we reach it next Advent, goes through some of the minor prophets instead of Isaiah.

Isaiah, First Sundays of Advent A and B

The Book of Isaiah starts with an account of God’s anger at the faithlessness of Judah, its downfall along with the whole of Israel, and a call to repentance.  Then in the second chapter, the mood swings round completely to an almost breathless call to everyone to ‘come up’, the great call to Jerusalem, which is the Year A reading (and we also have it as a regular reading in the Morning Prayer cycle).  The Year B reading in contrast comes from the sixty-third and -fourth chapters, a long way away from the beginning of the book.  Modern scholarship reckons that Isaiah is written by at least three writers, possibly by even more, but I don’t need to discuss that now, so for convenience, I’m just calling the author(s) Isaiah tout court.  As you might expect, the excitement of the early chapters has dissipated, and the tone is more realistic and regretful : this is all taking much longer than had been hoped in the beginning.  Now instead of all of us rushing to the mountain of the Lord, Isaiah calls on God himself to come down.  He describes how men have sinned and behaved as though they had forgotten God, but Isaiah knows that God has not forgotten them.  He reminds God that he is the Father, the Redeemer, the Lord of this people, and then he moves to a humble and intimate register : we are the clay, you are the potter.  It throws us back to the beginning of Genesis, and the version of Creation where God makes Adam out of dust; but the prophet’s object here is not to remind us of our lowly beginnings, but to remind God that he has a responsibility to us because he made us.

Antony Gormley’s little pot people, each made of a handful of clay
First Sunday B : Save me in your love

This is poetry, not prose (Isaiah is written in both), but it’s the tone which is fascinating.  It’s descriptive, not penitential.  ‘We’ acknowledge our guilt and sins, but we aren’t apologising, but rather calling on God to come and save his people, just because he made us and is responsible for us.  It’s almost like a challenge.

Psalm 79/80 : poetic form
Yggdrasil tree
See where your Celtic roots can lead you

The psalm (79/80) picks up this theme.  It’s an interesting psalm, one of the ones with a very clear poetic structure even in translation.  The first stanza is a call to God to come and help, and then there is a refrain : God of hosts, bring us back;/let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.  The next stanza explains how bad the people’s current state is, and repeats the refrain. Then the psalm takes a different course, and recounts the story of a vine, brought out of Egypt and planted by God in another place (the allegory is very clear).  It grew and flourished – and then God broke down the wall which kept it safe from all dangers.  Now it is in dire straits, and God needs to turn back to his people and make things right again (and, almost as an afterthought, we shall never forsake you again), followed by the refrain one last time.

Psalm 79/80 : turning round, turning back

We don’t have the whole psalm on the First Sunday of Advent B.  We have only the first call, then the request for God to turn back again to protect the vine, and then the last stanza about the man who will rescue the vine, interpreted for us as the coming of the Messiah, and the promise that we will never forsake God again, which looks less like an afterthought when the psalm is shortened like this.  We keep the Response as it is set in the psalm (more or less, depending on your Lectionary), but all the versions have the idea of movement back towards, and because half the movement is for us to make and half the movement needs to come from God, there is a beautiful idea of both sides turning back to each other. 

Second Reading and Gospel : stay awake!

Then we have Paul, thanking God for the strength of the Spirit among the Corinthians.  The Gospel is Jesus encouraging everyone to stay awake because we do not know God’s timetable.  Year B is Mark’s Gospel, but this is not the beginning of it, because that is the Gospel for the second week.  This  piece is just a few verses where Jesus encourages everyone to wait actively for what God is planning.  It is to set the mood for the whole of Advent.  Mark’s Gospel is probably the earliest, and certainly the most immediate and direct, where Jesus speaks very clearly and forcibly, repeating points to reinforce them.  So we get ‘stay awake’ four times in only four verses of Gospel, it’s like a bell clanging.  And because we can’t have music in church, here’s a link to the stunning Bach Chorale Wachet auf, the essential music for this season.

Second Sunday of Advent B : comfort now

The Second Sunday of Advent B is again Isaiah, but we have gone backwards, as this is from the middle section of the book, actually Chapter 40, where the tone changes to one of comfort.  This is where Handel’s Messiah begins, and for anyone that has ever sung it, it’s impossible not to hear the music when you read the words.  This is immediate comfort, not just hints of possible future solace : ‘Tell Jerusalem that her time of service is ended’….’shout without fear : here is your God’.  So the coming is not just to be expected, it is actually here.  The Lord is coming, mighty and victorious, but he is coming like a shepherd, cuddling a lamb, and we don’t need to be afraid any longer.  How does the psalm respond to this?

Sheep
taking good care
Psalm 84/85, a psalm of two halves

It is Psalm 84/85, which is a psalm of two halves, though we are going to use only the second half.  The first half remembers God’s mercy and forgiveness in bygone days, and appeals for them again.  It ends with the couplet which gives us our Response : ‘Let us see, O Lord, your mercy /and give us your saving help’, but because it comes after cries for help and fear of God’s anger, it feels almost desperate.

Justice and peace have – already – embraced

The second half, the part actually prescribed for us to use, has a totally different atmosphere; the psalm in its entirety is like a before-and-after picture.  It starts with confidence and serenity, describing God speaking of peace in the present, not even the future, tense.  ‘Mercy and faithfulness have met’ even before God starts to speak.  Everything is all right now.  This is a beautiful psalm, with a picture of life almost like heaven or Paradise garden.  We use this psalm for Australia Day because it is so idyllic.

Justice and Peace will embrace when the music stops
Second reading : St Peter : How long is a ‘day’?

The second reading is from St Peter, clarifying the difference between God’s time and our time.  The Lord is not slow, but he is patient, and he is giving us all time to reform before his return.  This must have been so difficult for the first Christians, and Peter’s words are impressive in their simplicity and honesty.  The apostles thought for a very long time that Jesus was going to come back in their lifetimes, and each of them had to work out how to handle the fact that he didn’t.  Particularly during Advent, Peter’s explanation and encouragement to patience are worth reading and rereading.

John the Baptist bursts onto the stage : Gospel

Then the Gospel cuts to the chase : this time the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, quoting precisely the bit of Isaiah that we have just heard, setting the scene, and describing the arrival of John the Baptist.  Mark doesn’t give us the (highly exciting) birth narrative, which is in the Gospel of Luke.  He simply reminds us of the prophecy and then says …’and so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness..’ and we are on the way, because Mark has no birth narrative for Jesus either.  He wants to tell us just about Jesus’ life as an adult, what he did, who he met, what he said, and what happened, which is why it can feel almost breathless  (and count the number of times something happens ‘immediately’).

Third Sunday of Advent : Rejoice

We start the Readings for Gaudete (Pink) Sunday by going back to nearly the end of Isaiah again, this time celebrating a joyful prophecy of turning everything upside-down, with a hymn of exultation.  The Psalm is actually a Canticle at this point, because it’s the Magnificat, from Luke chapter 1 instead of the book of Psalms, and not even all of that.  We can’t sing it, so here’s another Bach link to the wonderful Netherlands Bach Society, singing the whole thing (if I can find good links, I’m going to put them in, because we’re all running short of music at the moment).  However, it picks up the exultation of the First Reading in what is probably an exact quote in the Hebrew, if only I could read it (My soul rejoices in my God/ My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour), and continues the topsyturvey motif, feeding the starving and sending the rich empty away.  Our Response is precisely the line which occurs in both texts.  It’s good to see the Magnificat here, because so far Mary has not figured at all in these Year B Advent readings, and indeed, if you didn’t know it was the Magnificat, there is nothing to tell you, as the Gospel for Third Sunday of Advent B is the beginning of John’s Gospel, just after the Logos passage, where he describes the arrival of John the Baptist (similar to Mark’s account last week, but fleshing it out a bit), and his account of himself to the Pharisees who challenge him and ask if he is the Messiah.

Fourth Sunday of Advent B : somewhere special for God to be 

So after three Advent Sundays, we are still poised waiting for something more than misty prophecies and gnomic denials.  But the Fourth Sunday is coming.  The first reading for the Fourth Sunday is from the book of Samuel, and is a little baffling to begin with.  We are back in the time of David.  He has just settled into his house, his enemies have all been dealt with by God, and David feels bad because the Ark of the Covenant is in a tent.  He asks Nathan the prophet whether he should not make better arrangements, and at first Nathan says yes.

Beautiful tents
some tents are spectacular, however
God’s promise to David

But God speaks to Nathan when he is asleep that night, to send a message to David.  God does not need David to build him a house.  He himself took David away from the sheep he lived among and has given him everything, from that day on.  The unspoken subtext is that if God wants a better house than David’s, he could create it in no time at all.   And then God makes astounding promises to David, about how he will plant the people of Israel in a place that God himself will choose and they will thrive; but as for David,  he will give him ‘fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth’, and when he dies, God undertakes to look after his children for ever.  It almost sounds like the promises in fairy stories until you realise that it’s the other way round and the fairy stories are in fact a pale imitation of what God is promising here.  David will have a House, like a Scottish clan or a European royal house, and God will always be in loco parentis to David’s descendants. 

Psalm 88/89 : God’s promises will be fulfilled

This is followed by Ps 88/89 (all the Advent B psalms are fairly close together), which is a celebration of God’s love and truth. The second and third stanzas are part of God’s promise from the first reading set to music, so that the prophecy is repeated, and the words of the Response express total confidence that God will keep his word.  The second reading is St Paul to the Romans, explaining that Jesus is the solution and revelation of the mystery and everything has happened according to God’s plan.  And finally we have the Gospel, taken from Luke (because Mark and John don’t do the birth narrative), and describing the Annunciation, explaining how Jesus is the fulfilment of precisely the prophecy we have had in the other readings, and tying everything together.  Mary gives her consent; the angel leaves her.  God has arranged the very special place for him to dwell in.  Mary is far more than just a container, but that was one of the ways in which her role was interpreted in the early days of the Church.  Her titles  in the Litanies include ‘Spiritual vessel’, ‘Vessel of honour’, ‘Tower of David’, ‘Ark of the Covenant’, and so on. 

Annunciation
note the relative positions : the angel is asking, not telling
‘A’ virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph

I feel it’s almost a shame that we have to wait for the Fourth Sunday to get to this point, because the next thing that happens (liturgically) is the Christmas Masses (Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, Day), but I would like to have a chance to spend more time thinking about Mary at this stage.  What must it have been like for her?  We don’t hear anything about her mother in the narrative, only about Elizabeth; was she the only person in whom Mary could confide?   Mary must have been living with someone, even if her mother or father were dead, because she is so young, but we hear nothing about anyone else on Mary’s side of the family.   We hear (in Matthew’s Gospel, interestingly, not in Luke, where Mary is traditionally supposed to have had some input)  about Joseph’s disquiet, and generous decision to ‘put [Mary] away quietly’, after discovering that she is pregnant, but we are told nothing at all about Mary’s feelings.  All we have is her two sentences to the angel, and the Magnificat, that chant of joy and confidence, subversive and yet so orthodox (see how it mirrors the prophecy in Isaiah, and also the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2).  But I think back to being pregnant, the joy, the wonder, the trepidation, the excitement, the longing, and my heart goes out to that unexpected and unexpecting central character of the whole narrative of Advent.  Christmas is about Jesus; but Advent is surely about Mary.  We wait with her.

a beautifully pregnant Mary
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Bookends : the first and the last psalms

The shape of the Book of Psalms

The Psalter or Book of Psalms in its present form has been around for a long time. We don’t know who wrote it, or when. We know it is the work of several hands, across many years, even many centuries. We know that it has been carefully and lovingly put together, as the original hymnbook for a faith older than our own.  We can draw all sorts of conclusions about why the contents of this hymnbook have been arranged in the way they have;  we can make our own, different, arrangement, according to our own need or desire.  Conclusions which we draw from the shape and ordering of the Psalter are based simply on the form in which we have it;  those who wrote the psalms were not the people who organised the collection or its ordering.

David singing
he might be thinking about the order

Bookend psalms

Having said that, though, it is fascinating to try to take an overview of the Book of Psalms, more than enough work for a lifetime. I have recently been thinking just about the bookends of the Psalter, because Psalm 1 has come up several times lately as a weekday psalm, and now so has Psalm 150.
Psalm 1 is reasonably familiar, because, among other things, it’s the psalm prescribed for St David’s Day. It is also the psalm for the Sixth Ordinary Sunday in Year C.  Psalm 150 in contrast was a new one for me to set (it is prescribed for the Wednesday of Week 33 of Year II, so November 18th this year).

Hymn books and extra pages

There are different ways to appreciate the arrangement of the bulk of the psalms: many authorities divide them up into five groups, but classifications can differ.  There is even dispute about how many psalms there are.  A few extra psalms were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; there are other psalm-like poems in various parts of the Old Testament; many Christians would include the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis as part of the same grouping, and even within the canonical Book of the Psalms there are repeats (Pss 14 and 53, as well as partial repeats elsewhere).  But this is what happens with hymn books and music folders.  I like to pick up old hymn books when I see them in charity shops, and they nearly always have extra pages stuffed between the cover and the book, or between the pages.  Some careful church musicians even attach extra pages or different versions of the same hymn;  sometimes things are written out by hand.  There are little notes to mark favourites, performance notes for dividing up the verses between men and women, or Dec and Can.  I like the fact that you can almost see this same behaviour going on in the choir loft since King David and even earlier.

adding your own favourites
The first and the last

But I think it is fair to look at Pss 1 and 150 and draw some conclusions, because the Book of Psalms in its current form has been the bedrock of church music and poetry for so long, and it was clearly deliberately done, and it has been accepted as valid by so many.

page of psalm in multiple languages
lovely multilingual Psalter
Psalm 1

The psalms in question are particularly attractive as bookend psalms because they contrast so neatly.  Psalm 1 is the introduction to the Psalms as a whole.  It starts positively, with a portrayal of the happy (or blessed) person (‘man’ everywhere I looked, except for the New Jerusalem, which offers ‘one’). S/he is happy or blessed because of conscious virtue and finding delight in the law of the Lord.  So we instantly have the relationship with (a slightly impersonal and distant) God and his teachings as the basis for human happiness.  There is a beautiful extended comparison to a mature tree, and then the second half of the psalm is a description of ‘the wicked’, to point the contrast.  They are like ‘winnowed chaff’, another nature simile, but probably not as instantly recognisable as the tree.  Winnowed chaff is the fluffy detritus left after the grain has been taken from the stalks it grows on; it’s good for nothing and disperses in the wind (or you can sweep it up and burn it, but you’d need a mask to keep it out of your lungs unless you did it outside, where the wind is your ally).  The last lines reiterate the contrast : the Lord guards the way of the just, but the way of the wicked leads to doom. 

Different possible Responses

An ominous ending, which we sadly lose the force of when we sing it as a Responsorial Psalm, because the Response tends to be upbeat.  Usually it’s some variant on the first line (Happy/Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord), but it’s been coming up recently as a weekday psalm with some unfortunate variations on the Response, including Those who are victorious I will feed from the tree of life  and the egregious Behave like God as his very dear children, which I ranted about before.  But they do all tend towards the positive, because you’re asking the congregation to sing it several times, and it’s the thought they will be left with at the end.  So, though it’s tempting, when I set it, I didn’t really feel that I could imbue the word ‘doom’ with too much grue.

Psalm 1 : me and God’s word

This first psalm, then,  is about an individual, and his relationship not so much with God as with God’s rules for a holy, healthy and happy life.  It’s short enough for us to sing the whole thing (occasionally one or two lines are trimmed, but as it stands it’s three stanzas of six lines each).  It’s black and white, and robust in its language, but doesn’t need to be played down, because the psalmist has nothing to do with desiring the fate of the wicked, he’s just describing natural consequences. The music for this one is simple and like a folk song, because I wrote it for St David’s Day, with even a quotation from The Ash Grove to emphasize its Welsh roots, with St David being the patron saint of Wales.

Psalm 150 : isn’t God amazing ?!

Psalm 150 is even shorter, again three stanzas, but this time only four lines each, with an Alleluia at the beginning and end.  But the atmosphere of this psalm is totally different.  It’s joyous, chaotic, it tumbles over itself, and it’s all about praising God.  The Law is not mentioned, the psalmist is not mentioned.  It’s all a command to praise God.  Ten of the twelve lines start with the word ‘Praise’ in the imperative.  God is not asked to come down or intervene in any way.  He is ‘in his holy place’, ‘in his mighty heavens’, and we are not praising him for rescuing us, as so often in the Psalms, we are praising him because of what he does (‘his powerful deeds’) and what he is (‘his surpassing greatness’).   But there is nothing impersonal or dry about this God.  The call to praise is coming from someone personally convinced of the wonder and glory of God, so convinced that he is calling on others to come and join in.

God creating heaven and earth
What god is great as our God?
The power of music to praise God

Then the psalmist lists all the instruments used in the Temple and piles them up.  One commentator says that the different instruments symbolise those who use them, the trumpet (or horn) for the High Priest, the lute and harp for the Levites (but I would say, the musicians), the timbrel and dance traditionally for the women, the strings and pipes for the men, and it’s unclear who is playing the two different sets of cymbals, but maybe one group could be foreigners or visitors.  The psalm ends with an invitation to ‘everything that lives and that breathes’ to join in.

Musicians and tumbler
Church musicians encouraging everyone to join in

It’s really exciting and fun, and I was surprised to find that I hadn’t set it before, which means that it’s not prescribed for any Sunday or major feast in the three year Lectionary. I can only guess that this is because of its position in the Book of Psalms, and the way it feels like a culmination of the whole sequence in a triumphant final shout of praise.  We sing Ps 147 repeatedly, but the last three psalms only rarely.  They are all litanies of praise, with Ps 150 the most exuberant, hence its position.

Setting the last of the psalms
Musician king with courtiers
Let’s all join in with David’s psalms

How do you set words like these? Ideally you have the instruments to play each their own part, but of course most of us don’t, so all I can do is attempt to suggest them (if, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have a little drum or cymbal, I’ve left rests where you can add them to the mix).  The tune needs to be simple rather than sophisticated, using the repetition that is so strong a feature of the words, and above all easy to pick up and join in confidently.  The cantor has to deal with a dancing rhythm, but the Response is straightforward and strong.  It’s also the first line of the Sanctus, so it’s familiar, and maybe it will help people get over trying to pause after the third ‘Holy’, even though the comma is no longer there (this can’t be only my parish, surely?).   We have lost the Alleluia at the beginning and the end, but as the First Reading reminds us, this Response is what the angels sing in God’s presence, so we can put our hearts into it and ‘swell the mighty flood’, as the old hymn says.  When we sing the psalms, we are not just singing with all the angels, either; we are singing with all the millions of people through history who have appreciated the wonderful resource that is the Book of Psalms.  It is a great privilege to be able to sing these words and put them to music for others to do so.  What a wonderful throng to have around you.

Church choir
everybody wideawake and joining in the singing

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