Archangels, Guardian Angels and their psalms

Autumn means angels

Season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, and autumn-tinted wings, as we have the feast of the great Archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, on September 29th, quickly followed by Guardian Angels on October 2nd.

Angel choir
angels clustered round an OHP
Psalms for the angels….

I’ve written before about angels, but this is more of a survey of what you might call ‘angelic psalms’. The Archangels have their psalm (Ps 137/138) fixed for their feast, but the celebration of the Guardian Angels is officially not so important (classed as a ‘Memorial’ rather than a ‘Feast’), so there’s a little more flexibility over the choice of psalm. The UK and Eire Lectionary seems to stick with Psalm 90/91, and so does the OZ Lectionary. I’m delighted to say that I was given the words from this last, just in time, so this year, there is a setting for our faithful Australians on the website. The CAN Lectionary has Psalm 90/91, but with two possible Responses to choose from. My researches among my US missals, however, indicates lots of possible psalms. I’ve set all the ones I have found suggested for this celebration, four so far, and I don’t know whether this list is complete (Pss 87/88, 90/91, 136/137, and 138/139).

….Angels in the Psalms
Michael making short work of a dragon

The Archangels’ psalm (137/138) is chosen because it specifically states : ‘In the presence of the angels I will bless you'(v.1), and it’s only when you go looking that you realise how rarely the angels appear in the Book of Psalms.  Indeed, if you look up that particular psalm, nearly every other translation has ‘before the gods’, but my commentary says rather sniffily that this is the least accurate translation, and ‘rulers’, ‘priests’ or ‘angels’ are all more likely.  So we have ‘angels’, who are good people to be in company with when singing praise, and the kings appear anyway in v.4, to swell the chorus.  It’s a great positive psalm, with almost swaggering words and a strong onward momentum, so I set it to a couple of rollicking tunes  (one for US and CAN, one for UK and OZ, but the verse words are different, so you need the right one) and I hope people are singing it with a swing.  Angels with attitude.  These are the Archangels, after all.

Gabriel and Raphael doing some bearing up
A more domestic version

With the Guardian Angels, the mood is gentler.  We have (at least) one each, so they feel to be more on our scale, though they can work together as a team, when sent on a mission.  Psalm 90/91 is the Guardian Angels psalm for most Lectionaries, a psalm which lists in detail all the dangers lying in the path and then discounts them all with sublime and total confidence.  In v.11 there is a direct reference to angels protecting, which gives us the psalm’s Response.  These angels are plural to make the bearing up effortless, and I always think of them as holding one hand each so as to whisk the vulnerable person up and over every obstacle, as you can with a small child.  In nineteenth-century pictures, Guardian Angels are often shown as female, which is unusual for angels, but it is because they are looking after small children, in a sort of nanny role.  I think this is one reason for their quite astonishing popularity among the unchurched, because they are another support you can invoke to keep your children safe, which is what everyone wants to do.

the classic version
Being charged and being in charge

The Response for this psalm is (different versions of) the eleventh verse of the psalm, as I said, but because of the different meanings of the expression ‘in charge’, this can lead to slight confusion.   I suspect this may be why the CAN version has two possible Responses : ‘The angels of the Lord will guard you in all your ways’ and ‘The Lord has put angels in charge of you, to guard you in all your ways’.  Both of these are rather long for a psalm Response anyway.  I remember being left ‘in charge’ of smaller brothers and sisters, and it meant either that they had to do what you said or that you would be in trouble when they naturally didn’t.  This is not that sort of ‘in charge’.  What it means is that God has given these angels the specific job of looking after you, he has charged them with it as their required task.  The shorter version just states the outcome : the angels will do their job.

The angel of the Lord
useful chap to have on your side

The angel of the Lord in the psalms on the other hand is a figure who could be terrifying if he were not on your side.’ The angel of the Lord is encamped/ around those who revere him, to rescue them’ (Ps 33/34): this is a mighty angel, even in the singular.  And certainly protective in his effect, but not on the intimate and personal scale of the Guardian Angels, so this is not one of the psalms suggested.  Similarly, God’s angel scatters enemies like chaff before the wind and pursues them into the dark in Ps 34/35: again, this is frightening, and not a psalm suggested for Guardian Angels.  It seems slightly perverse to list all the psalms we aren’t being offered, but it really is just because the references are brief or not illuminating in this context, e.g. ‘mere men ate the bread of angels’ (Ps 77/78.25, which also has ‘destroying angels ‘ in v.49) or ‘Praise him, all his angels’ (Ps 148/149), where the psalm is a litany of praise and the angels are only one item among many.   This idea is slightly developed in Ps 102/103.20ff, but that is what gives us the Gospel Acclamation or Alleluia verse for both Archangels and Guardian Angels, so that one is included.

Guardian Angel psalm options
but where is the other Guardian Angel?

So which psalms do we get to use?  As I said, my information is that all the anglophone Lectionaries except the US stick with Psalm 90/91, with its overwhelming emphasis on protection.  I needed a gentle, orderly tune, but with a bit of room for word-painting, so that I could make the plague that prowls in the darkness growl a bit and the angels coast over the dangers in the last verse.  There was a technical problem in the very long Response, as there always is with a long response (and the angels seem to bring them out every time).  It has to be predictable and comfortable enough not to frighten the congregation, and easy to remember; but not so boring that they won’t want to sing it the five times required. Unfortunately  you can’t simply piggyback on a tune that everyone knows, or there will be unhelpful connotations attached (I enjoy making little references, like to Waltzing Matilda in Mother Mary MacKillop’s Alleluia, but I wouldn’t use the tune as a psalm response). So you have to tread a middle way, and hope the angels will bear you (and the congregation) up; and of course, everybody has different words for their response, so the rhythms and tunes are all different.

More available for the US

The other psalms prescribed in the US Lectionary are Ps 87/88, Ps 136/137 and Ps 138/139.  The first two are slightly unexpected.  Ps 87/88 is the psalm of despair, which I have written about before, a cry in extremity.  That blog discusses how and why I set it, so I don’t need to say it all again.  It is a psalm that makes us grateful for the presence of angels.  The same is true of Ps 136/137, which again I have written about before.    It’s the By the rivers of Babylon psalm, and I have to say I’m glad it’s not the one set for the UK psalm this year particularly, as it would be very hard to sing about having your music taken away at the moment,  when we may not sing in any church.  But maybe that’s why we should pray it.  So that’s two US options both with very dark words.  The third is Ps 138/139, prescribed on the US Bishops’ website for this year.  This is the psalm we sing at John the Baptist’s birthday, about God knitting us in our mother’s womb and knowing us through and through. 

The wings of the dawn

But the choice of the stanzas is different.  After the same first verse about God knowing everything about the person singing, for the Guardian Angels

the annotated angel

we have the beautiful section starting from v.7, where the psalmist extols the ubiquity of God (‘Where can I go…where can I flee’) but he isn’t fleeing, he’s glorying in the thought that there is nowhere he can be that God is not. ‘If I take the wings of the dawn’ (and remember, this is written many ages before manned flight, this is like a modern David Bowie singing about flying in the furthest depths of outer space),  ‘even there […] your right hand would hold me fast’.  This is the answer to the despair in Ps 87/88 and the grief in Ps 136/137.  Wherever we can be, God is there already.

God can be everywhere

There is a saccharine slogan that was fashionable a while ago, ascribed to many sources (including the Talmud) and quoted by Kipling : God could not be everywhere, so he made mothers.  It can’t be out of the Talmud, because it’s patently wrong, and he can.  More reassuring for us is that he has agents he can send to help in any extremity.  It’s not as catchy, but a better slogan would be : God is everywhere, and he sends angels.  We can never be out of reach.  On the feast of the Guardian Angels, we can celebrate not just that God has emergency services he can call on at any time, but also that we all have one of them close to us all the time. Another comforting thought for the dark days as autumn draws in.

beautiful autumn angels

© 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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‘Bride’ as Church metaphor : Psalm 44 revisited

Psalm 44/45 in a different version

I had another chance to set Psalm 44/45 recently, as it came up as a weekday psalm. This is the weird exotic psalm that we sing for the Assumption every year, the one I have called ‘the Klimt psalm’.   I’ve written before about setting it to emphasize the strangeness and barbaric splendour suggested by the words.  The whole psalm is a wedding song, celebrating the bride and bridegroom.  It makes sense in the context of the Assumption and Our Lady’s role in salvation history.  This version is different, and baffling in its context.  The choice and arrangement of verses is different, and the Response is another verse altogether.   Instead of ‘On your right stands the queen in gold of Ophir’, the Response is ‘Listen, O daughter, see and bend your ear’ (US and OZ, probably Canada too, but I don’t have a daily Canada Missal, so I can’t be certain); ‘Listen, O daughter, give ear to my words’ (UK, slightly less odd).

gorgeous robes and a nuptial kiss (Klimt)
A classic Epithalamion

What we have here is a small chunk (basically the few verses about the bride) from a classic wedding poem, or Epithalamion, an ‘into the chamber’ poem of celebration.  It begins with praise for the beauty and valour of the bridegroom and prayers to God for continued support.  Then there’s a (brief) section about the beauty of the bride; then a final prayer for sons to be born from this union and eternal happiness and renown.  Absolutely classic, you can find similar things in most cultures and periods of history.  Why is it prescribed for this particular day (Wednesday, 23rd Week, Year II) in the Lectionary?

Why here? The other readings

We know that the Responsorial Psalm is usually a reflection on the first reading, and on a weekday, when we have only one reading before the Gospel, it often functions as a type of bridge between the two, especially when the first reading is from the Old Testament.  But that is not the case here.  The first reading is from St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, and it sounds like part of a set of very specific pastoral answers to questions that have arisen in that community. After various other pieces of advice, Paul says : ‘About remaining celibate, I have no directions from the Lord’, but he  goes on anyway to declare that men should stay as they are, either ‘tied’ to a wife or ‘free’, though it is not a sin for a young girl to get married.  He goes on to explain that ‘our time is growing short’, so the married should live as if unmarried, those grieving should live as though they are happy, and so on, because the world is passing away and everything is to be turned upside down.  I have described this at some length because that is the only way I can link it to the Gospel, which is a small part of the Beatitudes (Luke 6), where Jesus says (among other things), ‘Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh’, and explains that the kingdom of heaven will mean that those who suffer now will be full of joy.  This is the topsy-turvey message which Jesus so often voices (e.g. Matt 20.16 ‘the last shall be first’), and it occurs elsewhere too, notably in the Magnificat.

Not like the homelife of our own dear Queen

So I can see a link between the first reading and the Gospel, but I’m still baffled by the choice of Responsorial Psalm.  Paul has just told us that people should not be getting married at all, even if it’s not actually sinful.  But this psalm is an address to the bride, in an arranged dynastic marriage, adjuring her to forget her own people and her father’s house, because that will please her husband. ‘He is your lord, pay homage to him’ (UK, OZ and CAN words); more worryingly, especially with no reciprocity other than desire, ‘for he is your lord, and you must worship him ‘(US).  The princess is described, or rather her clothes are, ’embroidered with pearls set in gold’; ‘she is led to the king with her maiden companions’.  The bridal party enters the palace, and in a final address to the couple, they are promised sons to replace the fathers which she has already been told to forget, and these will be powerful princes, so the dynastic marriage will be a success.

Byzantine splendour, encrusted with jewels
The Church as the Bride of Christ…
Church as Bride of Christ a slightly odd image, but at least these are musical angels

I find it difficult to see how this sheds light on either Paul’s first reading, or indeed the Gospel.  Maybe I am missing some obvious theological or liturgical point here.  Traditionally, we are supposed to see in psalms like this one the idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and a mystical version of marriage, but I don’t actually think this works, any more than it does in Revelation.  This is because the marriages which we regard as successful today are very different.  I don’t actually have anything against the idea of an arranged marriage, so long as it is by full and free consent of both parties; but I believe that a marriage needs to be a partnership of equals.

The Lord juggling, a better image of the Trinity

It’s not possible to be in an equal partnership with God, unless you are God, which is why the Trinity is a revolving relationship, like a spinning ball.   The sort of unequal relationship portrayed by the psalmist is not my idea of marriage, so the image of our relation to God as a marriage (either as individuals or as Church) does not work for me.

…but what sort of bride?

The only aspect of the bride which is developed is her clothes; her assets are  beauty, obedience and wealth.  The problem is not just the vast time difference between when the Bible was written and the present day.  The Bible even in the beginning shows more equal relationships :  in Genesis 1, Eve is made simultaneously with Adam and they are halves of the same whole.  In Genesis 2, she is made subsequently but of his very substance, because he needs a companion, a helpmate; no other created being can give him fellowship or mutuality.  The wives of the patriarchs are usually beautiful (and often wealthy), but there is more to them than this; and Proverbs 31 reels off an intimidating list of things that the good wife takes in her stride.  There are some great  (not just beautiful) women in the Bible, and I’ve written about them before.  Unfortunately when marriage is being used as a metaphor for Christ and the Church, we seem to concentrate more on the Psalms version than the Proverbs version, and it is too limited and dated to be helpful.

Less uncomfortable representation, French (British Library)
Setting awkward words

So how to set it to music?  I’ve done the barbaric splendour, with the Assumption version, and anyway, it did not seem to fit with the Response, which is intimate and personal.  The Response itself (not the UK version so much) presented its own problems, because it will be sung several times through the psalm and there’s no way that people won’t notice how odd the words are.  It’s difficult when the words are something which you could never imagine saying (‘see and bend your ear’) , because it must not sound ridiculous or undignified.  I think it’s meant to be high style, but it carries a severe risk of bathos.  Another similar example is ‘Lord, you yourself are my portion’ in Ps 15/16.  If you haven’t been desensitised to this by knowing it from childhood, I can’t see how you could react except with bafflement. And ‘portion’ is such a limiting word, used only in measuring out: portion size, portion control.  It turns up in one of the new Star Wars films, as a way of doling out meagre payment (here’s a link to a wonderfully nerdy explanation of how it works).  I don’t like thinking of God as a ‘portion’.

Brides, princesses and fairy stories
Princesses always dance, and minuets have charm

But of course that is not the sense, just as we aren’t supposed to home in on the concept of a bent ear; our modern understanding of the way the words are used is different.  I decided that the only way to set the Response was with a gentle tune which kept the eye and voice moving, and because it’s addressed to a ‘daughter’, it moved easily into almost starting to tell a story, especially when the stanza words are all about princesses and ladies in waiting.  So it turned into a courtly minuet, a graceful and sedate dance in three-four time.

Dancing princesses is a storyline I feel very comfortable with, from the Twelve Dancing Princesses who wear out their shoes nightly, to Cinderella and the three dresses for the three balls, each more beautiful than the last, until she leaves her shoe behind on the last evening.  Classic fairytale token, like the item clutched by a foundling, to be exchanged later for a rightful inheritance or a restored family.  You can see this dancing princess theme also in the (newish) modern tradition of the bride and groom’s dance at the wedding reception.  I say ‘modern tradition’, but in many countries something similar goes back a long way, and in Georgia there is an amazing wedding dance which moves from acquaintance through courtship to marriage, with the bride and groom circling each other, his eyes locked on her, hers modestly cast down, but their bodies, even their hands,  never touching.

Dancing, like David, before the Lord

For me this version of this psalm does not work as an image for the Church, or for Mary (luckily the Assumption words are more barbaric splendour and less fairystory),  but I can see it as a stylised wedding dance, a courtly one with bowing and little pirouettes.  I put the bowing and the little turns into the music.  I hope it will make the babies in the congregation want to dance; I always regard that as the ultimate compliment.

Musicians and tumbler
Church musicians doing their best to set people dancing

© 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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