Palm or Passion Sunday and its psalm(s)

Two complete services for Palm/Passion Sunday?

Ideally, there would be two different masses on Palm or Passion Sunday, one for the Palm bit and one for the Passion bit. It was always called Palm Sunday when I was little, and certainly that was what you remembered from year to year, the handing out of strange yellow papery things (it was years before I actually realised they were meant to be leaves) and the (slightly embarrassing) mini-procession into the church, singing a hymn with joyful words but usually a dirge-like tune, and the people in church getting out of sync with those still outside, so that you had to do a quick change on crossing the threshold, like when you move from a room with a digital radio into one with an analogue playing the same programme.  Since then, I’ve lived in countries where people bring green branches from their gardens to have them blessed and then wave them in the procession.  This can be difficult in a long winter like this one, but probably gives more of the correct feel.  Blossom branches are uncanonical but very pretty.

Some of these branches are more like mushrooms…
Music to walk in with -Palm Sunday

For the procession, of course you can use Psalm 23/ 24, with its glorious appeal to the gates to grow higher so that the king of glory can come in and not bang his head.  This is a wonderful psalm which appears also during Advent, and especially at the Feast of the Presentation.  It is tremendously exciting to write a tune for, although it’s difficult not to be intimidated by the fact that Handel has already done it better than anyone else.  But most parishes don’t get to sing it, as the liturgy has added an unwieldy antiphon which slows it down, and it’s easier to sing in procession a hymn that the congregation already knows.  I’d be tempted to sing it straight through as a Responsorial Psalm if you want to process to it, because then the rhythm doesn’t keep being interrupted.  The 4 Advent A version or the Presentation one both have good short responses (the antiphon is three lines long).

Everybody loves a good procession
A sudden change of mood

However, most parishes use a hymn for the procession, for good reason, so that psalm may not be used at all (though it gets quoted in the Entrance Antiphon of the Simple Entrance).  But whatever music you have before Mass, once it gets under way, there is an instant change of mood, like a screech of brakes or possibly more accurately a grinding of the gears as the atmosphere changes completely.  This is entirely appropriate, as the crowd does indeed reverse its behaviour between the entrance into Jerusalem and the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but it happens shockingly fast on Sunday morning this week.

Abrupt change to Passion Sunday, and a new psalm

We have to have the Passion read out this Sunday because next Sunday is already Easter.  Many places don’t have Holy Week services, and many people can’t get to them if they do exist, so in order to follow the correct sequence for as many people as possible, the Church has to include the rest of the events of Holy Week in the same day as Christ’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem.  This is why it feels like two Sundays’-worth of readings, and the psalms to match.

Illuminated initial for Ps 22
Initial consonant for Ps 21/22, showing the dogs besetting the victim.
Problems with Psalm 21/22

The first reading is from Isaiah and immediately plunges us into the pain of the Suffering Servant.  The psalm now has to reflect and answer this reading, so we have Psalm 21/22, one of the upsetting psalms to sing.  The Response is the first line, but the verses start a few lines further in, and they are hard to read and even harder to sing.  As Christians, we read the words of the psalm as a faithful sequential narration of the Passion; we don’t even think of it as an earlier prediction fulfilled, although of course the early Christians of Jewish background would have done.

From that…to this
Mixed moods, mixed messages

But even in the short version we have in the Missal for this Sunday (four strophes out of sixteen in the whole psalm), the mood is not unrelieved.  Notice in the initial consonant in the picture above, that God is visibly there (the little hand just above the big D to the right).  Even as the words say,’My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, we can see that he has not forsaken us.  The first three strophes of the psalm (I’m not calling them ‘verses’, because of possible confusion with the verse-numbering) are appalling.  The third ends with another cry for help (similar to v1, the Response), and then moves forward, in the fourth strophe, to an affirmation of God’s goodness, which is very significantly in the future tense.  There are holes in the hands and feet of the Suffering Servant; he can count every bone, but he looks forward to a time when he will talk about God’s goodness to his friends and praise him in the assembly.  The awfulness is not the end.

The joys of modal (and the pathos too)

This makes it difficult to put it to music which won’t seem totally inappropriate either at the beginning or at the end, but thank God for modal tunes, which are more elastic than standard major or minor  (Barbara Allen, The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies, O waly, waly, What shall we do with the drunken sailor? etc.).  The abiding characteristic of a modal tune is its plaintive and (hopefully) haunting quality.   It is very good for pathos, but not without lightness (lots of folk songs, especially old ones, exploit this), and there is room for the gleams of sunshine after the storm.

One psalm, two tunes (Good Friday psalm)

When there are very different moods within the same psalm, it’s always difficult to work out what to do.  For Good Friday, the Response stays the same, but the mood of the different strophes is so different that I had to have two separate tunes (this is Psalm 30/31, four strophes US, five everyone else); but that works because the terrible verse(s) are in the middle of the psalm, so the congregation can cope with a bit of the unexpected, and then feel safely back on track as you come to the last Response.

Palm Sunday : not alternation but progression

Here in Psalm 21/22 on the other hand, I would have had to make the last verse different from all the others, and that would have undermined confidence just at the point where I need people to come in strongly.

Crucifixion with angels and saints
Serene but heart-breaking

Significantly, Jesus’ words from the cross (and our Response) are only the first line of this long psalm, and the commentators emphasize that he must have continued the psalm in his mind even if he could not utter any more of it.  It is a cry of anguish but not of despair.  Our last strophe this Sunday is at the beginning of the positive last third of the psalm,  so positive that we will be singing it on the fifth Sunday of Easter this year, probably without even remembering that the words come from this same psalm.  The selection of verses for the fifth Sunday of Easter is completely positive even though part of this same psalm,  with a serene confidence in the goodness of God and a call to go out and tell everyone, all the ends of the earth and all the families of nations.

There is even more encouragement in the verses which are not included in either Sunday version of the psalm : ‘For he (God) has never despised nor scorned the poverty of the poor.  From him he has not hidden his face, but he heard the poor man when he cried’ (v 25).  This is a hard psalm to sing, especially in the Palm Sunday version, but if you read the whole psalm, it is clear that the psalmist’s and Jesus’ feet are very firmly planted. ‘In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you set them free. […] In you they trusted and never in vain’ (vv 5-6).  It is a psalm for the darkness, but joy is coming in the morning.

Beautiful dawn

One of the best song lyrics ever

By the rivers of Babylon

The middle of Lent is approaching, exciting because it’s the Pink Sunday in the middle of so much purple, because it’s Mothering Sunday, because it’s the one that starts by encouraging us to rejoice;  and also it has Psalm 136/137 as its responsorial Psalm for this year, Year B.

This has to be one of the best song lyrics ever written.  It’s a good length (four verses);  it’s regular without being repetitive or boring;  it’s poignant, but not simply miserable;  and it’s beautiful.  It’s also elegant, witty and self-reflexive: it is a song written about the impossibility of writing a song. It talks about the impossibility of singing, while singing.

Initial S with illustration for Ps 137
By the rivers of Babylon, hanging harps and tragic captives
The two verses we leave out

There are two more verses, which are usually omitted in performance, as you might say.  The first one is a curse against those who attacked Jerusalem, to pull it down; the second amplifies the curse and warns Babylon that vengeance is coming, climaxing in a truly horrific image of the child of the guilty man being seized and dashed against the rock.  I’m not going to speculate about whether these verses are part of the original psalm, as I don’t have the linguistic tools or the expertise.  I would just say that this was written in a time very different and remote from our own, in a culture where cursing your enemies and seeking violent vengeance was accepted, expected and even virtuous.  Jesus showed a different way, for which we are deeply grateful.  But you can’t edit bits out of a historic text just because you don’t like them.  However, you can choose which bits to use in the liturgy, so it’s fair enough to stop after the four verses we have for Sunday.

Unusual shape for a psalm

The form is really unusual.  It has  five short lines to each verse, and the UK Response has such a strong ternary movement that it is written as three lines in the Missal (I think this is unique among the psalms).  The Response has an exclamation mark, which is again unusual, but intended to show strong feeling (which, as the words are a self-curse, is also arresting).  The line of the verses looks short, but in fact it rolls on like a great wave, with the parallelism  (‘our captors, for songs; our oppressors, for joy’) that is so strong a feature of the psalms here deepening the feeling and accumulating it until the wave breaks into the response.  It reminds me of the movement of the lines in ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ when you suddenly realise that each seven-line stanza is only one sentence (a wonderful piece of hymn translation).

It’s a perfect lyric because it is attractive in both shape and content, and you can see immediately why so many people have wanted to set it to music.  Presumably some are attracted more by the form than the matter, and vice versa, but the whole is irresistible to musicians.  From Palestrina to Don Maclean, from Victoria to Boney M, it calls out to be set to a good tune, and the tune we make never fulfils all our aspirations, so we have to keep trying.

Singing a sad song

Unlike many psalms, though, it is only rarely used in the liturgy (this is its one outing as a Sunday psalm, so only once every three years).  I think this is because it is painful to sing.  It is a lament.  Crucially, it is in the past tense, so we are looking back at past rather than undergoing present suffering, and I think this is because it would be unbearable if it were in the present tense.  As well as a lament, it is a prayer for survival.  We are reminded of the Jewish orchestra in Terezin concentration camp.  Singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land has been a part of the Jewish experience for centuries.  As it says in the Book of Tobit,’I give him thanks in the land of my captivity'(ch 13).  The paradox of making a song to renounce music is itself comforting.  If we were not able to look back at the experience from a better place, we would not be able to address it at all.

Setting the scene : water and trees

The words are immediately gripping, and we identify with them so simply that it’s easy to miss how clever they are.  ‘By the (rivers or waters) of Babylon/there we sat and wept, remembering Zion’, and we are immediately there in the story, remembering, or imagining, if we are lucky,  how it feels to be desolate.  The waters of Babylon remind the psalmist of the beloved and blessed river Jordan, but the setting is also somewhere which should be a place of pleasant repose: ‘near restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit’ (Psalm 22/23) and every locus amoenus has a water feature.  River banks are green and pleasant places.

Narcissus by a piscina
Water, trees, and greenery : must be a locus amoenus

Here are also trees, and it was only when I came to think about this that I realised that I think of them as weeping (of course) willows, because that’s what I associate with rivers.  These are poplars, because that’s what grows in the Holy Land, but apparently ones that look like willows, according to the Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible.  Job has willows by the stream (40, v.22) which are also translated as poplars.  It seems that foreign tree names are as tricky to translate as exact species of fish.  The US translation has aspens. When I was little, reading Anne of Green Gables in an English edition, one of the later volumes was called Anne of Windy Willows.  I felt cheated to discover it was Anne of Windy Poplars in the US and Canada, but I reckon this is another case of the same overlap.

Willows on the riverbank
Willows (or poplars, or aspens) by the water

The trees are where the harps are hung….and left behind.  This is a total renunciation of music, and goes with the awful self-curses which make up the Response.  Remember, this is in a culture where every joyful event, every victory, is marked by singing a new song.  Here though, my tongue should cleave (CAN cling) to my mouth, I should be unable ever to sing or even speak, and my right hand, the one I use to play, should wither and be of no further use.  I shall not need my harp, so I hang it on a tree (I don’t destroy it, because others might be able to use it) and I leave it behind.  Rivers mark borders as well as resting places.

Musical instruments hung on a tree
Hanging up all sorts of instruments
Not silence but silenced

The idea of silencing people is a terrifyingly powerful act.  That is why the protests where people sew up their mouths are especially horrific.  Even a taped mouth produces a visceral fear in the onlooker.  It seems even worse than gagging, because it obliterates the means of communication (remember that bit in The Matrix, where Neo’s mouth is removed).  Taking away someone’s voice is a sign of complete hostile power (the legend of Philomela, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the Church’s attitude to female voices singing or speaking until very lately).  This is why speech therapists are so important, and why what they do has so much impact.

What had happened before the psalm was written

The link between the First Reading and the chosen psalm this week is particularly clear.  The first reading tells the history of the destruction of the Temple and the whole of Jerusalem, with Nebuchadnezzar carrying the survivors off to Babylon and into captivity,  but ends on a note of hope as Cyrus, in a voice like a bugle, says that God has ordered the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem.  He continues,’Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him!  Let him go up.’  This would truly be a situation full of joy,  and therefore, naturally,  songs of joy. ‘I will come to the altar of God, the God of my joy.  My redeemer, I will thank you on the harp, O God, my God’ (Ps 42/43).

Jerusalem the other character in the story

Zion or Jerusalem is lovingly named in every verse, in the context of remembering, not forgetting, or singing.  The song itself does what it is talking about not being able to do, and the tenses move from a simple dreadful past (sat and wept, hung up our harps) to a past conditional (how could we sing) and then pivots towards the future: ‘if I forget…if I prize not Jerusalem’.  The psalmist moves from renunciation to a determination to keep the song going, and prays only for the physical capacity to do so, for the memory to stay green.  Like Henley’s Invictus, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, who specifically rejects ‘eternal silence’, this perfect lyric is a testimony to the unquenchable human spirit, so it never goes out of fashion.  From the ashes of desolation arises a strong determination never to give up, never to stop singing.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.

Lent Gospel Acclamations, a User’s Guide

Putting the Alleluia on hold (for a little while)…..

From this Wednesday, February 14th, you won’t hear the word Alleluia in church for the next six weeks or so. That is because it is the beginning of Lent (although there may also be a few people celebrating February 14th for other reasons), and during Lent all the Alleluias, like the Gloria, are removed from the liturgy.

A beautiful place to keep the Alleluias during Lent
…and giving the job to the Lent Gospel Acclamation

Instead we have the Lent Gospel Acclamation, which has the exact same role. It heralds the Gospel. We sing (or say, but singing’s better) it before the (relevant) Gospel verse, and repeat it afterwards; then, completely focussed and wideawake (because of the injection of new oxygen caused by singing), we listen to the Gospel.  In some parishes, they repeat the Acclamation again after the Gospel, which means the congregation is singing it at least three times.

Lots of options

There are different forms of words for the Lent Gospel Acclamation, and they also differ in each country-group, so we end up with lots of them.  I’m not sure why there is so much variation, as they all replace the simple word ‘Alleluia’, and no-one seems to feel a need to vary that from week to week, but I just work with what I’m given.

Hunting the Bonnacore (mythical beast)
Volmar and I attempting to subdue the Lent Gospel Acclamation

We’ve now been doing this for a few years, and I have to admit that my heart and that of Volmar the Vebmaster both sink when we realise it’s Lent Gospel Acclamation time again.  This is because they are tricksy little things and it’s hard to get a good grip on them.  Somehow they always manage to get in behind you and bite you on the bottom, however hard you try to keep them in order.  This year, for example, I was reasonably sanguine about them after putting a lot of work and organisation in over the last two years.  Ash Wednesday looked all right…..and then my nice neat system fell at the first hurdle as I had to write a third one for Canada for First Sunday of Lent Year B, because the Missal used a different one.

Sheep tightly jammed into sheepfold
How many different Acclamations?
Lots and lots of options

The problem arises because each country-group Missal can choose any of the optional Lent Gospel Acclamations to go with any set Gospel verse, which offers a dizzying number of possibilities.  Most parishes don’t actually want to have a new Acclamation every week as well as the new Gospel verse.  So what I have done is take a default setting for every week, choosing the one that is used most often in the Lectionary, so that you can actually sing the same Acclamation every week if you want to;  and where the Acclamation in the Missal is one of the alternatives, I’ve set that as well (so you can stick with the words exactly as in the Missal if you prefer).  For all the country-groups except  the Canadians, the default setting is the first standard Lent Gospel Acclamation, but for Canada it is the fifth on the list.

Nun reading at lectern
Hooray for women cantors even if they can’t read the Gospel
The problems of labelling

I started out by giving them letters instead of numbers, but that turned out too confusing.  We have numbered them according to the order in the Missal, but it’s still not foolproof as the Sundays of Lent are themselves numbered, and the Years are designated by different letters, so both obvious markers could cause confusion.  I thought about Roman numerals, lower-case letters and different alphabets, but they all have drawbacks.  Various useful typographical marks aren’t accepted as elements in filenames by the computer.  So the form we settled on is that the first number in any name is the marker for the top-and-tail, and later numbers refer to the Sunday of Lent. Thus Lent Gospel Acclamation 1 (US) 1 Lent A, for example.

America, Canada and Australia/New Zealand all use the same set of possible Lent Gospel Acclamations, but OZ and CAN do not use Nos. 3 and 6 in their Missals.  I thought about renumbering in consequence, but decided against it. The UK and Ireland have their own set.

In addition, the Saints’ days which fall in Lent have to use Lent Gospel Acclamations instead of Alleluias.  Since March is a busy month (St David, St Patrick and St Joseph among others), this is a whole further group.

Further possible complications

Sometimes I have to transpose the Acclamation down a tone, because the Gospel verse would otherwise feel uncomfortable for the Cantor;  I thought about doing a separate list of these as well, but decided it probably wasn’t worth it.  Most Acclamations are in G or F, and they are all 4/4;  this is to keep things as modular as possible, so if your congregation particularly likes one Acclamation, it’s easy to reuse it, even if it isn’t the one set in the Missal.  And I can easily transpose anything for you if you e-mail me (

How does it work in practice?

When we post the music for the appropriate Sunday, this means that every week there is a setting of the Lent Gospel Acclamation with that week’s Gospel verse, and often two, because there is the default setting (usually Lent Gospel Acclamation 1) as well as whatever is written in the Missal.  It’s not as complicated on the ground as it sounds when you try to explain it.   On some Lent Sundays,  we have the same Gospel verse as a different Year, but a different top-and-tail, so it’s possible to end up with three options, but usually it’s only two; and of course, you only need one for any given Mass.   We are trying to keep this simple (I realise it may not sound like that!), and it’s easier in practice than it sounds.

Making them work

Like Alleluias, these are musical miniatures, but they do have a function, and they have to work.  To be succesful, they must be clear, attract attention, encourage participation, stop people being distracted and give the words their full weight.  This is why everyone sings the top-and-tail, even if only the cantor sings the verse.  That’s quite a lot of work for four bars of music.

Teacher reading to class
Paying attention and enjoying it?

The Acclamations need to be a call, but not jubilant like the Alleluia, more of a formal introduction.  The format for both Alleluias and Lent Gospel Acclamations  reminds me of the old advice about speaking to a group : you need to tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.  It is a deliberate framing device.  Some of the words are trickier than others; I have tried to be ceremonial without being musically pompous.  They don’t need to be slow, just comfortable talking speed for the verse.  Over the course of Lent, the Gospel verses start spare and become slightly more elaborate; I have tried to follow the same development.

Always trying to catch up

As evidence of the tricksiness of the Lent Gospel Acclamation, I have to mention that only this year did I discover that there are even two more available for the US and CAN Lectionaries.  These two don’t get set in the Missal for the Lent Sundays, so I don’t actually need them for this year; but in the interests of completeness, and giving you the full set of options, I will try to set them before next Lent season……and then I will find that there is still more to do, before I have got all the Lent Gospel Acclamations sorted out and musicked.  I wish you a happy, holy and musical Lent.

Mini-dragons attacking people
Lent Gospel Acclamations refusing to lie down

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.

What makes a good psalm Response?

All shapes and sizes

We’ve just had a couple of brief psalm Responses, ‘Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will’ and ‘Teach me your ways, O Lord’, and there’s a longer one coming up for Sunday: ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts’, or for the Canadians; ‘O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!’ Even so tiny a sample shows how much the Response set for the congregation on a Sunday can vary.

A quick study

Sometimes it’s difficult to get the congregation just to remember the Response for the duration of the psalm. Length is a significant factor.  Rhythm is very helpful, but not always on offer, especially if the Response has been imported from some different bit of the Bible (eg a bit out of one of St Paul’s Epistles as the Response to a psalm).   A tune really helps, especially if it has a certain predictability, but it’s difficult to be predictable without being boring.  This is a tune that the congregation hears once and then has to repeat three or four times, while the cantor sings something different, sometimes to the same words. It almost sounds like another fiendish parlour game from I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. 

Learning the Response

In some parishes, everyone has a printed copy of the words of the psalm; in many they don’t.

Potsherd with mass text
This is the earliest known Mass sheet fragment : on a piece of pot

Some people won’t pick up a sheet at the back of the church on principle; not everyone can read quickly.  If you’ve ever tried to sing along in a language (or alphabet) not your own, you will be aware of how hard it can be to keep up with the unfamiliar.  The congregation has to pick up the words as well as the tune.  Our current congregation, like many others, includes many people for whom English is not their first language, so I speak the words first, and then sing them.  With a very long Response, you already see the congregation begin to flounder at this point, but keep trying, and be very clear.  Some churches allow you to run through the Response before Mass, and this can help, but it disturbs those who are trying to pray before Mass starts, and it doesn’t help the many who arrive more or less at the same time as Father processes in.

Alternative Responses

Unfortunately, even if you don’t like the psalm Response, you can’t change it, as it is set in the Lectionary.  Occasionally you are offered a choice between two Responses (All Saints has some of these, so has the Christmas Vigil), and often you can substitute ‘Alleluia’ for the words of the Response.  Since the Alleluia is going to be sung later, the one word response seems to me a bit of a cop-out, unless you are omitting the Alleluia proper.  And it’s not always the most appropriate response either, especially if (part of) the psalm is gloomy.  I don’t set Alleluia on its own as a psalm response, as I think the longer ones work better.

Singers with long score
…but maybe not too long
Getting a good Response

A good psalm Response is not too short or too long.  A single sentence works best.  The very short ones tend to be a bit blink and you miss it, and you aren’t allowed to repeat them to improve the length,  but have to use the words as given.  Getting them across to a congregation in a bigger church can be quite challenging, and short can be as difficult as long.  Don’t rush; be measured and clear.  ‘Arrow’ prayers work better for individuals than in congregations, because there is no time to catch up if you miss the beginning ; this applies to short psalm responses too.  Litanies work for bigger groups because they have a predictable rhythm and a repeated response.  Ditto the Rosary.

Mixed medieval choir, with musicians outside the frame
Mixed group singing with musicians providing the frame

But the Response is different every week, one of the trickiest things for the congregation to handle.  No wonder many people don’t even try to join in.  Try and make it easy for them;  I try to make the music immediately attractive and straightforward, one note per syllable (mostly), a clear rhythm and line, something to latch on to, (nearly always) ending on the tonic (unless I’m after a different effect), and (even more nearly always, but there are exceptions) lifting off from exactly the same point of introduction.

Stress levels

The first thing you have to do with any given Response is work out where the natural stresses are if you are saying it as a spoken text, because this will help your congregation to grasp the Response as a whole.  It sounds obvious, but it can be tricky.  Some words act as stumbling blocks from the start (‘ordinances’ is my favourite example, ‘favourably’ is coming up shortly for the Canadians).

Many Responses start with an unstressed syllable (‘The’ or ‘O’, for example, usually followed by ‘Lord’), which means that you can’t start on the first beat of the bar.  But if you don’t start on the first beat of the bar, then each verse has to be framed to lead into the Response smoothly, while allowing for the fact that the congregation may not have the words or is just hoping that it will all be over soon.

The last syllable of the Response is also very important.  In English, it’s often a short, stressed word (‘joy’, Ps 125/126; ‘want’ Ps 22/23), which is very helpful.  Sometimes it’s an unstressed syllable at the end of a long word like salvation, forever or deliverance, which is usually straightforward; but a single short unstressed word can get lost if you aren’t careful (you can’t give it a bar to itself or it receives too much stress).  ‘The Angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him’ (Ps 33/34): you need the stress on ‘fear’, but you can’t put too much stress on ‘him’.

The importance of small differences

The smallest of changes to the text can have a significant effect on the rhythm.  The psalm coming up for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, has different Responses according to different Lectionaries. ‘I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation’ (US and OZ, but their verse words are different).  ‘You are my refuge, O Lord; you fill me with the joy of salvation’ (UK).  ‘You are my refuge, Lord; with deliverance you surround me’ (CAN).  Simply adding or subtracting an ‘O’ changes the rhythm of the first half to a surprising extent, and although these are all clearly translations of the same thing, I can’t use the same tune for all of them.

This is why many people are keen to intone or use a sort of chant-lite, but unless it is really well done, it won’t help the congregation much, as people usually find rhythm and melody more effective in making the words stick in the mind.  Chant takes a lot of practice and works best in (surprise surprise) a group which does not change, and sings together often (e.g. a monastery). A congregation is a much more varied group, and all of them need to be able to take part.

Medieval school choir with cantor and teacher
Cantor and supporting choir?

I get nervous as soon as I see a psalm setting with no time signature.  It’s difficult to sing without applying one unconsciously, and not everyone will agree. A time signature means there is a supporting structure, like a trellis in a garden, or the rules of form for a sonnet.

Start from the Response…

Sung mnemonics work really well only if the tune fits the spoken rhythm and precisely isn’t too interchangeable (that’s why it’s difficult to learn your times tables to a tune, as too many of the number words have the same number of syllables : twice two could be anything under ten except seven, according to the rhythm).  So once you have a spoken rhythm, you make up a tune that follows it, and you always start with the Response because that stays the same, at least for this Mass.  The verse words are going to be irregular, so I will need to adapt the tune to them (and sometimes it works better than others), but that affects only the cantor, so long as I make sure that the lead-in to the Response is unaffected.

….whatever it is

Many psalms turn up on a different Sunday with a completely different Response.  Sometimes you can just write a new tune for that Response, but sometimes the rhythm of the Response is so definitely either a 3/4 or a 4/4 that you may have to go back to the beginning and start again, as you can’t have a 3/4 Response with a 4/4 psalm, or vice versa. ‘Lord, you are good and forgiving’ is a 3/4 Response; ‘Lord, let us see your kindness…’ is a 4/4.

Occasionally a psalm comes with a repeated Response actually in the text (Pss. 45/46; 66/67; 79/80 for example), but that’s not to say that it will be the Response appointed to be sung.  Ps 79/80 turns up three times in the Lectionary, and on one occasion (27 OTA) it is given a Response out of Isaiah 5.  That’s all right, as Isaiah is a beautiful and poetic book with a strong sense of rhythm.

I have far more trouble with the responses gleaned from St Paul’s letters.  He may be a towering genius but he didn’t have the benefit of being translated by Joseph Gelineau and the Grail.  I suspect it’s not just the translation, though;  I’m not sure St Paul had a good sense of rhythm or whether he actually could sing, because when he does quote a song or poem, it stands out so very clearly from his own prose, which could be seen as heading towards a slightly bureaucratic style (I am trying to be diplomatic here).  It’s not fair to blame or reproach him for this; the Epistles weren’t meant to be sung, but read, read out and passed around.  It’s the choice of extracts as lines of singing that I find occasionally difficult to handle.

Choir singing from one book
Long Responses can be hard to remember without checking the score
The point of the Response

In the end, what matters is that people pick up the Response and sing it back to you.  Joining in is the most important thing.  The music should make it easier, not harder.  You can feel the energy with a succesful Response, and you can see the congregation begin to feel stronger and more involved as they join in.  This is why we sing in church: if you sing, you commit.  You need to use your voice, your breath, your diaphragm; you can’t help but get involved.  Setting music to the words is meant to make people want to join in, and make it easier to do so.  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the people praise you’ (Ps 66/67 ).   The italics are mine, but follow the natural stress; and this is why I write tunes for the Response.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.

Presents, gifts and Christmas

Arrival of the Kings

The Magi have just arrived (with their presents) to see the baby. Matthew’s account of their arrival is careful and circumstantial. It’s a little while on from the actual birth (although we think of the kings as queueing up behind the shepherds,  as that’s what happens in Nativity plays and at our cribs, it’s not exactly what the narrative suggests).

Here they are, queuing patiently, presents at the ready
First in Jerusalem…

The wise men arrive in Jerusalem, seeking information, after Jesus has been born in Bethlehem. All that the wise men know is that there is an infant king, born for the nation whose capital is in Jerusalem, so they go and ask if anyone knows any more about it than they do. They have seen a new and significant star which indicates the baby king’s arrival, but the implication is that the star is taking a pause, because otherwise they would have continued to follow it. Maybe it’s too cloudy; or maybe they are travelling through Jerusalem anyway, replenishing their supplies or something (we know they have come quite some distance), and a big town is a good place to ask for news.

…and on to Bethlehem

Herod’s informants get wind of this and report it to him. He is worried (his position is difficult anyway, because of the Romans), so very sensibly he tries to find out more. (He is the first person officially to worry about this baby being the Messiah.)  First he checks up on the prophecies. then he summons the Magi ‘privately’, to avoid any fuss being made, elicits as much information as he can from them, and sends them on to Bethlehem, as being their probable destination. He even encourages them to come back and tell him all about it, a charm offensive which they luckily do not fall for.

the angel warning the Magi not to go back and tell Herod anything

They set off from Jerusalem, and you can feel the lift of their hearts as Matthew says,’And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising’, which leads them directly to where they want to be, ‘right over the place where Jesus lay’, as the carol says .

Presents for a new baby

They are filled with joy and delight, they greet the little family, they fall to their knees and pay homage to the child. And only after this do they produce the presents, even though crib figures mean that we all grow up with the idea of them solemnly processing with their gifts clasped in front of them.

the star marking the spot, and presents for the baby king

This is a very encouraging moment, because they burrow in their saddlebags and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are gifts of wealth, honour, and luxury. Although Jesus has been born in a barn with no facilities or any arrangements for his arrival apart from what Mary and Joseph have managed to bring with them, these are not gifts to relieve abject poverty.  The Magi don’t hand over anything like a robe to be used as a blanket, for example.   They don’t offer food.  The gold is ceremonial, not part of a whipround.  ‘Opening their treasuries’,  they give things appropriate to another person of wealth and status, so I think we can assume that the Holy Family has managed to make itself comfortable and is not in dire need.  That’s a relief.

Everyone likes giving presents

Giving presents is a deep human instinct, and a very endearing one.  Everyone loves to give presents, and most of us are better at giving them than receiving them graciously (certainly I am).  We seize any occasion to give presents : a new house, a new job, birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, saints’ days,  anniversaries, or just for love (the ‘unbirthday’ present).   New babies are a wonderful opportunity to give a gift, which nearly everyone takes advantage of.

Presents from the shepherds

I am sure that the shepherds would have brought something with them when they came to see the baby which the Angel had announced to them.   At that stage, Mary and Joseph were on their uppers and the baby was lying in the animals’ feeding trough.  So I think they would have given gifts of comfort and necessity : a fleece, maybe even some milk and cheese for Mary, perhaps a bundle of firewood or something.  That’s like the collections that we have for refugees nowadays.  You wouldn’t give them perfume and spices, you provide for urgent need : clothes, shoes, blankets. (The shepherds also seem to have brought their instruments, so presumably they play the baby a lullaby.  Shepherds are famous musicians, as we have seen before.)

I never travel without my bagpipes
giving what you can
Worth and value

Everybody loves to give.  Children present you with pictures just as soon as they learn to hold a pencil.  If you go for a walk, they give you conkers or acorns.  If you are by the sea, it’s shells or an attractive pebble.  Surely this is part of the point of a kiss.  It is something you give.  People may kiss you against your will (especially in families at Christmas or New Year, for example), but a kiss is only worthwhile if it is given.  It is a gift with no actual substance other than the act of giving.  Gifts don’t need to be worth anything.  Gifts that are worth nothing can be valued more than any other possession, because of the giver or the occasion.  A gift is valid all by itself.  The Magi’s gifts were probably less immediately useful than the shepherds’, however much they were worth, but everyone has to give what he can, like the Christina Rossetti poem In the bleak midwinter.

The Magi’s gifts in the Psalms

There is no textual evidence for the shepherds’gifts, however likely they seem to be, however many pictures of them there are.  Why do we hear about the Wise Men’s presents and not the shepherds?  Because they are mentioned in the psalms. ‘The kings of Tarshish and the sea coasts shall pay him tribute.  The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts’ (Psalm 71/72).   Matthew is concerned while writing his Gospel to show how all of the birth narrative has been foretold, so whenever there’s a chance to make the point specifically, he does so. Isaiah  in the first reading last Sunday foretells even the gold and the incense (and the camels).  This is all evidence of the divine plan, reassuring for those who know the Jewish prophecies already, as well as for those who start from the figure of Jesus and then look back.

Jesus and presents

Look at Jesus’ attitude to giving.  He doesn’t often have anything material to give, but when he does, he does not just fulfil the need, he is lavish (the wedding at Cana).  He talks about generosity, and tells us that God will not be outdone.  He’s not interested in the value of what we give, but in the giving.  Mark and Luke both tell the story of the poor widow who gives a measly tuppence to the Temple treasury, and of Jesus’ words of respect and commendation.  This is not a parable, it is an event, and the woman is real.  You give what you can, and God supplies the rest.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.

One woman’s voice : the Magnificat

Mary our mother and the Mothers of Israel

The women I concentrated on in my last blog  (Judith, Ruth, Esther, Deborah) are recorded with honour in the Old Testament.  They are regarded  as heroines and holy women, the Mothers of Israel; and they are our mothers in faith too.  Parallels between them and the Mother of Jesus are interesting and not hard to find and show.   But we would look in vain for a similarly extensive prayer from her.

someone’s holding up the words,  so she must be joining in the singing
Women’s voices in the New Testament

In the New Testament, it is even harder to find women’s words than in the Old.  Mary is recorded as saying astonishingly little, although she is present during so much of it.  In Luke she speaks four times, once in John, and we have none of her words in Matthew and Mark, though she sends Jesus a message that she’s arrived  (Mark 3, 31).  So the exchange with Elizabeth (in Luke  1, 39ff)  is very precious, even though it repeats whole lines out of previous songs, psalms and prayers.  Elizabeth’s words are incorporated into the Hail Mary,  and the Magnificat is part of Evening Prayer.  It is by far the longest piece of female speech in the New Testament. And it is brief.

Mary’s Magnificat?

It’s a (relatively rare) joy for me to write music for psalms that even mention women, so I particularly appreciate setting women’s words. And yes, I know that these are words fully in the tradition of the Old Testament, put into Mary’s mouth by the evangelist Luke.  Definitely mediated through a male writer, then, and deliberately reusing the language and tropes of earlier speakers, some of them women;  but tradition has always claimed these words as Mary’s own.  If Luke (according to tradition) painted her, they would have had time to talk; who else would remember these words, if she did not?  —    and in the end, they are all that we have. So I am taking them as women’s words.

A woman’s prayer from below

In the whole text, there is only one word indicating the speaker’s gender : ‘He looks on his servant in her nothingness’  or (different translation) ‘he has regarded his lowly handmaiden‘  (and the US version ‘for he has looked upon his lowly servant’ elides even that).  But what is distinctive about this song is that it written from below throughout.  This is a person without any power or rank speaking, and celebrating God because he is wonderful and does marvellous deeds; and is doing them, for her, now.

Living in the moment

The references to God’s actions are all in the present tense, not the future : this lowly person is totally confident that all this is happening right here, right now.  This is an interesting contrast to the appeals for help in the psalms, which are usually looking forward for relief (O Lord, hasten to my help…..O Lord, do not delay… O Lord make haste to help us , Ps 22/23  but passim really).

The text does not move forwards or back; there is no narrative; there is no sense of time other than the present.  Mary describes what is happening  at this moment to her.  There is one gesture towards the future: ‘Henceforth all ages will call me blessed’, but this is an immediate future which starts now, just as the one reference to the past is ‘the mercy promised to our fathers’, a past which is still continuing into now and for ever.

A world turned upside down

Apart from the absoluteness of the present tense, the other striking thing about the words of the Magnificat is their celebration of the reversal of human order.  Mary starts with a statement of fact: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ and then starts to celebrate the topsy-turvey.  God looks at his servant (Mary) and he is perfectly aware of her status; but guess what, ‘henceforth all ages will call me blessed’.  This is so extreme that it would be embarrassing or foolish if it were not true.  Then Mary refers again to God, because her future standing is not because of her, but because of him.  God is working wonders for her, he is wonderful, and his kindness is for everyone.

And it isn’t just Mary for whom he is turning the world upside down : ‘He […] scatters the proud-hearted […], casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly’.    Again the claim is stupendous : from their thrones, so not just petty important people, but the mighty of the earth, the sort of person Mary would only ever have seen at a distance, or possibly only heard about.  More reversal :’he fills the starving […] sends the rich away empty’.  Here is the option for the poor with a vengeance.  When you think about Mary’s status compared to ‘the rich’, this almost sounds like a joke (and that’s how Bach sets it in his Magnificat, with the music petering out into the hollow left in the bellies of the rich).

Historical context for Mary’s words…

The last verse of the Magnificat is like a doxology, and in it Mary places herself in the line of salvation history and shows that what is happening to her is the fulfilment of God’s promises from the beginning (our fathers) until the end of time (for ever).  To reduce the Magnificat to a neat three verses of Responsorial Psalm, the proud-hearted and the mighty are left out on Sunday, as are the last two lines, but all the rest is there (I said it was short).

…and parallels before and after

As a literary artefact, it is interesting to compare the Magnificat to Hannah’s song  in 1 Samuel 2.  Mary’s song is not special because it is so original; rather, it is important that it is part of a tradition of obedience to God,  of joyful surrender to his will.  It is special because it is the fulfilment of salvation history, not an isolated event.  The other literary artefact it chimes with is the Beatitudes.  Even the order is the same : Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God […] blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6,20ff).

Setting the words

As well as being all one tense, the Magnificat is all one mood, of exultation.  So I tried to keep the music simple but jubilant.  We need to remember what Mary is like at this point.  She is very young.  She is enthusiastic, exuberant, committed and joyful.  She doesn’t know very much about what’s going on yet, but her faith in God is so complete that she is prepared to leave it all to him.  She knows that her situation is unorthodox, to say the least, but that does not concern her, and, thanks to Joseph, it is not allowed to become an issue.  She will treasure every piece of information as it comes along, but she has not yet met Simeon and heard about the sword that will pierce her.  In a different cultural context, I think we might have had something specifically about the baby, but Elizabeth is the only person who mentions that.  She is (much) older,  and her baby is much bigger and moving about (‘leaping for joy’ Luke 1, 44),  a magical stage of pregnancy which Mary hasn’t reached yet.

a special baby each : compare and contrast

Elizabeth would have let Mary feel the baby leaping for joy in her womb, and suddenly Mary’s own pregnancy would have felt real.  With our first baby, until she started to move,  I felt as though she lived inside the ultrasound box at the hospital; only when I felt her move was I sure that she was really there.

I wanted the Response to feel like a natural spill-over of all the excitement in the verses.  I think it does quite effectively in the (new) CAN version.  The Response is tricky, because it starts with an unstressed syllable, but you don’t want to take the congregation by surprise; so that’s why the OZ and UK versions have a tiny introduction, which is rare for me, but seemed to work here. The US one is straightforward.

Hard to find a picture of Mary singing it
…the best I could find

It’s really difficult to find a good image of Mary and the Magnificat.  If you look at the covers for the different musical recordings of it, they show soulful, ethereal females,  actually a bit wishy-washy and almost without exception with their mouth shut;  even sometimes male figures (Christ or the composer).   What they do not show is a woman speaking, chanting or singing aloud in the fulness of joy.   I think this is a pity, as in the Magnificat we have an unafraid female voice just celebrating God’s greatness.  Sing it with joy and conviction.  This is not a silent blonde, with clasped hands, and eyes raised to heaven.  This is a real woman, who is so happy she can’t not sing.  What a wonderful, heartening role model.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.




Women’s voices in the Bible : few but worth listening to

Women’s words and women’s voices

We have two big Marian feasts coming up as we move into the second week of Advent : the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. Then on the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (this year) we have Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat, instead of a Responsorial Psalm.  So I’m thinking about women and their prayer and singing.

Women’s words are a tiny proportion  of Scripture.  We have lots of chants, songs and canticles (which simply means ‘little songs’) in the Bible, but they are nearly all by men.  I read a fascinating account of the case for considering the author of at least part of the Song of Solomon to be female, a few years ago, but I don’t think it has met with widespread acceptance.

Women’s songs and prayers

There are a few precious references to women’s songs in the Bible.  When I was considering lullabies,  I said that because they are seen as ‘women’s work’, they don’t have the same esteem as poems by men, and oral literature is not taken as seriously as written.  This impacts directly on the preservation of women’s words as far fewer women traditionally have been literate than men (and schools set up ‘for the children of the poor’ have usually been kept only for the male version).   Women don’t even talk much in the narratives of the Old Testament, which presumably pleased St Paul, when he was studying it as a young Pharisee;  but this does mean that we treasure what we have.

Miriam, a prophet with no prophecies

Miriam the prophetess is allowed to lead the women singing the chorus in the song of victory after the Red Sea roars back and swallows up Pharaoh and his horses and his chariots, but although the male prophets declaim at length (a whole book of the Bible each), we don’t hear any of Miriam’s words.  It is only through her label that we know she is a prophetess at all.

There are very few books of the Bible named after women (and they are so short, it is easy to overlook them while leafing through).  We have Ruth, Esther and Judith (personally I would add Wisdom, as she is so often personified, and I called my daughter Sophia after her, but I do know she is an abstraction).

Ruth’s words : a tender poem

Ruth is a refugee with all the cards stacked against her : a childless, foreign widow, with a dependent mother-in-law. The Book of Ruth tells how by hard work, patience, obedience and love, she ends up married to Boaz, and is the mother of kings.  She has one piece of speech written out in verse, and it is the lovely invocation to her mother-in-law, ‘wherever you go, I shall go’.   It was adapted and given a tune a while ago (I remember singing it as a student), but the words have been changed and the tune has so many long pauses that it’s difficult to sing.  I think it’s interesting that it’s been used as a hymn, when it does not occur in any Sunday reading.  People would clearly like to use it.  Maybe I should do a more upbeat setting.

Esther’s prayer for courage before the lion king

The Book of Esther is in a bit of a mess; there is a Greek version which contains many parts not present in the Hebrew version, including not only Mordecai’s prayer, but also one by Esther.

Esther is a member of the king’s harem,  but no-one knows that she is a Jew, except her uncle Mordecai, who is an astute civil servant.  The king’s right hand man, Haman, takes against the Jews because they are a stiff-necked people, and Mordecai won’t bow to him.

Keep calm and be like Queen Esther
purple for the queen

Esther’s influence with the King is the only way to save the whole Jewish nation.   She adorns herself beautifully for the King and finds favour in his eye, which she uses to save her people (after three banquets, in the best story tradition).  It’s a wonderful, dramatic story, which has been turned into novels and plays, and I remember a haunting little poem by Eleanor Farjeon which starts, ‘Put on your purple, Esther, Esther’.   Most of us know the bones of the story.  But Esther’s own words are unfamiliar.

Judith, a great heroine, but don’t quote her

Judith is a corking story, longer than the other two, but I recommend it as a good read.   She is another widow (very low down in the pecking order, that’s why God has to look out for them especially), very virtuous, very sensible and forthright, and (critically) extremely beautiful.

Judith holding a sword
Giorgione’s Judith

Both her prose (when she’s giving advice to the elders and generals, which astonishingly they accept) and her prayers are worth reading.  And we have a really authentic voice here.  ‘You must not ask what I intend to do; I will not tell you until I have done it’ (Judith 8 33).   She is the only person I can think of in the Bible who says please : ‘Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Master of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of your whole creation, hear my prayer’ (Jud 9 12).  It would take too long to tell the story but (spoiler alert) she beheads the enemy’s general and saves the day with her virtue intact.  Her words are powerful (she has a couple of other short prayers and a great victory song) but the only song out of the book of Judith that we use in the liturgy (for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is actually the words of the High Priest as he blesses her for saving Israel.

I should mention at this point that Esther and Judith don’t even appear in many Bibles, as their pedigree and style are different from the other canonical books.

Are any psalms by women?

What else have we got?  Of course we don’t know who wrote almost any of the psalms, but I would be surprised if many of them were women’s prayers, though some of the yearning psalms might be.  As I said when I was looking at inclusive language, the Psalms are more inclusive than other bits of the Bible because so much of them is direct conversation between two interlocutors, and ‘I’ and ‘you’ are gender-neutral on the page.   This is possibly one reason why the Psalms are so widely beloved: because they feel relevant to each reader and he or she can pray them as his or her own words.

Hannah the mother of Samuel

I’m sure there are some  other examples of women’s words that I have omitted, because the Bible is too long for me to be able to do a quick check through.  I make no claim for this list being exhaustive.  There is a great prayer by Hannah, the noble mother of Samuel, after she gives her son, her only son, to God (I Samuel 2).

Hannah hands over Samuel
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

In it she quotes the psalms, and she also uses many of the ideas that we find in the Magnificat. God humbles and he exalts (v7).  He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes, and to assign them a seat of honour (v 8ff).  These are ideas that we often find in the psalms, but they have peculiar force when the person talking about God’s turning the established order upside down, is someone who is right at the bottom.  Like Judith, she reminds God that men do not win by their own strength, but by his.  The inference is clear : with his help ‘women can do much’, as Mary Ward says.

Deborah, a prophetess with more of a voice

Another prophetess is Deborah, in the book of Judges, and she is another strong and sensible woman whose advice is heeded.  Like Joan of Arc, she puts fire into the belly of the soldiers.  Barak refuses to go and fight Sisera if she does not go with him, and again I think we hear a real person speaking in her answer :’I will go with you then, but the way you are going about it, the glory will not be yours; for God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’ (Judges 4 9, Jerusalem version). They march out to battle together. Later, Sisera is horribly staked by Jael, and then there is the triumph song described as being by Deborah and Barak.  I hope it’s mostly by Deborah; to me, it certainly reads that way (there is even a little joke in it about men holding long debates by the stream while others are rushing into battle with Barak and Deborah).  It has some wonderful lines: ‘From high in heaven fought the stars, fought from their orbits against Sisera……Through her window she leans and looks, Sisera’s mother, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot long in coming? Why are the harnessed horses slow?” (Judges 5 2off).  It is really exciting,  a fine piece of writing.

The New Testament

Although there’s not much in the Old Testament, there is surprisingly even less in the New.  There are many women about in the narrative (Jesus seems to have felt comfortable in their company), but their words are rarely recorded, and never at length.   When they speak, it tends to be brief questions, requests, comments – not prayers or songs, with the exception of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary incorporated into the Hail Mary, and of course, Mary’s own Magnificat.

Anna and the song we don’t have

There is a sad but very telling moment in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is presented in the temple.  Simeon, an old and very holy man is there, and we have the words of what he said. The first part is the Nunc Dimittis, another beautiful prayer which the Church uses every day.  He also prophesies Mary’s future sorrow.  Then the narrative describes the arrival of Anna, an elderly and very holy widow. ‘And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2 38, RSV).  And that’s it.  The narrative moves on, and we do not have Anna’s words.  This upsets me every time I read it.

Suppressing women’s voices

Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular has a real problem with letting women’s voices be heard.  Adult women are the one group still barred from Catholic Cathedral choirs. During the Middle Ages, nuns were not even allowed to sing Gregorian chant in convents, they were restricted to intoning on a single note, in case people might come and listen to the beauty of their singing.  This seems to me to be a fine example of both missing the point and blaming the victim : if you are singing beautifully, you are doing it for God, not for an audience, which is usually not there anyway.

Nowadays we can read poems and prayers by women (not ‘for’, those are often less helpful) and they are often very useful and beautiful.  I have heard calls for a separate ‘theology of women’, but I don’t think we need one.  What we need is for the men who run the Church to realise that women are human too, and that their experience and its expression are equally valid with men’s.

‘Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, declaim a song!’ (Judges 5 12).  ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!’ (Zechariah 9 9).   Alas, there are no New Testament equivalents of this encouragement.   We have been waiting too long to hear women’s voices.