The penitential psalm : Psalm 50/51 (again)

Penitential psalms
Miserere mei ms
have mercy on me

Psalm 50/51 has been called the ‘most influential and beloved’ of the Penitential Psalms (New Lion Handbook to the Bible, 1999).  There are supposed to be seven of these, but it’s an arbitrary (though ancient) classification, and it’s easy to find different lists also classified as ‘penitential psalms’.  Augustine names four (fifth century), Cassiodorus (sixth century) goes for seven, other authors go for different totals.  Apart from seven being a magic number of completion or possibly (more prosaically) a number that we can remember (most Catholics can name the sacraments but it’s hard to get a full set of apostles), it’s a convenient way to take a selection of the psalms, making them easier to handle. 

Irresistible raw material for others

As a group, the penitential psalms have been translated into various forms of verse and set to music by various poets and composers down the years, including Dante, and practically every one of the Tudor poets (Mary Sidney’s version of this particular penitential psalm is notably elegant).  Books of Hours (used as personal prayerbooks from mediaeval times onwards) usually contain (among other prayers)  the Psalms of Ascents (the ‘pilgrimage psalms‘, from Ps 119/120 up to Ps 133/134), followed by the Penitential Psalms, because those are the psalms that everyone usually wants in their prayerbooks.  I looked briefly at the penitential psalms when I discussed the theme of penitence in Year A, but now I want to concentrate on Psalm 50/51 alone.

Psalm 50/51 in its context
penitential psalm illumination
David and Bathsheba in comic-strip form

One reason for the popularity of Psalm 50/51, the Miserere,  is that it comes with a particular story attached, like the rivers of Babylon psalm (Ps 136/137).  This one is supposed to be definitely and authentically by David, specifically composed by him after Nathan calls him to account over his murder of Uriah following his appropriation of Uriah’s wife (check the story at 2 Samuel 11).   Not everyone agrees with this ascription, though, and opinions also differ about whether some of the verses were added on later, after the destruction of the Temple.  Its origin is not the only (or best-known) story attached to Psalm 50/51.  There is also the web of legend around Allegri’s musical setting of it, which Mozart (aged fourteen) is said to have pirated from memory after hearing it sung in the Sistine Chapel, when no one was allowed to transcribe or publish it.  The detail I like best is that having transcribed it from memory, he then went back and made minor corrections after hearing it again.

The Penitential Psalm

According to The Nuttall Encyclopaedia (1907), Psalm 50/51 is the original ‘Penitential Psalm’ and it was recited every day at the end of Morning Prayer by the primitive Church.  This sort of usage, like the Salve Regina and the ‘Last Gospel’ (John 1), both used after Mass, indicates a genuine popular devotion.  Stephen Langton, King John’s Archbishop of Canterbury, recited it on his deathbed, Sir Thomas More on the scaffold.  If it were weaker in itself, it would be hallowed by its past use, but it also contains (even in translation) beautiful and resonant lines, including ‘O Lord, open my lips/ and my mouth shall declare your praise’, which no church musician can hear without a spontaneous lift of the heart.

Frequency of use…
penitential psalm illumination
David, penitent

Some psalms come up more often than others.  Sometimes it’s because they are very long psalms, but then often you might not even notice that it’s the same psalm recurring, as the Lectionary simply offers us three or four stanzas, plus Response.  It can be easy to miss the relationship between two short Responsorial Psalms.  But some stand-alone short psalms, without much variation in verses, come up repeatedly, and then you have to decide whether to identify that psalm with one particular tune, or allow yourself the treat of setting it all over again.

…can lead to repetition..
penitential psalm illumination
David penitent, but with instruments

Sometimes a psalm can be repeated several weeks in a row (Psalm 33/34, across three Sundays in Ordinary Time Year B), with different stanzas and/or Responses, and then you have to decide whether to keep the tune the same or not. Sometimes the words decide that for you. For Psalm 33/34 and its long run, I kept the Response the same if the Lectionary did and changed the verse tune if the Lectionary changed the verses, so we now have to be incredibly careful to sing the right one on the right day. There’s a fine line to be drawn between familiarity as a positive thing, encouraging people to sing along,  – and boring people with the same simple tune repeated.

…or not, as the case may be
Shepherds and sheep
a good shepherd

If it’s a really short psalm, the words are the same whenever it comes up. Even here, there is room for some variation. Psalm 22/23, the Lord is my shepherd, has a lot of different versions for such a short psalm, because it comes up repeatedly but with small changes either in the Response or in how the verses are arranged into stanzas, and how much regularising has been done (there tends to be more in the US Lectionary). Sometimes the valley of darkness is omitted completely.

Psalm 50/51 in a new version

And so I have just written another version for Psalm 50/51.  As one of the great penitential psalms, it comes up often.  It always appears in Lent (not on a Sunday in Year C, though).  It is the psalm for the First Sunday of Lent in Year A, and the Fifth in Year B, but it’s there in the weekdays as well, which are the same every year (coming up on Ash Wednesday, the Friday after Ash Wednesday, the following Wednesday, and so on), which is why I needed a new one.  It used to be even more frequent, especially on Lent Fridays.

penitential psalm illumination
Nathan reproaching David

It is strongly placed as the cry of a sinner who knows himself to be one.  It’s all about recognising the wrong that we have done and confidently asking for God’s forgiveness.  It is an intensely human psalm, admitting guilt but making excuses, admitting responsibility but throwing it back onto God, admitting past failings but trying to move the narrative on to the future when things will be better.  There is room within the psalm for a narrative that goes from the frank admission of guilt and expression of repentance, to the description of God’s goodness and the sinner’s aspiration to be remade in his image.  Then he looks forward to the good he will be able to do on God’s behalf, and the joy of God’s continued favour.   There are twentyone verses in this psalm, which add up to ten four-line stanzas, so there are choices to be made when using it as a Responsorial Psalm (usually four stanzas maximum), and it is indeed slightly different in each of its appearances in the Missal.  On Ash Wednesday, we have four stanzas, covering the admission of guilt and the firm purpose of amendment, ending with the promise of praise.  The following Friday, the emphasis is on repentance and the need for it; three stanzas this time, but the only positive is the penitent’s confidence (A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn as the last line and also chosen as the Response).  Wednesday of the 1st Week of Lent uses the same Response and first and last stanza but puts the aspirational section (A pure heart create for me, O God) as the middle stanza, so the mood is more encouraging.

The Ash Wednesday versions
penitential sermon
lining up for ashes

We’ve always had two versions of the psalm for Ash Wednesday, one like a hymn and one more spiky which works unaccompanied or with just the recorder, but I wanted to keep that exclusively for Ash Wednesday as a special day.  So when Psalm 50/51 came up on other Sundays (24 OTC, 5 Lent B), I used the hymn-style version for the stanzas, and just added a different Response.  Then I was asked to set it as a weekday psalm which used only the positive stanzas and which had the Response My mouth will declare your praise, so I had to write a new one altogether, which was faster-moving and more cheerful.  That was not going to work for the new Lent version I needed.

A Response with reverberations
penitential psalm MS
O Lord, open my lips

I have to admit, though, that the real driver of my desire to write a new one was because they had chosen A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn as the Response.  First I should clarify: I was doing this for the OZ Lectionary, which uses those words in the psalm, but then changes the Response to […] you will not scorn.  It seems odd to me not to change both or neither, especially as neither word is in common use exactly, but I don’t edit the words (ever), I just set them.  For simplicity I will just use ‘spurn’ when I’m quoting it, as it’s the word used in both places, in all the other Lectionaries.

The Heir of Redclyffe

And anyway, those are the words of the King James Version and therefore the words Charlotte Yonge uses when she wants to quote the line in a climactic moment in The Heir of Redclyffe, one of the truly great Victorian novels (and there are many, especially by women).  Just in case anyone hasn’t read it, this is a family saga, which is what Charlotte Yonge was best at, though it actually takes place over a fairly brief period (you hear at the end about how the rest of their lives turn out).  If you haven’t read it (yet), you have a treat in store.

author of Heir of Redclyffe
the great Charlotte M. Yonge

It is full of wonderful characters, pattern nephews who look like heroes but turn out to be dangerously at fault and almost-too- dashing heroes who turn out to be true as steel.  It’s too good and well-worked-out to reduce to a precis; it is a terrific read.  A broken and contrite heart… comes up twice, once when Amabel has to fetch Philip to his last meeting with the dying Guy, whom he has wronged so often and so deeply, and then a second time when she writes it in Guy’s prayer book, which has been passed on to Philip.   These are both such intense moments, deliberately almost underwritten, where these few words of the psalm carry so much weight that everything else can be understated.  I love the book dearly, it always makes me cry but it’s worth it, and when I found Psalm 50/51 with those words as the Response, I had to have another go at it.

The mood of the Lent setting
David penitential, but with musical solace

It’s a penitent Response but not an extravagant one.  It comes later in the psalm than the expression of guilt and grief, so I wanted the mood to be serene and reflective rather than anything else; also, it comes up with stanzas from both the repentant part and the positive part of the psalm, so the tune needs to cover both.  Unlike all the other settings of Psalm 50/51 that I have done, this one fell into 3/4.  The others are all ‘walking’ psalms, with the bass marking the slow footfalls in a penitential procession, but this one has a sway, like a lullaby, for comfort.  The comfort is there in the words : the psalmist is deeply penitent, but he has complete confidence in God’s forgiveness, and looks forward to doing better.  This is why this psalm comes up so often at the beginning of Lent, because it encapsulates the whole motivation of the season.  This isn’t my favourite of the penitential psalms (I like Out of the depths best, Ps 129/130), but I can see why so many people love it.  I hope they will like the new setting.

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


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

Patterns in the Lent psalms for the third cycle

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

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

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

Supporting and framing the Gospel

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

First Sunday of Lent B

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

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

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

Exotic Ark
another gorgeous ark

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

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

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

Psalm 115/116 for 2 Lent B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Sunday of Lent B

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

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

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

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

Fifth Sunday of Lent B

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

Psalm 50/51  for 5 Lent B

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

terrible things can happen to good people

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


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

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