Never on a Sunday : Psalm 2, clash of God and kings

Why do the nations so furiously rage together?
dead kings : what happens after the nations have been raging together

Psalm 2 is the most familiar psalm that you have never sung on a Sunday. It is not prescribed for any Sunday, Holy Day of Obligation or major saint’s day. Yet it is possibly one of the best-known psalms; it was one of Luther’s favourites; it contains some of the most famous lines supposed to have been spoken by God; it is quoted by both Peter and Paul in Acts, as a direct foreshadowing of Jesus, and Paul quotes it repeatedly in the Letter to the Hebrews.  It is quoted three times in the book of Revelation, where only one other psalm is cited directly.  But we never sing it on a Sunday.


Occasional weekday psalm

I only set it because my friend in Australia needed it for a weekday Mass. Then it came up again, twice, again for weekdays, and is about to do so again over the Eastertide weeks.   So far I have had to write a new tune for it each time because the moods in the different versions varied so much, so I did a bit of investigating.  How many settings can one psalm need?


Form, shape and function

It’s a short psalm, only twelve verses altogether, but it’s slightly scrappy. Some of it is in direct speech, but with at least three different speakers, so the feel of it is of great compression, and if you wanted to make it simpler to grasp, you would have to expand it quite a bit.  It starts with a direct question, which is always very engaging, even though the rest of the psalm does not actually answer it. The first stanza vividly portrays a world in chaos, kings, nations and peoples murmuring, making tumult, plotting and fomenting unrest.  It’s intensely dramatic, on a very big canvas.  It’s like the Creation stories of the Greeks or even earlier civilisations, where all the monsters or titans rumble and fight until Kronos or Zeus pins them under the earth so that humanity can take root and civilisation triumph.  Here the evil forces are kings, plotting against ‘the Lord and his Anointed’, the first time that this word is used to describe the Messiah.   Only the king and the High Priest were anointed;  the Messiah is both king and High Priest (just like Melchisedek of old, as it says in Psalm 109/110), and the apostles are keen to appropriate this psalm to Jesus.

First stanza

The first stanza portrays chaos, but not the pre-Creation chaos of Genesis.  This is the chaos of warring kings and nations, and they are all plotting together to make common cause against God and ‘his Anointed’,  the rightful king, the king that God has chosen.  These other kings are enormously powerful (‘the kings of the earth’),  they are all working together, and the stanza ends with direct speech from them : ‘Come, let us break their fetters, […] cast off their yoke’.  The atmosphere is dark; it sounds like a threat.  The ‘their’ here refers to the fetters that have been put on the kings of the earth by the Lord, so we are talking about the wielders of earthly authority being restrained by God, and deciding to fight against that restraint : warfare on a cosmic scale, unlike the usual intimate individualism of the Psalms.

Second stanza
God of wrath
God of anger, terrifying even in pink

And cut! you might say if you were making this into a film (it would make a great superhero cartoon).  The second stanza is a classic reversal of point-of-view : now we are in heaven, and God is watching these puny opponents.  They may be ‘kings of the earth’, but they are ridiculous.   His reaction is laughter and scorn, swiftly overtaken by anger, but his words are calm.  Again the stanza ends with two lines of direct speech : ‘It is I who have set up my king / on Zion, my holy mountain.’

An extra line (?)

Then we have a line which feels almost like a stage direction.  It is in parenthesis, and holds up the action without contributing much : (I will announce the decree of the Lord:) , and if you look up different translations, they deal with it differently, assigning it to God, to Christ or simply to the psalmist.  My commentary says that the text is uncertain, that in the Hebrew text it is God speaking, and in the Vulgate the words have been corrected to come from the Messiah, which makes better sense.  But that’s not clearly what we have, even in the new version of the Psalms which has just come out, where they drop the brackets but leave it unclear : ‘I will announce his decree ‘, with no indication of who is speaking.  So this extra line stays as an extra line, altering the flow of the verses if it is included in the Responsorial Psalm.  As I said, different translations sometimes incorporate it, so that the flow of the stanzas is unimpaired; but not the ones we use in the Lectionary.

Third stanza

The third stanza continues in first person direct speech.  God is named as the speaker,  speaking to the person reporting the direct speech (‘The Lord said to me’ ), whom we can identify only as ‘the Anointed’, the king set up by God.  The Lord officially recognises him as his Son, in words which recall God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7.14, but here it is in the present tense, not the future, and I would love to know whether it resembles any legal adoption formula recognised at the time (think of the scene in Ben Hur, where Arrius formally adopts Ben Hur as his son and heir). 

Antony Gormley clay figures
Antony Gormley’s little pot people, fragile like us

God goes on to promise all rule and authority to his Son, who will rule (indeed, break) the ends of the earth with the proverbial rod of iron, and shatter them like a potter’s jar.  The language is highly-coloured and dramatic.  The relationship between God and the Anointed could not be closer.  This is the earliest stratum of all the expectations built up into the figure of the Messiah, and you can see why the apostles use it to strengthen Jesus’ claim to kingship.  It is a very fierce and destructive version of kingship being offered here, but we need to remember the context of the earlier stanza, where all earth’s kings together are trying to overthrow God’s legitimate rule. 

Fourth stanza

The fourth stanza returns to these earthly powers and points the moral for them.  In a direct (and fearless) address to these kings and rulers of the earth,  the psalmist issues a prophetic warning (and you can see why prophets were never popular with the authorities).  Dreadful things will happen if they do not serve the Lord and carry out his will.  The text is slightly corrupted again around vv. 11 and 12,  but the meaning is clear, even if the reconstruction of the exact words is not.   The language of all this section is direct and colourful : ‘trembling, pay him your homage […] for suddenly his anger will blaze’.  It’s another threat, like the first stanza, but a much more frightening one.

Another freestanding line (coda?)
penitential psalm illumination
the psalmist alone with God

There is one more line to this psalm, like a coda, and it is a complete change from all the previous text :’Blessed are they who put their trust in God’.  When I saw this as the Response for one of the versions of this psalm used on a weekday, I thought that the Response might have been taken from another psalm or even another book of the Bible, which does sometimes happen; but no, it is integral, the last line of the psalm itself.  It could sound warning or reassuring, but the force of it is to return the focus away from these rulers and bring it back to us and the psalmist.

Handel, Jennens and Psalm 2

The great elephant in the room that I have deliberately not yet looked at is Georg Friderick Handel.  He is at least partially responsible for the familiarity of Psalm 2, or rather both he and his librettist Charles Jennens.  Their most successful collaboration is of course Messiah , probably sung more often than any other choral work, and beloved.  The libretto for  Messiah is a collection and arrangement of verses from all over the Bible, most from Isaiah, with the Book of Psalms coming in as the next most used text.  There is a fascinating Text Study of Handel’s Messiah libretto by Martin P. Dicke, which I came across by chance and was delighted to find, because it saved me a lot of work (my Messiah doesn’t list the Bible references in the libretto at the beginning).  I recommend it.

MS of Messiah

Jennens uses several of the psalms, but usually only one or two verses each time.  When it comes to Psalm 2, though, he uses several verses, and one of the Recitatives (No.34) which Martin Dicke classes as a quotation from Hebrews, is where Paul quotes Psalm 2 (v.7) yet again.  The psalm translation is Coverdale, out of the Book of Common Prayer (except for v.9, which is from the KJV), which is why the first verse is so much more dramatic even than our version.  Musically it’s irresistible.  Handel sets it for bass, with all the orchestra rushing around furiously raging for all they are worth.  It’s tremendously exciting.  The Chorus then gets to be the kings of the earth, plotting, and what is striking about this is that Handel does not take them seriously.  This is a jolly piece of music, very intricate and upbeat to sing.  It’s not possible to sing it intimidatingly.  Although I’ve sung it many times, I’ve never been clear on its relation to the other parts of the text, but now I know better.  I certainly didn’t realise it followed straight on from the previous two numbers!  However,  the Lord is about to ‘laugh them to scorn’.

King with sceptre or rod of iron?

The tenor then warns of God’s vengeance, skipping to a few verses further on, the lines about the rod of iron and the potter’s vessel.  This music is full of sharp edges, all spiky like shards, and indicates that the Lord (or his King) will have no trouble in subduing these petty princes.  They will be smashed to pieces with savage relish.  It is followed by the Hallelujah chorus, so it is clear that it has worked.

Psalm 2 and Revelation

Psalm 2 is repeatedly referenced in the book of Revelation, and it is these verses again, vv. 8 and 9, the rod of iron and the shattered pot; they focus on the figure of the king and his fierce power, the breaking up of the established order and the creation of the new kingdom where those currently in power will be cast out of their seats, as it says in the Magnificat. This is the topsy-turvey nature of Christ’s message, which comes up repeatedly : the last shall be first, the master shall become the servant, a woman is allowed to sit and listen to teaching, and so on. 

Not a Sunday psalm

So why don’t we ever sing it on a Sunday?  I think it’s because the focus is so broad and the portrayal of God and the Anointed are so fierce.  This is a psalm to encourage those living in times of utter turbulence that God will come and smite everyone into submission.  The wicked will suffer mightily unless they submit.   Like every psalm in the Psalter, it has its place, and there will be people hearing it who find exactly what they need in it, but it’s not the psalm that most of us would turn to most often. 

Editing to soften

The weekday versions are selective.  I’d set it twice before the first verses even came into play, and the resolutely upbeat nature of the first two versions is the result of leaving most of the verses out.  The emphasis is on the authority conferred by God (‘You are my Son.  This day I have begotten you’, the Response for one version) and his promises to the king he has chosen (‘I will give you all the nations as your heritage‘, the Response for the other one).  More of the verses are included in the darker version for the Second Week of Easter, but even there, God’s ridicule, scorn and anger are left out, along with the final threat.  Although the Response for this version is the last verse  (‘Happy are all who put their trust in the Lord’), I had to give this psalm a modal setting to keep it dark, because the mood is not cheerful.  We do sing darker psalms, occasionally (Ps 87/88; Ps 136/137), but there is nothing personal in this psalm, no developing relationship between God and the speaker.  The scope of the whole psalm remains the whole world, and the dramatis personae are the kings of the earth and an unspecified ‘they’ who put their trust in God.  The individual is keeping out of the way; the last line seems almost an afterthought.

Wrath, blood, fire and doom
The wrath of God

It is a harsh version of kingship, and a scary portrayal of God.  The emphasis is on God’s power and wrath, a more Calvinist or Protestant attitude, possibly.  The psalmist is so confident that no harm can come to him that he even dares to rebuke the kings of the earth, but the emphasis is not on him.  Rather this is a psalm about the standing of a long-hoped-for figure, a prediction of the eternal kingship presiding over God’s Kingdom after the Second Coming.  So the Hallelujah Chorus directly follows Psalm 2 in Messiah (returning to Handel), because that will be the outcome; the words of the Hallelujah Chorus are out of Revelation, and bring the second part of the oratorio to an end.  The third part, beginning with I know that my Redeemer liveth, is all focused on what happens after the Last Judgment, after the establishment of the new Kingdom.  Powerful and esoteric stuff. 

Christ Pantocrator, usually with a book rather than a rod of iron

Psalm 2 is crucial to the early Christians’ understanding of Jesus’ place as God’s Anointed, the Son, the King set up by God on Zion.  We don’t sing it often because we are usually highlighting other aspects, more personal, more comforting; but you can’t have the one without the other.  It’s not a comforting psalm if you are invested in ‘the kings of the earth’, but if you’re an ordinary vulnerable mortal, this King is on your side.

 

©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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The early Church, from fear to courage: Eastertide B

First, an apology… Year A escaped me

I managed to miss writing about the narrative of the Eastertide Sundays in Year A last year, because we were all shell-shocked by the pandemic and locked down with no music.  I empathised much more with the fearful apostles after the Ascension, so I wrote about that, but we have worked through into calmer waters (even if we still aren’t allowed to sing in many churches), so I’m determined at least to have a look at the Eastertide Sundays events for Year B, and A will have to wait until it comes around again.

Christ leaving tomb
the Resurrection…and what happened next
Eastertide Year C

When I wrote about the story in the Eastertide Sundays for Year C, it was because I was intrigued to see how the focus moved from Jesus as the usual centre of the action at the Gospel reading, to what was happening with the early Church, headless and frightened, in the First Reading. Usually our first readings are from the Old Testament, to give deep historical context, but at Eastertide they are from Acts, the account of the development of the early Church, written by Luke.  Usually the Gospel gives us the main story for the liturgy on any given Sunday, but in the Sundays after Easter, time stands still for the Gospels (or even goes backwards) because we are hearing parts of Jesus’ teaching and talkings from earlier periods of the narrative.  The action (at least from the point of view of Jesus’ story) cannot move on until the Ascension.

Second Sunday of Easter, and Thomas
A tender moment : doubt no longer

The first Sunday after Easter, aka the Second Sunday of Easter, is the story of Thomas, an apostle often unfairly criticised.  I’ve talked about him before, so I won’t go into it again here.  His story and its lesson for us all is so important that all three liturgical years are the same.  After this Sunday, though, the Lectionary Years diverge, but not in the usual way by choosing a Gospel writer and following him (Year A : Matthew, Year B : Mark, Year C : Luke).  Most of the Gospels for Eastertide in all three years are from John; but not all.  They are not chronological; they have been selected.

Overview, Year B Eastertide Readings

The First Reading over Eastertide, for all three years, comes from Acts, because the story is now about the early Church, as I explained when discussing Year C, but different sections of Acts come into focus.  The Second Readings differ considerably; Year C takes them all from Revelation, Year A from Peter’s first letter, and Year B takes all its Second Readings from the first letter of John.  In Year B, the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter is the aftermath of the trip to Emmaus (the account of the encounter itself is in Year A), the Fourth Sunday is the Good Shepherd, the Fifth is I am the vine, and the Sixth is what sounds like Jesus’ final charge to the apostles, an envoi of sorts, though in fact it’s from chapter 15 of John’s Gospel rather than later.  As I said discussing Year C, the time in the Gospel readings can go forwards and back over Eastertide, because the linear onward progression has shifted to Acts.  All these B Gospels are from John except Third Sunday, which is from Luke, because he is the only evangelist who gives us the Emmaus story.

Second Sunday of Easter B

The First Reading is from Acts 4, a simple statement of how things were done among the community of believers in the early Church, with everyone sharing and helping each other, and the apostles spreading the word to great effect.  By now, the transformation has taken place; there is a sizeable group of believers, they have become ‘the early Church’, and this is how they are behaving.  All three First Readings (Years A, B and C) have this same message of reassurance, even though they come from different chapters of Acts.  After the tragedy of Holy Week and the surprise and joy of Easter Sunday, here is the pattern for the way ahead being worked out, by a group of converts and believers, just like us.  We stay with the great Easter psalm (117/118), with only minor variations, because the Octave of Easter is like an echo, reverberating the same message.  The Second Reading, from the first letter of St John, gives us the tools to live like the early Church: love, obedience to God, and the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel is Thomas’ encounter with Jesus.

Third Sunday of Easter B : first reading

We start in early Acts, earlier in fact than the previous week, with a speech from Peter, in his new role as leader of the Church.  It sounds in our First Reading as though he is trying to pick a fight, but this is due to slightly awkward editing.   This speech follows the healing of the lame man at the gate called Beautiful, when Peter says ‘Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, I give you’.  The lame man walks and leaps and praises God, now that his legs and feet can support him, and a crowd gathers. 

healing the lame man at the gate called Beautiful

Peter addresses the crowd, ‘Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this?’  and goes on to explain that the healing is nothing to do with Peter and John, but is all the work of (their own) God to glorify his servant Jesus.  He encapsulates the whole story with commendable brevity, and then clarifies that it is not their fault that they killed Jesus because they did not know what they were doing; so now they can repent and turn to God.  Peter turns all the crowd’s assumptions upside-down, he accuses them of a dreadful act, the murder of God’s representative, and then shows them how to clear matters up – all in a few lines.  It is masterly.  Peter has been transformed since Pentecost. He is now a leader, eloquent, confident, convincing, and completely fearless.

…the psalm and second reading

This same confident touch is echoed in the choice of psalm, the simple and beautiful Psalm 4, which reinforces many of Peter’s points : God’s justice, his favour for the ones he loves, God as the source of all happiness and security.  The second reading is again simple and confident, ‘I am writing this to stop you sinning, but if anyone should sin, we have our advocate with the Father’, so again, we have what looks like a condemnation, but again immediately we have the promise of pardon.

…the Gospel : Emmaus, main account in Year A
so he went in to stay with them (Lk 24)

On the corresponding Sunday in Year A, we have the story of Emmaus, where Jesus falls in with two disciples on the road, and they fail to recognise him. He explains to them how his own death (and subsequent entry into glory) was foretold in the scriptures from Moses onwards.  We aren’t given all of Jesus’ words, but it sounds to me as though he also defends the testimony of the women at the tomb, which the apostles had discounted, as he reproaches them for being ‘foolish […] and slow of heart to believe’ (Lk  24.25).  They prevail upon the unknown traveller to stay with them, and they realise who he is when he shares the bread among them at dinnertime.  Then he disappears.

Year B : Emmaus 2.0

This year (B), what we have is the next stage of the story.  To set the scene, because these are verses of Luke’s account which are not included in our Gospel reading, the two minor disciples, only one of whom even gets a name (Cleopas), have come rushing back to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, even though it is already late, and they have been walking all day.   They find the apostles ‘and those who were with them’, which I am taking as those faithful and long-suffering women, and they all exchange their exciting news.   The atmosphere has been transformed.  You can almost hear the buzzing excitement as Cleopas and his friend (his wife?) tell their story, and the others tell them that the Lord ‘has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’  We never hear anything else about that encounter, but we can hear that the group is beginning to dare to believe that it is all true.

you can even see the fish on the table

Suddenly, in the middle of all the talking, Jesus is there among them, and this is the event that our Gospel reading is centred on.  He lets them have a good look at him, he encourages them to touch and hold him to prove that he is not a ghost.  It is particularly poignant to read these words at a time when we are all still socially distanced.  In a touching, homely detail, he asks them if there is anything around that he can eat, and they give him a bit of left-over grilled fish, which he eats to demonstrate even more clearly that he is really there.  Then he explains again to the bigger group, as he has already done to Cleopas, how everything that happened to him is the fulfilment of the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.  Jesus’ last paragraph is an even shorter summary of what Peter has already said succinctly in the first reading, even down to the repeating of the word ‘witnesses’, a tightly-woven piece of ring composition.

Fourth Sunday of Easter B  (Good Shepherd Sunday)

This might equally be called Cornerstone Sunday.  The First Reading picks up Peter and John more or less at the same point where we left them the previous week.  Peter, the transformed Peter, has gone on explaining his message forcefully and clearly to the assembled crowd, so the Temple authorities are not happy.  They arrest Peter and John and put them in prison overnight to cool off.

Jesus before the high priest, with Peter downstairs

Our reading is what Peter says the next day, in the presence of Annas and Caiaphas, so really in the lions’ den here: these are the people at least partly responsible for the Crucifixion, which Peter knows because he was there in the high priest’s courtyard (Lk 22).  He repeats the same message even more clearly, he is filled with the Holy Spirit, and sounds completely ‘confident and unafraid’, as the Canticle in Isaiah 12 says.  He quotes the line about the stone rejected by the builders out of Psalm 117/118, the psalm which comes back and back again through the Easter season for us, but also seriously familiar to Annas and Caiaphas, although they would totally reject Peter’s interpretation of it.  Our reading stops there, but if you carry on reading, the authorities are completely flummoxed by Peter and John’s clarity and confidence and cannot work out what to do with them, so they let them go.

What psalm could we sing after this except Psalm 117/118 (yet again)?  It’s not exactly the same version that we sing on Easter Sunday, because this is quite a long psalm and we sing several different selections of verses, put together in different formats, so I have different tunes to fit.  For some reason this version has v.21 duplicated and used a second time (and out of sequence) in the last stanza, making that stanza seven lines rather than the usual six.  I suspect there’s a mistake there, but it’s of long standing and in every anglophone Lectionary, so I’ve just written an extra bit of tune for it.  The Response is the crucial line repeated, which feels exactly right.

The second reading is another beautiful extract from John’s first letter about our being God’s children.  John’s letter is particularly significant for the early Church, as he is always completely inclusive.  Anyone can be God’s child; anyone can do God’s will.  The Gospel, marking chronological time again, is away back in John 10, where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd and lays claim to all the sheep, including those ‘not of this fold’, again expanding the potential reach of the Church.

Fifth Sunday of Easter B : I am the vine

We have leapt forward in Acts for our First Reading this week, to chapter 9, and our central character is suddenly Saul.  All sorts of things have been happening to the early Church.  Peter and the apostles have even been put back into prison, but this time an angel came to fetch them out.  They have now been summoned in front of the authorities repeatedly, and Peter’s message remains the same, becoming simpler and clearer at each iteration.  Their numbers are increasing, they have had to rope in some new men to help with practical charity, Stephen has been appointed deacon, called upon to testify and then martyred.  The community is being persecuted by various people including one Saul.  There have been healings, miracles, conversions and all sorts of events. 

Conversion of St Paul
Fierce encounter of the third kind

At the beginning of chapter 9 of Acts, Saul is struck down on the way to Damascus in an encounter with the Lord.  We don’t get any of these events in our reading.  We have Saul, newly arrived back in Jerusalem, and trying to join the disciples who are understandably very suspicious.  Saul has escaped from Damascus in a basket (there are times when Acts reminds you of Dumas, or The Wind in the Willows), and luckily he has Barnabas to speak for him.  He preaches fearlessly and convincingly, and Jerusalem too becomes too hot to hold him.

What psalm after this?  We have Psalm 21/22, which is a great choice, because it is so appropriate for Saul and because he would have known it so well, as a Pharisee and Talmud scholar.  This psalm beautifully takes the words of a virtuous and observant Jew and repurposes them into a call for the whole world to come and join in the worship of Jesus the Messiah.  The ‘great assembly’ in the synagogue which Saul knew so well flowers out into ‘all families of the nations’.

The second reading is John on active love and not being afraid in God’s presence.  The Gospel hops forward to chapter 15 of John and Jesus’ extended comparison of himself with the vine.  Last week, we were sheep;  this week we are branches, part of a growing whole, and bearers of fruit (we hope).

Sixth Sunday of Easter B : all are welcome

Saul has been sent off to Tarsus, to help with the Church there, so the focus of Acts returns to Peter for a while.  He too is travelling, first to Lydda, where he heals a paralysed man called Aeneas, and then to Joppa, where he raises Tabitha (actually labelled as a ‘disciple’) from the dead.  Then he goes on to Caesarea, because he has been sent for by Cornelius.  Cornelius is a centurion of the Roman army, with all that implies about allegiance and position, but he is also a man of virtue who is earnestly trying to do the right thing.  An angel has told him to send for Peter, and even gives him the address where to find him.  Cornelius is not short of servants or soldiers, so he puts a little group together and sends them off to Joppa.

Peter’s vision on the rooftop

As they approach the city, Peter is praying on a rooftop before a meal, when he has a vision in which God lowers a great sheet or tablecloth full of animals, birds and reptiles and tells him that nothing can be unclean if God has cleansed it.  This happens three times, like watching a nature video repeatedly.  He is baffled as to the meaning of this vision, but then the Holy Spirit tells him to go downstairs to see the three men at the gate who are looking for him.  He is to go with them ‘without hesitation’, even though some of them are Roman soldiers.  Peter goes downstairs, welcomes Cornelius’ men, hears why they want him and invites them in for supper and to stay the night; the next morning they all set off back to Caesarea.  It is easy to miss how amazing these events are, how upside-down all this would appear to someone on the outside of the transformation that the early Church has undergone with the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Cornelius kneeling before Peter

When he meets Cornelius, they explain to each other how they have each been directed towards the other.  Peter has come with some of his people from Joppa, and Cornelius’ whole household is there, so this is a sizeable group of people.  Cornelius invites Peter to address them all.  All this has happened before our first reading starts. We begin with the meeting between the two men, and what happens next, Peter’s words to those assembled.  What is omitted here (see the list of verses at the beginning) is another of Peter’s summaries of Jesus’ life and death, and the Resurrection.  This is in fact the first reading of the Mass on Easter Sunday.   We usually repeat the Baptismal promises after the Gospel on Easter Sunday, but we don’t miss the Creed because Peter has already said it for us.  This whole section is not in our current reading because the importance of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius is Peter’s new understanding that the Gentiles are to be converted as freely as the Jews, and that God sends his Spirit as freely to the one as to the other.

Trinity - Jesus juggling
King of all the ends of the earth, and juggling as well
Psalm 97/98 : wider still and wider

The following psalm (97/98) is a victory psalm, stressing the international aspect of salvation.  Nothing has been taken away from Israel, but the pagans have been added (second stanza).  Even the ends of the earth have seen salvation, like the corners of the great sheet in Peter’s vision.  The second reading is another of John’s reflections on the all-encompassing nature of God’s love, and the Gospel is from John 15, following directly from the previous week.  These readings from John are part of the Last Discourse given to the apostles before they all set out for the Mount of Olives where the Passion will be set in train by Judas’ kiss.  Jesus repeats his command to love one another, trying to make this the message that they will all understand and remember even when he has gone.  It is the nearest thing the early Church has to a mission statement.

It is allowed in the rubric to swap the second reading and Gospel for the seventh Sunday  in place of sixth Sunday, if the Ascension Mass takes the place of the seventh Sunday, but the message remains the same, just coming slightly later in the text.

Onward and upward
Ascension
I particularly like the feet and the footprints in this one

The next event after this is the Ascension, whether you celebrate it on the traditional Thursday or the following Sunday; but we have come a long way in these six weeks, and we now know that the group of disciples will find a way to cope after Jesus’ departure.  The early Church is on its way.  There is another of those screeching changes of gear and direction at the beginning of the readings for the Ascension, because we go back (all three Liturgical Years the same) to the very beginning of Acts, with the apostles waiting in the Upper Room.  Jesus tells them to stay there and wait for the Holy Spirit, and after his Ascension, this is precisely what they do.

Penetecost dove
the arrival of the Holy Spirit

But now we already know, because of the Eastertide readings, that after Pentecost, amazing things will happen, and the disciples will find a way to carry the story forward even without Jesus.  The Eastertide readings are like an interlude.  Like the apostles, we are waiting for the next event to happen (first the Ascension, and then Pentecost), but it’s not like the waiting of Lent or the Sundays of Ordinary Time.  We are celebrating the fact of the Resurrection over these six weeks.  This joy is too much for one Sunday, and that’s why we keep on using the double alleluias at the end of Mass as part of the dismissal.  But we need a story to keep us interested from week to week, so we find out how Jesus’ followers started to carry out the charge he gave them. The early Church is a complicated and messy phenomenon. There are several protagonists and there are several different cities where it is all happening.  This is exciting; these are signs of success.  It is difficult to take it all in, especially in bite-sized Sunday chunks; but the Sundays of Eastertide give us a chance to see how the mustard seed of faith takes root and grows into the great tree so that all the birds can come and nest in it.  Quite a story.

Yggdrasil tree
Celtic roots, wider outreach

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