‘Bride’ as Church metaphor : Psalm 44 revisited

Psalm 44/45 in a different version

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

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

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

Why here? The other readings

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

Not like the homelife of our own dear Queen

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

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

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

The Lord juggling, a better image of the Trinity

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

…but what sort of bride?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing, like David, before the Lord

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

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



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Canticle Deut 32 : writing a tune for God’s anger?

An unusual Responsorial Psalm

As I’ve said before, it’s always interesting to be asked to set a new text, and the current situation has led to us being asked for tunes for different Responsorial Psalms from the usual Sunday ones.  A recent example was very unusual for a daily Mass on July 27th.   It was a Canticle,  a ‘little song’ not out of the Book of Psalms.  We have several of these, from the Magnificat (Luke 1) to familiar passages from Isaiah, Judith or Exodus.  Some of them are easy to spot, because the form is slightly different from the shape of a psalm, or because of the content.  We sang the Daniel Canticle quite recently (Pentecost and Trinity A), and I blogged about it then.  This Canticle, though, is out of Deuteronomy, which is unusual. The form is not particularly odd, although the Response has been modified, but the content is very strange. 

The Book of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch, the last book of Moses (Moses dies at the end of it). It is the second (hence deuter) giving of the Law, and it comes at the end of the long wanderings in the desert and just before the Chosen People (minus Moses, but with Joshua leading them) head into the Promised Land.  Moses sees it, but may not enter.

Moses gazing upon the Promised Land which God will not allow him to enter, even after forty years in the wilderness

It’s not one of the books that registers with most people, except for some of the passages about Moses, because it is a recap of the history (lots of battles) and a restatement of the Law, so rather dry, really.   But it is quoted many times in the New Testament, and was very important for the early Christians, especially the ones who had started out as Jews, and written its words upon their heart, as prescribed in Deut 6.6.  It is the legal reference book for Jesus, for example; the quotations he uses to see off the Devil in the wilderness (Matt 4, Luke 4) are all from Deuteronomy, as are the laws in the following chapter with the repeated ‘You have heard it said […] but I say to you…’ (Matt 5). 

God of anger, terrifying even in pink (Sistine)

Paul quotes Deuteronomy often;  it is a basic part of his mental furniture as a Pharisee.  Some very familiar Scriptural phrases are from it, such as the great call  Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one….(Deut. 6.4), and Vengeance is mine, I will repay (Deut.32.35, and Hebrews 10.30). It’s often the Deuteronomy version of the commandments which sounds more familiar than the Exodus one.  This book also gives us several proverbial expressions (a dreamer of dreams,13.1, the wife of thy bosom 13.6, the apple of his eye 32.10), as well as many turns of phrase familiar to us from various psalms (passim).  The figure of God in Deuteronomy is a stern Deity, though, full of anger and vengefulness, and the words in this Canticle are terrifying (see below).

Moses retells the story so far
high points in Moses’ story

Moses takes the opportunity, in his final address to the nation, to review the story from the departure out of Egypt up to the present.  He narrates the history of the last forty years or so, restating the important parts like the Commandments, and scolding the people for their many failures to follow God’s law.  Deuteronomy is two books in one; as well as being a restating of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, it is also a hero narrative about Moses, recapping all the battles he fought and all the successes which God gave him.  It goes on to describe his death, the point where he leaves the story, although there is no sense of age or weakness overtaking him (unlike the other patriarchs, but very like a hero figure).

The long form of a contract or covenant

Not only the Commandments are repeated, all the food laws are too, and other laws about how to treat your Hebrew slaves, how the Levites should behave, divorce arrangements and so on.  There is a mixture of carrot and stick in this law-giving;  Moses relays God’s will and backs it up with threats just as much as promises, quite literally blessings and curses (standard for treaties and covenants at the time).  The form is important; the whole book is cast as a contemporary covenant or treaty, and its function is as though to reboot the covenant and start afresh in a new place as a settled nation under God’s rules.  It is a second chance for the people to agree to the bargain God wants to make with them.

The Song of Moses (which everyone was meant to learn)

The verses chosen for us to stand as the Responsorial Psalm come from a section near the end of the book, known as The Song of Moses, in which Moses describes God’s bitter disappointment and anger at his people’s disobedience and contumacy.  There are more positive sections in this long song, but overall the effect is of anger and vengeance, repeated failure and bitterness.  The beginning is Moses addressing the people, but swiftly it changes to God directly accusing and threatening them.  There are only three verses and there is no lightening of the mood.

The text of the Responsorial Psalm (OZ version)

Deut. 32:18-21. R. see v.18

(R.) You have forgotten God who gave you birth.

  1. You forget the Rock who begot you,/unmindful now of the God who fathered you. /The Lord had seen this, and in his anger /cast off his sons and his daughters. (R.)
  1. ‘I shall hide my face from them,’ he says /‘and see what becomes of them. /For they are a deceitful brood, /children with no loyalty in them. (R.)
  1. ‘They have roused me to jealousy with what is no god, /they have angered me with their beings of nothing; /I, then, will rouse them to jealousy with what is no people. /I will anger them with an empty-headed nation.’ (R.)
Vindictive anger, but better in context

I was so aghast when I read the words that I had to go back to first principles and check what this was meant to be a Response to.  I thought it must be some terrible account of the people going off after false gods or stubbornly defying God’s direct command, but it isn’t;  it is a reading out of Jeremiah 13, where God tells the prophet to go and buy a linen loincloth, wear it but don’t wash it, and then bury it.  Later God sends him back to dig it up again, but it is of course no longer usable.  Then God explains that this is how he will rot the pride and arrogance of Judah and Jerusalem.  They should be clinging to the Lord the way a loincloth clings to the body, but they have turned away.  So the Responsorial Psalm is God expressing his anger.

God's anger
God’s anger and its aftermath
The Deuteronomy Canticle as a Psalm

There are two real difficulties with this as a Psalm.  One is that most of it is God speaking in the first person, which is always tricky, but the bigger problem is the bitterness with which he speaks.  He plots to pay them back with worse than they have done to him.  This is not a loving father speaking, but someone full of rancour and anger. He uses the language of the family (sons, daughters, children), but he is not talking or behaving as a parent.  Rather, these are the words of one party to a contract who has been cheated and deceived by the other party.  Now this began to make more sense, because Deuteronomy is meant to be about the contract between God and his people (with lots of warnings about how they have continually got it wrong in the past, so they had better try to act in accordance with the contract in the future).

Not something to sing about

How do you set God’s anger to a tune?  I found this set of words very daunting.  It needed to be minor or at least modal, because the tone is so dark and minatory.  For God to talk like this about his Chosen People shows how saddened he has been by their behaviour, how distressed.  But we know that he is not closing the door on them, so I did go for modal in the end.  I wanted something simple (the words are stark and direct) but haunting, like the psalms on Good Friday or the Reproaches.  It was particularly difficult because there is no movement away from the dark mood, unlike most psalms, where although you may start ‘in the depths’, the words carry you to a place where at least there is a rock to rest your foot on.

Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora) : good parenting
Solace in the midst of woe

As it happened, the next psalm I had to work on was also a response to another reading from Jeremiah, for 22nd Sunday A.  Jeremiah complains to God about being seduced and enthralled by him, being driven to act as the Lord’s messenger and being badly treated by the people in consequence.  This time, though, the response is the lovely Psalm 62/63, one of my beloved yearning psalms.  Here the two pieces of text work together to remind us of God’s love, like the beautiful moment when Jesus says to Julian of Norwich,’My darling, in all thy woes I have ever been with thee; now seest thou my loving’.  This was a very comforting psalm to move on to, and I was grateful.  As Deuteronomy also reminds us, ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deut. 33.27).

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