Thinking of Lent in the round
What about the psalms set for the various Lent Sundays? Do they have a cumulative effect over the Lent season each year? When we look at the words of the Gospel Acclamations week by week, we can see a pattern, an underlying feeling, what I have called a narrative arc, across the weeks of Lent, counting it across the five Sundays to Palm Sunday (because once we reach Palm Sunday, we are in one irresistible dramatic retelling of events, no matter which liturgical year we are in). Are the psalms for Lent part of the same pattern as the Acclamations, or do they run in counterpoint?
Following a thread in the pattern, year by year
The Lent psalms week by week do indeed have a narrative arc, and it varies considerably between the years. Year A, the year of Matthew gospels, has psalms about repentance. We start with Psalm 50/51, the Miserere, which follows naturally on from the account of the Fall in the first reading; and go through to Ps 129/130, the De profundis on Fifth Sunday (I’m just using the Latin names as shorthand), going past God’s law (Ps 32/33) and not hardening our hearts (Ps 94/95) on the way. The Lord is my shepherd (Ps 22/23) is the psalm for Fourth (Pink) Sunday, for comfort and reassurance, following the reading about the selection of David the shepherd as the future king.
Year B (Mark) has the emphasis very much on laws, moving from Ps 24/25 (make me know your ways, teach me your paths) on through Ps 115/116 and Ps 18/19 (the law of the Lord is perfect) , past the desolate (but so lyrical) Ps 136/137 (By the waters of Babylon, best song lyric ever) and ending up with Ps 50/51, the Miserere again, where Year A started.
But Year C (Luke), which is our current year, has a different emphasis again. The Gospel Acclamations are about repentance, but the psalms are a joyful celebration of mercy, forgiveness and the goodness of God. Luke has been called the Gospel of mercy, and we had the special Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016, the last time we had the C cycle of readings. Year C doesn’t use Psalm 50/51 at all. We have Ps 90/91 (protection in trouble) in Week 1, fearless confidence in Week 2 (Ps 26/27), God’s kindness in Week 3 (Ps 102/103), God’s goodness in Week 4 (Ps 33/34, Taste and see) and the joy of the redeemed in Week 5 (Ps 125/126, The Lord has done great things for us, we are filled with joy). The psalms and the Acclamations support each other, but have different emphases, like two colours in a pattern. And the psalms are the more dominant colour in the pattern.
Function of the Responsorial Psalm in the Mass
The Psalm is meant to be our response to the first reading. This is a part of the Old Testament, so that means we are only guessing, most of the time, roughly when it was written, who (multiple whos) wrote it, and what is it trying to tell us. Sometimes it’s a part of religious history, and/or human history, sometimes it’s beautiful and edifying, sometimes it can be violent and scary, sometimes it’s a bit baffling (though often less so than St Paul). There is always a message there, but (because of the Holy Spirit), it won’t be the same message every time, and it’s certainly not the same message for every listener. It’s interesting to work out by a sort of triangulation of the readings, the Gospel, the psalm and the Acclamations, what the Church wants us to take from the first reading, and it’s even more interesting when something else irresistibly occurs to you through its words. So pay attention, and see what strikes you! The Psalm, then, is meant to be our corporate or communal response, so it’s fair to use the two pieces of text (psalm and first reading) to illuminate each other.
First Sunday of Lent (C)
The first reading is out of Deuteronomy, and it’s what we should say as a prayer when bringing a thank-offering after the harvest, according to Moses. I like the way that Moses directs us to remind God who we are (as though he’s forgotten) and why we’re doing this, but this is really to give himself a chance to remind the people of God’s longterm care of them.
There is deep resonance in the line ‘A wandering Aramean was my father’. It sounds like the beginning of so many great stories that you could write a book tracing it through Western literature, I feel. So here we have a potted history from the poor nomad Abram, down through the years of more prosperity, into slavery in Egypt, the departure from Egypt ‘with great terror and with signs and wonders’, finally ending in ‘a land where milk and honey flow’. We actually haven’t yet made it to the Promised Land, because Moses is still here directing the people, and we know he only sees it and never reaches it.
Psalm for First Sunday (90/91)
The psalm in response to this reading is completely confident in God’s protection. Lots of dangers are named (plague, stones, lions, vipers, dragons), but none of them worries us or the psalmist, because God has promised to save us in all our distress. It moves from a third person start, ‘he who dwells’, to a second person set of promises, ‘upon you no evil shall fall’, to a last strophe where God takes over as the speaker and promises directly to rescue the one who calls upon him, and indeed, do even more than rescuing : ‘I will give him glory’. I’m going to skip the second readings, or this will be far too long, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the Gospel is Luke’s version of the Temptation in the desert, where the devil actually quotes the psalm we have just sung, and of course no harm comes to Jesus despite all the temptations on offer.
Second Sunday of Lent (C)
This first reading is back to Genesis, and so chronologically earlier than the previous week’s. Indeed, we are all the way back to Abram, the original wandering Aramean (Jacob is another, but later), and a strange little story about sacrificing animals and dancing firepots. As I said, my group is studying Genesis this year, so I can tell you that this is really early on, and Abram doesn’t know much about God at all at this stage. He is having to make it up as he goes along, with God occasionally intervening to stop him going too far astray. What is remarkable is how much Abram trusts God (he leaves everything he knows, and sets out because God tells him to do so…..but nobody else knows anything about this strange God that he has taken up with), and that he can transmit that trust to his household, because they come too, even though God talks only to Abram (to begin with). God promises Abram countless descendants, and a vast land (not currently empty) for them to live in. (He will also change his name to Abraham later on.)
Psalm for Second Sunday (26/27)
How do we respond to this? With another psalm of complete confidence and secure hope. There’s even a note of bravado here, I think; the first verse always sounds to me slightly like someone bravely whistling in a risky situation (that wistful note is because I have never been able to whistle). The psalmist here speaks with the voice of Abram : he only knows that he must seek God’s face, and he is sure that everything will work out for the best, even if he does not know how or why. This is the man who becomes ‘the friend of God’ after many trials and tribulations. It’s a strikingly short and simple psalm, ending with an encouragement to patience and perseverance (good virtues for Lent). The Gospel is the Transfiguration told by Luke, where ‘the aspect of [Jesus’] face was changed, and his clothing became brilliant as lightning’, so we pick up both the Lord’s face, the Lord being my light, and seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, as Peter and his companions ‘saw his glory’.
Third Sunday of Lent (C)
The first reading here takes us to Moses again, like First Week, but an earlier stage of his story, with the account of the burning bush. This is Moses’ first direct encounter with the God for whom he has already been stigmatised and exiled from Egypt, where he was being brought up as a prince. Moses doesn’t seem to be expecting God, he goes over to check out the bush because he is curious about why it is not burning up. It’s almost as though God has set things up to attract him and is waiting patiently. ‘When the Lord saw him coming over to look at it more closely’, he calls out to him, just his name. Notice the delicacy of this. God doesn’t want to frighten Moses, he wants to talk to him, so he can’t appear in mighty splendour because Moses would run away. He just calls to him, and Moses responds as though to anyone saying his name :’Here I am’. Then God warns him to stay where he is (and take off his shoes, so he can’t run away quickly). God explains who he is, introducing himself as a friend of the family, and Moses hides his face because he is so frightened, even with God taking all these precautions. God tells Moses that he is going to rescue his people and lead them out of slavery to the promised land.
The chronology is a bit confusing, because this is before where we were on First Sunday of Lent, let alone Second Sunday, which went even further back. The Israelites are still in Egypt, in slavery, but Moses has been working as a shepherd for Jethro after his banishment from Egypt (and he marries one of Jethro’s daughters). God is telling Moses to go back to Egypt and lead all the others out.
Moses understandably asks,’Why should the Israelites listen to me? Who shall I say sent me?’ God answers with his untranslatable name ‘I am who am/be/is’, but then relents slightly and says that he can tell the Israelites an easier name to cope with: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob […] this is my name forever; thus am I to be remembered through all generations’.
Psalm for Third Sunday (102/103)
Follow that, as they say. It’s an absolutely corking reading, and the psalm more or less simply casts itself down in worship. ‘The Lord is kind and merciful’…and he does everything to help us. The third strophe specifically refers back to the reading : ‘the Lord secures the rights of the oppressed […] he made known his ways to Moses’. Indeed he just did. The Gospel tells of Jesus calling for repentance but also warning against thinking others more guilty than oneself, plus the parable of the fig tree which is given an extra year to see whether the careful gardener can get it to bear fruit (and if it doesn’t, it will then be cut down), one of the easier parables to understand. The message is clear but measured, and tempered with a will to mercy.
I’m not going to cover the Year A readings in this blog, because I’ll do them next year, this is turning out to be an excessively long blog already! You are allowed to use them as alternatives for Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays, because of the Scrutinies.
Fourth Sunday of Lent (C)
We’re still leaping about chronologically. The first reading is from Joshua, and the wanderings of the Israelites are coming to an end. Moses has died, but God has allowed Joshua to lead the Israelites across the river of Jordan, in a scene openly recalling the crossing of the Red Sea. Now the Chosen People have reached Canaan, now the story (which has been more or less on hold, with all the wandering in the desert) can set off again. So they celebrate the Passover, their founding event and only just out of living memory, and the manna stops arriving. This is going to be their land where they can feed themselves. God is fulfilling his promises. He has fed and watered the people all through the desert years; now he has given them the fertile land he promised ages ago.
Psalm for Fourth Sunday (33/34)
The answering psalm is a song of praise and gratitude for God’s goodness, with a Response from just a little later in the same psalm, one of those OT verses which bend under the enormous weight which we Christians superimpose on them. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ – obvious reference to the manna, but also to our experience of God. St Peter has a similar but female-slanted reference, which I shall include here because I’m writing this on International Women’s Day : ‘Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord’ (1 Peter 2.2-3). For us, of course, the reference is overwhelmingly to the Eucharist.
The Gospel is the story of the prodigal son; so there’s another person who is rescued from all his distress. This story is only in Luke’s gospel; and the father shows us how desperately God wants to make a fuss of us and shower us with all good things, if we will only come back to him. No reproaches, except the ones the younger son makes for himself; no carping, except from the older brother, and he’s not even inside the house, so the younger son would not see his jealousy and anger; just loving mercy all the way. The pattern is becoming clear.
Fifth Sunday of Lent (C)
The first reading is from Isaiah, and it’s another wonderful, heart-lifting read or listen : God reminds his people of the great moment when he led them through the sea (and the Jordan, as we heard the previous week); and then instantly moves on : ‘No need to recall the past’, and calls us to look as he makes a new path in new territory, virgin land, almost a return to Eden. The forgiveness is total, the mercy all-embracing. We can start again with no hangovers from before. It ends ‘The people I have formed for myself will sing my praises’.
Psalm for Fifth Sunday (125/126)
And so we do. There is another reference to the slavery in Egypt, corresponding to God’s remembering the Red Sea, and the words of the psalm also pick up God’s promise of water in the wilderness, streams in dry land – the first necessity of life, and always only in God’s gift (look at all the times drought plays a part in the story : Joseph and the famine, Elijah, Moses striking the rock and so on). We don’t forget the past grief, but it is outweighed by the current joy. And the joy means singing, in the first strophe and the last one, so the psalm goes round in a beautiful circle, like a ring dance.
The Gospel is the woman taken in adultery (only in John’s Gospel), pointing again to the completeness of forgiveness and the gentleness of God’s mercy. All the readings for Fifth Sunday C are so positive that it’s almost difficult to remember that we are in Lent. The note that keeps being struck is praise, gladness, laughter and songs. And the main colour in the pattern is mercy.
This is, of course, going to make Palm Sunday (main psalm 21/22, My God, why have you forsaken me?) a shocking contrast. But then that’s the whole point of Palm Sunday, with its exuberant procession and palm-waving moving so swiftly into the reading of the Passion. Year C is the most cheerful and positive of the three Lent cycles, in its readings, its psalms, its Acclamations and its Gospels. But the place we get to on Palm Sunday is the same as every other year, and the contrast makes it perhaps even more painful. Why do we have liturgy? Because it works.