Springing into action
Everything seems to burst into activity in the spring, from beetles to bushes. Everything and everybody is busy. Church-music writers are no exception. There’s all the Lent music to sort out, all the Easter music to spruce up (and there’s so much of it, and people get through it all in one night! It’s just like when you spend ages cooking and the family wolfs it in ten minutes); – and then there are the special feasts which need music as well.
St David, first saint of spring
So March is a busy month anyway, and it starts with a bang with St David having his feast day on March 1st. The old weather proverb says of March, ‘In like a lamb, out like a lion’, or the other way around, depending on whether it starts with gales or with gentle breezes. It’s hard to say whether Saint David is more of a lion than a lamb, as we know not much about him. And he is from a long time ago, the sixth century, which means we have very little solid information, except that we know he was an archbishop and Welsh. He was living in turbulent times (true of all three of these saints), and he was a man of authority, so he must have needed lion qualities as well as the lamb-like ones which his preserved words suggest. We have his last words, from an eleventh-century account, which means they are respectable, if not guaranteed, and they are worth noting : “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.” He sounds like a good man, humble and cheerful (and he includes women in his audience, which is very good to hear, and not to be taken for granted).
There are surprisingly few pious legends attached to Dewi Sant (hooray, not being part of the Counter-Reformation or female a great help here), and he is the patron saint of Wales, so he can represent all the good things about that country, personifying Welshness for many of us. You can wear daffodils or leeks on St David’s day : one lifts the heart, the other makes wonderful soup for the still chilly weather. You can bake welsh cakes to mark the day. If you get the chance to visit St Davids in Pembrokeshire you will find the smallest cathedral in Britain, in a most beautiful setting, nestled in a little dell.
Psalm for St David (1)
What psalm does the Church offer us to celebrate Saint David? It’s Psalm 1, which introduces the whole Psalter, describing the contrast between the good man and the wicked (with a certain amount of glee, it has to be admitted). The good man is like a tree planted by flowing waters. This feels entirely appropriate for the Welsh patron saint, with Wales being honeycombed by beautiful brown flowing waters (one of the things which fascinated Gerard Manley Hopkins about the countryside near St Beuno’s, which is further north but still Wales). The setting I’ve done for this psalm for England and Wales has a little quotation from The Ash Grove in it, because it’s a beloved Welsh folksong. I haven’t specifically set St David’s psalm for the other Lectionaries (because he’s a national saint only for Wales and England technically) but it’s the same psalm as for Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C, so in fact everybody has it if they need it.
St Patrick was actually British
Saint Patrick is the next national patron saint to come by in March, on March 17th, and this year he gets bumped by the Second Sunday of Lent. I don’t imagine that will stop anyone celebrating Saint Patrick’s feastday, however, but the specific Mass will be held on another day! Saint Patrick is even further back in time than St David, in the fifth century, and there is an enormous amount of information available about him, some of it popular rather than necessarily reliable. The basic facts appear to be that he was British, captured as a boy and enslaved in Ireland among the pagans but God looked after him. Some years later he escaped and studied to become a priest, eventually discerning a vocation to return to Ireland as a missionary, and spent the rest of his life there, founding and building churches (and performing miracles, like ridding Ireland of snakes). No flowers for Patrick (or vegetables), but there’s always the shamrock.
Psalm for St Patrick (116/117)
What psalm is assigned to him? It’s psalm 116/117, a really short psalm, with the emphasis on St Patrick as a missionary :’Go out to all the world and tell the good news’. Two things make this especially appropriate. One is that the Irish diaspora has done precisely that; and the other is that because of the Irish diaspora, lots of countries celebrate this feast day, and it’s in both the UK and the OZ Lectionaries. The same psalm is used for Ninth and Twentyfirst Sundays in Ordinary Time Year C, so everyone else also has it available. It’s so short (two two-line verses) that I’ve simply set it as a rollicking rise and fall, and you don’t even need a compact version as it takes up so little space. And it’s snake-free.
St Joseph, who always comes third
Saint Joseph has more than one feast day, but his two main ones are March 19th (the Church’s celebration of his feast) and May 1st (feast of Joseph the Worker). He is the patron saint of all sorts of places and people, including Canada, and everybody has him in their Missal, as his feast is classed as a Solemnity and everyone celebrates it. He is a fascinating and surprisingly elusive figure, figuring in only two of the Gospels and not in any of St Paul’s epistles. When God needs to tell him something, he sends him an angel in a dream, to warn, to advise or to reassure, and Joseph always acts with great promptitude and efficiency, leaving for Egypt immediately in the middle of the night, for example. The focus is never on him, but despite his permanent third position, by date of feast and in the popular imagination (‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’, which you only ever hear said in one very particular rhythm and cadence), he’s a very important saint.
He is portrayed as an old(er) man, but this seems to have arisen mainly out of the Church’s hang-ups over sex, and there’s no textual justification for it at all. It’s always fun to check what he’s doing in any portrayal of the Holy Family. Sometimes he’s asleep (worn out because he’s so old), sometimes he’s just standing guard (leaning on a staff, because he’s so old). I like the pictures where he’s looking after the baby because Mary’s asleep, and there are a couple of wonderful illustrations of the journey into Egypt where he’s carrying the sleeping baby and leading the donkey, while Mary grabs a quiet fifteen minutes with a book.
March 19th has been his feast day since the tenth century, but it’s not a very good date really as it often falls in Lent, which casts a damper on the day and means you can’t have any alleluias. I’ve set his Acclamations for US and CAN with the new top-and-tails that sound more celebratory. Like St David, he has a flower, the lily for purity, sometimes sprouting from the staff he needs to hold him up (because he’s so old).
Psalm for St Joseph (88/89)
The psalm, like the readings, emphasizes Joseph’s descent from David and Abraham, which technically isn’t relevant as ancestors of Jesus. It is a celebration of God’s love and the promises of the covenant. This psalm does come up on other Sundays, but there always with a Response along the lines of ‘Forever I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord’. However, for St Joseph, we have ‘His line shall continue forever’. I feel that this is either emphasizing something we should be skating over, or concentrating on celebrating David rather than Joseph.
I like the slightly grumpy Joseph who appears in some of the older poems and carols, notably the Cherry Tree Carol, where when Mary asks for some cherries as they travel through an orchard and Joseph (who is too bent to reach, because he is so old) snaps that whoever gave Mary the baby can get her the cherries. A miracle occurs, and there are various different versions (it’s possibly a composite of three old ballads) but Mary gets the cherries, the unborn baby makes a prediction about his birthday, and Joseph apologises.
It often seems to be possible to make a case for a different (possibly more appropriate) psalm on particular feast days. Saint George’s feast day (in April) doesn’t use any of the psalms that dragons feature in, which is a shame; we don’t sing the Magnificat at the Annunciation, though surely it would be apposite, and we don’t have one of the (few) sea-going psalms for Sea Sunday, which I regret every year. Joseph’s psalm is a good one, but I think I would have given him one of the more ‘craftsman’ psalms, like Ps 89/90, with its double iteration of ‘Give success to the work of our hands’, or possibly better 133/134, which starts ‘O come, bless the Lord,/all you who serve the Lord, /who stand in the house of the Lord’ and goes on ‘Lift up your hands to the holy place/ and bless the Lord through the night’, because it always makes me think of Joseph, standing so patiently watching and protecting in all those Nativity scenes, but awake and alert to do whatever God asked him in the night.
Three great saints; three cheerful psalms. They come up on our journey through Lent like primroses in our path, encouraging us and lightening the heart. They aren’t always Lent saints, because of dates shifting around; but they surely are saints for spring.
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