The last shall be first
The last psalm of the Church’s year for the current year (Year C) is the same as the first psalm for the new year which starts with the First Sunday of Advent (Year A) : Psalm 121/122, a pilgrim psalm. For two Sundays in a row, with very different sets of readings and very different atmospheres and messages, we sing the same psalm. It’s not exactly the same all the way through (of which more later), but the Response and the first verse are identical.
Only every third year
This does not happen every year, only when the move is from Year C (where we are now) to Year A. At the end of liturgical year A, the last psalm is 22/23, because the OT reading for that iteration of Christ the King is about the Lord being a true shepherd, and 1 Advent B has Psalm 79/80. At the end of Year B it’s Psalm 92/93, because we are emphasizing the kingliness of the Lord, and 1 Advent C uses Psalm 24/25. But this year, we have 121/122 for Christ the King on November 24th, and then the same again on December 1st at the beginning of Advent. Why, and does it work?
Psalms of Ascents, or Gradual Psalms
It is a brilliant psalm for both Sundays, for several reasons. First of all, it is one of the ‘psalms of ascent’, one of the traditional pilgrim psalms. The usual Catholic title for these is ‘Gradual psalms’, which I rather like, as it sounds as if it’s celebrating our slow creep towards improvement and the Kingdom. These are a bunch of psalms (119/120 to 133/134) which come just after the longest psalm in the whole book (117/118), a complex and artful meditation on the beauty of God’s Law. The next few psalms are brief, and seem briefer because of the contrast.
The ‘ascent’ could be to Jerusalem, or to the Temple Mount, or up the steps, no one seems to be sure; but I think two things are at work here. Pilgrimages are usually, traditionally, to places hard to reach, and very often uphill, because you express penitence and merit by effort or even suffering; and also there is a convention that you go ‘up’ to Jerusalem the way that in the nineteenth century, people always went ‘up’ to London from anywhere else in the country, even from the north. The same was true of Oxford and Cambridge, which is why being sent home in disgrace is always referred to as ‘sent down’. It’s nothing to do with geographical direction or compass points, and everything to do with aspiration. And they are ‘gradual psalms’ , from gradus, the Latin word for step, because you must travel step by step; no shortcuts.
Pilgrims to Jerusalem
The best, because the longest and most arduous, pilgrimage was to Jerusalem. Here is a link to a wonderful fifteenth-century virtual pilgrimage by Dr Kathryne Beebe, which I stumbled upon while researching this topic, and was enchanted by. And the illustrations are stunning.
Psalms telling the story of a journey
119/120 is a song at the beginning of the pilgrim’s journey, where he is fearful of the people he will encounter on the way and devoutly hopes for God’s protection, while still feeling rather nervous. The next psalm shows the group starting to coalesce (not just ‘I’, but ‘Israel’) and already feeling much braver; it is the beloved and familiar ‘I lift up my eyes to the mountains;/ from where shall come my help?’ (120/121), full of serene confidence, which we had a few Sundays ago. Then we get Psalm 121/122, and we (‘our feet’, ‘the tribes’) have suddenly arrived in Jerusalem. We have reached our destination, as the satnav always says. The later pilgrim psalms are prayers and praise, thanksgiving and celebration, until Psalm 133/134 as the last in this group of psalms, a night-time leavetaking, as the travellers start the journey home.
Psalm 121/122, living in the moment
What is striking about Ps 121/122 is its immediacy. ‘I rejoiced when I heard them say:/ ‘Let us go to God’s house.’/ And now our feet are standing/ within your gates, O Jerusalem.’
There is no explanation or leisurely scene-setting. The speaker could not be more direct. We don’t know who the ‘them’ are which he mentions, but this is immediately overtaken by the excitement of the next line and the sense of arrival and achievement, ‘now’.
At this point the two Sundays’ versions diverge (not US). And I want to talk about them with their preceding readings, because it makes a huge difference to the emphasis.
Christ the King: 2 Samuel 5, and Ps 121/122
The first reading for Christ the King is short. (The context is that Saul is dead by the beginning of Samuel 2, but there is still a lot of fighting going on about the succession.)
All the tribes of Israel come to David at Hebron, and assert their kinship with him. They know about David’s prowess, and they know that God chose him to lead them. So they all come together at Hebron, and ‘King David’ makes a pact with them and is anointed king of Israel. (After this, David goes on to conquer Jerusalem and set up his capital city there.)
The psalm starts as we have seen. The second stanza praises Jerusalem ‘as a city/ strongly compact’, and names it as the focus of pilgrimage and power : ‘It is there that the tribes go up,/ the tribes of the Lord.’. The third stanza makes this even clearer : it is the law to praise God there, and it is where the judgment seats were set up ‘of the house of David’; – so, lawful authority for the ages to come.
1 Advent A : Isaiah 2, and Ps 121/122
The choice of stanzas is different for the First Sunday of Advent (A). We sing almost the entire psalm in this version. This is in response to the words of the beautiful and poetic first reading, which describes ‘the vision of Isaiah […], concerning Judah and Jerusalem.’. This is the fulfilment and apotheosis of the place and event that David’s consecration foreshadows. Isaiah sees ‘the mountain of the Temple of the Lord’ being lifted up above everything else, and all the nations will ‘stream’ to it (water flowing uphill, to show how amzing and totally other this will be), and they will say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord’. The whole world will make this pilgrimage. The people look forward to God teaching them, giving them his laws, bringing justice and peace. The sentences roll on, coming to a final, almost breathless call, ‘O House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.’. It is a most beautiful and stirring piece of writing, with real elan. I think it is impossible, even just reading it silently, not to feel the sweep up and down at the cadence like a mighty wave.
The Temple of the heavenly Jerusalem
The essential ‘place’ mentioned is the Temple and the mountain it is on. Jerusalem is mentioned by name, but only once, as a pair with Zion, and I think this is why the two lines about Jerusalem the compact city are omitted from the Advent version of the psalm, in every version except the US’. (The US version keeps all the lines, and ends up with one verse more than everyone else.) The emphasis is rather on Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage to praise the Lord’s name. We have the thrones of judgement, just as at the end of the Christ the King version, but now we go further, with two stanzas of prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, because now it is more than just a city strongly compact (and therefore defensible if necessary); now it is the home of peace and the house of the Lord. The swords have been hammered into ploughshares, or, as we might say today, the weapons have been put beyond use. This is no earthly address, this is Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem.
Setting the psalm(s)
There was so much similarity between the two versions of the psalm that it would have seemed perverse to write two different settings. I think it’s important to preserve the link between them, so I kept the music the same, except that it was necessary to put extra bars in where there are extra lines. I was very concerned to keep the feeling of ‘going up’ where possible, but it doesn’t technically occur in the words until the second stanza for everyone except the US, where it comes in the second line. So I put it in the melody, which takes a run all the way up the octave. It was difficult with the version of the words for CAN and OZ, so I shifted it to the recorder part, but (I hope) there’s still a feel of moving forwards. Onwards and upwards. It needs to be sung at a good walking pace, not rushing, but not dawdling either.
Ps 121/122, a psalm for coronations
This psalm has been set by many composers (including Boyce, Vivaldi, Purcell…), often incomplete, of course. The most famous setting is probably the Hubert Parry version, which was composed for a king’s coronation in 19o2. Some version has been sung at every British coronation since Charles I (though that did not end well). I don’t think it’s because of a link between this psalm and the feast of Christ the King, however; I think it’s because of the whole tone of triumph and achievement.
Miles to go before we sleep
Triumph and achievement are not exactly the expected note for the First Sunday of Advent! Rather, what we are doing is being delighted to have got this far, and working out what still remains to be done (the praying for the peace of Jerusalem), and above all, doing what we can to bring it about (last stanza). So the words of the psalm the second time around, with its extra verse(s), help us to focus on going forward, and the job still to be done. Very appropriate for 1 Advent, and not too daunting, because we are aware of the (short) timeframe before the Prince of Peace himself will arrive.