‘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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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.

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