Autumn means angels
Season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, and autumn-tinted wings, as we have the feast of the great Archangels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, on September 29th, quickly followed by Guardian Angels on October 2nd.
Psalms for the angels….
I’ve written before about angels, but this is more of a survey of what you might call ‘angelic psalms’. The Archangels have their psalm (Ps 137/138) fixed for their feast, but the celebration of the Guardian Angels is officially not so important (classed as a ‘Memorial’ rather than a ‘Feast’), so there’s a little more flexibility over the choice of psalm. The UK and Eire Lectionary seems to stick with Psalm 90/91, and so does the OZ Lectionary. I’m delighted to say that I was given the words from this last, just in time, so this year, there is a setting for our faithful Australians on the website. The CAN Lectionary has Psalm 90/91, but with two possible Responses to choose from. My researches among my US missals, however, indicates lots of possible psalms. I’ve set all the ones I have found suggested for this celebration, four so far, and I don’t know whether this list is complete (Pss 87/88, 90/91, 136/137, and 138/139).
….Angels in the Psalms
The Archangels’ psalm (137/138) is chosen because it specifically states : ‘In the presence of the angels I will bless you'(v.1), and it’s only when you go looking that you realise how rarely the angels appear in the Book of Psalms. Indeed, if you look up that particular psalm, nearly every other translation has ‘before the gods’, but my commentary says rather sniffily that this is the least accurate translation, and ‘rulers’, ‘priests’ or ‘angels’ are all more likely. So we have ‘angels’, who are good people to be in company with when singing praise, and the kings appear anyway in v.4, to swell the chorus. It’s a great positive psalm, with almost swaggering words and a strong onward momentum, so I set it to a couple of rollicking tunes (one for US and CAN, one for UK and OZ, but the verse words are different, so you need the right one) and I hope people are singing it with a swing. Angels with attitude. These are the Archangels, after all.
A more domestic version
With the Guardian Angels, the mood is gentler. We have (at least) one each, so they feel to be more on our scale, though they can work together as a team, when sent on a mission. Psalm 90/91 is the Guardian Angels psalm for most Lectionaries, a psalm which lists in detail all the dangers lying in the path and then discounts them all with sublime and total confidence. In v.11 there is a direct reference to angels protecting, which gives us the psalm’s Response. These angels are plural to make the bearing up effortless, and I always think of them as holding one hand each so as to whisk the vulnerable person up and over every obstacle, as you can with a small child. In nineteenth-century pictures, Guardian Angels are often shown as female, which is unusual for angels, but it is because they are looking after small children, in a sort of nanny role. I think this is one reason for their quite astonishing popularity among the unchurched, because they are another support you can invoke to keep your children safe, which is what everyone wants to do.
Being charged and being in charge
The Response for this psalm is (different versions of) the eleventh verse of the psalm, as I said, but because of the different meanings of the expression ‘in charge’, this can lead to slight confusion. I suspect this may be why the CAN version has two possible Responses : ‘The angels of the Lord will guard you in all your ways’ and ‘The Lord has put angels in charge of you, to guard you in all your ways’. Both of these are rather long for a psalm Response anyway. I remember being left ‘in charge’ of smaller brothers and sisters, and it meant either that they had to do what you said or that you would be in trouble when they naturally didn’t. This is not that sort of ‘in charge’. What it means is that God has given these angels the specific job of looking after you, he has charged them with it as their required task. The shorter version just states the outcome : the angels will do their job.
The angel of the Lord
The angel of the Lord in the psalms on the other hand is a figure who could be terrifying if he were not on your side.’ The angel of the Lord is encamped/ around those who revere him, to rescue them’ (Ps 33/34): this is a mighty angel, even in the singular. And certainly protective in his effect, but not on the intimate and personal scale of the Guardian Angels, so this is not one of the psalms suggested. Similarly, God’s angel scatters enemies like chaff before the wind and pursues them into the dark in Ps 34/35: again, this is frightening, and not a psalm suggested for Guardian Angels. It seems slightly perverse to list all the psalms we aren’t being offered, but it really is just because the references are brief or not illuminating in this context, e.g. ‘mere men ate the bread of angels’ (Ps 77/78.25, which also has ‘destroying angels ‘ in v.49) or ‘Praise him, all his angels’ (Ps 148/149), where the psalm is a litany of praise and the angels are only one item among many. This idea is slightly developed in Ps 102/103.20ff, but that is what gives us the Gospel Acclamation or Alleluia verse for both Archangels and Guardian Angels, so that one is included.
Guardian Angel psalm options
So which psalms do we get to use? As I said, my information is that all the anglophone Lectionaries except the US stick with Psalm 90/91, with its overwhelming emphasis on protection. I needed a gentle, orderly tune, but with a bit of room for word-painting, so that I could make the plague that prowls in the darkness growl a bit and the angels coast over the dangers in the last verse. There was a technical problem in the very long Response, as there always is with a long response (and the angels seem to bring them out every time). It has to be predictable and comfortable enough not to frighten the congregation, and easy to remember; but not so boring that they won’t want to sing it the five times required. Unfortunately you can’t simply piggyback on a tune that everyone knows, or there will be unhelpful connotations attached (I enjoy making little references, like to Waltzing Matilda in Mother Mary MacKillop’s Alleluia, but I wouldn’t use the tune as a psalm response). So you have to tread a middle way, and hope the angels will bear you (and the congregation) up; and of course, everybody has different words for their response, so the rhythms and tunes are all different.
More available for the US
The other psalms prescribed in the US Lectionary are Ps 87/88, Ps 136/137 and Ps 138/139. The first two are slightly unexpected. Ps 87/88 is the psalm of despair, which I have written about before, a cry in extremity. That blog discusses how and why I set it, so I don’t need to say it all again. It is a psalm that makes us grateful for the presence of angels. The same is true of Ps 136/137, which again I have written about before. It’s the By the rivers of Babylon psalm, and I have to say I’m glad it’s not the one set for the UK psalm this year particularly, as it would be very hard to sing about having your music taken away at the moment, when we may not sing in any church. But maybe that’s why we should pray it. So that’s two US options both with very dark words. The third is Ps 138/139, prescribed on the US Bishops’ website for this year. This is the psalm we sing at John the Baptist’s birthday, about God knitting us in our mother’s womb and knowing us through and through.
The wings of the dawn
But the choice of the stanzas is different. After the same first verse about God knowing everything about the person singing, for the Guardian Angels
we have the beautiful section starting from v.7, where the psalmist extols the ubiquity of God (‘Where can I go…where can I flee’) but he isn’t fleeing, he’s glorying in the thought that there is nowhere he can be that God is not. ‘If I take the wings of the dawn’ (and remember, this is written many ages before manned flight, this is like a modern David Bowie singing about flying in the furthest depths of outer space), ‘even there […] your right hand would hold me fast’. This is the answer to the despair in Ps 87/88 and the grief in Ps 136/137. Wherever we can be, God is there already.
God can be everywhere
There is a saccharine slogan that was fashionable a while ago, ascribed to many sources (including the Talmud) and quoted by Kipling : God could not be everywhere, so he made mothers. It can’t be out of the Talmud, because it’s patently wrong, and he can. More reassuring for us is that he has agents he can send to help in any extremity. It’s not as catchy, but a better slogan would be : God is everywhere, and he sends angels. We can never be out of reach. On the feast of the Guardian Angels, we can celebrate not just that God has emergency services he can call on at any time, but also that we all have one of them close to us all the time. Another comforting thought for the dark days as autumn draws in.
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