A name of power : who was Melchisedek?

A mysterious figure

In the psalm (109/110)  for Corpus Christi Year C, there is a reference to Melchisedek.  This is one of only two references to him in the Old Testament. Here are the words in Genesis 14 :

‘And Melchisedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine;  he was priest of the Most High God.  Then he blessed him [Abram, who’s just returned from winning a major battle and freeing Lot from captivity] and said: ‘Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Maker of heaven and earth; and praised be the Most High God, who has handed your oppressors over to you!’  And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.’

And that is absolutely all the information we have about Melchisedek in the Old Testament, apart from the reference in Psalm 109/110 :’You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchisedek of old’ or ‘…in the line of Melchisedek.’  Different translations of Genesis are not sure who gave the tithe to whom, and the words can vary slightly (I took the translation above out of the Jehovah’s Witness version, because I thought it was probably the most literal).  You can see how early a part of the salvation story this is by the fact that Abram is still missing the extra syllable God will give him later.

Melchisedek at altar
Melchisedek and Abram, brass altar piece, 1181
Full of significance
Here he is in nineteenth-century stained glass

I’m not qualified to discuss all the later meanings added on to the figure of Melchisedek.  There are old Jewish traditions about him, he’s mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, he’s mentioned by some of the Gnostics, St Paul considers him a central figure in explaining how Jesus did not need to be related to Aaron or Levi and yet is the Great High Priest  (this is all in the Epistle to the Hebrews, because it’s an interesting Jewish theological question), and what that means, is that this psalm is quoted in the New Testament more often than any other, all on this Melchisedek point.

Names in poetry and songs

But having read the account from Genesis, you now have as much information as the psalmist of this particular psalm, who we think might well have been David.  I want to discuss the power of proper names in poems and songs, and specifically the difficulty of setting them to music.  Proper names are awkward because they are too specific and often not euphonious.  It works if the name is of someone with mythical or enhanced status (Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour…),  but it’s difficult to avoid bathos where it’s just someone less important.   Wordsworth wrote several poems which start with the name of the person he’s addressing, like the ‘Milton’ poem, but it doesn’t really work attached to a name that means nothing to the reader.    Try it yourself, with the names of people you know, and it’s hard to repress a snigger.  This is the whole basis of the joke in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Generic goddesses or proper names

The Greeks, the Romans and European poets up to the eighteenth century handle this by using nymph or goddess names for their (real) sweethearts, but a specific reference name is much harder to deal with.   So we have ‘Jenny kiss’d me when we met’  interestingly described as a ‘Rondeau’ (musical dance form as well as a type of poem),  Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone,  which is a madrigal;   but it’s hard to deal with a name and surname, unless a comic effect is desired (‘Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins’).  Of course there are exceptions (Barbara FrietchieBarbara AllenEleanor Rigby ), but on the whole, it’s easier to deal with people famous enough to have one-word names (Napoleon (Shelley), Shakespeare  (Ben Jonson).  Whitman avoids Lincoln’s name in his poem, just addressing him as ‘O Captain! my Captain!’.

Names with exotic sounds

But there’s one group of names, often but not always single words, which are in the text because of their sound and sometimes their overtones.  They are characterised by an incantatory quality, often marked by exotic strangeness.  They can be geographical, historical, romantic; they can be totally normal in one context but like magic or hilarious words in a child’s ear.   Lear’s  The Akond of Swat  is one of the first that a young reader comes across and a good example (and there’s another poem about the same gentleman by George Lanigan, less well-known, same idea, quite different, extremely funny).    It doesn’t even have to be poetry : Kipling’s great grey-green greasy Limpopo has created magic for children even in prose.

There’s a poem by W.J. Turner called Romance, which describes this perfectly, where the force of the poem lies in the magic exotic names of the places (cf. Marlowe’s Persepolis or Ilium).  I came across this poem as a child; I still don’t know anything about those places, and I don’t want or need to; but ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, they had stolen my soul away’ indeed.  John Masefield’s Cargoes is similar, but he uses exotic words as well as names (though sadly I have never yet managed to use the word ‘quinquireme’ casually in a sentence).

Names of power
Beautiful dawn
Clouds of glory from my garden

With names of people, it isn’t pure sound usually, though Tolkien is a master of this, as you would expect (Galadriel, Faramir, Tom Bombadil).  There’s a lot of foreign-naming going on in nineteenth-century poetry, part of the contemporary passion for the exotic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a good example (Kubla Khan, Xanadu).   Swinburne is another (Aholibah).  The Brownings tried, but don’t seem to me to succeed (just calling Italy ‘Italia’ is not enough, and Garibaldi is unfortunately suggestive in an English pronunciation).   The names to conjure with are mostly those with reverberations, which come as it were trailing clouds of glory, to coin a phrase.

Names of mystery

However some of the most powerful magic comes when there is nothing but a name : look at Shelley’s Ozymandias.   Sometimes it’s a name with just a bit more, which does not illuminate, but adds to the mystery : Hereward the Wake; Herne the Hunter; and even (I would argue, and so would Christopher Robin)  Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Let’s get back to Melchisedek
Melchisedek, name of power and of mystery

Melchisedek is a classic example of an incantatory name, because we have so little other information; and just because there is so little of it, it’s all very significant.  Who is he?  He is described as ‘king and priest of Salem’.  ‘Salem’ could be Jeru-salem, but is also the same word as ‘shalom’, so this person is ‘prince of peace’, to use Isaiah’s formulation.  Being king and priest is highly significant, not just in a Christian or Davidic forerunner context, but because it means you outrank others in both spheres (imagine if Charlemagne had been the Pope as well).  Look at the trouble Henry VIII caused by making himself head of the Church in England, and that was even without invoking the priesthood; and one of the reasons Charles I was so difficult to deal with was because he believed so strongly in the divine right of kings; – but this is to raise the claim to a whole new level.

Melchisedek in landscape
Bringing forth bread and wine almost like a picnic

What does Melchisedek do?  He appears with no context; he brings out (of where?) bread and wine; he blesses Abram (presumably by laying his hands on his head, so Abram has had to bend or even kneel before him); and he praises God by a name which shows that he means The One True God, not anyone local or subordinate; and then he disappears again, to reappear only in Psalm 109/110, which plays absolutely fair in not adding any further information, but using the same incantatory name.

Melchisedek qualifies for a feast day
Melchisedek Athos icon
Athos icon of Melchisedek

Melchisedek is significant enough to make it into the Roman Liturgical Calendar.  His feast day is August 26th.  For the Eastern Orthodox, it is May 22nd.  For the Armenian Church it’s July 26th, as one of the Holy Forefathers.  I was very excited to discover this, and went hunting for a feast of the Holy Foremothers, but sadly this does not exist, though I did find a feast of Holy Translators, which I trust includes people like Catherine Winkworth.    Melchisedek’s importance for the Church is mainly because of the use St Paul makes of him, as indicating a pre-Levite and pre-Aaronic priesthood,  in which Jesus can be the great High Priest ‘according to the line of Melchisedek’, which I’m not qualified even to discuss.  I am just concerned with the practicality of setting proper names to music.  At least Melchisedek is one where everyone knows how to pronounce it (I always worry about Massah and Meribah, in Psalm 94/95), but it presents problems of its own.

Melchisedek modern icon
Modern icon, with classic attributes again
Setting  Melchisedek to music

Melchisedek is a name, a word of four syllables.  I try to avoid using anything smaller than a quaver, especially for the Response, so you’re looking at 2 crotchets or quarter notes minimum, which is half or two-thirds of a bar, if not a whole bar.  You can play with rhythm but not duration : you need all four syllables.  And it’s not just in the Cantor’s part, it is in the Response; and it is (mostly) the last word of the Response, so it is full of emphasis, it has the cadence.  These are the unavoidable considerations, and I’m actually rather glad that this name does not come up as often as (say) Zion or Israel.   Words like ‘ordinances’ are similarly tricky.

Variation in the Responses

It’s a sizeable chunk in the Response, and the words around it vary according to the different Lectionaries.  US and OZ both have ‘You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchisedek’, but they have different strophe words (OZ follows the same strophe words as the UK Lectionary. Mostly.).  UK has ‘You are a priest for ever, a priest like Melchisedek of old’, and CAN has ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedek’, which gave me the most trouble of all.

The US version arranged itself neatly into a 3/4 rhythm, with the stresses falling naturally as the tune lollops along, so the Response set the mood for the whole psalm.  The UK Response seemed to have a more exotic or even other-worldly feel, and the rhythm was more flexible, so that came out in 4/4, but with a modal, haunting little tune.  I didn’t want to lose the impact of the name, so I treated the ‘of old’ as a part of the title.  OZ shares the US  Response but the UK verse words.  As though to rub it in, the second half of the fourth strophe is the same word-for-word as the UK Response, but combining the two together didn’t work, so I started again, and that is a completely different setting, in 4/4.   Somehow that arrangement of words in the Response doesn’t seem to need the haunting quality; I think ‘in the line of’ is much more straightforward than ‘of old’, maybe.

The CAN Response was awkward because there were just so many words in it, and the rhythm was not flexible.  Ideally, you don’t want a Response to be too long or too complicated (I’ve written about this before), because the congregation has to pick it up quickly and not forget it in between its appearances, so I try to keep it to four bars or eight if it’s a quicker flow.  ‘You are a priest for ever’ is already half of a Response. ‘According to the order of’ is a lot of syllables, even before you get to ‘Melchisedek’.  I had to do a lot of saying it out loud before I could fix a rhythm which worked, and I was surprised to find that I could relate it best to the UK modal tune  (the strophe words were slightly different, but it was easy to adapt the tune).  When I looked at the UK and CAN Responses carefully, they were each five bars, which surprised me again, but I think that’s one reason why they feel slightly uncanny, unbalanced (in a good way), and this preserves the exotic element which I didn’t want to lose.

See how an expert does it….

Psalm 109/110 starts ‘Dixit Dominus’ in Latin, and because it’s a neat, short psalm with wonderful words, many great composers have set it.  It’s part of Vespers, for a start (Monteverdi and Mozart). Because of the Melchisedek line, it’s useful as celebratory music for Church celebrations, like Zadok the Priest is for royal events, with all those repeated ‘May the King live for ever’s.  Here’s a link to the part where Handel sets the Melchisedek reference.   He does it as (mostly) runs of semiquavers, so you only really hear it as the choir comes down to the triumphant conclusion.  He’s following the music not the words, and you’d never get away with it as a Responsorial Psalm, but it’s a lovely piece of music.

Melchisedek, Abram, servants….and God as well

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What’s the story in the Eastertide Sundays (Year C)?

Eastertide : celebration which keeps going

After all the joy and excitement of Easter Sunday, the Church settles down to enjoy the Easter season which lasts through six more Sundays. Eastertide  ends with the Ascension and then Pentecost, so specifically this is the period  after the Resurrection but while Jesus is still on earth.   He is still the central character, but he comes and goes at this stage in the story.  It is no longer just the story of what happens to him or what he does.

Christ emerging from tomb
Time for the next phase

It is fascinating to see how the focus of the narrative shifts. Jesus is there, but intermittently. He pays visits to the apostles, to put heart into them, but he often finds them cowering in the Upper Room. They are trying to work out what to do next, in a world which has been totally altered by Jesus’ return from the dead.

But what happened next?

We are so used to the idea that Jesus is the living Lord that we don’t give the apostles enough credit for how hard this must have been. We learn about his Resurrection as soon as we learn about his death on the cross, and the length of the annual wait from Good Friday to the Easter liturgies is fixed and familiar. But the apostles had no missals, Gospels or road maps of any kind. They really were making it up as they went along, with Jesus appearing now and then to keep them on the right path and repeat the same message over and over again until they could let themselves believe it.

Mary addressing apostles
Some (male) people take a lot of convincing……
2nd Sunday, still celebrating but also moving on

The second Sunday after Easter is still part of the Easter narrative itself.  The Gospel is the same for each of the three liturgical years, the story of Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Lord.  It is nearly the same psalm (117/118), just with a different verse in the middle, and, as if to emphasize the point, it is the same psalm that we have been singing since the end of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday.  Like a musical octave, the Easter octave strikes the same note.  What shows the change of emphasis which is starting to happen,  is that the First Reading is taken from Acts.

The purpose of the First Reading

Usually the First Reading comes from the Old Testament, and indeed, at the Easter Vigil, we have an orgy of Old Testament readings before we get to the Gospel.  It can be a historical echo of events in Jesus’ life, or a fascinating parallel, or evidence of God’s slow plan of salvation from the shadowy beginnings of life to the prophets’ desperate attempts to pass on God’s message.  But now, after the Resurrection,  everything is changed, changed utterly: and we start needing to focus on what happens next.  The next significant event in the story of Jesus’ earthly life is the Ascension, but we don’t want to get there yet, because we are still celebrating Easter.  So the gospel readings assigned for the rest of the Easter season are in a sense marking time; – in fact, they go backwards.  They give us an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ earlier words, because there are a lot more of those, especially in John’s Gospel, than we have already had room for (we will see this again in the Sundays of Ordinary Time).

The Gospel is usually the main narrative

The gospels for these Sundays of the Easter season, then, are not usually taking the story forward.  After the second Sunday of Easter, the three liturgical years diverge, not for the usual reason, that they are taking their readings in sequence from a different evangelist (A : Matthew, B : Mark, C : Luke), because nearly all the gospel readings for Eastertide are taken from John;  but they all take different bits out of John’s Gospel, so as to include more of Jesus’ actual teaching.  But this is of course a recap of earlier events; time has gone back, not forwards.

Eastertide Year C : the gospels

I’m going to concentrate on Eastertide Year C (this year), because otherwise there will be too much to talk about (if it’s worth it, I’ll cover the other years as they come up).  In Year C, all the Eastertide Sunday gospels are from John’s Gospel. Second Sunday of Easter is the same for all three years, the story of Thomas, taken from John (chapter 20), as I said before.  The third Sunday is the story of the miraculous draught of fishes and Jesus’ charge to Peter; that is another  event after the Resurrection (John 21).  Then we have (4th Sunday) a reading from John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd (very brief, vv 27-30); (5th Sunday), what Jesus says after Judas has gone out to betray him (again very short, John 13 vv31-35, and very obviously back to a previous period), and (6th Sunday) Jesus’ promise in John 14 that he will send the Holy Spirit, and foretelling his departure, like an envoi, and a preparation for the Ascension which will shortly follow (the following Thursday, or in some Lectionaries, the following Sunday).

First Readings : not OT but Acts

The current action, as it were, has moved to the First Reading, because we need to know how the apostles are managing and what they are doing in this changed world they now inhabit.  Jesus is not staying with them as he used to, teaching as he goes along.  Where is the story?  Where is the main character?  Who is the main character?   The apostles are having to work out how to put this new faith into practice. We are not looking for historical parallels, because nothing like this has ever happened before.  The Old Testament has been put on pause while we work this out.

Second Readings from Revelation

Year C is particularly interesting because it uses Revelation as the source of the Second Readings for this same period (in Years A and B, we have readings from the  letters of Peter (A) and John (B), keeping the emphasis on the doings of the early Church, as opposed to Paul’s letters which we have for most of the rest of the year, which tend to be more about doctrine). The readings from Acts in Year C move about inside the book, giving us a general overview of how the early Christians lived.  We get further into the story than in the other years, even into the early travels of Paul and Barnabas, and I think this is why these readings are coupled with the book of Revelation, because Revelation has always been a comfort to the oppressed and persecuted, and the later chapters of Acts describe the persecutions as they took hold.

…and all reinforced by the (carefully chosen) psalms

And of course all this affects the choice of psalms.  They are there to respond to the first reading, reinforce its message and act as a bridge to the second reading.  Their link to the Old Testament readings on an ordinary Sunday is usually fairly clear, and they are out of the same historical context, even if we can’t be sure which is older; but here we have the psalms of David being used as a commentary on early Christian events, after Jesus’ departure, and after the great temporal rupture of the Resurrection.  The context is completely other.  We are singing the Lord’s songs in a totally strange land.  One striking thing is that none of the Eastertide psalms is at all unusual.  They all occur elsewhere in the Church’s year, sometimes more than once.  They are the usual psalms which everyone is already familiar with.  It is the context which has changed.

Musician king with courtiers
Let’s all join in with David’s psalms
First Reading and psalm, 2nd Sunday : starting the (new) story

We start in Acts 5 (so after the Ascension and the revolution of Pentecost), where the author describes ‘the faithful’ as meeting ‘by common consent in the Portico of Solomon’.  All still good Jews, at this stage, almost like another Jewish grouping or sect.  No one else dares to join them openly but their reputation is good, the numbers of believers increases, and there are many miracles, so people take their sick out of doors and place them where Peter’s shadow will fall across them so that they might be healed.  The psalm in response to this is still the Easter psalm (117/118), because we are still celebrating and everything is going well.  It is the second reading which darkens the mood slightly, as John introduces himself: ‘I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure’, but then moves on to describe Jesus appearing to him, telling him not to be afraid (as so often) and charging him to write down what he sees.  The Gospel, as I said earlier, is the story of Thomas  -and the end of John’s Gospel in some of the early manuscripts.  The focus of the story is shifting.

3rd Sunday

This First Reading is only ten verses later, in the same chapter of Acts, but the clouds are gathering in our new story.  The high priest demands an explanation from these observant Jews with their inconvenient add-on doctrine.  Peter and the apostles have the chance to bear witness before the Sanhedrin, and this time they are released, but they have been warned again, and it’s clear that trouble is in the offing.  The psalm  (29/30) celebrates release from danger, acknowledging the reality of suffering (‘At night there are tears’) but showing an unshakeable faith in victory for the right side (‘but joy comes with dawn’), which is then shown in the celebration in the Second Reading (Revelation 5).

4th Sunday : the story develops

We leap forward several chapters this week to find Paul and Barnabas taking the story forward as they deliberately widen their appeal (Acts 13).  The Jews in Antioch mostly aren’t interested, even though Paul and Barnabas are still attending the synagogue religiously.  So they preach to the pagans, who are very happy to hear them, and are expelled from the town.  The answering psalm (99/100) makes us into the rejoicing pagans, hearing and accepting the word of God : ‘We are his people, the sheep of his flock‘, and we stay with this sheep imagery, with the persecuted martyrs of the Second Reading being led by the Lamb, and the Gospel being part of Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd.  I couldn’t resist quoting Bach’s Sheep may safely graze in the accompaniment to the Alleluia verse because it was so apposite.

Banquet with sheep on table
The sheep/lamb metaphor made flesh at an Easter banquet
5th Sunday

Paul and Barnabas set off for Iconium at the end of last week’s reading, and they are already retracing their steps, heading for Antioch again.  This gives us a very clear idea of how the young churches were beginning to stand on their own feet.  Elders are appointed, the visitors encourage the locals to persevere in their efforts, and they move on again, going back to report to HQ – and, crucially, explaining how the mission has broadened to include those who weren’t Jews to start with, ‘the pagans’, people like us.  This has been a very successful trip, even though there are regular mentions of sufferings and hardships, and the psalm for this week (144/145) celebrates that success : ‘All your creatures shall thank you, O Lord’, not just some of them, and ‘Yours is an everlasting kingdom’.  The second reading is one of the most beautiful sections of Revelation (21 :1-5) describing the new Jerusalem, the establishment of this kingdom and the end of death and suffering.

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
the dragon being seen off by the lady in Revelation
6th Sunday : the next stage of the story

Now the question of whether you have to be a Jew as well as a Christian has come to a head, and there has to be a council of ‘the whole church’ to sort it out.  Here we see the Church operating as a Church, raising important questions, deliberating and discussing, and then making a judgment which is promulgated to the members.  We don’t have the discussion in this reading, but you can look it up, it’s all there in the text; here we have just the conclusion ‘decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves’ (note the order).  Earlier Peter has come to the same conclusion about God calling also the pagans, when he meets Cornelius after having his dream about the tablecloth (Acts 10ff).

engraving of Peter's vision
Peter, the angel, the tablecloth and all the different beasts

The psalm (66/67) emphasizes the universality, one might almost say catholicity, of the Church’s final decision :’the nations […] the peoples[…] the ends of the earth’ and the response beautifully endorses it :  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you ‘ (my italics).  The second reading continues the description of the new Jerusalem, and the Gospel goes back to Jesus’ words about the Holy Spirit and his own departure,  as we get ready for the Ascension.  But although the Lord is leaving the earth, we have seen that the Church, though still small and feeling its way, has the leadership it needs to continue the work it has been given.

Armenian kachqar with ornate cross
The cross sprouting new life from every corner

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.