Animals in the Psalms

The animals went in two by two

Ever since we had the psalm with the seas and whatever moves in them in the last line (Ps 68/69), I have been thinking about the animals in the psalms, so I went back and had a systematic look; and it’s amazing how many there are. They fall into three main categories : creepy-crawlies, birds, and beasts, which is what you would expect.

Beasts, raging and otherwise

The beasts are the most frequent characters on the scene, and they range from sheep and goats to raging beasts. To be specific, we see bulls, cattle, beasts of the field, calves, the young wild ox, mules, wild asses, oxen and deer. We have boars, lions, rabbits (possibly rock hyraxes, in one translation.  I like hyraxes, we came across them in Africa, and they are like overgrown guinea pigs or small wombats), horses and dogs.  At the exciting end of the spectrum we have lions and raging beasts (as a category in their own right), we have monsters in the sea (Ps 73/74) and monsters to play with (Ps 103/104, clearly my kind of psalmist there), we have a dragon (Ps 90/91) and we have Leviathan .  I’ve included sea creatures here, as there are also unspecified fish and the creatures moving in the deep, who set off this line of inquiry in the first place. Interestingly, we do not have any cats in the Psalms, and I think this is more likely to be a reaction against the importance of cats in Egyptian religion than anything else.

Insects and things that sting

I am also using creepy-crawly as a general term, and including not just gnats, dogflies, worms, moths, good bees and bad bees (interesting), grubs, locusts,  but also frogs, adders and vipers.  I suppose you could make out a case for the fish, dragon and Leviathan fitting better into this category (dragons are loathly worms in Malory and old ballads), but I think scale means they fit better among the beasts.

Feathered creatures

In my third category :  apart from the generic ‘birds of the air’, we have sparrows, swallows, hawks and doves, pelicans (very glad to see them.  I have always had a soft spot for that verse in the Adoro te devote which addresses the Lord as a pelican), storks, owls, young ravens, quail (sadly, only in there for meat, and I think God could have given the Israelites something a little less labour-intensive), eagles and another generic, the ‘birds of heaven’, which is the same thing but in a different translation.

Positive and negative

That’s quite a line-up.  I’m sticking rigidly to the Psalms, because if I try and take in a wider part of the Bible, this would be a book rather than a blog;  but even so, that’s quite a lot of variety and differentiation.  The creatures are all real ones (I include the dragon here, as so many animals have been discovered that the psalmist would not have known about that I think it’s only fair to allow him all the ones he names).  What are they there for?  The birds are usually there as an example of praising God, but also the psalmist describes himself as clamouring and moaning like a dove.  The insects are usually there as a bad thing, reminiscences of the plagues of Egypt; the bees are ambiguous because they produce honey from the comb, which is the sweetest thing that the psalmist can think of to compare to the sweetness of God’s law and the joy of obeying it, so they have a good side, as well as being a stinging danger.

Good and bad animals

The beasts fall into two camps.  Like the birds, they can rejoice in creation and give thanks to God.  Beasts of the field are usually entirely positive, because they are there ‘to serve man’s need’, very much according to the original model at creation.  Horses are usually creatures of war.  A horse in war array was the nearest ancient equivalent to the modern tank, and equally devastating if you were a humble foot-soldier, but the psalmist warns that even if it is on your side,’ a vain hope…is the horse, despite its power it cannot save’, and God is the only real source of victory.

Dogs tend to move in packs (sometimes they are even translated as jackals), and they are a threat to a wounded man or a lone traveller.  This reflects reality even today, particularly in mountainous lonely areas.  Raging beasts are obviously a challenge, but they are often generalised because they are metaphorical.

Men more dangerous than animals

One of the striking things about looking at the animals in the psalms is that it is clear the main threat to the good man is from evil men, and they are the problem that he most often calls to God to help with.  The lion roams about roaring and seeking whom he may devour, but it’s just dangerous, it’s not personal spite (unless it’s a metaphor for the devil).  Evil men lurk and prowl like the lion, but without any metaphor they seek your life, take away your good name, deprive you of any pleasure in life so that you might as well be dead, make plots against you;  and God does not move to protect the victim as quickly or completely as he would like.   This is the free will problem.  People cause trouble, and God can help you to deal with the consequences, but he can’t (unlike Superman) change the fact once happened that a wicked person has done something wicked.  Salvation history in a nutshell.

Animal metaphors

One interesting reference to sheep and goats, since herds were usually mixed, is in Psalm 22/23, where they represent us (also in Ps 73, where we are only sheep with no ambiguity).  Usually they are just there as a sort of chorus line or part of the scenery to show peace and tranquillity.  Lambs are emblems of innocence, sometimes joy,  and patient suffering.  They gambol in the fields or they are sacrificed.  It’s very unsentimental.   On the whole though, the animals in the psalms are there as animals, not as representations of something else.  They reflect real observation and experience.  The psalmists are all observant people, and they see all creation as part of God’s plan, either praising him directly  (even inanimate mountains clapping their hands) or just witnessing to him by existing, like the stars.  The lion stands in for the devil, but then it’s difficult to talk about supernatural beings without metaphor (look at what we do when talking about God).  Mostly, evil men are referred to as precisely that, because they can choose to be evil; the animals are all behaving according to their nature, so they can be dangerous but not sinful.

God the ruler over all

God is described as a ‘mighty man’, a ‘man of war’ (I’m accepting the Canticles as part of my psalm corpus again here).   As they say, God made man in his own image and man has been returning the compliment ever since.  He would not be described as any sort of animal (exceptionally he is ‘like a moth’ in Ps 38/39) because I think that would be regarded as disrespectful, with man seen as so clearly the top of the tree.  (I think the moth simile is allowed because the scale makes it so clear that it is indeed merely a simile, not a real comparison.)  C.S.Lewis embodies Christ as a lion, because he’s thinking in more African terms about the lion as the king of beasts (with the mane like an aureole around his face), but God the Father never actually appears in the Narnia universe; he is a shadowy off-stage figure like the point at which parallel lines meet.  The psalmists’ lion is more of a mountain lion, a big and fearsome lynx-like creature, dangerous but not so impressive, not kingly.  In the psalms, where obviously the emphasis is on the Father rather than the Son, we don’t talk about what he looks like, except in human terms of role (the shepherd, the King, the warrior, the judge).  After all, in Jewish tradition, you never try to portray the Almighty.  He’s always modestly wrapped in a cloud, even in the text.

God’s mighty wings

There is one exception to this though:  the Lord has pinions, has mighty wings, (in some translations, feathers, which is a bit too concrete) with which he shelters and rescues us.  (I think this is why it is always the eagles who sort things out at the end of Tolkien’s stories.) God is never described directly as an eagle in the Psalms.  The eagles are one of the parts of creation that do his bidding, sailing in with supplies for the starving prophet  (sorry, that’s not in Psalms, I’m cheating) or being a metaphor for deliverance.   God has pinions.  ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ is a most comforting verse for many.  But I love the dynamism of ‘he will conceal you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge’ (Ps 90/91).  You don’t need the wings of a dove (Ps 54/55) for yourself, if the Lord is there to enfold you in soft warmth and carry you to safety.  But imagine how wonderfully exciting it would be.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.

 

The bittersweetness of the Ascension

Getting the mood music right

The mood for Ascension is tricky, especially when you are writing a tune for the psalm. It is not straightforward, even though the words seem to be. The emotions for this feast – for it is a great feast – are unusually mixed (and I have  written more about them here).

A triumphant psalm

The psalm words are full of joy and excitement, and it’s another of the psalms where it’s difficult to think of it in a context other than a Christian one, although of course it was not written to be about Jesus and the Ascension. The trumpets, which sound repeatedly because they are in the Response,  are an irresistible setter of the mood of the psalm as we sing it.  It has to be triumphant.  Like all Responsorial Psalms, it is meant to give shape to our response to the first reading.

The Ascension narrative

This first reading is the very beginning of Acts (chapter 1, vv1-11), so it’s the first piece of narrative after the end of the Gospels.  It describes very simply how the Lord tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming of the Holy Spirit. They gather together, and they ask him yet again whether now is the time for him to sort out the current political situation. I am sure he must have sighed at this point. He tells them not to concern themselves with God’s timing, but to wait.  They will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes, and become Jesus’ witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, throughout Judaea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’. It’s like a panning shot in a film as the camera moves further and further out. Then it says; ‘When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight’, and you feel that no-one actually noticed when he left the ground, the way that a train or a ship can start travelling without you noticing.

Interrupted by messengers

But they are looking ‘intently’ at the sky as he is going, when they are interrupted: ‘suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.’ We have met these two before, or someone very like them, at the empty tomb. John calls them two angels in white. Matthew and Mark each have only one; Matthew’s is an angel of the Lord, with an appearance like lightning and raiment white as snow, whereas Mark has a less intimidating young man sitting, dressed in white. Luke has two men (and whoever wrote Luke, we think, wrote Acts), and he makes the parallels with the earlier appearance very clear: the women go to the tomb and they can’t find the body. Then ‘while they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel’ (Luke 24 v4).  Either God’s messengers are there already or you don’t see them arrive, because your attention is distracted (how true).

The message

Even if these messengers from God had been wearing different clothes the second time, I think you would recognise them by what they say and their style.  They are so down-to-earth (surprisingly) and practical. ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.’  And this time, ‘Why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go’, (which might well be a reason to keep an eye on the sky, except the Lord said it is not up to us to know when).  What they say is non-judgmental but definitely carries a note of encouragement not to hang around but to start getting on with the job.

The feelings of those left behind: from triumph…

So this is the mood we find at Ascension.  We rejoice in the Lord’s going, because he is going to his father;  but we are left behind.  It’s like seeing somebody off,  – you celebrate, you hold them tightly, you talk about keeping in contact, but the painful moment comes when you have to let go, wave, turn round, go back home and carry on.  The psalm has to be triumphant, because that is the seeing-off part; then the mood shifts towards the promises, the waiting,  and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

…to determination and anticipation

But we do have the promises that Jesus will indeed keep in contact, that he is always there, and we know that we are waiting for the Great Comforter, ‘of all Consolers best’, as the Holy Spirit has been called for so long.  He needs to be, because it is always sad when someone leaves, even if it is to a good place.  You look forward, optimistically, to another meeting, but it is normal to feel sad.  Thank goodness I don’t have to get all these complex emotions into the psalm setting.  According to my children, I am the only person who cries at the end of the last Harry Potter film (when the next generation goes off to Hogwarts), but I always hate it when they go away, because I love them.  After we put them on aeroplanes, we have to pause in the carpark to recover before we drive home and carry on. We long for the time when they will return.

Waiting in the upper room again (but differently)

If you celebrate Ascension on Thursday, you will see on (Seventh) Sunday that the narratives almost take a pause and tread water for a little while.  We are all waiting for the Comforter, but we don’t know anything else about him yet.  It is as if the group is holding its collective breath until the arrival of the Breath of God.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.

 

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