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.

Pattern in the Lent psalms : Year C

Thinking of Lent in the round

What about the psalms set for the various Lent Sundays?  Do they have a cumulative effect over the Lent season each year?   When we look at the words of the Gospel Acclamations week by week, we can see a pattern, an underlying feeling, what I have called a narrative arc, across the weeks of Lent,  counting it across the five Sundays to Palm Sunday (because once we reach Palm Sunday, we are in one irresistible dramatic retelling of events, no matter which liturgical year we are in).     Are the psalms for Lent part of the same pattern as the Acclamations, or do they run in counterpoint?

interwoven narrative arcs
Following a thread in the pattern, year by year

The Lent psalms week by week do indeed have a narrative arc, and it varies considerably between the years.  Year A, the year of Matthew gospels, has psalms about repentance.  We start with Psalm 50/51, the Miserere, which follows naturally on from the account of the Fall in the first reading; and go through to Ps 129/130, the De profundis on Fifth Sunday (I’m just using the Latin names as shorthand), going past God’s law (Ps 32/33) and not hardening our hearts (Ps 94/95) on the way. The Lord is my shepherd (Ps 22/23) is the psalm for Fourth (Pink) Sunday, for comfort and reassurance, following the reading about the selection of David the shepherd as the future king.

Year B (Mark) has the emphasis very much on laws,  moving from Ps 24/25 (make me know your ways, teach me your paths) on through Ps 115/116 and Ps 18/19 (the law of the Lord is perfect) , past the desolate (but so lyrical) Ps 136/137 (By the waters of Babylon,  best song lyric ever) and ending up with Ps 50/51, the Miserere again, where Year A started.

But Year C (Luke), which is our current year, has a different emphasis again.  The Gospel Acclamations are about repentance, but the psalms are a joyful celebration of mercy, forgiveness and the goodness of God.  Luke has been called the Gospel of mercy, and we had the special Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016, the last time we had the C cycle of readings.   Year C doesn’t use Psalm 50/51 at all.  We have Ps 90/91 (protection in trouble) in Week 1, fearless confidence in Week 2 (Ps 26/27), God’s kindness in Week 3 (Ps 102/103),  God’s goodness in Week 4   (Ps 33/34, Taste and see)  and the joy of the redeemed in Week 5   (Ps 125/126, The Lord has done great things for us, we are filled with joy). The psalms and the Acclamations support each other, but have different emphases, like two colours in a pattern.  And the psalms are the more dominant colour in the pattern.

Function of the Responsorial Psalm in the Mass

The Psalm is meant to be our response to the first reading.  This is a part of the Old Testament, so that means we are only guessing, most of the time, roughly when it was written, who (multiple whos) wrote it, and what is it trying to tell us.  Sometimes it’s a part of religious history, and/or human history, sometimes it’s beautiful and edifying, sometimes it can be violent and scary, sometimes it’s a bit baffling (though often less so than St Paul).  There is always a message there, but (because of the Holy Spirit), it won’t be the same message every time, and it’s certainly not the same message for every listener.  It’s interesting to work out by a sort of triangulation of the readings, the Gospel, the psalm and the Acclamations, what the Church wants us to take from the first reading, and it’s even more interesting when something else irresistibly occurs to you through its words.  So pay attention, and see what strikes you!  The Psalm, then, is meant to be our corporate or communal response, so it’s fair to use the two pieces of text (psalm and first reading) to illuminate each other.

First Sunday of Lent (C)

The first reading is out of Deuteronomy, and it’s what we should say as a prayer when bringing a thank-offering after the harvest, according to Moses.  I like the way that Moses directs us to remind God who we are (as though he’s forgotten) and why we’re doing this, but this is really to give himself a chance to remind the people of God’s longterm care of them.

My father the wandering Aramean in his tent

There is deep resonance in the line ‘A wandering Aramean was my father’.  It sounds like the beginning of so many great stories that you could write a book tracing it through Western literature, I feel.   So here we have a potted history from the poor nomad Abram, down through the years of more prosperity, into slavery in Egypt, the departure from Egypt ‘with great terror and with signs and wonders’, finally ending in ‘a land where milk and honey flow’.   We  actually haven’t yet made it to the Promised Land, because Moses is still here directing the people, and we know he only sees it and never reaches it.

Psalm for First Sunday (90/91)

The psalm in response to this reading is completely confident in God’s protection.  Lots of dangers are named (plague, stones, lions, vipers, dragons), but none of them worries us or the psalmist, because God has promised to save us in all our distress.   It moves from a third person start,  ‘he who dwells’, to a second person set of promises, ‘upon you no evil shall fall’, to a last strophe where God takes over as the speaker and promises directly to rescue the one who calls upon him, and indeed, do even more than rescuing : ‘I will give him glory’.   I’m going to skip the second readings, or this will be far too long, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the Gospel is Luke’s version of the Temptation in the desert, where the devil actually quotes the psalm we have just sung, and of course no harm comes to Jesus despite all the temptations on offer.

Adam names the beasts
A dragon and lion in happier circumstances, just to be fair
Second Sunday of Lent (C)

This first reading is back to Genesis, and so chronologically earlier than the previous week’s.  Indeed, we are all the way back to Abram, the original wandering Aramean (Jacob is another, but later), and a strange little story about sacrificing animals and dancing firepots.  As I said, my group is studying Genesis this year, so I can tell you that this is really early on, and Abram doesn’t know much about God at all at this stage.  He is having to make it up as he goes along, with God occasionally intervening to stop him going too far astray.  What is remarkable is how much Abram trusts God (he leaves everything he knows, and sets out because God tells him to do so…..but nobody else knows anything about this strange God that he has taken up with), and that he can transmit that trust to his household, because they come too, even though God talks only to Abram (to begin with).  God promises Abram countless descendants, and a vast land (not currently empty) for them to live in. (He will also change his name to Abraham later on.)

Psalm for Second Sunday (26/27)

How do we respond to this?  With another psalm of complete confidence and secure hope.  There’s even a note of bravado here, I think; the first verse always sounds to me slightly like someone bravely whistling in a risky situation (that wistful note is because I have never been able to whistle).  The psalmist here speaks with the voice of Abram : he only knows that he must seek God’s face, and he is sure that everything will work out for the best, even if he does not know how or why.  This is the man who becomes ‘the friend of God’ after many trials and tribulations.  It’s a strikingly short and simple psalm, ending with an encouragement to patience and perseverance (good virtues for Lent).   The Gospel is the Transfiguration told by Luke, where ‘the aspect of [Jesus’] face was changed, and his clothing became brilliant as lightning’, so we pick up both the Lord’s face, the Lord being my light,  and seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, as Peter and his companions ‘saw his glory’.

Transfiguration with helpful sign language
Third Sunday of Lent (C)

The first reading here takes us to Moses again, like First Week,  but an earlier stage of his story, with the account of the burning bush.  This is Moses’ first direct encounter with the God for whom he has already been stigmatised and exiled from Egypt, where he was being brought up as a prince.  Moses doesn’t seem to be expecting God, he goes over to check out the bush because he is curious about why it is not burning up.  It’s almost as though God has set things up to attract him and is waiting patiently.  ‘When the Lord saw him coming over to look at it more closely’, he calls out to him, just his name.  Notice the delicacy of this.  God doesn’t want to frighten Moses, he wants to talk to him, so he can’t appear in mighty splendour because Moses would run away.  He just calls to him, and Moses responds as though to anyone saying his name :’Here I am’. Then God warns him to stay where he is (and take off his shoes, so he can’t run away quickly).  God explains who he is, introducing himself as a friend of the family, and Moses hides his face because he is so frightened, even with God taking all these precautions.  God tells Moses that he is going to rescue his people and lead them out of slavery to the promised land.

Moses’ shoes neatly in foreground

The chronology is a bit confusing, because this is before where we were on First Sunday of Lent, let alone Second Sunday, which went even further back.  The Israelites are still in Egypt, in slavery, but Moses has been working  as a shepherd for Jethro after his banishment from Egypt (and he marries one of Jethro’s daughters).  God is telling Moses to go back to Egypt and lead all the others out.

More of a tree, but lovely surrounding angels

Moses understandably asks,’Why should the Israelites listen to me?  Who shall I say sent me?’  God answers with his untranslatable name ‘I am who am/be/is’, but then relents slightly and says that he can tell the Israelites an easier name to cope with: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob […] this is my name forever; thus am I to be remembered through all generations’.

Psalm for Third Sunday (102/103)

Follow that, as they say.  It’s an absolutely corking reading, and the psalm more or less simply casts itself down in worship.  ‘The Lord is kind and merciful’…and he does everything to help us.  The third strophe specifically refers back to the reading : ‘the Lord secures the rights of the oppressed […] he made known his ways to Moses’.  Indeed he just did.   The Gospel tells of Jesus calling for repentance but also warning against thinking others more guilty than oneself, plus the parable of the fig tree which is given an extra year to see whether the careful gardener can get it to bear fruit (and if it doesn’t, it will then be cut down), one of the easier parables to understand.  The message is clear but measured, and tempered with a will to mercy.

I’m not going to cover the Year A readings in this blog, because I’ll do them next year, this is turning out to be an excessively long blog already!  You are allowed to use them as alternatives for Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays, because of the Scrutinies.

Fourth Sunday of Lent (C)

We’re still leaping about chronologically.  The first reading is from Joshua, and the wanderings of the Israelites are coming to an end.  Moses has died, but God has allowed Joshua to lead the Israelites across the river of Jordan, in a scene openly recalling the crossing of the Red Sea.  Now the Chosen People have reached Canaan, now the story (which has been more or less on hold, with all the wandering in the desert) can set off again.  So they celebrate the Passover, their founding event and only just out of living memory, and the manna stops arriving.  This is going to be their land where they can feed themselves.  God is fulfilling his promises.  He has fed and watered the people all through the desert years; now he has given them the fertile land he promised ages ago.

One more river….but no wet feet
Psalm for Fourth Sunday (33/34)

The answering psalm is a song of praise and gratitude for God’s goodness, with a Response from just a little later in the same psalm, one of those OT verses which bend under the enormous weight which we Christians superimpose on them.  ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ – obvious reference to the manna, but also to our experience of God.  St Peter has a similar but female-slanted reference, which I shall include here because I’m writing this on International Women’s Day : ‘Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord’ (1 Peter 2.2-3).  For us, of course, the reference is overwhelmingly to the Eucharist.

Both rushing to reconciliation

The Gospel is the story of the prodigal son; so there’s another person who is rescued from all his distress. This story is only in Luke’s gospel; and the father shows us how desperately God wants to make a fuss of us and shower us with all good things, if we will only come back to him.  No reproaches, except the ones the younger son makes for himself;  no carping, except from the older brother, and he’s not even inside the house, so the younger son would not see his jealousy and anger;  just loving mercy all the way.  The pattern is becoming clear.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (C)

The first reading is from Isaiah, and it’s another wonderful, heart-lifting read or listen : God reminds his people of the great moment when he led them through the sea (and the Jordan, as we heard the previous week); and then instantly moves on : ‘No need to recall the past’, and calls us to look as he makes a new path in new territory, virgin land, almost a return to Eden.  The forgiveness is total, the mercy all-embracing.  We can start again with no hangovers from before.  It ends ‘The people I have formed for myself will sing my praises’.

This time the water is salty, but the shoes are still dry
Psalm for Fifth Sunday (125/126)

And so we do. There is another reference to the slavery in Egypt, corresponding to God’s remembering the Red Sea, and the words of the psalm also pick up God’s promise of water in the wilderness, streams in dry land – the first necessity of life, and always only in God’s gift (look at all the times drought plays a part in the story : Joseph and the famine, Elijah, Moses striking the rock and so on).  We don’t forget the past grief, but it is outweighed by the current joy.  And the joy means singing,  in the first strophe and the last one, so the psalm goes round in a beautiful circle, like a ring dance.

sculpture of woman surrounded by stone-throwing hands
Just before Jesus steps in

The Gospel is the woman taken in adultery (only in John’s Gospel), pointing again to the completeness of forgiveness and the gentleness of God’s mercy.  All the readings for Fifth Sunday C are so positive that it’s almost difficult to remember that we are in Lent.  The note that keeps being struck is praise, gladness, laughter and songs. And the main colour in the pattern is mercy.

This is, of course, going to make Palm Sunday (main psalm 21/22, My God, why have you forsaken me?) a shocking contrast.   But then that’s the whole point of Palm Sunday, with its exuberant procession and palm-waving moving so swiftly into the reading of the Passion.   Year C is the most cheerful and positive of the three Lent cycles, in its readings, its psalms, its Acclamations and its Gospels.  But the place we get to on Palm Sunday is the same as every other year, and the contrast makes it perhaps even more painful.  Why do we have liturgy?  Because it works.

Icon crucifixion
Was ever grief like mine?

© 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.