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.

Lent Gospel Acclamations : an update

When you can’t sing Alleluia

With Lent come the Lent Gospel Acclamations, the replacement for the usual Gospel Acclamation.  For the rest of the year the Gospel Acclamation has only one word (Alleluia, but I admit that it is repeated) and lots of tunes; the Lent Gospel Acclamation has several different forms of words,  each of which has only one tune (in my settings anyway, although the verses are obviously all different, because they are different words; – but see below).

How many different Acclamations?

Each country-group has its own set of possible Lent Gospel Acclamations, so we have lots of them to deal with, and this is why it can sound confusing.  But most of you only need to worry about one country’s-worth of them.  I wrote about them exhaustively and extensively last year, and I still agree with everything I said then, but there was a bit of unfinished business.

Two new kids on the block

Last year I discovered that there were two more that I hadn’t set,  only too late to set them; but luckily this year, I noticed in time.  So here are two new Acclamations for the US and Canada this year.  As I explained in my previous blog on Lent Gospel Acclamations, they are tricksy things,

Hunting the Bonnacon, a mythical beast
Volmar and I struggling to get to grips with the Lent Gospel Acclamation

so I wasn’t surprised to find I’d nearly missed them again.  The musical undergrowth is lush at this time of year, and they find it easy to lurk undetected.  In my defence, I should add that these two new ones were over a page turn, are not actually used in any of the week-by-week Mass settings, are only for the US and Canada, and are additions to a stable of six variants already.  I’m not sure whether any congregation actually sings all the different LGAs.  However, just in case there is anyone out there who would like to, I wanted to give you the full set.  So I have set the last two.  And there are versions in the keys of both F and G, just in case.

tapestry alphabet hanging
you always need the full set…just in case
When they might be useful

The words are: Marvel(l)ous and great are your works, O Lord! (LGA 7) and Salvation, glory, and power to the Lord Jesus Christ! (LGA  8).  They are very much in the same vein as the other Lent Gospel Acclamations, and as I said, they don’t get offered as standard top-and-tail in any of the Lent Sundays.  But the Lent Acclamations are modular (like the Alleluias, mostly), so you can slot them in or out depending on whether they fit the sense better, or resonate with one of the readings, or your congregation just likes them (if only we regularly got that sort of feedback…..).  Bear in mind that LGA 8 is the only Acclamation that starts on an unstressed syllable, so this will affect coming in in the first place as well as picking it up again after the Gospel verse.  The congregation might appreciate a wave from you even more than usual.  Think of it like a Response that starts with ‘The’.

People having a great time singing Lent Gospel Acclamations
For special occasions

I’ve used them with a couple of standard Sundays (3rd and 4th  Sundays for example) just to show how they work, but the words feel a bit more triumphant than some of the other Acclamations, so I thought they might come in useful for the feasts which (can) occur in Lent, like St Joseph on March 19th and the Annunciation  (those are sound-links to the CAN versions), which gets moved if it falls in Holy Week, but not if it’s earlier in Lent.  So you will also find them there.  I think it’s quite a good idea to have something different for the feasts, so long as you have enough people to sing it back to you on what will be a weekday Mass. And they are really easy to pick up and sing, so even if you don’t use them very often, they can come in as an occasional variant, to keep everyone interested.  Acclamations shouldn’t be entirely routine, that’s why they have an exclamation mark after them.

Lent Gospel Acclamations and following a thread

It is interesting to compare what you might call the narrative arc of the Lent Gospel Acclamations for any given year in the three cycles.  For the first two weeks of Lent, they are the same across Years A, B and C.  The first one is Jesus’ answer to the devil in the desert, when he is offered bread while he is fasting : No one lives on bread alone but on the word of God.  This is a shoo-in for the First Sunday of Lent, helping us to focus our minds on the season.  The Second Sunday of Lent has as its Gospel the event of the Transfiguration in the various accounts (Year A Matthew, Year B Mark, Year C Luke, John does not retell the story), and the Gospel verse is taken from that: From the shining cloud the Father’s voice is heard :  This is my son, listen to him.

Transfiguration with helpful sign language captions
Many threads in a pattern

From the third week of Lent it gets more complicated.  This is partly because it is possible to use the Year A readings regardless of the canonical year, as the Scrutinies for those preparing for Baptism at the Vigil are celebrated in the next three Sundays.  Year A has the encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well, with all the discussion about living water, so it is easy to see why this might be regarded as especially relevant, and the Gospel Acclamation here is the woman’s acceptance  : Lord, you are truly the Saviour of the world.  From this Third Sunday, however, the LGAs have different narrative arcs, so I want to look at them separately year by year.

a different sort of narrative ark, more like a space ship
Week by week, year by year

In Year A, the week after the living water, we have ‘I am the light of the world’ and then ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ in Week 5, so the tone is always positive,  in contrast to some of the other readings.  In Year B, there is more emphasis on sacrifice, with both the third and fourth week using John 3.16 (God so loved the world) as the Acclamation with an optional variant in the UK Lectionary of ‘I am the resurrection’.   It’s quite unusual to repeat a Gospel Acclamation from week to week, though it does happen occasionally; and it means the bishops really want us to think about this one.  I’ve done a couple of versions so that (the next time  we are singing Year B ) you can vary it or keep it identical if you wish so as not to be a distraction.

another gorgeous ark, signifying distraction
This year (Year C)

Year C, our current year, has an elegant trajectory, which is why I started thinking about this in the first place.  All the Gospels are from Luke, except for Fifth Sunday, and his account is known as ‘the Gospel of Mercy’.  What is the tone of the Acclamation verses for Lent in Year C, Luke’s year?  After the first two Sundays, which are the same across all three years, we have ‘Repent, says the Lord, the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ and the parable of the fig tree for Third Sunday.  The following week, we have the story of the prodigal son, and the Acclamation verse is taken from the Gospel : ‘I will arise and go to my father’.   In the fifth week we have John’s story of the woman taken in adultery (only found in John’s Gospel), and the Acclamation is a beautiful, incredibly appropriate verse from Joel :’Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, for I am gracious and merciful’ (there’s a UK possible alternative ‘Seek good and not evil’, but I would choose the Joel verse myself).  Each week we have a different angle on repentance leading to loving forgiveness and reconciliation.

Lovely dynamic prodigal son’s return
Every word counts

So even in this tiny element of the Mass, the words of the Lent Gospel Acclamation develop the themes and messages of the readings week by week.  The Acclamations introduce the Gospel and sometimes literally come out of it, but they are certainly meant to make us go more deeply into it.  The top-and-tail words that we all sing are to wake us up, punctuate the movement of the liturgy and make us pay attention to the Gospel itself; but it’s also worth noting exactly what the verse says.  I try not to make the music move too fast nor go too high in the Gospel verses, because it’s essential that the cantor gets the words across at their first (and only) hearing .   Try and make them clear.  And if you’re part of the main congregation, think of the old way we used to be taught how to cross the road.  The slogan then was : Stop – look – listen.  Now at Mass, we could rephrase it as : Stand – sing – listen.  The words are worth it.

Snail shell with person emerging
a happy cantor who’s being listened to

© 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.