I mneed a mnemonic for the New Testament

Finding your way around the Bible

As we all know, Catholics tend to be less good at finding their way around the Bible than our Protestant friends and relations. There are many reasons for this. Apart from anything else, the Bible is huge : a collection of books rather than a book.  Then historically, the universal church (when it was the universal church) actively tried hard to prevent people getting their hands on the Bible and reading it for themselves. This shows an excellent grasp of just how dangerous and subversive the text can be, but was never going to work long-term. It was forbidden even to translate the Bible into another language for a long time, unless it was Latin, which was a bit of a giveaway, because it meant access was still restricted to the Right Sort of People.

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
Very easy to get bogged down
Hurrah for the Psalms! (yet again)

The only exception was the book of Psalms (hurrah!), which has always been treated as a special case, and there have been vernacular translations of it for many centuries.

page of psalm in multiple languages
Look at this lovely multilingual Psalter

This I think must simply be down to the heroic efforts of the Holy Spirit, and it has brought enormous comfort to countless people over the course of human history, which is indeed the Holy Spirit’s job.   But the other books of the Bible were kept closed up and only dealt out in tiny carefully-edited pieces, because people couldn’t be trusted with them.

Luther was right about some things

So historically Catholics weren’t very good at knowing where a bit of the Bible came from, and even worse at knowing exactly where, in this huge volume, to look it up.  Some great saints like William Tyndale and Jan Hus were burnt at the stake for trying to give us the Bible in our own languages.   We had the spread of mass literacy and the Reformation (could they be related?), and very swiftly, one of the obvious differences between Catholics and Protestants was that Protestants knew their Bibles.  They had Sunday schools and we had statues.  We had the teaching authority of the Church, but there is a different authority in being able to pick up any Bible and put your finger straight on whatever it is you are quoting to support your point of view.  In our family, we had to up our game when the only school available where we were living had an Evangelical ethos and some rather fierce children in the playground.   Our children still occasionally quote with great affection the Roy Castle bible story cassettes which we used to play in the car on long journeys.   So I’m good on the stories, but hazier about where exactly to find them.

Nun reading from lectern. Would she need a New Testament mnemonic?
Pay attention at the back
Buy one, get several free

Since the last couple of Popes, though, Catholics have been trying to get to know their Bibles better.

You wouldn't need a mnemonic for Judith
Giorgione’s Judith : a woman not to be passed over

And we have a couple of sneaky advantages : genuine Bible pluses, because our Bibles have more books in than the Protestant ones (for long and complicated reasons, which I don’t feel competent to discuss).

And some of them are wonderful and I would hate to be without them (Tobit, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus).  You don’t miss out on too much of the story without them, as the Bible goes back on itself and loops around, so you often have more than one telling of an event, but the book of Judith would be another serious loss, especially as only two other books are named after women (Ruth and Esther).

The order of the Old Testament

Finding your way around the Old Testament takes a lot of practice, like finding your way around a very large city.

Some people’s natural sense of direction is a spiral

A map is helpful; and mnemonics are maps for the mind.  For the Old Testament, there is, thank the Lord, an old mnemonic to help.  It starts ‘The great Jehovah speaks to us/In Genesis and Exodus’, and you can easily find it on the internet or just click here.  I first came across it in a book of mnemonics nearly fifty years ago, I think, and it must be well older than that to have been included.

The power of the mnemonic

Mnemonics are very personal.  I can’t remember things by numbers at all, I have to turn them into words.

New Testament Mnemonic in the shape of a many-handed woman
Several more hands to keep a place marked might help as well….

For some people, it’s pictures.   You have to find the right sort of trigger.  That means that what works for me may not work for you (one reason why maps come in so many versions, perhaps).  There exist other mnemonics for the order of the books of the Bible, but that’s the only OT one that I find helpful, and I can’t always remember the right bit, and it leaves out the extra books, so I have it printed out with the other books pencilled in where they fit.  Then it’s a great help, especially with the minor prophets.  A Bible with a thumb index might help as well but 1. have you seen the price and 2. I’ve never seen a Catholic one in my local bookshop.  Also by now I suspect 3. the names on the tabs are in too small print to read.

The order of the New Testament

I thought when we took to studying parts of the New Testament that things would be easier.  Just the Gospels and a few letters.  Actually there are 27 books in the New Testament, varying wildly in length, and it’s really tricky finding things quickly (especially if it’s by St Paul).  So I hunted for a similar mnemonic for the New Testament, to give me a handle on it.

Monastic book shelves - did monks have a New Testament Mnemonic?
39 books in the OT, 27 in the NT
The missing mnemonic

And I couldn’t find one.  I certainly couldn’t find anything that worked for me.  There were little songs, which you would think I would like, but they don’t work because the scansion of the names of the books is too similar (this incidentally is why little songs to learn your tables don’t work, because too many number names scan the same way, and there’s no rhyme to help : two twos can be one, two, three, four, five, six, eight, nine, ten or twelve, and still scan perfectly OK).   There were abstruse sentences with the initial letters of the Epistles (but these tend to leave out whole chunks of the New Testament).  I’m not giving links to these as I don’t want to look as though I am ridiculing other people’s efforts, but if you have a rummage around, you will see what I mean.  And something might work for you, even if it didn’t for me.

In the end, I wrote my own in sheer desperation.  It’s complete doggerel, but in a way, that’s the point.  It’s unfairly a fact of life that doggerel sticks in the mind better than most great poetry (and it’s what we all grow up learning in the playground).   Here is my effort, with apologies to anyone whose artistic sensibilities are offended by it.  If it is any use to anyone else, I’d be delighted.

Books of the New Testament mnemonic

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

Acts and Romans follow on.

Corinthians 1 and 2 come next,

Galatians and Ephesians have less text.

For Philippi and Colossians a letter each will do,

But the Thessalonians needed two.

Tim gets two letters just on his own;

One for Titus and one for Phile-mon;

One to the Hebrews, then one from James,

Two from Peter (who had two names);

Next three letters from Apostle John,

Then Jude; and last the book of Re-ve-la-ti-on.

You need to pronounce Philemon Filly-moan to get the rhyme; and if you sound out the last word syllable by syllable, you could even intone it with a sort of Evensong hooting noise.  It all helps you to remember (and it’s a much easier word to rhyme than ‘Apocalypse’).  Hope it helps.

7th angel of the Apocalypse….and now you can remember what is the 7th book of the NT

© 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.

Palm or Passion Sunday and its psalm(s)

Two complete services for Palm/Passion Sunday?

Ideally, there would be two different masses on Palm or Passion Sunday, one for the Palm bit and one for the Passion bit, with different psalms. It was always called Palm Sunday when I was little, and certainly that was what you remembered from year to year, the handing out of strange yellow papery things (it was years before I actually realised they were meant to be leaves) and the (slightly embarrassing) mini-procession into the church, singing a hymn with joyful words but usually a dirge-like tune, and the people in church getting out of sync with those still outside, so that you had to do a quick change on crossing the threshold, like when you move from a room with a digital radio into one with an analogue playing the same programme.  Since then, I’ve lived in countries where people bring green branches from their gardens to have them blessed and then wave them in the procession.  This can be difficult in a long winter like this one, but probably gives more of the correct feel.  Blossom branches are uncanonical but very pretty.

Some of these branches are more like mushrooms…
Music to walk in with -Palm Sunday

For the procession, of course you can use Psalm 23/ 24, with its glorious appeal to the gates to grow higher so that the king of glory can come in and not bang his head.  This is a wonderful psalm which appears also during Advent, and especially at the Feast of the Presentation.  It is tremendously exciting to write a tune for, although it’s difficult not to be intimidated by the fact that Handel has already done it better than anyone else.  But most parishes don’t get to sing it, as the liturgy has added an unwieldy antiphon which slows it down, and it’s easier to sing in procession a hymn that the congregation already knows.  I’d be tempted to sing it straight through as a Responsorial Psalm if you want to process to it, because then the rhythm doesn’t keep being interrupted.  The 4 Advent A version or the Presentation one both have good short responses (the antiphon is three lines long).

Everybody loves a good procession
A sudden change of mood

However, most parishes use a hymn for the procession, for good reason, so that psalm may not be used at all (though it gets quoted in the Entrance Antiphon of the Simple Entrance).  But whatever music you have before Mass, once it gets under way, there is an instant change of mood, like a screech of brakes or possibly more accurately a grinding of the gears as the atmosphere changes completely.  This is entirely appropriate, as the crowd does indeed reverse its behaviour between the entrance into Jerusalem and the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but it happens shockingly fast on Sunday morning this week.

Abrupt change to Passion Sunday, and a new psalm

We have to have the Passion read out this Sunday because next Sunday is already Easter.  Many places don’t have Holy Week services, and many people can’t get to them if they do exist, so in order to follow the correct sequence for as many people as possible, the Church has to include the rest of the events of Holy Week in the same day as Christ’s triumphant arrival into Jerusalem.  This is why it feels like two Sundays’-worth of readings, and the psalms to match.

Illuminated initial for Ps 22
Initial consonant for Ps 21/22, showing the dogs besetting the victim.
Problems with Psalm 21/22

The first reading is from Isaiah and immediately plunges us into the pain of the Suffering Servant.  The psalm now has to reflect and answer this reading, so we have Psalm 21/22, one of the upsetting psalms to sing.  The Response is the first line, but the verses start a few lines further in, and they are hard to read and even harder to sing.  As Christians, we read the words of the psalm as a faithful sequential narration of the Passion; we don’t even think of it as an earlier prediction fulfilled, although of course the early Christians of Jewish background would have done.

From that…to this
Mixed moods, mixed messages

But even in the short version we have in the Missal for this Sunday (four strophes out of sixteen in the whole psalm), the mood is not unrelieved.  Notice in the initial consonant in the picture above, that God is visibly there (the little hand just above the big D to the right).  Even as the words say,’My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’, we can see that he has not forsaken us.  The first three strophes of the psalm (I’m not calling them ‘verses’, because of possible confusion with the verse-numbering) are appalling.  The third ends with another cry for help (similar to v1, the Response), and then moves forward, in the fourth strophe, to an affirmation of God’s goodness, which is very significantly in the future tense.  There are holes in the hands and feet of the Suffering Servant; he can count every bone, but he looks forward to a time when he will talk about God’s goodness to his friends and praise him in the assembly.  The awfulness is not the end.

The joys of modal (and the pathos too)

This makes it difficult to put it to music which won’t seem totally inappropriate either at the beginning or at the end, but thank God for modal tunes, which are more elastic than standard major or minor  (Barbara Allen, The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies, O waly, waly, What shall we do with the drunken sailor? etc.).  The abiding characteristic of a modal tune is its plaintive and (hopefully) haunting quality.   It is very good for pathos, but not without lightness (lots of folk songs, especially old ones, exploit this), and there is room for the gleams of sunshine after the storm.

One psalm, two tunes (Good Friday psalm)

When there are very different moods within the same psalm, it’s always difficult to work out what to do.  For Good Friday, the Response stays the same, but the mood of the different strophes is so different that I had to have two separate tunes (this is Psalm 30/31, four strophes US, five everyone else); but that works because the terrible verse(s) are in the middle of the psalm, so the congregation can cope with a bit of the unexpected, and then feel safely back on track as you come to the last Response.

Palm Sunday : not alternation but progression

Here in Psalm 21/22 on the other hand, I would have had to make the last verse different from all the others, and that would have undermined confidence just at the point where I need people to come in strongly.

Crucifixion with angels and saints
Serene but heart-breaking

Significantly, Jesus’ words from the cross (and our Response) are only the first line of this long psalm, and the commentators emphasize that he must have continued the psalm in his mind even if he could not utter any more of it.  It is a cry of anguish but not of despair.  Our last strophe this Sunday is at the beginning of the positive last third of the psalm,  so positive that we will be singing it on the fifth Sunday of Easter this year, probably without even remembering that the words come from this same psalm.  The selection of verses for the fifth Sunday of Easter is completely positive even though part of this same psalm,  with a serene confidence in the goodness of God and a call to go out and tell everyone, all the ends of the earth and all the families of nations.

There is even more encouragement in the verses which are not included in either Sunday version of the psalm : ‘For he (God) has never despised nor scorned the poverty of the poor.  From him he has not hidden his face, but he heard the poor man when he cried’ (v 25).  This is a hard psalm to sing, especially in the Palm Sunday version, but if you read the whole psalm, it is clear that the psalmist’s and Jesus’ feet are very firmly planted. ‘In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you set them free. […] In you they trusted and never in vain’ (vv 5-6).  It is a psalm for the darkness, but joy is coming in the morning.

Beautiful dawn


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.