The Easter psalm (117/118) : the power of repetition

The last psalm of the evening, the first psalm of Easter

I’ve done other blogs on the Holy Week music and on the Easter weekend specifically, but I want to look at the Easter psalm on its own, because we do in fact sing it again and again.  When we finally make it to Psalm 117/118, at the Easter Vigil, it feels like the moment when Easter finally arrives.   We have had bonfires, processions, vats of holy water, the drama of the light starting so tiny and spreading out from hand to hand to fill the church (and how symbolic is that);  we have gone through a long sequence of readings (longer or shorter depending on what your parish can cope with); we have sung a different psalm after every  reading;  but once we get to Psalm 117/118, the Easter Mass is really under way and can move forward to the Gospel. It is The Easter Psalm, and it’s lucky that it’s so great, because we sing it over and over again at Easter and for the octave (and in Year B, even yet again on the fourth Sunday of Easter).

Christ leaving tomb
resurrexit sicut dixit
Between the shortest and the longest

It never comes back in exactly the same shape, though, and I’m always surprised, looking it up, to find that it isn’t one of the alphabetical or very long psalms. The psalm before it is the tiny Psalm 116/117, shortest of all the psalms, and the one after it (118/119) is the longest of all the psalms, and is, in fact, one of the alphabeticals. In fact, Psalm 117/118 has thirty verses, so it’s middling as far as length goes (but what a lot there is in it!).  I’m sure it’s only coincidental, but it is fun that just as Easter falls between the shortest and the longest day, so the Easter psalm sits between the shortest and the longest psalm.  But that way leads to madness and numerology.

painted Easter eggs
as full, they say, as an egg is of meat

Unlike many psalms, we actually use nearly all of it (just not in one go). Some psalms never get used on a Sunday, some we only use part of because they contain sections which feel inappropriate in the light of the New Testament (curses etc), but this psalm is like an apple, good all the way through.

Several poems strung together : forms..

And its form is interesting as well. It has sections like a litany, parts which are choruses, repetitions, accumulations, long verses, short verses……it’s a most rewarding psalm.  It’s like a sampler of different options; you can (and the Church does) take sections out and use them as free-standing poems, but there is also a long overarching narrative.    Repetition is neatly itself repeated as the recurring trope, not just the standard Psalms parallelism but even within single lines (v 11, v 13).  There are other psalms which use repetition to make a litany (Ps 135, Ps 148), but here there is just enough to enjoy as a litany, and then we move on to something else.

…and content

The form is very rich, but so is the meaning.  It has the whole human salvation story in a nutshell (at this time of year, perhaps we should say eggshell) : the just man attacked and thrown down by his enemies, but protected and raised up by the Lord, whom he will sing to and praise forever.  Also, it’s one of the psalms most easily appropriated to a Christian foreshadowing, helped by the fact that Jesus actually quotes it himself (the corner stone  and subsequent verses, Mtt 21.42,  Mk 12.10,  Lk 20.17).    This psalm quotes or is quoted by so many others (not to mention the references to or from other books of the Bible) that you can hear echoes chiming all the way through : the Lord is at my side, I do not fear; trust the Lord, not princes; the Lord is my strength and my song;  the Lord’s right hand has triumphed; I will enter by the Lord’s own gate;  Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes; the Lord is our light….and so on.  It’s like a compendium.  And for us the echoes go forward (into the New Testament) as well as back, because these are the words that we hear from John the Baptist, from Jesus, from St Paul.  This beloved psalm is quoted repeatedly, and it reverberates like a great bell.

Using it in the Easter liturgy

It starts with the word Alleluia!, one of the hallmarks of Eastertide, and a reminder of Easter for the rest of the year.  The word occurs only twentyfour times in the Old Testament, and only in Psalms, and only in the last third of the book of Psalms (thank you, Internet) : three surprising facts in a row.  So it’s a significant word, and unlike the infuriating ‘Selah’, on which opinions differ, we do actually know what it means (hurrah for God) and that it is a shout of joy.  So the best possible start to a psalm in this position in the Easter liturgy, so good in fact that on the psalm’s first outing, at the Vigil, it forms the Response, all on its own, and we sing it three times.

The Risen Lord with attendant angel musicians (every home should have some), probably singing alleluia
Easter Vigil version : 3 x 4 lines, Rx 3 x Alleluia

Alleluia is usually written with an exclamation mark, as I did above, but note the way that the US and OZ versions of the psalm for the Easter Vigil use full stops instead, and the UK version makes the triple Alleluia a crescendo : ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!’.  The CAN version has three exclamation marks.   The variation of these ways of punctuating it makes us think about the force of the Response.  I like the serious three-full-stops version particularly, because as we haven’t had any Alleluias for six weeks, it is as though we are feeling our way back to it, trying out how it sounds, learning to rejoice.  When I set it, I was trying to emphasize the slight strangeness or dislocation of this, so I’ve gone for a sort of grave barbaric tune rather than just flourishes of trumpets.  Carmina Burana rather than the Hallelujah chorus (and do click on that link, it’s brilliant).

The strophe starts with the first two verses, which works well, as v 1 is the burden for the whole psalm :’Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,/for his love endures for ever’.  It gives the psalm structure, because it is repeated at the end, and the second line is the element which creates the litany section, which immediately follows.  Then the strophes in the Vigil version jump to the lines in the middle which seem to foreshadow Christ most directly:’I shall not die, but live […] the stone rejected by the builders has become the corner stone’.  Three solid four-line strophes, each with the triple Alleluia as the refrain.     ( I need another word for the bits that the cantor sings.  I’m using strophe to avoid confusion with verse, but the only alternative I can think of so far is stanza.  So you can have Italian instead of Greek, but that’s no improvement.  I’ll keep thinking about this.)

Easter Sunday version: same strophes, different Rx

Within hours, we are singing the same psalm again, on Easter Sunday morning.  We have the same three strophes as in the night, but a new Response : ‘This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad’.   This is the verse of the psalm directly after the lines about the corner stone.  It is a long Response, and you don’t want the congregation to have trouble remembering it, you want them to sing with joy and gladness (see Isaiah 12, Easter Vigil Fifth Reading).   It needs a solid tune of its own, but it has to go with the tune for the strophes.  I kept that the same, as I wanted to keep the solid connection between the Vigil and the Day Mass.   The daytime congregation should be fine to cope with a longer Response, especially as they haven’t already been singing at intervals for the last hour or so, as they would have been the night before.

everybody wideawake and joining in the singing
2nd Sunday of Easter version : 3 x 6 lines, different Rx

The next Sunday (Easter Octave, Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday) has the same psalm again.  Only it isn’t.  This time we have three strophes of six lines each, starting with the litany section of the psalm, while the Response is the first verse which starts the litany section (which was the first line of the first strophe of the psalm last Sunday, I hope this is clear).  The middle strophe is a different bit of the psalm which we haven’t had yet, and the third strophe is the ‘corner stone’ four-line verse plus the Response from Easter Sunday.  Actually, that’s only for Year A.  For Year C, the corner stone strophe is the middle one, with another part of the psalm forming the last strophe.  Year B has a different middle strophe, and the corner stone back in as last strophe.  (I feel like the Cat in the Hat at this point : ‘Oh the fun we can have!’  And each country group has slightly different words.)

Putting it to music

You want people to realise it’s the same psalm, but you can’t use the same tune, as the strophes are half as long again.  Eventually I decided to go with the shape of the first strophe and Response, and emphasize the litany element.  (I’m hoping that as the words are the same, the congregation can spot that it’s the same psalm without my labouring it; also, I don’t want them to get bored.)  With a litany, it means writing the strophe to accumulate momentum as it goes along, because if you’re going to repeat a short line three times, it has either to grow or peter out, it can’t stand still.  So I went for waves of triumph getting bigger each time.  This was fun to write, because you increase until it can all tumble back down the notes into the Response.  But it’s also got to work for the subsequent strophes which are not in litany form.

Forever, everlasting and has no end

The UK version  uses ‘has no end’ instead of ‘is everlasting’, and I found it irresistible to echo that in the music of the Response, so it just keeps rolling on to the next line until there aren’t any, when it’s still waiting.

Female charioteer with four in hand
the danger of the music running away with you

When I set the CAN version, a couple of years later, the words were slightly different, so I wrote a new tune altogether, and that was in 3/4, which is really good for accumulating momentum, though you have to be careful not to get faster.  When this psalm comes back yet again in Year B (Fourth Sunday of Easter), the words are from yet other verses of the psalm, but I set it in 3/4 for all the different Lectionaries because the rhythm felt so rollicking.  That time, the Response is the corner stone verse itself.


We bless you from the house of the Lord

This is one of the great encouraging psalms.  This is partly because it shows the singer moving through peril to safety and bliss, not just hoping for help, but having received succour, and finding himself safe at last in the haven where he would be.  The last few lines (see heading for this section) are a message to those of us still on the road; it’s almost as though the Communion of Saints is sending us a postcard of encouragement.  ‘The Lord God is our light’ : the light showing in the windows of the house we are all trying to reach, and how the sight of that light lifts the hearts of those still walking on in the gloom!

Easter candleholder
light shining in the darkness

Its repetition at Eastertide only adds to its force, because that sort of encouragement is extremely cumulative.  It’s not surprising to discover that it is many people’s favourite, Martin Luther for one, William Cowper the poet for another.   Many people have made it their own, using it to pray so often that its words rise spontaneously when it seems appropriate.  Cowper writes touchingly of how this psalm made him brave to cope with bullying as a small boy at school.  He later spent time in an asylum following severe depression, and frames his account of his recovery in the words of this psalm (vv 17, 18 and 29).  Elizabeth I  quoted v 23 when she heard that her sister had died and she herself had become Queen.  This spontaneous quoting of it is exactly what Jesus is doing when he makes the lines about the corner stone his own, and it shows how familiar and dear to him the psalm must have been.   As before, this makes us realise again that the Psalter isn’t just our best prayer book.  It was his 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.

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Celebrating the Annunciation

A moveable feast

The feast of the Annunciation is in a difficult position in the calendar. It has to fall exactly nine months before Christmas Day, because Our Lady, being the perfect woman, had a perfect pregnancy and Christ spent exactly nine months in the womb, so it’s March 25th.  But Easter is not a fixed date like Christmas (more on that later), so every now and again, the Annunciation falls in Holy Week, when we are all concentrating on the end of the Lord’s human life rather than the beginning of it.   When this happens, the Annunciation is moved to the week after Easter.  In practice, this is a bit like having your birthday on or the day before or after Christmas, and any child will tell you that this is not ideal, as the bigger feast tends to swallow up the lesser. Easter is, of course, the biggest feast in the Church’s year; but you couldn’t have Easter without the Annunciation happening first.

Autres temps, autres moeurs, and autres temps as well

Interestingly, the Eastern Churches handle this differently, and they celebrate the Annunciation on its day even when it falls in Holy Week, even when it falls on Good Friday (and they have special liturgies for this).   The date of Christmas itself was fixed only some time after the fourth century, and of course there are lots of other considerations (symbolism, absorbing older feasts, typology) which come into play.  The Annunciation was a Wednesday in Advent and Christmas was celebrated at Epiphany for a while, the thinking being that the revelation to the Gentiles was the important event.  Easter, or indeed the Annunciation, was once regarded as the beginning of the New Year in many countries, and the Annunciation was such a beloved feast that it has its own pet name, ‘Lady Day’, which outlasted even the Protestants and the Puritans.  So for many years Lady Day counted as New Year’s Day, which is really getting confusing.

The importance of the Annunciation

Last year, the Annunciation had to be transferred, but this year it is back in March where it belongs, so it’s easier for me to write about it.  It celebrates the occasion when God sends an angel to Mary to ask whether she will have his baby, and she says yes.  She has very little idea what the angel is talking about, but her disposition is to trust God and to carry out what he asks.  It’s breathtaking and terrifying, when you think about it.  Any Jewish female would have known that she might be a potential mother of the Messiah, but I imagine it would be well to the back of your mind, like an American mother wondering whether her child might grow up to be President, and Mary is not even Joseph’s wife yet.  She is a young girl, doing normal things, when suddenly the divine irrupts into her life, and it is never the same again.

Supernatural event in a natural setting
Images of the Annunciation

There are an enormous number of pictures of the Annunciation.  I don’t know how on earth you could count scientifically, but I imagine that that the pictures of the Annunciation and the Virgin and Child greatly outnumber all other pictures from Mary’s life.  I would not dare to hazard a guess whether there are more Annunciations than Virgin-and-Childs.  But the Annunciation ones are particularly interesting because they show a setting before the angel arrives, with some evidence of what Mary was doing.   There are Annunciations with her in a kitchen, in a garden (full of flowers laden with symbolism), under a tree, praying, spinning, or (my favourite) reading.  I like the ones with Mary reading, just as I like the pictures of St Anne teaching her to read (in the Chora museum in Istanbul, among other places), because I think we tend to underestimate Mary.  I have listened to sermons where she is presented as simply an illiterate peasant,  this being fine because the power of the Holy Spirit makes her so holy that we don’t need to give her any human credit.  I don’t agree with this version.  After all, God had the whole of Creation to choose from, and he chose her.

Mary in control of the situation (Lippi)

I read a fascinating article interpreting the Annunciation as Mary’s #MeToo moment,  but in the end I disagreed with the conclusion.  It’s striking how totally different the Annunciation is from the scenes of Jupiter arriving to ravish beautiful young women (as Juno asks, in a beloved ffolkes cartoon, ‘Have you seen my husband?  He’ll be a bull, a swan […]or a shower of gold’, which I can’t find on line, but I know exactly where the book is if I were at home…).   The earlier portrayals of the Annunciation (say, pre-Baroque) have no sense of rush, intimidation or overwhelming power.  The angel is shown on the same scale as Mary, and in a lower position.

This angel is asking, not telling (del Sarto)

Usually, in these earlier Annunciations, the angel is kneeling at Mary’s feet.  God has sent his representative as a humble supplicant.  Mary is not shown as frightened or shocked. There is no assault here.  As the mediaeval English poem puts it:   He came al so stille/where his mother was/ as dew in April/ that falleth on the grass/….he came al so stille/ to his mother’s bower/ as dew in April/that falleth on the flower.

Another poem, maybe half a century older, the Ave maris Stella, makes it clear that the lady has agency.  The whole poem is a request for her to do things which will help us.  She is not a passive victim.

The gentleness of God

This is theologically correct, and also in keeping with the way God behaves in the Bible, and especially with women, unlike most of the other characters (Hagar and Sarah in Genesis, for example).   He woos but he does not force.  He smites enemies, but he does not bully his friends.  Forced consent is no consent, so God avoids approaching people directly (so we have the burning bush, the pillar of cloud, the angel messengers and so on).  And he waits for Mary’s answer.  Nothing can happen until she speaks.  Once she says yes, then ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow’ her,  and she will start a journey which ends with her as Queen of Heaven and Mother of God.  For now, God is waiting anxiously, like the slaves and the servants in Psalm 122/123 : ‘Like the eyes of a servant on the hand of her mistress, so our eyes are on the Lord our God till he show us his mercy’, but, in a thrilling inversion, it is God who is waiting for Mary to agree.  The Creator waits for the permission of one of his creatures.

Not a fair contest (Poussin)

Later portrayals (from the Baroque onwards)  of the Annunciation emphasize the power and might of the angel, the beauty of his wing, the breadth of his wing span, how tall he is, and the imbalance of forces gets worse as we move towards the present day.   To compare with the two earlier poems, here are two more modern.  W.B. Yeats in The Mother of God describes  a Mary who is terrified and daunted, who has been overwhelmed, much more similar to one of Jupiter’s victims, and Rupert Brooke’s Mary and Gabriel shows her being bullied into submission by ‘a will too strong for her/That held and filled and mastered all’, and she gives consent only because she is too tired to go on resisting.

This Mary looks like a patient at bay (Rosetti)
Do what I say or I’ll jump on you from a great height (Austrian, 18th-cent.)

We are back in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, not in the Gospels.  I think we can blame the Counter-Reformation (again) for some of this, with its emphasis on power and might rather than the love of God, and I think this leads to  people seeing the Mary of the Annunciation as a passive victim, but this is not part of the Gospel narrative.

Back to the source

Luke gives the longer account, which he must have got from Mary herself, as no-one else is present besides the angel.  (The story is also told in Matthew’s Gospel,  from Joseph’s perspective.)  God sends an angel to Mary, he comes to her (already slightly surprising, as she is alone) and greets her respectfully. ‘But she was greatly troubled at the saying and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be’.  There is no panic, but she is aware that something strange is happening.  She is brave, and no fool.  This action is typical of Mary; she is someone who listens, observes, and then thinks about the significance of what is happening. She ‘ponders all these things in her heart’, as it says later.

Look at these lovely curves, and the way the two hands are heading together (Botticelli)

The angel tells her not to be afraid.  This is a very human touch in this scene where the divine is breaking in upon the human.  Maybe Mary had to sit down.  Angels seem to start by telling people not to be afraid quite often (e.g. the shepherds at Bethlehem), but of course we don’t know what they looked like, and traditionally Mary’s angel is one of the archangels, so presumably impressive, even in a kneeling position.  Gabriel tells her that she has found favour with God and she will bear a son who will be called the Son of the Most High and fulfil all the prophecies about the Messiah, which of course Mary recognises.  She knows the context; she knows what this means.  Her response is a question about the practicalities : ‘How can this be, since I have no husband?’  and Gabriel answers that God will see to all that, nothing is impossible for him and tells her about her older, barren cousin’s pregnancy to illustrate the point.  And then the crucial moment : ‘And Mary said,’ Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’  And the angel left her.’

What we don’t know, of course, is whether there was any other conversation or discussion, but I think probably not, because what would you say?  The angel tells Mary what the plan is, and she only has to say yes or no.  The most important things we say tend to be the simplest: I love you, will you marry me, goodbye, please take care; and yes or no.  And she’s not just a vessel (whatever the early Church Fathers say about this, with their strange physiological ideas), or a passive victim in any way; it is hard to think of anything more active and engaged than having a child and looking after it yourself.

Just hold the baby, while I down a devil : Mary in a more active role
The psalm for the Annunciation

The psalm we sing at the Feast of the Annunciation is not the Magnificat, Mary’s great song of praise (see an earlier blog) when she visits Elizabeth, but the simpler and lower-key Psalm 39/40.  I think of this as the Samuel psalm, because it reminds me of the little boy Samuel being repeatedly woken in the night by God’s voice calling him, and he doesn’t know what to do, until Eli tells him to answer, in the same words that we use as the Response. ‘Here I am, Lord’, and that’s too short for a workable psalm response, so it goes on,’I come to do your will’.  Repeatedly in salvation history, God calls a person for a special job (Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, Jacob…..Peter, James and John, and so on); and the best answer is just,’Here I am’.

I like the line where it says ‘You do not ask for sacrifice[..]but an open ear’, because there was a charming if peculiar early idea that Mary conceived Jesus through the ear (the Word of God going in through the ear and bearing fruit in the womb).   This is like Rabelais’ frozen words whizzing through the sky across the sea and being audible only when they melt, the Word made flesh indeed.  I also like the line where the psalmist sings of treasuring God’s word ‘in the depths of my heart’, which feels very appropriate for Our Lady.

I’ve set it as simply as possible.  Everyone has the same version except the US, where the words are more convoluted, but at least the Response, like Mary’s, stays short and simple.  And it doesn’t come back to the tonic at the end (unusually), because the point is that this is the start of something, not its conclusion.  Mary doesn’t know where she is going, but she has set her foot upon the road.

The Annunciation is not the celebration of the Incarnation

It is important, when we celebrate the Annunciation, that we don’t get sucked into just celebrating the Incarnation.  In one sense they are the same event, but the emphasis is different.  We celebrate the Word made flesh above all at Christmas,  his birth-day, when he appears as a separate individual, but at the Annunciation, what we are celebrating is Mary’s agreement, her leap of faith, her conception of the Baby who will stay her secret for a while, and belong to her only,  for only those nine months, in a very special way.  The Annunciation is Mary’s feast.  Hail, Queen of heaven.

someone’s holding up the words, she must be joining in the singing

© 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.

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