My God : owning and being owned in the Psalms

Longing and belonging
psalmist and God's face
me and my God

O God, you are my God, for you I long, sings the psalmist in Psalm 62/63, most beautiful of the yearning psalms.   ‘My Lord’ or ‘my God’ is  a very frequent way for him to address the Almighty.   It is a distinct and deliberate declaration : ‘I say, ‘You are my God” (Ps 30/31).  Sometimes God is labelled as belonging to someone else, nearly always Jacob (e.g. Pss 113/114 and 145) but overwhelmingly often the psalmist refers to God just with a direct possessive.   And we’re still doing it; look at the words of many hymns (O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder;  My God loves me;  My God, accept my heart this day, and so on and on).

What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)

But what is the meaning of the possessive in this context?   To jeer at someone and ask ‘Where is your God?’ is hurtful and insulting (Ps 41/42), described as ‘taunts’.  Is it adding to the insult by implying that God is only one among many, that everyone has their own and this one of yours has no power, or is it more the implication that this one mighty God that we know about will not intervene?   What about the danger of reducing God down to only human size? 

In some cultures with multiple gods, there are little gods as well as big ones.  There were small family-specific gods, the lares and penates, in a Roman household, and indeed that is a useful label for particularly prized possessions, indicating a value to the owner that is not necessarily monetary.  We have some lares in our house, a couple of particular much-loved pictures,  the wooden stork in the stairwell, a brass snake, and so on.  (That last one sounds positively biblical, but it’s Indian and belonged to my mother’s family.)  

But now this is God that we are talking about.  We know that the psalmist is well aware of the difference in scale (and everything else) between him and God (‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ (Pss 8 and 143/144)), but he keeps claiming God in the way he addresses him. What does it mean, ‘my’ God?

Abel and Abraham
making sacrifices to seal the bargain
If x then y

Obviously the relationship between God and man is not one of equals, but this is precisely how God himself describes it when he makes covenants in the Old Testament.  ‘They will be my people, and I will be their God’ – there are so many instances of this that I am simply attaching a link here to a list of them, including St Paul’s references to them in his Epistles.  The concept is of a reciprocal duty : humans will do sacrifices (in the early days) and then move on to thanksgiving and virtue, as God tries to explain that these mean more to him than dead sheep and goats (cf. Ps 49/50).  The relationship is drawn as a legal agreement or covenant, and it is always ratified by a sacrifice. 

The New Testament changes the basic rules, and we certainly don’t need to do any more blood sacrifices because of Jesus’ once-for-all self-giving, but the idea that the reciprocal agreement is earthed in a sacrifice (and then maintained by a sequence of further sacrifices, like Abraham’s trail of altars on his journeys) goes back to the earliest days of the patriarchs and is consummated rather than simply changed by Jesus.  It’s a long learning process through salvation history and across both Testaments.  Jesus is still trying to pass on the same message when he quotes Hosea 6.6 in Matthew 9.13 : ‘Go and learn what this means,’I desire mercy and not sacrifice”.  But the reward is great; the other half of the bargain is that the Lord promises to be ‘their’ God.

An offer you can’t refuse
Elijah, angel and bread
Angel delivering groceries to Elijah as well as a message

The mutual obligations are all-embracing, but the psalmist is very clear that it is worthwhile.  The Lord’s promise to be the God of his people means protection, a strong right arm fighting on their side, rescue from the pit whenever necessary, an ever-present help in time of trouble, even food and drink when otherwise unavailable (manna and the quails for the Israelites, and supplies for Elijah, in the OT; the feeding of the hungry crowds in the NT), and in the end happiness for ever, though details on the afterlife are wisely never given.  So accepting the deal and asserting reciprocal ownership is a frequent feature of the psalms.  Like Pascal’s wager, the deal is too good to turn down.

I will be so good to you

The balance is crucial, and it lends itself particularly well to the parallelism of the poetry in the psalms.  I claim you as my God, and therefore you have obligations towards me.  Repeatedly we see the Lord being put on one side in the balance and on the other side we might have ‘the poor’ or ‘the blind’, ‘widows and orphans’ or ‘the just’; sometimes (as in a battle) God holds the mid-line between the forces of evil  and ‘those who fear the Lord’,  and he is total protection.   So we have in Ps 99/100: He made us, we belong to him, / we are his people, the sheep of his flock (v.3).  Ps 139/140 : I have said to the Lord : ‘You are my God.’/ Lord, hear the cry of my appeal!   Ps 85/86 : You are my God, have mercy on me, Lord.   Ps 94/95 : Let us kneel before the God who made us / for he is our God and we / the people who belong to his pasture / the flock that is led by his hand.  Whether we are sheep or people, we have a duty to God, and his corresponding duty is to take care of us, because we belong to him.

Shepherds and sheep
I like the little black sheep
He, the Lord, is our God (Ps 104/105)

Because the psalms are so personal, there are more references to ‘my God’ than to ‘our God’, but the plural possessive is fairly common too.  ‘My God’ is not a claim to exclusivity.  He actually defines the group.  This is why it is so significant when Ruth says to Naomi, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God'(Ruth 1.16).  She is choosing to change all her previous allegiances to become an integral part of her mother-in-law’s tribe, accepting every article of faith as her own.  And the lonely foreign widow is taken into the group and becomes one of the Christ’s ancestors; her God is indeed the same God.

God’s presence and his very self

One of the features that makes God different from all the other gods that the Israelites come across is that he is with his people, even while they are still nomadic.  He does not belong to only one place, like other gods, because his place is to be at their side.  They take the Ark of the Covenant with them on their wanderings, not because they think the Lord is actually in the box, but because the tablets of the Law remind them that he is always there with them in some form, visible (pillar of fire, pillar of cloud) or invisible (a still small voice).  In the New Testament, under the New Covenant, even the name insists on this : Emmanuel, God-with-us.  This is one of the strongest pillars on which the psalmist’s relation to God rests.  You are my God because you are here with me, wherever I am.

Thou the Ocean, I the billow
light and dark

It does imply ownership, but a reciprocal ownership, and it’s not so much a grammatical possessive as more of an ethic dative.  You are God for me, that is the crucial basis of our relationship. It is like when Julian of Norwich describes Jesus saying to her ‘I am the ground of thy beseeching’, or like the psalm which says ‘In your light, we see light’ (Ps 35/36), or like G.M. Hopkins’ poem comparing Our Lady to the air we breathe (‘Be thou then, O thou dear /Mother, my atmosphere).  It is less an assertion of ownership and more an expression of love, on both sides.

You were made for me

This is in fact how we often use ‘my’, claiming someone or something because they are particularly dear to us.  My husband, my mother, my daughter, my son, my friend, my home, my country.  It defines the relationship but also indicates how strong the feeling is.  There is a lot of this in the psalms.  God doesn’t need telling or reminding, but it is reassuring for us to affirm the relationship, and it is an expression of love.   You can say ‘darling’, and you can say ‘my darling’; the feeling and the message are subtly different.

Titles and Thomas
A tender moment : doubt no longer

The titles for God are often given as a doublet in the psalms.   ‘O Lord our God’, twice in Ps 8, ‘O Lord my God’ in Ps 29/30 and Ps 39/40, even a triple in Ps 83/84 : ‘Lord of hosts, my King and my God’.         There are many examples.  ‘My king and my God’ also occurs in Pss 5 and 43/44 and elsewhere; ‘the Lord my (or your) God’ is frequent.  But we have to wait for the apostle Thomas in the New Testament for ‘My Lord and my God’.  I don’t know whether this is because the various translators along the way wanted to keep this as something special, or whether it’s unique to the (Greek) gospel as distinct from the (Hebrew) psalms, but either way we can and do see here a wonderful and unique expression of love and faith where the effect is world-changing but also intimate.  This is why it is one of the Eucharistic Acclamations in Ireland, but unfortunately not for the rest of us.  I’ve written tunes for all the others, but I haven’t managed this one yet.  It’s daunting;  five short words which mean so much.  The double possessive does not mean ‘You belong to me and to no one else’.  It means the same as the line in Amazing Grace : [I] was blind but now I see.  It means everything.


©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. 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 [2019], 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.