Law is the theme for the Lent psalms (Year B)

Patterns in the Lent psalms for the third cycle

The Law is the recurring theme in the Lent psalms for Year B.  Year A puts  penitence in the foreground, and Year C celebrates mercy, but in Lent B we focus on the giving and receiving of the Law, and in case that seems too dry, its beauty and power.  This might seem a slightly odd idea, but there are lots of psalms with the Law as their theme, and Lent B doesn’t come close to using all of them.

Procession
people queueing up to go to church in Lent
Three Lectionary years, three Gospels
St John on Patmos, far away

We know that the Gospels follow a three-year rotation in the Lectionary.  Year A is Matthew, B is Mark, and C is Luke.  Mark is shorter than the others, so there is room for some of the Gospel of John to eke him out to a whole year’s length, though the other years do also borrow from John.  The Gospels were written at different times (John’s much later than the others), for different audiences (Matthew talking more for a Jewish audience, Luke for a Gentile), and stressing different aspects of the same story (Matthew Jesus’ teaching, Mark the events of his life, Luke famously the ‘Gospel of mercy’, about grace and forgiveness).   John comes from a different time and even place (Patmos), looking at the narrative of Jesus’ life from a different perspective.  So obviously all that is going to affect the story told across the six weeks of Lent.

Supporting and framing the Gospel

The First Reading is taken from the Old Testament to illuminate the Gospel from the angle of salvation history; the Responsorial Psalm is a response to it; then the Second Reading is usually from the Epistles, showing how the early Christians were grappling with some of the same problems that we have today in our own communities.   The Gospel is framed by these three separate pieces of text, like a painting on an easel.   The Psalm has been carefully chosen for its place out of the whole Psalter, and that is why I think it is worth investigating themes and cumulative effect.

First Sunday of Lent B

The First Readings for each of the Lent Years take us on a tour of salvation history following the line of the patriarchs.  It’s very clear in Year A ( Adam > Abram > Moses > David ),  and a bit more to-and-fro in Year C, because we focus on Moses, going forward and back in time.   In Year B, we start back in Genesis, this time with Noah.  But not the story of humanity’s wickedness and God’s plan to punish them by sending the Flood; this reading is about afterwards, about the setting up of a covenant, a legal bargain or binding contract, between God and the survivors, with commitments and obligations on both sides.  And we have the rainbow as a token of God’s promise that he will never again send a flood to destroy all living beings (note : not just the humans).

Psalm 24/25 for 1 Lent B
Noah's Ark
safe amid perils, in a very spaceship ark

The response to this reading is the Psalm 24/25, Lord, make me know your ways, […] teach me your paths, one of the alphabetical psalms, so quite long.  This is just an extract.  God is offering a covenant and we are keen to accept it and promise that we will follow it.  This psalm is familiar; it comes up regularly, most recently just a few weeks previously (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time B), though with a different Response.  We are extolling God’s ‘ways’, his rules, ideas, patterns, habits; this word can cover almost anything, but the request is for God to show us his ‘paths’ (three times in this short extract), his rules to follow.  It makes a good introductory, in this first week of Lent.  God’s ways are the right way to do anything, founded in his goodness and love for us; once we know what they are, obedience is all.  The Response is the next verse after the end of the stanzas we have here :  Your ways, Lord, are faithfulness and love for those who keep your covenant.  This is admirably on message, but quite long, so it’s important to give the congregation (if you are lucky enough to have one, and they may join in) enough time to grasp it before they have to sing it back.  I tried to keep it quite brisk so that it has a bit of momentum to help. 

Exotic Ark
another gorgeous ark

The second reading is when Paul talks about Noah.  The Gospel Acclamation is interesting, because it’s Jesus’ words in answer to the first temptation in the wilderness.  Here it almost counts as subliminal messaging,  because Mark’s account of the encounter with the devil in the desert is only three lines long and has none of the dialogue.  You can see why Matthew and Luke decided to amplify the story, but Mark is always in a tearing hurry to move on to the next event.

Second Sunday of Lent B
look at the tension in the scene

The First Reading is still in Genesis, but a different patriarch this time, Abraham.  It is the excruciating story of the nearly-sacrifice of Isaac.  With sons myself, I find it difficult not to get caught up in the problems of this story, but the point is surely that this is a test for Abraham on how seriously he takes God’s word, and as soon as he passes the test, God amplifies the covenant with more and more blessings and rewards.  Abraham’s obedience means that the covenant has been strong enough to carry the weight placed upon it, and it can be developed, carried forward and built upon.

Psalm 115/116 for 2 Lent B

This psalm in this position actually helps us to understand what is going on in the first reading.  The words in the stanzas are acutely pointed : I trusted, even when I said:/ ‘I am sorely afflicted.’ / O precious in the eyes of the Lord / is the death of his faithful […] My vows to the Lord I will fulfil… and you can imagine Abraham’s gritted teeth, if it was going through his head also.  But the mood is set by the Response, which is unusually taken from a different psalm.  In fact it is the last verse of the previous psalm (the Hebrew text does not put a break between them, so you could argue it’s not from a different psalm really, but this is one of the areas where the numbering is moot and very confusing) :  I will walk in the presence of the Lord / in the land of the living.  It is an expression of absolute confidence.  I have sung it at funerals and always found it extremely comforting to think of heaven as ‘the land of the living’. 

The middle stanza develops again the covenant idea, with rules and rights : Your servant am I […] you have loosened my bonds – and then the psalm goes on to make promises of thanksgiving : I make a sacrifice to show my gratitude, I call on the Lord’s name and make vows which I will fulfil in Jerusalem.  We have a working contract here.  Abraham trusted God even when it seemed mad to do so, and God did not let him down.

The second reading is the beautiful bit from Paul ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?‘ but again we find ourselves in the language of laws and courts. ‘Could anyone accuse those that God has chosen?  When God acquits, could anyone condemn? [..] at God’s right hand [Jesus] stands and pleads for us.’ (Romans 8.32f).  The Gospel (and Acclamation) are the Transfiguration, the glory of God made manifest, like the rainbow in the first reading.

Christ shining whiter than wool, brighter than light
Third Sunday of Lent B

The First Reading this week is from Exodus (so we’ve moved from Noah, to Abraham, and now to Moses), and it is where God lays out the Commandments.  This is earlier than the occasion where God writes them down on the tablets.  This reading here is only part of the instructions which God issues;  he continues for another two chapters.   These later commandments don’t make it into the ten on the tablets,  but contain among other things the touching detail about returning someone’s cloak at sunset if he has left it with you as security, as otherwise he will have no blanket. So here we have the great Law set out properly for the first time, in God’s voice, accompanied by peals of thunder, lightning, a smoking mountain, and the sound of trumpets : the law in majesty.

Psalm 18/19 for 3 Lent B
Law in 2 scrolls
Lord, how I love your Law

The answering psalm is a hymn of praise for the law itself, listing its perfections, extolling its beauty, celebrating it.  Several of the psalms are on this topic, especially the longest psalm of all (Psalm 118/119)and we may have to make an effort of imagination to understand how beloved the law was, especially in times of exile and persecution.  It’s like having a sheriff in the Wild West (see Blazing Saddles or Dodge City); it’s like Sir Thomas More’s explanation to Roper in A Man for All Seasons, even though there he’s deliberately drawing a distinction between man’s law and God’s Law.  Any law is your protection so long as you are among people who obey it.  Before Jesus brought his Good News, the only way to please God was to keep the laws that you had been given, because that was God’s own word.  The Response is not taken from the psalm itself, but from John’s Gospel, and it’s the second half of what Peter says when Jesus asks the apostles whether they will also go away, after a group of disciples have left, which always sounds very forlorn.  Peter answers, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life’ (Jn 6.68).  So the stanzas celebrate the Law of the Old Testament, and the Response links it to the message of Jesus.

Crucifixion scene on a living tree
The tree of life, still green

The second reading is St Paul explaining that this does not mean success in human or worldly terms.  Jesus was crucified; but God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, his weakness stronger than our strength.  It doesn’t contradict the message of the psalm, but it prepares us for future events.  The Gospel is Christ throwing the merchants and moneylenders out of the Temple, taken from John’s Gospel.  Here we see God’s law being broken in his own house,  and Jesus registers his protest, even though presumably the merchants were able to set up again once he had gone.

Fourth Sunday of Lent B

This is mid-Lent Sunday, where Mass starts with the words ‘Rejoice’ and the priest wears pink, but the First Reading (from Chronicles) changes the mood immediately, with its account of the sins of the priests and the people (including a reference to defiling the Temple, linking to the previous week) and the breaking of the covenant.  God has allowed Israel’s enemies to sack Jerusalem, destroy the Temple (another link to Christ’s words the previous week) and carry the people off as slaves, to suffer in Babylon.  But the final paragraph sends a message of hope, when Cyrus, king of Persia, proclaims to the people that God has ordered him to build a new Temple in Jerusalem, and he calls all the faithful to come to it, in words which ring down the ages: ‘Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him! Let him go up.’.

Psalm 136/137 for 4 Lent B
Initial letter Super flumina
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

But that is in the future, and the psalm (By the rivers of Babylon) is a response to the collapse of the covenant and the years of exile and desolation.  I’ve already written a blog on this psalm alone, because it is so beautiful and resonant, so here I will just say that there is no reference to law in the words at all.  The people are broken by what has happened to them, and this is shown by the fact that they cannot sing.  All their songs are the songs of the Lord, and they belong only to the land that the Lord had given them to live in and the city where God lived with them, a visible sign of the covenant which they did not keep.  This psalm is hard to sing.

The second reading returns us to hope, as Paul explains that God’s love means that we have all been saved by grace as God’s gift, despite our sins.  The Gospel continues and reinforces this, in Christ’s words to Nicodemus (one of the borrowings from John’s Gospel).  The emphasis is not on condemnation but on salvation, and of the whole world.  The legal words this week are in the Gospel (‘On these grounds is sentence pronounced’ Jn 3.19).

Fifth Sunday of Lent B

We are back with the law again even in the Entrance Acclamation (Give me justice, O God, and plead my cause..), and the First Reading continues the legal theme.  The prophet Jeremiah brings God’s message that he will make a new covenant with his people.  It’s a really interesting reading, with God repeating four times in a short reading, ‘It is the Lord who speaks’, so that we are in no doubt about how serious and authoritative this is. God reviews the history of the previous covenant, explains what went wrong and sets out his new plan for his people. ‘Deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts’, and he will do this for every single individual, so no one will be left out or ignorant, and it ends with a promise that God will not only forgive iniquity but even deliberately forget it.  This reading is from Jeremiah, but the tone is so positive and encouraging that you might even call it joyful. 

Psalm 50/51  for 5 Lent B

All this encouragement is in the future tense, though.   The Responsorial Psalm follows the same curve as the First Reading, starting with what went wrong and expressing contrition, but then moving forward to renewal and a new start, and even daring to look forward to some joy in the last stanza, though I have to say the last couplet makes me smile : ‘that I may teach transgressors your ways...’, when God has just said (via Jeremiah) that ‘there will be no further need for neighbour to try to teach neighbour’.   Motes and beams, and human nature means we’re all still struggling with that one.  Paul explains that the suffering of Christ led to the salvation of everyone, and the Gospel (John again) is Jesus’ words about his approaching ordeal, though in unclear terms still.  His hearers include some Greeks who have come to see him, so his audience is widening even as his end approaches.

Crucifixion
terrible things can happen to good people

The next Sunday is Palm Sunday, with the reading of the Passion and Psalm 21/22.  It will come as less of a shock than it does in Year C, because the readings through Lent have prepared us for the Law to take its course, and the atmosphere has been more sombre.  We have celebrated the Law, but we have also seen what happens when the covenant is broken.  There will be a new covenant, but that means there has to be a sacrifice, as there was for the previous covenant with Abraham in Week 2;  and the victim supplied for it is the only one who is not at fault.   This beloved Son is not rescued at the last minute.  This is shocking. It is meant to be.

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 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.

Theme of the psalms for Lent Year A : penitence

Pattern in the psalm sequence

Last year I looked at the flow of psalms through Lent Year C, to see whether there was an overarching theme or narrative. That post started out general, as I was planning to compare and contrast the three liturgical years, but I had to restrict it to one year to keep it a reasonable size. Now the year has gone completely round and Lent Year A is coming up from March 1st, so I am seizing the chance to look at the sequence of psalms for this year.

Classic words of penitence - miserere mei domine
setting the mood for Lent A

Different years have different themes

The theme for Lent C was mercy; we were following the readings of Luke’s Gospel, where mercy and forgiveness are one of the main messages.   Year A follows the Gospel account of Matthew, with a lot of solid teaching on various subjects.  It also takes some sections from John’s Gospel : a series of significant encounters (the woman at the well, the man born blind, the household at Bethany). I know I always emphasize that the psalm is a response to the First Reading, but in Lent particularly (as in Advent), it’s important to be able to see all the readings in a sort of interlinked dance of significance.  Even in the run-up to Lent this year, the links between the Old and New Testament readings have been very clear.

interwoven narrative arcs

Year A : the overarching theme of penitence

So the theme running through the psalms for Lent in Year A is penitence, which seems a bit obvious.   Of course Lent is the season of penitence, but the Church chooses to emphasize different aspects in Lent from year to year in the choice of different readings, and just as last year (C) is the year where we concentrate on mercy, this year (A), partly because it’s the first in the sequence, is more straightforwardly penitential.  This is clearly emphasized from the beginning, when we repeat for the First Sunday the same psalm that we used for Ash Wednesday.  Here is the call to repentance and its echo; or, if you can’t make it to church on Ash Wednesday, the Church does not want you to miss out on this bass note which will run through the whole season.

First Sunday of Lent : Psalm 50/51

Psalm 50 is one of the classic penitential psalms.  Traditionally there are seven penitential psalms :  6, 31/32, 37/38, 50/51, 101/102, 129/130, and 142/143.  Some are more positive than others, some are sadder.  Although I think the theme of the Lent A psalms is penitence, only two of these specific psalms come in the line-up for the Lent A Sundays.  Year C does not use any of the penitential psalms at all.  Year B only has one penitential psalm among its Sunday prescriptions, and it’s this one, 50/51 again, though at the end of Lent rather than the beginning.  More on that next year.

What makes Ps 50/51 stand out, even among the penitential psalms, is its frankness and directness of tone.   It describes one state of mind, pure contrition.  Some of the other psalms move from admission of guilt to thanksgiving within the course of a single psalm (e.g. Ps 31/32), but this one acknowledges guilt, expresses compunction, asks for help and looks forward to better things in the future, but stays with the expression of penitence to the end : a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn (v 19).

Traditionally, this is the psalm David composed after Nathan rebuked him for seizing Bathsheba and having Uriah, her husband, conveniently killed.  I say, ‘traditionally’, because there is no specific internal evidence for this.   But the psalm demonstrates a generous and frank admission of guilt, no attempt at any excuses and an absolute confidence in God’s mercy, however undeserved, which all make it a good psalm to follow on from the account of the Fall.  It is a much better response than Adam’s, when God questions him in the garden.  The second reading is St Paul explaining the parallel of Adam/sin and Jesus/redemption,  before we move on to a replay of the tempter with the encounter of Jesus in the desert with the three temptations and his answer to them.  Temptation – sin- repentance; temptation – victory – glory.

Second Sunday of Lent : Psalm 32/33

This is the next psalm after one of the penitential psalms, and it asserts the trustworthiness of God, because it follows the reading where God makes promises to Abram.   The Responsorial Psalm as set here is only a small part of a joyful thanksgiving psalm, but it keeps the emphasis firmly on the Law of God and the agreement between him and his people.  As long as they do what they promised, so will he.  The Gospel is the Transfiguration : this is the way God behaves with those who keep the covenant set up so long ago.

This is a solid cheerful psalm which comes up quite often.  We will have it again during the Easter Vigil and in the Sundays after Easter (where the emphasis is more on the thanksgiving aspect), and it appears in Ordinary Time as well.  It appears with several different Responses and with different selections of stanzas.   The Response here, Let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you, and the stanzas which refer to God’s love of justice and right, and the perils from which he will save his people (death and famine), continue the penitential theme in a low-key way.

Third Sunday of Lent : Psalm 94/95

Real water, symbolic water and the springs of everlasting life are the themes of this Sunday, and all the readings hang closely together.  The  First Reading and psalm however have a note of warning about them.  The story is of Moses striking the rock to find water for the grumbling and resentful people whom he led out of Egypt.  It’s a wonderful story which we almost miss because of all the resentment and grumpiness being expressed.  Moses is at his wits’ end (you have the clear feeling that they have been nagging at him for a long time), he knows no more than they do, and there is almost a note of exasperation in the way he talks to God.  But God doesn’t waste time explaining or persuading, he just gives clear instructions, and Moses simply performs the miracle with no more discussion.  Then they name the place , not after the miracle or the water, but after the grumbling.

And on to the psalm, which starts Come, ring out our joy to the Lord, but the words, and above all the repeated Response (….Harden not your hearts), indicate very clearly that we are here in the character of the resentful people who are causing trouble by not listening to what God is trying to tell us.  St Paul emphasizes the point by reminding us that Christ died for us while we still sinners; and then the water theme is picked up again and transformed by the Gospel.  This is the fascinating and wonderful encounter at the well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, one of the rare examples of a talking woman in the Bible.  This reading is borrowed from John’s Gospel.

Jesus talking with woman at the well - penitence
Sir, give me some of that water

Fourth Sunday of Lent : Ps 22/23

Mid-Lent Sunday, Pink Sunday, and traditionally an easing of the Lent gloom.  The First Reading is the choosing of David the young shepherd boy to be the King chosen by God to lead Israel, and the psalm is the shepherd-king psalm, so loved and familiar.  Who are we in this psalm?  We are the sheep.  The psalm itself lets us down fairly gently, but if you think of some of the other translations, penitence is warranted (Perverse and foolish oft I strayed from the paraphrase ‘The King of Love my shepherd is’ out of Hymns Ancient and Modern).  St Paul tells us that we were in the darkness but now we are in the light; and this leads into the Gospel of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind.  Again, we are borrowing from John’s Gospel.  This whole discussion is about sin, the causes of sin, the results of sin, who is a sinner, and so on.

Fifth Sunday of Lent : Ps 129/130

In the First Reading, God speaks directly to his people, calling them up out of their graves and bringing them back to the land which he promised to them. It is a short but very arresting reading, especially taken in conjunction with the Gospel we will hear.  The psalm to follow it is another of the penitential psalms, Ps 129/130, the great De profundis.  From being sinful sheep, we have become confident supplicants.  We are still aware of being sinful (If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand? ), but we ask for forgiveness with full confidence and trust, repeated in the Response.  St Paul emphasizes the Spirit raising the dead to life, and the Gospel is the raising of Lazarus.  It is also Martha’s declaration of faith and Jesus’ calling himself the resurrection and the life.  Again, this Gospel is borrowed from John.

This is a glorious high note to end the run of Lent Sundays, and just like last year, the psalm for Palm Sunday will come as a crashing shock.  Last year we came down from a crest of joy; this year we have not been joyful, but we have moved with penitence to confidence and assurance of God’s mercy.  Out of the depths; but with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.  There is also an indication that we will need to wait and have faith (Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord).

Our place in salvation history

Jesse tree with descendants pictured
the patriarchs in order

There is another shaping thread running through the First Readings.  Like the Readings at the Easter Vigil, they are carefully chosen to move us through salvation history.  So we start with Adam in Week 1, move on to Abram’s mission in Week 2, see Moses in action in Week 3 and the choice of David in Week 4.  All of these are forerunners or types of the Messiah.  In Week 5, the protagonists are God himself and the people of Israel.  Again the interaction between the early readings and the Gospels is not hard to pick out.  Jesus mirrors the patriarchs.

Christ on cross superimposed on tree in Paradise
Jesus in the Garden of Eden

Jesus overcomes the tempter in Week 1, is picked out for mission in Week 2 (the transfiguration, God’s voice, and so on), gives living water to the thirsty in Week 3, and brings sight to the blind in Week 4, fulfilling the prophecies about the coming of the Kingdom and the true King in Isaiah and elsewhere.  Then in Week 5, he raises the dead and redeems them, only as the psalms indicate, by now it’s not ‘them’, it’s us.

The next Sunday will be Palm Sunday.  We are the people who sing Hosanna and wave palms;  we are the people who call out,’Crucify him!’ during the Gospel.  In Holy Week, we are part of the action on stage.  Lent has been our preparation, and the psalms have placed us into our role.

[And you can now read about Lent Year B too]

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. 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.