Women’s voices in the Bible : few but worth listening to

Women’s words and women’s voices

We have two big Marian feasts coming up as we move into the second week of Advent : the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. Then on the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (this year) we have Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat, instead of a Responsorial Psalm.  So I’m thinking about women’s voices,  and their prayer and singing.

Women’s words are a tiny proportion  of Scripture.  We have lots of chants, songs and canticles (which simply means ‘little songs’) in the Bible, but they are nearly all by men.  I read a fascinating account of the case for considering the author of at least part of the Song of Solomon to be female, a few years ago, but I don’t think it has met with widespread acceptance.

Women's voices singing
Women singing
Women’s songs and prayers

There are a few precious references to women’s songs in the Bible.  When I was considering lullabies,  I said that because they are seen as ‘women’s work’, they don’t have the same esteem as poems by men, and oral literature is not taken as seriously as written.  This impacts directly on the preservation of women’s words as far fewer women traditionally have been literate than men (and schools set up ‘for the children of the poor’ have usually been kept only for the male version).   Women don’t even talk much in the narratives of the Old Testament, which presumably pleased St Paul, when he was studying it as a young Pharisee;  but this does mean that we treasure what we have.

Miriam, a prophet with no prophecies

Miriam the prophetess is allowed to lead the women singing the chorus in the song of victory after the Red Sea roars back and swallows up Pharaoh and his horses and his chariots, but although the male prophets declaim at length (a whole book of the Bible each), we don’t hear any of Miriam’s words.  It is only through her label that we know she is a prophetess at all.

There are very few books of the Bible named after women (and they are so short, it is easy to overlook them while leafing through).  We have Ruth, Esther and Judith (personally I would add Wisdom, as she is so often personified, and I called my daughter Sophia after her, but I do know she is an abstraction).

Ruth’s words : a tender poem

Ruth is a refugee with all the cards stacked against her : a childless, foreign widow, with a dependent mother-in-law. The Book of Ruth tells how by hard work, patience, obedience and love, she ends up married to Boaz, and is the mother of kings.  She has one piece of speech written out in verse, and it is the lovely invocation to her mother-in-law, ‘wherever you go, I shall go’.   It was adapted and given a tune a while ago (I remember singing it as a student), but the words have been changed and the tune has so many long pauses that it’s difficult to sing.  I think it’s interesting that it’s been used as a hymn, when it does not occur in any Sunday reading.  People would clearly like to use it.  Maybe I should do a more upbeat setting.

Esther’s prayer for courage before the lion king

The Book of Esther is in a bit of a mess; there is a Greek version which contains many parts not present in the Hebrew version, including not only Mordecai’s prayer, but also one by Esther.

Esther is a member of the king’s harem,  but no-one knows that she is a Jew, except her uncle Mordecai, who is an astute civil servant.  The king’s right hand man, Haman, takes against the Jews because they are a stiff-necked people, and Mordecai won’t bow to him.

Women's voices - Keep calm and be like Queen Esther
purple for the queen

Esther’s influence with the King is the only way to save the whole Jewish nation.   She adorns herself beautifully for the King and finds favour in his eye, which she uses to save her people (after three banquets, in the best story tradition).  It’s a wonderful, dramatic story, which has been turned into novels and plays, and I remember a haunting little poem by Eleanor Farjeon which starts, ‘Put on your purple, Esther, Esther’.   Most of us know the bones of the story.  But Esther’s own words are unfamiliar.

Judith, a great heroine, but don’t quote her

Judith is a corking story, longer than the other two, but I recommend it as a good read.   She is another widow (very low down in the pecking order, that’s why God has to look out for them especially), very virtuous, very sensible and forthright, and (critically) extremely beautiful.

Another kind of women's voices - Judith holding a sword
Giorgione’s Judith

Both her prose (when she’s giving advice to the elders and generals, which astonishingly they accept) and her prayers are worth reading.  And we have a really authentic voice here.  ‘You must not ask what I intend to do; I will not tell you until I have done it’ (Judith 8 33).   She is the only person I can think of in the Bible who says please : ‘Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Master of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of your whole creation, hear my prayer’ (Jud 9 12).  It would take too long to tell the story but (spoiler alert) she beheads the enemy’s general and saves the day with her virtue intact.  Her words are powerful (she has a couple of other short prayers and a great victory song) but the only song out of the book of Judith that we use in the liturgy (for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is actually the words of the High Priest as he blesses her for saving Israel.

I should mention at this point that Esther and Judith don’t even appear in many Bibles, as their pedigree and style are different from the other canonical books.

Are any psalms by women?

What else have we got?  Of course we don’t know who wrote almost any of the psalms, but I would be surprised if many of them were women’s prayers, though some of the yearning psalms might be.  As I said when I was looking at inclusive language, the Psalms are more inclusive than other bits of the Bible because so much of them is direct conversation between two interlocutors, and ‘I’ and ‘you’ are gender-neutral on the page.   This is possibly one reason why the Psalms are so widely beloved: because they feel relevant to each reader and he or she can pray them as his or her own words.

Hannah the mother of Samuel

I’m sure there are some  other examples of women’s words that I have omitted, because the Bible is too long for me to be able to do a quick check through.  I make no claim for this list being exhaustive.  There is a great prayer by Hannah, the noble mother of Samuel, after she gives her son, her only son, to God (I Samuel 2).

Women's voices - Hannah hands over Samuel
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

In it she quotes the psalms, and she also uses many of the ideas that we find in the Magnificat. God humbles and he exalts (v7).  He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes, and to assign them a seat of honour (v 8ff).  These are ideas that we often find in the psalms, but they have peculiar force when the person talking about God’s turning the established order upside down, is someone who is right at the bottom.  Like Judith, she reminds God that men do not win by their own strength, but by his.  The inference is clear : with his help ‘women can do much’, as Mary Ward says.

Deborah, a prophetess with more of a voice

Another prophetess is Deborah, in the book of Judges, and she is another strong and sensible woman whose advice is heeded.  Like Joan of Arc, she puts fire into the belly of the soldiers.  Barak refuses to go and fight Sisera if she does not go with him, and again I think we hear a real person speaking in her answer :’I will go with you then, but the way you are going about it, the glory will not be yours; for God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’ (Judges 4 9, Jerusalem version). They march out to battle together. Later, Sisera is horribly staked by Jael, and then there is the triumph song described as being by Deborah and Barak.  I hope it’s mostly by Deborah; to me, it certainly reads that way (there is even a little joke in it about men holding long debates by the stream while others are rushing into battle with Barak and Deborah).  It has some wonderful lines: ‘From high in heaven fought the stars, fought from their orbits against Sisera……Through her window she leans and looks, Sisera’s mother, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot long in coming? Why are the harnessed horses slow?” (Judges 5 2off).  It is really exciting,  a fine piece of writing.

The New Testament

Although there’s not much in the Old Testament, there is surprisingly even less in the New.  There are many women about in the narrative (Jesus seems to have felt comfortable in their company), but their words are rarely recorded, and never at length.   When they speak, it tends to be brief questions, requests, comments – not prayers or songs, with the exception of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary incorporated into the Hail Mary, and of course, Mary’s own Magnificat.

Anna and the song we don’t have

There is a sad but very telling moment in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is presented in the temple.  Simeon, an old and very holy man is there, and we have the words of what he said. The first part is the Nunc Dimittis, another beautiful prayer which the Church uses every day.  He also prophesies Mary’s future sorrow.  Then the narrative describes the arrival of Anna, an elderly and very holy widow. ‘And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2 38, RSV).  And that’s it.  The narrative moves on, and we do not have Anna’s words.  This upsets me every time I read it.

Suppressing women’s voices

Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular has a real problem with letting women’s voices be heard.  Adult women are the one group still barred from Catholic Cathedral choirs. During the Middle Ages, nuns were not even allowed to sing Gregorian chant in convents, they were restricted to intoning on a single note, in case people might come and listen to the beauty of their singing.  This seems to me to be a fine example of both missing the point and blaming the victim : if you are singing beautifully, you are doing it for God, not for an audience, which is usually not there anyway.

Nowadays we can read poems and prayers by women (not ‘for’, those are often less helpful) and they are often very useful and beautiful.  I have heard calls for a separate ‘theology of women’, but I don’t think we need one.  What we need is for the men who run the Church to realise that women are human too, and that their experience and its expression are equally valid with men’s.

‘Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, declaim a song!’ (Judges 5 12).  ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!’ (Zechariah 9 9).   Alas, there are no New Testament equivalents of this encouragement.   We have been waiting too long to hear women’s voices.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.

 

 

Music for the Queen of Heaven : setting the Assumption psalms

Two services, two psalms

Because it’s such a big feast, the Assumption has two psalms, one for the Vigil Mass (night before), one for on the day, and they are very different. The first one is Psalm 131/132 and the second Psalm 44/45.

Vigil Psalm : The Ark of the Covenant

It takes a minute to work out the relevance of the Psalm 131/132, because it is overtly about the Ark in which Moses placed the stone tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments.  It explains that ‘we’ have found the Ark, we are bringing it to God’s house, everyone should rejoice, and above all we rejoice because God has chosen Zion, our holy mountain, as the place where he chooses to live from now on.  Practically speaking, the Response is very long (two lines-worth instead of the usual one); and in the first verse there are proper names, which are always slightly tricky unless they are well-known.  What the US translation calls ‘Jaar’ is called ‘Yearim’ in the other versions, so you have to decide how many syllables to give it.  The other proper name is Ephrathah, which is at least consistent, if difficult to pronounce.  I gave Ja-ar two syllables, because they must have doubled the ‘a’ for a reason, and three for ‘Ye-a-rim’ because if it’s pronounced like that, you can see why it might mutate to Ja-ar.  But I’m always happy to be corrected on this, and to change the settings for later years if anyone knows better than I do!

Our Lady as the Ark

So the Ark which we are so happy to greet is here representing the mother of God, as she too ‘contains’ the Word of God.  It makes sense, though I feel a little uncomfortable, as though I am thinking of Mary as a walking box rather than as an individual. However, the psalm is there as a reaction to the first reading (David leading the Ark into a special tent pitched for it, so that God can dwell with his people).  It is a great psalm, which we reserve for this feast, and it has beautiful shape and movement.  The direct speech in the first verse is balanced by God’s own words in the third verse, and the middle verse has a wonderful vision of the Church with the priests ‘clothed in holiness’ and the faithful all shouting out their joy.  As a nomad by marriage rather than by conviction, I especially like God’s words in the last two lines : ‘This is my resting-place for ever, /here have I chosen to live’, and the rhythm of that was what controlled the verse tune for me (UK/OZ/CAN) and meant that it came out with a swing as 3/4 instead of the balanced 4/4 for the US version.

The Vigil Gospel

On the whole the Vigil readings are fairly calm and low-key, culminating in the slightly odd choice of Gospel (when you think that this is the feast of the Assumption), where Jesus says that people who hear the word of God and obey it are more blessed than the person who just happened to be his mother (Luke 11,27-28).  I feel it is significant that his mother is not actually present at this encounter (it comes from a period when Jesus is on tour with the disciples), and Jesus is making a point about the obedience of faith rather than anything else.  One of our sons does stand-up comedy, and he talks about a stock character called ‘my Dad’, who is not actually anything to do with his father (or so he says).  The point of what Jesus says is for those who are listening, it’s not actually anything about Our Lady.

The Assumption : Day Mass

Now let’s move on to the Mass on the day itself, and the picture is wholly different.  Here the readings are gorgeous, opulent, exotic, mythic, terrifying, transcendental, and I could go on.  The heavens are open, showing the divine Holy of holies (think how the earthly one was always kept screened and only seen by only the High Priest only once a year), there is a ‘huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns’ (I’ve always thought that the fact the numbers don’t match only adds to the overwhelmingness of the spectacle), there is a woman ‘clothed with the sun’ (how?), standing on the moon (always shown as a sickle moon, so she’s not stable), crowned with twelve stars (think of the scale here)…and she’s in labour, and not just in labour but at the crowning moment (in all senses).  The dragon is waiting to seize and gobble up the baby, but God is also waiting (as he does for Mary’s assent, at the Annunciation), and he rescues them both as soon as the baby is born.  And that’s only the first reading.

Day Psalm : the Queen takes her place

We respond to this first reading with Psalm 44/45, which describes a queen dressed in gorgeous robes leaving her father’s house and coming to take her place on the king’s right hand.   She is beautiful, arrayed in gold and jewels, and she fits with the woman in the first reading.  And we are celebrating the Assumption of Mary into heaven, so that is who the Queen is: she leaves the earth and takes her place as Queen of heaven.

I think of this as ‘the Klimt psalm’ because it is so rich and exotic, and I wanted to make the music a little strange, without putting the congregation off.  The verses are short and irregular, and the different countries divide them up differently : the US version has four verses, which are basically two (more or less) matching pairs, where the other Lectionaries (UK and OZ) have standardised the lines into two verses of four lines.  The CAN one is completely sui generis : it lulls you into a false sense of security because it starts the same as UK and OZ but then branches out into five lines for v2 (including three which no-one else has included), and a third verse of only two lines (second half of v2 for UK and OZ).  This turned out to be completely un-compactable, sorry about that; you will need someone to help turn the pages.  So all the settings had to be different.

The music isn’t difficult, just strange and slightly alien (I hope), emphasizing the exotic.  Where I’m usually wishing for trumpets, double basses, saxophones or drums, in this psalm I’m trying to suggest a gong or cymbals, maybe gamelan or those little Indian finger-cymbals. It’s modal, to keep everyone slightly on the alert and aware.  In the whole idea of the Assumption, there is meant to be a creative mismatch between Mary, the woman from Galilee who accepted a job which God offered to her, and the mighty Queen, and I’m trying to pick up the strangeness of the whole thing.

The feast of the Assumption

I have to admit that I have problems with the two Mary feasts of the Assumption and (even more) the Immaculate Conception, because they seem to me to deny what they are meant to stand for.  If Jesus was not born of a real human being, the Incarnation is not real; if Mary was set apart by the Immaculate Conception from birth (not to mention conceived by a kiss between Joachim and Anna in some versions of her life), then she is not a real human being.  For the Annunciation and the Incarnation to work, Mary needs to be an ordinary person, a person like us. Similarly, if Mary was old and full of years and carried up to heaven in that old, maybe ill body (we have to die of something, even if it’s just anno Domini), why is she not allowed the new body which all the rest of us will have?  I know this is very heretical, and no-one will speak to me again, but I have to say I rather like the (not just) Eastern tradition of the Dormition, where Christ comes down to the body of his mother lying on her deathbed and takes her soul, usually pictured as a little girl, sometimes small enough to sit on Christ’s hand,  back up to heaven with him, instead of the mature woman’s body just disappearing.

The Assumption means taking one’s correct place

It seems to me that the feast of the Assumption is actually the celebration of something slightly different.  It is the moment when a human being becomes fully what God created him to be.  It is Tennyson’s moment of crossing the bar, or Hopkins’ moment when the poor potsherd becomes immortal diamond.

God made us to be like him.  That is actually a terrifying statement to make.  We find it difficult to see God in ourselves, and even more so to see him in the other people walking around with us.  But if we could see what God can see, if we can come to fulfil the potential he has given us, we are genuinely a royal priesthood, a kingly nation, a nation made up of kings and queens, all of us.

The Gospel for the Day Mass is the section of Luke’s Gospel that contains Our Lady’s Magnificat (chapter 1, vv 39 to 56), the only piece of extended speech of hers that we have.  This is her human apotheosis, when she grasps God’s plan being fulfilled through all history and takes her place in it willingly and joyfully.  Indeed from this day forward all generations have called her blessed.  Her suffering in later life must have been terrible, but at least she understood that God’s mercy would prevail.

At the end of her life, the Assumption is a way to explain what happens when a simple human being fulfils God’s plan and realises her potential.  It seems strange and exotic to us, we find it difficult even to put it into words, but it is what we are born for; and at least we can appreciate its beauty even now.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.