Bookends : the first and the last psalms

The shape of the Book of Psalms

The Psalter or Book of Psalms in its present form has been around for a long time. We don’t know who wrote it, or when. We know it is the work of several hands, across many years, even many centuries. We know that it has been carefully and lovingly put together, as the original hymnbook for a faith older than our own.  We can draw all sorts of conclusions about why the contents of this hymnbook have been arranged in the way they have;  we can make our own, different, arrangement, according to our own need or desire.  Conclusions which we draw from the shape and ordering of the Psalter are based simply on the form in which we have it;  those who wrote the psalms were not the people who organised the collection or its ordering.

David singing
he might be thinking about the order

Bookend psalms

Having said that, though, it is fascinating to try to take an overview of the Book of Psalms, more than enough work for a lifetime. I have recently been thinking just about the bookends of the Psalter, because Psalm 1 has come up several times lately as a weekday psalm, and now so has Psalm 150.
Psalm 1 is reasonably familiar, because, among other things, it’s the psalm prescribed for St David’s Day. It is also the psalm for the Sixth Ordinary Sunday in Year C.  Psalm 150 in contrast was a new one for me to set (it is prescribed for the Wednesday of Week 33 of Year II, so November 18th this year).

Hymn books and extra pages

There are different ways to appreciate the arrangement of the bulk of the psalms: many authorities divide them up into five groups, but classifications can differ.  There is even dispute about how many psalms there are.  A few extra psalms were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; there are other psalm-like poems in various parts of the Old Testament; many Christians would include the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis as part of the same grouping, and even within the canonical Book of the Psalms there are repeats (Pss 14 and 53, as well as partial repeats elsewhere).  But this is what happens with hymn books and music folders.  I like to pick up old hymn books when I see them in charity shops, and they nearly always have extra pages stuffed between the cover and the book, or between the pages.  Some careful church musicians even attach extra pages or different versions of the same hymn;  sometimes things are written out by hand.  There are little notes to mark favourites, performance notes for dividing up the verses between men and women, or Dec and Can.  I like the fact that you can almost see this same behaviour going on in the choir loft since King David and even earlier.

adding your own favourites
The first and the last

But I think it is fair to look at Pss 1 and 150 and draw some conclusions, because the Book of Psalms in its current form has been the bedrock of church music and poetry for so long, and it was clearly deliberately done, and it has been accepted as valid by so many.

page of psalm in multiple languages
lovely multilingual Psalter
Psalm 1

The psalms in question are particularly attractive as bookend psalms because they contrast so neatly.  Psalm 1 is the introduction to the Psalms as a whole.  It starts positively, with a portrayal of the happy (or blessed) person (‘man’ everywhere I looked, except for the New Jerusalem, which offers ‘one’). S/he is happy or blessed because of conscious virtue and finding delight in the law of the Lord.  So we instantly have the relationship with (a slightly impersonal and distant) God and his teachings as the basis for human happiness.  There is a beautiful extended comparison to a mature tree, and then the second half of the psalm is a description of ‘the wicked’, to point the contrast.  They are like ‘winnowed chaff’, another nature simile, but probably not as instantly recognisable as the tree.  Winnowed chaff is the fluffy detritus left after the grain has been taken from the stalks it grows on; it’s good for nothing and disperses in the wind (or you can sweep it up and burn it, but you’d need a mask to keep it out of your lungs unless you did it outside, where the wind is your ally).  The last lines reiterate the contrast : the Lord guards the way of the just, but the way of the wicked leads to doom. 

Different possible Responses

An ominous ending, which we sadly lose the force of when we sing it as a Responsorial Psalm, because the Response tends to be upbeat.  Usually it’s some variant on the first line (Happy/Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord), but it’s been coming up recently as a weekday psalm with some unfortunate variations on the Response, including Those who are victorious I will feed from the tree of life  and the egregious Behave like God as his very dear children, which I ranted about before.  But they do all tend towards the positive, because you’re asking the congregation to sing it several times, and it’s the thought they will be left with at the end.  So, though it’s tempting, when I set it, I didn’t really feel that I could imbue the word ‘doom’ with too much grue.

Psalm 1 : me and God’s word

This first psalm, then,  is about an individual, and his relationship not so much with God as with God’s rules for a holy, healthy and happy life.  It’s short enough for us to sing the whole thing (occasionally one or two lines are trimmed, but as it stands it’s three stanzas of six lines each).  It’s black and white, and robust in its language, but doesn’t need to be played down, because the psalmist has nothing to do with desiring the fate of the wicked, he’s just describing natural consequences. The music for this one is simple and like a folk song, because I wrote it for St David’s Day, with even a quotation from The Ash Grove to emphasize its Welsh roots, with St David being the patron saint of Wales.

Psalm 150 : isn’t God amazing ?!

Psalm 150 is even shorter, again three stanzas, but this time only four lines each, with an Alleluia at the beginning and end.  But the atmosphere of this psalm is totally different.  It’s joyous, chaotic, it tumbles over itself, and it’s all about praising God.  The Law is not mentioned, the psalmist is not mentioned.  It’s all a command to praise God.  Ten of the twelve lines start with the word ‘Praise’ in the imperative.  God is not asked to come down or intervene in any way.  He is ‘in his holy place’, ‘in his mighty heavens’, and we are not praising him for rescuing us, as so often in the Psalms, we are praising him because of what he does (‘his powerful deeds’) and what he is (‘his surpassing greatness’).   But there is nothing impersonal or dry about this God.  The call to praise is coming from someone personally convinced of the wonder and glory of God, so convinced that he is calling on others to come and join in.

God creating heaven and earth
What god is great as our God?
The power of music to praise God

Then the psalmist lists all the instruments used in the Temple and piles them up.  One commentator says that the different instruments symbolise those who use them, the trumpet (or horn) for the High Priest, the lute and harp for the Levites (but I would say, the musicians), the timbrel and dance traditionally for the women, the strings and pipes for the men, and it’s unclear who is playing the two different sets of cymbals, but maybe one group could be foreigners or visitors.  The psalm ends with an invitation to ‘everything that lives and that breathes’ to join in.

Musicians and tumbler
Church musicians encouraging everyone to join in

It’s really exciting and fun, and I was surprised to find that I hadn’t set it before, which means that it’s not prescribed for any Sunday or major feast in the three year Lectionary. I can only guess that this is because of its position in the Book of Psalms, and the way it feels like a culmination of the whole sequence in a triumphant final shout of praise.  We sing Ps 147 repeatedly, but the last three psalms only rarely.  They are all litanies of praise, with Ps 150 the most exuberant, hence its position.

Setting the last of the psalms
Musician king with courtiers
Let’s all join in with David’s psalms

How do you set words like these? Ideally you have the instruments to play each their own part, but of course most of us don’t, so all I can do is attempt to suggest them (if, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have a little drum or cymbal, I’ve left rests where you can add them to the mix).  The tune needs to be simple rather than sophisticated, using the repetition that is so strong a feature of the words, and above all easy to pick up and join in confidently.  The cantor has to deal with a dancing rhythm, but the Response is straightforward and strong.  It’s also the first line of the Sanctus, so it’s familiar, and maybe it will help people get over trying to pause after the third ‘Holy’, even though the comma is no longer there (this can’t be only my parish, surely?).   We have lost the Alleluia at the beginning and the end, but as the First Reading reminds us, this Response is what the angels sing in God’s presence, so we can put our hearts into it and ‘swell the mighty flood’, as the old hymn says.  When we sing the psalms, we are not just singing with all the angels, either; we are singing with all the millions of people through history who have appreciated the wonderful resource that is the Book of Psalms.  It is a great privilege to be able to sing these words and put them to music for others to do so.  What a wonderful throng to have around you.

Church choir
everybody wideawake and joining in the singing

© 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.

What’s the story in the Eastertide Sundays (Year C)?

Eastertide : celebration which keeps going

After all the joy and excitement of Easter Sunday, the Church settles down to enjoy the Easter season which lasts through six more Sundays. Eastertide  ends with the Ascension and then Pentecost, so specifically this is the period  after the Resurrection but while Jesus is still on earth.   He is still the central character, but he comes and goes at this stage in the story.  It is no longer just the story of what happens to him or what he does.

Christ emerging from tomb
Time for the next phase

It is fascinating to see how the focus of the narrative shifts. Jesus is there, but intermittently. He pays visits to the apostles, to put heart into them, but he often finds them cowering in the Upper Room. They are trying to work out what to do next, in a world which has been totally altered by Jesus’ return from the dead.

But what happened next?

We are so used to the idea that Jesus is the living Lord that we don’t give the apostles enough credit for how hard this must have been. We learn about his Resurrection as soon as we learn about his death on the cross, and the length of the annual wait from Good Friday to the Easter liturgies is fixed and familiar. But the apostles had no missals, Gospels or road maps of any kind. They really were making it up as they went along, with Jesus appearing now and then to keep them on the right path and repeat the same message over and over again until they could let themselves believe it.

Mary addressing apostles
Some (male) people take a lot of convincing……

2nd Sunday, still celebrating but also moving on

The second Sunday after Easter is still part of the Easter narrative itself.  The Gospel is the same for each of the three liturgical years, the story of Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Lord.  It is nearly the same psalm (117/118), just with a different verse in the middle, and, as if to emphasize the point, it is the same psalm that we have been singing since the end of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday.  Like a musical octave, the Easter octave strikes the same note.  What shows the change of emphasis which is starting to happen,  is that the First Reading is taken from Acts.

The purpose of the First Reading

Usually the First Reading comes from the Old Testament, and indeed, at the Easter Vigil, we have an orgy of Old Testament readings before we get to the Gospel.  It can be a historical echo of events in Jesus’ life, or a fascinating parallel, or evidence of God’s slow plan of salvation from the shadowy beginnings of life to the prophets’ desperate attempts to pass on God’s message.  But now, after the Resurrection,  everything is changed, changed utterly: and we start needing to focus on what happens next.  The next significant event in the story of Jesus’ earthly life is the Ascension, but we don’t want to get there yet, because we are still celebrating Easter.  So the gospel readings assigned for the rest of the Easter season are in a sense marking time; – in fact, they go backwards.  They give us an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ earlier words, because there are a lot more of those, especially in John’s Gospel, than we have already had room for (we will see this again in the Sundays of Ordinary Time).

The Gospel is usually the main narrative

The gospels for these Sundays of the Easter season, then, are not usually taking the story forward.  After the second Sunday of Easter, the three liturgical years diverge, not for the usual reason, that they are taking their readings in sequence from a different evangelist (A : Matthew, B : Mark, C : Luke), because nearly all the gospel readings for Eastertide are taken from John;  but they all take different bits out of John’s Gospel, so as to include more of Jesus’ actual teaching.  But this is of course a recap of earlier events; time has gone back, not forwards.

Eastertide Year C : the gospels

I’m going to concentrate on Eastertide Year C (this year), because otherwise there will be too much to talk about (if it’s worth it, I’ll cover the other years as they come up).  In Year C, all the Eastertide Sunday gospels are from John’s Gospel. Second Sunday of Easter is the same for all three years, the story of Thomas, taken from John (chapter 20), as I said before.  The third Sunday is the story of the miraculous draught of fishes and Jesus’ charge to Peter; that is another  event after the Resurrection (John 21).  Then we have (4th Sunday) a reading from John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd (very brief, vv 27-30); (5th Sunday), what Jesus says after Judas has gone out to betray him (again very short, John 13 vv31-35, and very obviously back to a previous period), and (6th Sunday) Jesus’ promise in John 14 that he will send the Holy Spirit, and foretelling his departure, like an envoi, and a preparation for the Ascension which will shortly follow (the following Thursday, or in some Lectionaries, the following Sunday).

First Readings : not OT but Acts

The current action, as it were, has moved to the First Reading, because we need to know how the apostles are managing and what they are doing in this changed world they now inhabit.  Jesus is not staying with them as he used to, teaching as he goes along.  Where is the story?  Where is the main character?  Who is the main character?   The apostles are having to work out how to put this new faith into practice. We are not looking for historical parallels, because nothing like this has ever happened before.  The Old Testament has been put on pause while we work this out.

Second Readings from Revelation

Year C is particularly interesting because it uses Revelation as the source of the Second Readings for this same period (in Years A and B, we have readings from the  letters of Peter (A) and John (B), keeping the emphasis on the doings of the early Church, as opposed to Paul’s letters which we have for most of the rest of the year, which tend to be more about doctrine). The readings from Acts in Year C move about inside the book, giving us a general overview of how the early Christians lived.  We get further into the story than in the other years, even into the early travels of Paul and Barnabas, and I think this is why these readings are coupled with the book of Revelation, because Revelation has always been a comfort to the oppressed and persecuted, and the later chapters of Acts describe the persecutions as they took hold.

…and all reinforced by the (carefully chosen) psalms

And of course all this affects the choice of psalms.  They are there to respond to the first reading, reinforce its message and act as a bridge to the second reading.  Their link to the Old Testament readings on an ordinary Sunday is usually fairly clear, and they are out of the same historical context, even if we can’t be sure which is older; but here we have the psalms of David being used as a commentary on early Christian events, after Jesus’ departure, and after the great temporal rupture of the Resurrection.  The context is completely other.  We are singing the Lord’s songs in a totally strange land.  One striking thing is that none of the Eastertide psalms is at all unusual.  They all occur elsewhere in the Church’s year, sometimes more than once.  They are the usual psalms which everyone is already familiar with.  It is the context which has changed.

Musician king with courtiers
Let’s all join in with David’s psalms

First Reading and psalm, 2nd Sunday : starting the (new) story

We start in Acts 5 (so after the Ascension and the revolution of Pentecost), where the author describes ‘the faithful’ as meeting ‘by common consent in the Portico of Solomon’.  All still good Jews, at this stage, almost like another Jewish grouping or sect.  No one else dares to join them openly but their reputation is good, the numbers of believers increases, and there are many miracles, so people take their sick out of doors and place them where Peter’s shadow will fall across them so that they might be healed.  The psalm in response to this is still the Easter psalm (117/118), because we are still celebrating and everything is going well.  It is the second reading which darkens the mood slightly, as John introduces himself: ‘I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure’, but then moves on to describe Jesus appearing to him, telling him not to be afraid (as so often) and charging him to write down what he sees.  The Gospel, as I said earlier, is the story of Thomas  -and the end of John’s Gospel in some of the early manuscripts.  The focus of the story is shifting.

3rd Sunday

This First Reading is only ten verses later, in the same chapter of Acts, but the clouds are gathering in our new story.  The high priest demands an explanation from these observant Jews with their inconvenient add-on doctrine.  Peter and the apostles have the chance to bear witness before the Sanhedrin, and this time they are released, but they have been warned again, and it’s clear that trouble is in the offing.  The psalm  (29/30) celebrates release from danger, acknowledging the reality of suffering (‘At night there are tears’) but showing an unshakeable faith in victory for the right side (‘but joy comes with dawn’), which is then shown in the celebration in the Second Reading (Revelation 5).

4th Sunday : the story develops

We leap forward several chapters this week to find Paul and Barnabas taking the story forward as they deliberately widen their appeal (Acts 13).  The Jews in Antioch mostly aren’t interested, even though Paul and Barnabas are still attending the synagogue religiously.  So they preach to the pagans, who are very happy to hear them, and are expelled from the town.  The answering psalm (99/100) makes us into the rejoicing pagans, hearing and accepting the word of God : ‘We are his people, the sheep of his flock‘, and we stay with this sheep imagery, with the persecuted martyrs of the Second Reading being led by the Lamb, and the Gospel being part of Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd.  I couldn’t resist quoting Bach’s Sheep may safely graze in the accompaniment to the Alleluia verse because it was so apposite.

Banquet with sheep on table
The sheep/lamb metaphor made flesh at an Easter banquet

5th Sunday

Paul and Barnabas set off for Iconium at the end of last week’s reading, and they are already retracing their steps, heading for Antioch again.  This gives us a very clear idea of how the young churches were beginning to stand on their own feet.  Elders are appointed, the visitors encourage the locals to persevere in their efforts, and they move on again, going back to report to HQ – and, crucially, explaining how the mission has broadened to include those who weren’t Jews to start with, ‘the pagans’, people like us.  This has been a very successful trip, even though there are regular mentions of sufferings and hardships, and the psalm for this week (144/145) celebrates that success : ‘All your creatures shall thank you, O Lord’, not just some of them, and ‘Yours is an everlasting kingdom’.  The second reading is one of the most beautiful sections of Revelation (21 :1-5) describing the new Jerusalem, the establishment of this kingdom and the end of death and suffering.

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
the dragon being seen off by the lady in Revelation

6th Sunday : the next stage of the story

Now the question of whether you have to be a Jew as well as a Christian has come to a head, and there has to be a council of ‘the whole church’ to sort it out.  Here we see the Church operating as a Church, raising important questions, deliberating and discussing, and then making a judgment which is promulgated to the members.  We don’t have the discussion in this reading, but you can look it up, it’s all there in the text; here we have just the conclusion ‘decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves’ (note the order).  Earlier Peter has come to the same conclusion about God calling also the pagans, when he meets Cornelius after having his dream about the tablecloth (Acts 10ff).

engraving of Peter's vision
Peter, the angel, the tablecloth and all the different beasts

The psalm (66/67) emphasizes the universality, one might almost say catholicity, of the Church’s final decision :’the nations […] the peoples[…] the ends of the earth’ and the response beautifully endorses it :  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you ‘ (my italics).  The second reading continues the description of the new Jerusalem, and the Gospel goes back to Jesus’ words about the Holy Spirit and his own departure,  as we get ready for the Ascension.  But although the Lord is leaving the earth, we have seen that the Church, though still small and feeling its way, has the leadership it needs to continue the work it has been given.

Armenian kachqar with ornate cross
The cross sprouting new life from every corner

© 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.