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.

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.