‘Bride’ as Church metaphor : Psalm 44 revisited

Psalm 44/45 in a different version

I had another chance to set Psalm 44/45 recently, as it came up as a weekday psalm. This is the weird exotic psalm that we sing for the Assumption every year, the one I have called ‘the Klimt psalm’.   I’ve written before about setting it to emphasize the strangeness and barbaric splendour suggested by the words.  The whole psalm is a wedding song, celebrating the bride and bridegroom.  It makes sense in the context of the Assumption and Our Lady’s role in salvation history.  This version is different, and baffling in its context.  The choice and arrangement of verses is different, and the Response is another verse altogether.   Instead of ‘On your right stands the queen in gold of Ophir’, the Response is ‘Listen, O daughter, see and bend your ear’ (US and OZ, probably Canada too, but I don’t have a daily Canada Missal, so I can’t be certain); ‘Listen, O daughter, give ear to my words’ (UK, slightly less odd).

gorgeous robes and a nuptial kiss (Klimt)
A classic Epithalamion

What we have here is a small chunk (basically the few verses about the bride) from a classic wedding poem, or Epithalamion, an ‘into the chamber’ poem of celebration.  It begins with praise for the beauty and valour of the bridegroom and prayers to God for continued support.  Then there’s a (brief) section about the beauty of the bride; then a final prayer for sons to be born from this union and eternal happiness and renown.  Absolutely classic, you can find similar things in most cultures and periods of history.  Why is it prescribed for this particular day (Wednesday, 23rd Week, Year II) in the Lectionary?

Why here? The other readings

We know that the Responsorial Psalm is usually a reflection on the first reading, and on a weekday, when we have only one reading before the Gospel, it often functions as a type of bridge between the two, especially when the first reading is from the Old Testament.  But that is not the case here.  The first reading is from St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, and it sounds like part of a set of very specific pastoral answers to questions that have arisen in that community. After various other pieces of advice, Paul says : ‘About remaining celibate, I have no directions from the Lord’, but he  goes on anyway to declare that men should stay as they are, either ‘tied’ to a wife or ‘free’, though it is not a sin for a young girl to get married.  He goes on to explain that ‘our time is growing short’, so the married should live as if unmarried, those grieving should live as though they are happy, and so on, because the world is passing away and everything is to be turned upside down.  I have described this at some length because that is the only way I can link it to the Gospel, which is a small part of the Beatitudes (Luke 6), where Jesus says (among other things), ‘Happy you who weep now: you shall laugh’, and explains that the kingdom of heaven will mean that those who suffer now will be full of joy.  This is the topsy-turvey message which Jesus so often voices (e.g. Matt 20.16 ‘the last shall be first’), and it occurs elsewhere too, notably in the Magnificat.

Not like the homelife of our own dear Queen

So I can see a link between the first reading and the Gospel, but I’m still baffled by the choice of Responsorial Psalm.  Paul has just told us that people should not be getting married at all, even if it’s not actually sinful.  But this psalm is an address to the bride, in an arranged dynastic marriage, adjuring her to forget her own people and her father’s house, because that will please her husband. ‘He is your lord, pay homage to him’ (UK, OZ and CAN words); more worryingly, especially with no reciprocity other than desire, ‘for he is your lord, and you must worship him ‘(US).  The princess is described, or rather her clothes are, ’embroidered with pearls set in gold’; ‘she is led to the king with her maiden companions’.  The bridal party enters the palace, and in a final address to the couple, they are promised sons to replace the fathers which she has already been told to forget, and these will be powerful princes, so the dynastic marriage will be a success.

Byzantine splendour, encrusted with jewels
The Church as the Bride of Christ…
Church as Bride of Christ a slightly odd image, but at least these are musical angels

I find it difficult to see how this sheds light on either Paul’s first reading, or indeed the Gospel.  Maybe I am missing some obvious theological or liturgical point here.  Traditionally, we are supposed to see in psalms like this one the idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and a mystical version of marriage, but I don’t actually think this works, any more than it does in Revelation.  This is because the marriages which we regard as successful today are very different.  I don’t actually have anything against the idea of an arranged marriage, so long as it is by full and free consent of both parties; but I believe that a marriage needs to be a partnership of equals.

The Lord juggling, a better image of the Trinity

It’s not possible to be in an equal partnership with God, unless you are God, which is why the Trinity is a revolving relationship, like a spinning ball.   The sort of unequal relationship portrayed by the psalmist is not my idea of marriage, so the image of our relation to God as a marriage (either as individuals or as Church) does not work for me.

…but what sort of bride?

The only aspect of the bride which is developed is her clothes; her assets are  beauty, obedience and wealth.  The problem is not just the vast time difference between when the Bible was written and the present day.  The Bible even in the beginning shows more equal relationships :  in Genesis 1, Eve is made simultaneously with Adam and they are halves of the same whole.  In Genesis 2, she is made subsequently but of his very substance, because he needs a companion, a helpmate; no other created being can give him fellowship or mutuality.  The wives of the patriarchs are usually beautiful (and often wealthy), but there is more to them than this; and Proverbs 31 reels off an intimidating list of things that the good wife takes in her stride.  There are some great  (not just beautiful) women in the Bible, and I’ve written about them before.  Unfortunately when marriage is being used as a metaphor for Christ and the Church, we seem to concentrate more on the Psalms version than the Proverbs version, and it is too limited and dated to be helpful.

Less uncomfortable representation, French (British Library)
Setting awkward words

So how to set it to music?  I’ve done the barbaric splendour, with the Assumption version, and anyway, it did not seem to fit with the Response, which is intimate and personal.  The Response itself (not the UK version so much) presented its own problems, because it will be sung several times through the psalm and there’s no way that people won’t notice how odd the words are.  It’s difficult when the words are something which you could never imagine saying (‘see and bend your ear’) , because it must not sound ridiculous or undignified.  I think it’s meant to be high style, but it carries a severe risk of bathos.  Another similar example is ‘Lord, you yourself are my portion’ in Ps 15/16.  If you haven’t been desensitised to this by knowing it from childhood, I can’t see how you could react except with bafflement. And ‘portion’ is such a limiting word, used only in measuring out: portion size, portion control.  It turns up in one of the new Star Wars films, as a way of doling out meagre payment (here’s a link to a wonderfully nerdy explanation of how it works).  I don’t like thinking of God as a ‘portion’.

Brides, princesses and fairy stories
Princesses always dance, and minuets have charm

But of course that is not the sense, just as we aren’t supposed to home in on the concept of a bent ear; our modern understanding of the way the words are used is different.  I decided that the only way to set the Response was with a gentle tune which kept the eye and voice moving, and because it’s addressed to a ‘daughter’, it moved easily into almost starting to tell a story, especially when the stanza words are all about princesses and ladies in waiting.  So it turned into a courtly minuet, a graceful and sedate dance in three-four time.

Dancing princesses is a storyline I feel very comfortable with, from the Twelve Dancing Princesses who wear out their shoes nightly, to Cinderella and the three dresses for the three balls, each more beautiful than the last, until she leaves her shoe behind on the last evening.  Classic fairytale token, like the item clutched by a foundling, to be exchanged later for a rightful inheritance or a restored family.  You can see this dancing princess theme also in the (newish) modern tradition of the bride and groom’s dance at the wedding reception.  I say ‘modern tradition’, but in many countries something similar goes back a long way, and in Georgia there is an amazing wedding dance which moves from acquaintance through courtship to marriage, with the bride and groom circling each other, his eyes locked on her, hers modestly cast down, but their bodies, even their hands,  never touching.

Dancing, like David, before the Lord

For me this version of this psalm does not work as an image for the Church, or for Mary (luckily the Assumption words are more barbaric splendour and less fairystory),  but I can see it as a stylised wedding dance, a courtly one with bowing and little pirouettes.  I put the bowing and the little turns into the music.  I hope it will make the babies in the congregation want to dance; I always regard that as the ultimate compliment.

Musicians and tumbler
Church musicians doing their best to set people dancing

© 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.


The waves of death or the water of life?

Water, vital and mortal

returning to the great ocean not by choice

Water must be one of the most two-edged thing that exists.  It can kill you; but you cannot live without it.  It is dangerous; it is essential.  We take it completely for granted until it is absent.  We fear it viscerally (this is why people are so fascinated by the Titanic), but we know how precious it is.  We grow and take shape in the waters of the womb, and in many versions of a life-and-death myth, we return as drops into the Great Ocean when we die.  This two-sidedness is a crucial element in its use as metaphor or symbol.

An index of God’s power and scope

God creating earth
God presiding over Creation, outside the water and in control

The psalms talk about water (as a real thing) in two diametrically opposed ways.  There is bad water (the sea, floods), and good water (rain in the desert, the gentle stream supplying water for sheep and the hunted deer), wild water and tame water, you might almost say deadly water and living water because the contrast is so extreme.  God’s power and might are indicated by his control over water in its entirety.  His house is above the rains, and some pictures of Creation show him outside and above the circle of waters which the earth floats within, so he is even above the ‘waters above the heavens’ (Ps 148).  The waters are God’s tool : he can use them to help or to destroy utterly.  Man is frightened of the mightiness of water, but it belongs to God and does his bidding.  Even when the waters are not actively hostile, they are mysterious and potentially dangerous.  This is a very sensible attitude for any person to have.  Water should be taken seriously.  This is another fear that begets wisdom, like the fear of the Lord.  The very power of water shows how great God must be to rule it (Ps 64/65).

Fishermen, but not ocean-going

The Israelites were not a sea-going nation, despite having a coast.  The Red Sea is an idea full of menace, regularly cited as the example of how God can weaponise water (Pss 65/66, 76/77, 77/78, 105/106), but mostly their experience of water is on a smaller scale : lakes, rivers, springs.  They go out to fish on lakes, but the ‘men who go to the seas in ships’ are only referred to once in the Psalms, and then in a sort of head-shaking way, as the psalmist prays for their safe return or arrival at a harbour. This is in Psalm 106/107, where these sailors are the third category of people who need God to rescue them, for no one else will be able to do so.  And the sea is full of monsters, remember, which God made to play with (Ps 103/104).  Leviathan as God’s rubber duck.  How mighty are your works, O Lord.  What God is great as our God? (Ps 76/77)

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep

Water, water everywhere

safe amid perils

Water’s presence in real life (or, conversely, its absence in time of need) is another reason why it occurs so often in the Bible.   Our need for God is similarly elemental,  but can be similarly complicated.  The Old Testament God can be fierce and terrible.  He can be destructive; indeed, the psalmist prays for God to destroy God’s own enemies and the psalmist’s as well (sometimes, the other way around),  just to keep things tidy;  positive collateral damage.  The great flood means death to almost everyone; but Noah and his family are saved by God.

Generous rain (Ps 67/68) : moving towards metaphor

Another aspect of water which makes it a good image for God is its potential to create growth.  This comes up repeatedly in the psalms with a variety of adjectives (dry, weary, parched, thirsty, shrivelled, scorched) applied to not just the land, but men’s hearts, even their bodies (Ps 62/63).  God provides the water, and everything bursts into growth; You provide for the earth:/ you drench its furrows; /you level it, soften it with showers (Ps 64/65 ).  Water is always dynamic in the psalms; it makes things happen, starts life, makes trees grow and flourish.  Death is a return to dust (Ps 103/104), the removal of water.

Seascape at night, storm
God is never far away

God +water = life

This is one reason why it is seen as God’s own element.   From the beginning of creation in Genesis 1,  God plus water equals life.  Water is the source and also the means of creation (you can’t mould dry clay; when Jesus needs to make dry earth potent for healing, he spits on it, John 9).  In the early days of salvation history, God is often encountered near a water source.    Hagar meets him at a well when she is thrown out by Sarah (Gen. 16) and then again when she and Ishmael are cast out definitively (Gen. 21).  She and Ishmael have run out of food and water and have lain down to die, when ‘God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin bottle with water and gave the boy a drink’ (v.19, out of the New World Translation, because it’s the most literal and prosaic version that I have).  God, water, salvation, and a woman’s agency : a grouping we will see again.

Real water in the Psalms is a positive thing….

God’s total control over the (real) waters means that they are usually described either in a neutral or positive way.  To be negative about the Great River, or the seas, or the waves, would be disrespectful to God as their Creator.  Water in this sense can be dark and mysterious, and the scale is huge, but it’s not ever actually hostile itself in the Psalms.  God keeps the waves of the sea in a flask (Ps 33), he rules its raging (Ps 88/89).  To him belongs the sea, for he made it (Pss 94/95, 145/146), he does wonders in the deep (Ps 106/107), he can turn a rock into a pool, a flint into a spring (Pss 106/107, 113/114), and the sea into dry land (Ps 65/66, 73/74, 76/77, 77/78, 135/136).

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
Very easy to get bogged down

..but be careful if it’s figurative

The negative aspect is much stronger with the figurative waters.  The underworld of the Old Testament tends to be cold and watery rather than the fiery hot hell of the New Testament.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters

The psalmist sees obliteration in terms of hostile waters : the waves of death (Ps 17/18), the torrents of destruction (Pss 17/18, 41/42), and a recurring image, like a bad dream, is of being in a muddy pit (or well?) with no way out, nothing to set foot on, and with the waters rising (Ps 68/69, 87/88, 123/124, and 129/130, ‘Out of the depths’).  He calls to God to draw him ‘out from the mighty waters’ (Ps 143/144),  and then sings him a song of praise when he does so.  There are many references to (figurative) sinking, to drying up, to being parched, drinking one’s own tears.  There are a couple of particularly arresting images, one where the psalmist describes himself as ‘like a wineskin shrivelled by smoke’ (Ps 118/119), and another where the wicked man is described thus : He put on cursing like his coat;/ let it soak into his body like water (Ps 108/109).   I’m not sure whether that second line is a curse upon the man or a description of what he did, but either way it’s like something from a horror film.

Some positive images

Of course there are positive images as well (Your justice is like the deep, Ps 35/36), particularly for rain, which you might expect in a hot country where water can go short.  Rain is life-giving and crop-giving, called ‘generous’ (Ps 67/68), and an image of gentle beauty in Ps 71/72, where the king’s son is described as descending ‘like rain on the meadow,/ like raindrops on the earth’, welcome as only rain in a desert country can be.  The food provided for the starving escaped Israelites, manna and quails, is described as ‘raining’ down (Ps 77/78).  Mostly, the positive images of water tend to be linked to the sheer size of God. The sea can thunder praise, the rivers clap their hands (Pss 95/96, 97/98), or it can flee from God’s actions and the river reverse its course (Ps 113/114), but the point is that these huge natural things, powerful as they are compared to a human, have no power comparable to God’s.  Moab is merely his washbowl (Pss 59/60 and 106/107);  water is under his control for his own use.

New Testament water slightly different

In the New Testament, water is again one of the most significant images, but I cannot think of a single instance where Jesus uses it negatively (someone will e-mail me, I’m quite sure!).  For him, it is living water, the water of life, welling up to eternity.

plenty of peril, but a serene Jesus (Peter Hackett)

He is baptised by immersion in the Jordan; he turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana; he washes his disciples’ feet (and has his own washed with tears earlier).  He accompanies the fishing apostles in their boat, he hitches lifts across the Sea of Galilee, he walks on the water.  He shows no sign of fear at any point.  When he is in the apostles’ boat and a storm blows up, he is fast asleep on a cushion (Mk 4), but when the frightened apostles wake him, he quells the storm with a word.  This is what God can do.

Still or sparkling

One of the things I particularly like about the water in the psalms is how carefully the psalmists distinguish between different sorts : seas, lakes, rivers and springs.  They all have separate characteristics.  When I set the words to a tune, I try to remember which sort of water we are talking about.  The past master at this is Handel, and some of his best work here is in the oratorio Israel in Egypt, which gives him wonderful opportunities.  He sets music to represent hail as one of the Plagues.  The waters of the Red Sea stand upright as an heap;  and Pharaoh’s horses and soldiers sink and perish under the torrents of its return.  Obviously I can’t do anything like this, but I do like to try and make the water show either in the melody or accompaniment.  It’s not just the psalms, either; we are lucky to have the Isaiah 12 Canticle among the Easter music, with its wells of salvation, and I have tried (according to the Response translation) to emphasize either hauling the water from the wells or hearing it ripple up freely from the springs.

Peaceful holy well
St Brannoc’s holy well/spring

Welling up to eternal life

Springs are always special, because they are mysterious but unthreatening.  Holy wells are often little springs that have been turned into places of pilgrimage, from Bible times (Abraham’s wanderings are marked by wells and springs), through early history (St Non’s in Pembrokeshire, near St Davids) until quite recently (Lourdes).  Springs are places of hope.  The water in the spring quenches thirst but is itself unquenchable.  This is Jesus’ great image for his message, the Good News he came to give.  Instead of the hard work of hauling up the water, a spring just ripples out.   As [God’s people] go through the Bitter Valley [or place of weeping], they make it a place of springs. The autumn rain covers it with blessings (Ps. 83/84).

Deja vu

Baptism : water and new life

This week’s readings are all about water.   (These are the readings we use for the First Scrutiny of those planning to be baptised at Easter, so they can be used even in other years of the liturgical cycle.)  The Old Testament reading is from Exodus, and shows the escaped Israelites desperate for water, which Moses supplies when God tells him where to strike the rock.  The psalm commemorates this event.  St Paul explains how God’s love has been ‘poured’ into our hearts.  And the Gospel is Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, a fascinating encounter that I have written about before, as she is a rare female voice in the Gospels.

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

God arrives at a watering place.  He speaks to a woman.  She believes him, and her life takes a new direction.  We have indeed seen this before.  She also spreads the blessing she has received; once a spring starts to well up, it is hard to stop it.  This unnamed woman turns out to be one of the most effective evangelists.

© 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.