Pattern in the psalm sequence
Last year I looked at the flow of psalms through Lent Year C, to see whether there was an overarching theme or narrative. That post started out general, as I was planning to compare and contrast the three liturgical years, but I had to restrict it to one year to keep it a reasonable size. Now the year has gone completely round and Lent Year A is coming up from March 1st, so I am seizing the chance to look at the sequence of psalms for this year.
Different years have different themes
The theme for Lent C was mercy; we were following the readings of Luke’s Gospel, where mercy and forgiveness are one of the main messages. Year A follows the Gospel account of Matthew, with a lot of solid teaching on various subjects. It also takes some sections from John’s Gospel : a series of significant encounters (the woman at the well, the man born blind, the household at Bethany). I know I always emphasize that the psalm is a response to the First Reading, but in Lent particularly (as in Advent), it’s important to be able to see all the readings in a sort of interlinked dance of significance. Even in the run-up to Lent this year, the links between the Old and New Testament readings have been very clear.
Year A : the overarching theme of penitence
So the theme running through the psalms for Lent in Year A is penitence, which seems a bit obvious. Of course Lent is the season of penitence, but the Church chooses to emphasize different aspects in Lent from year to year in the choice of different readings, and just as last year (C) is the year where we concentrate on mercy, this year (A), partly because it’s the first in the sequence, is more straightforwardly penitential. This is clearly emphasized from the beginning, when we repeat for the First Sunday the same psalm that we used for Ash Wednesday. Here is the call to repentance and its echo; or, if you can’t make it to church on Ash Wednesday, the Church does not want you to miss out on this bass note which will run through the whole season.
First Sunday of Lent : Psalm 50/51
Psalm 50 is one of the classic penitential psalms. Traditionally there are seven penitential psalms : 6, 31/32, 37/38, 50/51, 101/102, 129/130, and 142/143. Some are more positive than others, some are sadder. Although I think the theme of the Lent A psalms is penitence, only two of these specific psalms come in the line-up for the Lent A Sundays. Year C does not use any of the penitential psalms at all. Year B only has one penitential psalm among its Sunday prescriptions, and it’s this one, 50/51 again, though at the end of Lent rather than the beginning. More on that next year.
What makes Ps 50/51 stand out, even among the penitential psalms, is its frankness and directness of tone. It describes one state of mind, pure contrition. Some of the other psalms move from admission of guilt to thanksgiving within the course of a single psalm (e.g. Ps 31/32), but this one acknowledges guilt, expresses compunction, asks for help and looks forward to better things in the future, but stays with the expression of penitence to the end : a humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn (v 19).
Traditionally, this is the psalm David composed after Nathan rebuked him for seizing Bathsheba and having Uriah, her husband, conveniently killed. I say, ‘traditionally’, because there is no specific internal evidence for this. But the psalm demonstrates a generous and frank admission of guilt, no attempt at any excuses and an absolute confidence in God’s mercy, however undeserved, which all make it a good psalm to follow on from the account of the Fall. It is a much better response than Adam’s, when God questions him in the garden. The second reading is St Paul explaining the parallel of Adam/sin and Jesus/redemption, before we move on to a replay of the tempter with the encounter of Jesus in the desert with the three temptations and his answer to them. Temptation – sin- repentance; temptation – victory – glory.
Second Sunday of Lent : Psalm 32/33
This is the next psalm after one of the penitential psalms, and it asserts the trustworthiness of God, because it follows the reading where God makes promises to Abram. The Responsorial Psalm as set here is only a small part of a joyful thanksgiving psalm, but it keeps the emphasis firmly on the Law of God and the agreement between him and his people. As long as they do what they promised, so will he. The Gospel is the Transfiguration : this is the way God behaves with those who keep the covenant set up so long ago.
This is a solid cheerful psalm which comes up quite often. We will have it again during the Easter Vigil and in the Sundays after Easter (where the emphasis is more on the thanksgiving aspect), and it appears in Ordinary Time as well. It appears with several different Responses and with different selections of stanzas. The Response here, Let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you, and the stanzas which refer to God’s love of justice and right, and the perils from which he will save his people (death and famine), continue the penitential theme in a low-key way.
Third Sunday of Lent : Psalm 94/95
Real water, symbolic water and the springs of everlasting life are the themes of this Sunday, and all the readings hang closely together. The First Reading and psalm however have a note of warning about them. The story is of Moses striking the rock to find water for the grumbling and resentful people whom he led out of Egypt. It’s a wonderful story which we almost miss because of all the resentment and grumpiness being expressed. Moses is at his wits’ end (you have the clear feeling that they have been nagging at him for a long time), he knows no more than they do, and there is almost a note of exasperation in the way he talks to God. But God doesn’t waste time explaining or persuading, he just gives clear instructions, and Moses simply performs the miracle with no more discussion. Then they name the place , not after the miracle or the water, but after the grumbling.
And on to the psalm, which starts Come, ring out our joy to the Lord, but the words, and above all the repeated Response (….Harden not your hearts), indicate very clearly that we are here in the character of the resentful people who are causing trouble by not listening to what God is trying to tell us. St Paul emphasizes the point by reminding us that Christ died for us while we still sinners; and then the water theme is picked up again and transformed by the Gospel. This is the fascinating and wonderful encounter at the well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, one of the rare examples of a talking woman in the Bible. This reading is borrowed from John’s Gospel.
Fourth Sunday of Lent : Ps 22/23
Mid-Lent Sunday, Pink Sunday, and traditionally an easing of the Lent gloom. The First Reading is the choosing of David the young shepherd boy to be the King chosen by God to lead Israel, and the psalm is the shepherd-king psalm, so loved and familiar. Who are we in this psalm? We are the sheep. The psalm itself lets us down fairly gently, but if you think of some of the other translations, penitence is warranted (Perverse and foolish oft I strayed from the paraphrase ‘The King of Love my shepherd is’ out of Hymns Ancient and Modern). St Paul tells us that we were in the darkness but now we are in the light; and this leads into the Gospel of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind. Again, we are borrowing from John’s Gospel. This whole discussion is about sin, the causes of sin, the results of sin, who is a sinner, and so on.
Fifth Sunday of Lent : Ps 129/130
In the First Reading, God speaks directly to his people, calling them up out of their graves and bringing them back to the land which he promised to them. It is a short but very arresting reading, especially taken in conjunction with the Gospel we will hear. The psalm to follow it is another of the penitential psalms, Ps 129/130, the great De profundis. From being sinful sheep, we have become confident supplicants. We are still aware of being sinful (If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand? ), but we ask for forgiveness with full confidence and trust, repeated in the Response. St Paul emphasizes the Spirit raising the dead to life, and the Gospel is the raising of Lazarus. It is also Martha’s declaration of faith and Jesus’ calling himself the resurrection and the life. Again, this Gospel is borrowed from John.
This is a glorious high note to end the run of Lent Sundays, and just like last year, the psalm for Palm Sunday will come as a crashing shock. Last year we came down from a crest of joy; this year we have not been joyful, but we have moved with penitence to confidence and assurance of God’s mercy. Out of the depths; but with the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption. There is also an indication that we will need to wait and have faith (Let the watchman count on daybreak and Israel on the Lord).
Our place in salvation history
There is another shaping thread running through the First Readings. Like the Readings at the Easter Vigil, they are carefully chosen to move us through salvation history. So we start with Adam in Week 1, move on to Abram’s mission in Week 2, see Moses in action in Week 3 and the choice of David in Week 4. All of these are forerunners or types of the Messiah. In Week 5, the protagonists are God himself and the people of Israel. Again the interaction between the early readings and the Gospels is not hard to pick out. Jesus mirrors the patriarchs.
Jesus overcomes the tempter in Week 1, is picked out for mission in Week 2 (the transfiguration, God’s voice, and so on), gives living water to the thirsty in Week 3, and brings sight to the blind in Week 4, fulfilling the prophecies about the coming of the Kingdom and the true King in Isaiah and elsewhere. Then in Week 5, he raises the dead and redeems them, only as the psalms indicate, by now it’s not ‘them’, it’s us.
The next Sunday will be Palm Sunday. We are the people who sing Hosanna and wave palms; we are the people who call out,’Crucify him!’ during the Gospel. In Holy Week, we are part of the action on stage. Lent has been our preparation, and the psalms have placed us into our role.
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