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Musical Musings: Lent

The Psalms of Lent A

by Gary D. Penkala

With the Psalter, the 150 songs of the Book of Psalms, we have a record of the earliest and finest Judeo-Christian hymnal. From this collection is derived the greatest part of the Church's Liturgy of the Hours and most of the antiphons for the processional moments in the Mass (Introit, Offertory, Communion). Most apparent to the parishioners, though, is their weekly encounter with the Chant between the Readings, more commonly called the Responsorial Psalm. These musical responses are chosen by the Church to amplify the message of the First Reading. We should be quite wary of the temptation to change these — only approved text translations may be used (e.g. the New American Bible in the U.S.*); composers' paraphrases, such as "Shepherd Me, O God," by Marty Haugen, are never acceptable substitutes for the proper Responsorial Psalms at Mass.

* The new GIRM (with U.S. adaptations) says of the Responsorial Psalm in #61:

In the dioceses of the United States of America, the following may also be sung in place of the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary for Mass: either the proper or seasonal antiphon and Psalm from the Lectionary, as found either in the Roman Gradual or Simple Gradual or in another musical setting; or an antiphon and Psalm from another collection of the psalms and antiphons, including psalms arranged in metrical form, providing that they have been approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the responsorial Psalm.

Msgr. Anthony F. Sherman, Associate Director, USCCB Secretariat for the Liturgy, assured CNP on February 15, 2005, that the Grail Psalms (1963 version) as found in the Worship hymnals and the Gelineau Gradual (GIA) are acceptable as texts for the Responsorial Psalm at Mass, owing to the episcopal approval implied in the notice, Published with ecclesiatical approval, Archidiocese of Chicago that accompanies these volumes.

These are the Responsorial Psalms we'll hear during Lent of Year A.

Psalm 22

Deus, Deus meus
  • Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion (ABC) & Common Psalm for Holy Week
  • Refrain: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
  • Verses: 8-9, 17-20, 23-24

This is the monumental Hymn of Calvary. The Cross was the ultimate goal of Christ's entire life, beginning from the Incarnation, and even earlier in God's plan of salvation history. The profundity and awfulness of the cry, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" shows the utter agony of our Lord in both body and spirit at the crucifixion. He was the sacrificial Lamb to be slaughtered for the sins of the people. This is perhaps the only way we can understand this immense feeling of being forsaken – when we compare it with the immensity of man's sin which nailed the Messiah to his Cross. The New American Bible calls this psalm, Passion and Triumph of the Messiah.

The format of the psalm is typical of laments: cry, plea for help, confidence. Both the Gospels of Saint Matthew (27:46) and Saint John (19:23ff) place this psalm on the Savior's lips as he hangs on the Cross. Br. Benedict Janecko, OSB, from Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, likens Christ's passion / death / resurrection experiences with our own life / death / new life pathway.

In each of the psalms of lament, there is a turning point; sometimes very dramatic — a point of resurrection and new life. Just as in Psalm 31, the Responsorial on Good Friday, the last verse becomes an affirmation of confidence in the sure help of God. The singing tone should clearly delineate this!

Psalm 23

Dominus pascit me
  • Fourth Sunday of Lent (A)
  • Refrain: The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.
  • Verses: 1-6

Perhaps the most beloved and well-known song in the Bible, the Shepherd Psalm is used often in the Church's liturgy. The various layers of meaning, springing from two themes: God as Shepherd and God as Host, prompt its use at Baptisms, Christian Initiation, Confirmations, Ordinations, Funerals, Common of Pastors, and frequently throughout the Liturgical Year, like on Good Shepherd Sunday (4 Easter). Here it is used on Lætare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, when the somber penitential mood of Lent lightens and flowers and organ music are permitted.

The two images of God (as Shepherd and Host) are common throughout Scripture. Verses 1-4 speak to the first of these, as the tender image of the Good Shepherd comforts us, his rod and staff ever ready to protect us even in the "valley of the shadow of death." The Eucharistic allusions in this psalm are apparent in verses 5-6. Through sacramental anointing with sacred Chrism (perfumed oil) at our Baptism, we become members of the Body of Christ (the Church) and are invited to the sacred Banquet spread before us, the true Body of Christ present in the Eucharist.

The Good Shepherd himself in reality lays down his total life for the sheep. On this "joyful" Sunday of Lent, we can be comforted that our God not only protects us from afar as our Shepherd, but also nourishes us from within by the Table of his Body that he spreads before us.

Psalm 33

Exsultate justi
  • Second Sunday of Lent (A)
  • Refrain: Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.
  • Verses: 4-5, 18-20, 23

This psalm, generally considered a psalm of praise, is used on the Second Sunday of Lent, perhaps the most "glorious" of the five Lenten Sundays. On this Sunday, we always hear the Gospel of the Transfiguration, as a literary counterbalance to the insidious Temptation story we heard the week before. Psalm 33 also appears as an option after the First Reading of the Great Easter Vigil (the account of creation), and the authority of the Lord over nature is evident, especially in verses 5-9.

But here during Lent, the other theme of the psalm is emphasized. God is merciful to those who trust in him; conversely, the upright have reason to praise the Lord and rejoice in his kindness. The verses chosen as the Responsorial show the All-powerful Creator being faithful to his promise — "Upright is the word of the Lord, and all his works are trustworthy." His concern is for his creation, as his eyes are upon us, sparing us from famine and death.

In Lent we are reminded to slow down, to accept God's mercy and forgiveness as they come to us; "our soul waits for the Lord," and he will never disappoint.

 Back to Lent Index

Part 2: More psalms!

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