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Musical Musings: Advent

The Psalms of Advent A

by Gary D. Penkala

The Responsorial Psalm is perhaps that element of the Liturgy of the Word most attended to by musicians, and rightly so. The psalms represent a hymnal for the entire Judeo-Christian liturgical community. The specific psalms chosen so carefully by the Church can help to set a mood for a liturgical season -- a strong argument against tampering with designated psalms. Let's explore the psalms we'll encounter during Advent of Year A.

Psalm 24

  • Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)
  • Refrain: Let the Lord enter; he is the king of glory.
  • Verses: 1-6

This psalm has been called "The Crown Psalm" and represents the Lord's solemn entry into Zion. It may have been sung when the ark of the Lord was moved from the house of Obed-edom to Jerusalem and in temple services it was used on the day after the Sabbath (the first day of the week). The Church prescribes the first portion of this psalm for the last Sunday of Advent, when the Lord's coming to his temple is imminent. The music for the procession itself, the second part of the psalm ("Lift up, O gates, your lintels ... Who is the king of glory?") is omitted from our Advent liturgy. The Lord's procession is saved for the Christmas Mass.

Psalm 25

  • Common Psalm for Advent
  • Refrain: To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.
  • Verses: 4,5,8,9,10,14

This is an acrostic psalm, in which each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, arranged thus to facilitate its memorization. This is an ideal psalm to be sung during Advent, particularly in its beautiful Gregorian chant version, Ad te levavi animam meam. The verses selected by the Church all speak of teaching and guidance along the right path. During Advent, our season of preparation, we are asked to look at how well we accept God's guidance; along what paths are we walking? As Isaiah and John the Baptist pointed out the way to the Messiah on earth, will we reach the heavenly dwelling-place of God at the end of our earthly journey?

Psalm 72

  • Second Sunday of Advent (A)
  • Refrain: Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever.
  • Verses: 1,2,7,8,12,13,17

Coming at the end of the second "volume" in the Book of Psalms, this royal psalm shows the king, the righteous king, to be the vicar of Yahweh. While Solomon may have been the focus of the original writer, the attributes of the righteous king may easily be applied to Christ, the Messiah who is to come. The rule of the King to come will establish peace and be an advocate and support for the poor and the afflicted. "In him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed; all the nations shall proclaim his happiness (vs.17)."

Psalm 85

  • Common Psalm for Advent
  • Refrain: Lord, show us your mercy and love.
  • Verses: 9-14

A Psalm of Restoration, sometimes called "A Patriot's Prayer," this psalm begins with a lament that was probably composed during the 6th century exile, when Israel was tempted to believe that God had abandoned them. The opening lament is absent from this, the second of the common psalms for Advent, however. Here the liturgy takes up where the psalmist vows to listen to the Lord, recounting the benefits to be enjoyed by allowing God to enter our lives: kindness and truth, justice and peace, truth and prosperity -- themes to be echoed throughout the liturgies of Advent.

Psalm 98

  • Immaculate Conception (ABC)
  • Refrain: Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous deeds.
  • Verses: 1-4

This is part of a group of hymns (Psalms 95-100) that praise Yahweh's supremacy over all the universe - his powerful deeds are beyond man's comprehension. It is within God's power to bring into being one who is sublimely holy by lack of original sin, one conceived immaculate. Mary's great beneficence from God is a recognition of the Son of God whom she is to bring to flesh at his coming into our world. This psalm for Immaculate Conception, a solemnity lying within the Advent season, perfectly verbalizes Mary's view of her relationship with the Almighty: all she is, all she has, is from God; and to Him alone belong adoration and worship. "Sing to the Lord a new song... all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God."

Psalm 122

  • First Sunday of Advent (A)
  • Refrain: Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
  • Verses: 1-9

This is part of the Songs of Ascents or the Pilgrimage Psalms (120-134). Psalm 122 is often called the "Pilgrim's Greetings to Jerusalem," a hymn upon arrival at the gates of the city for worship. A procession is brought to mind in this psalm, the entirety of which is used on the First Sunday of this Advent season. As the joyful pilgrim nears the gates of Jerusalem, he sees the power and splendor of Yahweh represented in the Temple and other buildings of this earthly city. When we as life-long pilgrims approach the mysteries of the New Jerusalem, we can see the manifestation of the heavenly city here on earth in the beginnings of our Redemption -- God is wedded to man, the two Jerusalems are joined as one.

Psalm 146

  • Third Sunday of Advent (A)
  • Refrain: Lord, come and save us. - or - Alleluia.
  • Verses: 6-10

The Great Hallel begins with Psalm 146. Notice that the Church gives us the opportunity to substitute the ultimate praise text, "Hallelujah" for the regular psalm refrain. This word, translating "Praise ye the Lord," opens and closes each of the Hallel psalms (146-150). The Church places this hymn of rejoicing on Gaudete Sunday, when rose-colored vestments, flowers, and enhanced organ music remind us of the flavor of the Introit: Gaudete in Domino semper, "Rejoice in the Lord always." There is a concurrent emphasis which sets this rejoicing squarely in the midst of Advent themes. The psalm verses chosen are not the exuberant ones of the opening of this hymn ("Praise the Lord, my soul."), but those later that speak of justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, freedom for captives, sight for the blind, protection and providence for all.


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