It is a sad truth that, in today’s typical parish, the psalms have become half-forgotten. They are usually approached by the choir as an afterthought, reduced to little more than that constricting and inconsistent Biblical excerpt that the choir director has to make awkwardly fit into a very basic line of music, and that half the congregation forgets how to respond to. And in all honesty, it can be easy to get lost in the seemingly foreign context of the psalms. The unfamiliar names, the distant, historical references, and the clearly non-contemporary phrasing, often coupled with their poor overall presentation, all come together to make them appear either inaccessible, or irrelevant.
However, it is important to realize that the mass liturgy is, in a sense, actually wrapped and nested in the psalms. The Entrance Antiphon is most often a phrase from the psalms. Even the shortest Masses include a psalm response in the liturgy of the Word. The Communion Antiphon is typically a psalm. And sprinkled throughout the liturgical prayers are phrases taken from the psalms.
The psalms, from their very roots, are liturgical. They permeated the life and soul of the Jewish liturgy, and, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes, were also the very first hymnbook of the Church: “The Christian community had grown out of the synagogue and, along with the christologically interpreted Psalter, had also taken over the synagogue’s way of singing.” 1
Why does it matter that the psalms are so fundamentally liturgical?
At its very essence, to be liturgical means to have the power of taking us out of our regular context and dropping us directly into salvation history – “Liturgy is not merely a celebration of some past event. It is an enactment in which and through which promises and claims that were made in the past become present realities.” 2 This is what we see, in the most real way, in Christ’s sacrifice being re-presented in the sacrifice of the mass. This is the very stuff of the mass liturgy itself.
Along similar a line – “The psalms have a role to play in this creative reenactment.” 2 Being rooted in salvation history, which is revealed in its fullest significance by Christ, they re-present the story that is our own story, and our heritage, as the Church. Speaking directly from that context, “Not only do they address God in sentiments appropriate to what has been described, but they also fashion a world wherein we interact with God by means of these very sentiments.” 2 So, as we sing them, singing with the very voice of the Church, we ourselves are placed in an entirely different landscape – a world where God sits on His holy throne, surrounded by the saints and angels, and invites us to come and join in His great royal banquet. A world where we stand before Him, not as mere onlookers, not even just as members of His royal court, but as His children. “Now this is our world; these are our sentiments; this is our prayer.” 2
The psalms are, in fact, often referred to as a school of prayer. But we’ll explore that a bit further in the following post. Until then, I encourage you – take some time ahead of mass to read through the psalm. Pray though it, ask questions, explore the context. Don’t let it fly you by between the readings at mass – and you’ll be sure to find a treasure trove.
Links for series:
- Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Music and Liturgy: How does music express the Word of God, the Vision of God? Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 8: November 2001: http://www.adoremus.org/1101musicliturgy.html
- Bergant, Dianne, Psalms, “The Wisdom Books”, Reading Guide fromThe Catholic Study Bible, Second Edition. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), p. 252.
If publishing article online please attribute source Serviam Ministries with link to original article.