Friday, August 24, 2007

How to Pray the Psalms(5)

Technical Terms and Rubrics
In the Psalms themselves, there are many clear references to liturgical actions, to various sacrifices, for example. “My vows to the Lord I will fulfill,” means, simply, that the persons praying the Psalm intends to offer a votive sacrifice which he or she promised in return for God’s favor or protection. The temple is referred to regularly, even if it occurs somewhat disguised at times as ‘God’s house’ or ‘the holy mountain’ or God’s ‘holy courts’. We mentioned above the reference to the sanctuary.
Sometimes, we seem to have references to liturgical actions, though such apparent references are occasions for continual controversy among Biblical scholars. To me, they seem beyond doubt, even if we aren’t sure what the liturgy itself looked like. IN Psalm 24, we hear: “O gates, lift up your heads, grow higher ancient doors; let him enter, the king of glory.” Clearly, this is some sort of procession and enthronement ceremony of God. Other processions indicate the humans involved. Earlier in Psalm 24, the cantor asks “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?” This mountain, of course, is Mount Zion, on which stood the temple. The people are getting ready to ascend, but first they must do an examination of conscience: “who shall stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart.” This is an ancient Penitential Rite that precedes the sacrifice.
“Open to me the gates of holiness,” says Psalm 118, and later on in the same Psalm: “Go forward in procession with branches, even to the altar.” This last line might even be a rubric. In other words, after a certain prayer is said, probably by the king or high priest, then the acolytes are supposed to pick up the palm branches and climb the steps to the altar.
Often enough, Psalms contain what we call a ‘call to worship’. Psalm 135 ends with this rousing scene: “Sons of Israel, bless the Lord! Sons of Aaron, bless the Lord! Sons of Levi, bless the Lord!” One can almost see the cantor turning to each of these groups in turn and they responding with a shout, or with a prostration. Most Psalms of praise or thanksgiving begin in a similar way: “O come, bless the Lord!” “Come, ring out our joy to the Lord” “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” In the case of this last line, in Psalm 136, it is followed by the refrain ki l’olam hasdo. For indeed! his hesed is forever! And every line thereafter is followed by this same refrain: For his love endures forever. It is an ancient Responsorial Psalm.
Another indication of the actions of a worshipping assembly is the phenomenon of a changing speaker or changing address. Psalm 23, begins by referring to God in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd,” and then in v.4, the address abruptly changes to the second person. Now God is being directly addressed: “You are there with your crook and your staff.” Sometimes the speaker changes. Psalm 75 begins with “We give thanks to you O God,” but then in the next verse, God begins speaking without any literary introduction.
Let me illustrate what I think is likely to be going on here. Some years ago I stage managed a choral concert here in Chicago for a touring group. They were premiering a new piece by a composer whose name I do not remember. Musically the piece was quite nice. There was one problem, however: he had set words to the liturgy, but without understanding how they were meant to be prayed. So at one point, the entire choir with one voice sang: “The Lord be with you, and also with you, and with you and with you.” It was clear that this fellow had read the text as if one person were speaking, first to one person, then to the next and so on, missing the fact that the text is meant for two parties. I suspect that the same has happened in these Psalms. The priests and Levites and people knew their parts and spoke in correct turn, and along with the liturgical action the whole made sense, whereas to read it as if it were to be read by one person outside the liturgy creates many abrupt transitions and non sequiturs.

No comments:


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page