There have been some interesting, perhaps heated discussions about the Mass propers lately. It seems to me more like a dialogue of the deaf. I thought that since this weekend’s offerings from the Roman Antiphonary are typical, it might be useful to look at them closely:
Entrance Antiphon Cf. Ps 26: 8-9
Of you my heart has spoken: Seek his face.
It is your face, O Lord, that I seek;
hide not your face from me.
(Psalm 26: GR, p. 88)
Or: Cf. Ps 24: 6, 2, 22
Remember your compassion, O Lord,
and your merciful love, for they are from of old.
Let not our enemies exult over us.
Redeem us, O God of Israel, from all our distress.
(Psalm 24: GR, p. 81)
Communion Antiphon Mt 17: 5
This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.
(Psalm 44: cf. GS, p. 128; or Psalm 28: 1-4, 10-11; or Psalm 89: 6-19)
Some code things … GR is Roman Gradual. GS, Simple Gradual. The Psalms are numbered both ways. Most Bible-aware folks know them by the larger of the two numbers given. Those are the ones I will use in commentary.
My initial observations were mostly favorable:
- Psalm 27 is a common psalm for Ordinary Time, and is not uncommon during the season of Lent. The assemblers of the Antiphonary clearly picked up on one of the themes of the Transfiguration Gospel (Matthew 17:1-9), namely the experience of the face of Jesus shining like the sun.
- The alternate text is also no stranger to Lent, Psalm 25, though we might recognize it as one of the common psalms of Advent.
- The Communion antiphon yokes the Father’s affirmation with one of three psalms. These three are really interesting choices. Let’s peel them out …
- Psalm 45 is most recognizable in the Lectionary as the psalm for the feast of the Assumption. In Paul Ford’s By Flowing Waters, (#354, p. 218) he gives the setting of verses 2-9, 18, avoiding the references to the bride–those usually used for the Marian feast. These verses praise the King of Israel, and later, were adopted as Messianic in tone.
- Psalm 29 is in the Lectionary for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord–the other moment when the Father’s voice affirms from heaven, and urges the hearers to listen to Jesus. The psalm itself is a hymn to God describing divine glory and power through elements of a storm.
- And Psalm 89 is one of the longest in the Psalter. It is not at all festive; as a whole it is classified as a lament, though it is prescribed in the Lectionary for the Chrism Mass. An ordination option, too.
As I gave this more thought, I was intrigued by the variety of verse texts for the Communion antiphon. Psalm 45 and 89 have Messianic overtones. I would hope that a cantor wouldn’t be delving into the bride material of verses 10-17, and I think a careful music director would need to have a familiarity with this potential stumbling block. Maybe Psalm 89 works–though a lament, it does have 52 verses. That’s a lot of singing. The text of Psalm 29 possesses a more primitive sense of the raw power of the Almighty in the storm. Does that fit the overall sense of the readings? Should church musicians have a close connection with those other considerations, especially what might be preached?
One common message I see in them is the trust God puts in us, and our calling to be faithful in the face of difficulties and trials. That’s certainly an opportune theme for us as we enter more deeply into Lent.
Are these three the best possible psalms for the second Sunday of Lent? Another that came to mind was the 121st. The liturgist in me considered the theme of God’s protection as well as the images of mountain and sun. Mature believers might not be intimidated into silly suggestions about building booths on Mount Tabor. Eventually we have to come down the mountain and roll up our sleeves and get to work. Abraham and Timothy in turn were called to be God’s disciples, as are we. Does a focus on God’s power, especially his face and voice, mute the second purpose of the Mass–to sanctify the believers?
Would reform2 musicians find me off base in suggesting Psalm 121 as a viable option, especially if the homilist were to draw in certain themes in the other readings, those speaking to a covenant commitment to God and the urging of Saint Paul to live a holy life?
The Second Sunday of Lent is a better example of how the texts of the Propers might work well to enhance the experience of Scripture and preaching in a parish. Every so often, I’ll post another set of antiphons and Scripture references. I’ll also add suggestions on how I would suggest reforms in these texts.
That said, I do think we have already entered an era where music leaders will make their own choices about repertoire. Most pastors are ignorant about these choices, or they are unwilling to delve very deeply into what they see as arcane details.
My counsel for devoted church musicians: get to know the Psalms well. Then expand into the canticles of the both Testaments, the Gospels, the prophets, and wisdom literature of the Bible.
And for others, this would be an example of my preferred depth for music planning and interacting with a homilist and other liturgical factors heading into an important season like Lent, and such a key Biblical event like the Transfiguration. Once the discussion and Scripture work was done, then we might move on to songs in the parish repertoire that honor the sense and content of Psalms 27, 25, 45A, 29, and 89. And if these were insufficient, then I might look to Psalms 121 or 93 or 98. Or some of the canticles in Revelation praising the Lamb and honoring the saints. Simply penciling in what the Roman Gradual or the seasonal planning guide gives me is a most unsatisfying way to engage the Scriptures and the musical heritage of the Church.