Reconciliation Lectionary: Psalm 90

mary-the-penitent.jpgScripture scholars categorize the 90th psalm as a communal lament. Sounds about right for the Rite of Penance. The given antiphon in the rite is:

Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy!

Do Catholics see the experience of the Sacrament of Penance as joy? Or duty? Or something to be endured to remain in God’s good graces?

In these verses, you may recognize the Isaac Watts hymn “O God Our Help In Ages Past.” That text has probably put Psalm 90 onto more lips than any other setting.

Lord, you have been our refuge
through all generations.
Before the mountains were born,
the earth and the world brought forth,
from eternity to eternity you are God.
You turn humanity back into dust,
saying, “Return, you children of Adam!”

So this section places humankind in the context of the history of the universe. Carl Sagan described it for a Space Age. But the essence of the notion, biblical or cosmological, is that God has assembled us from basic matter. Ash Wednesday reminds us also of this, and that our physical existence is transitory. Or at least very small in comparison to the vastness of space and time in God’s universe:

A thousand years in your eyes
are merely a day gone by,
Before a watch passes in the night,
you wash them away;
They sleep,
and in the morning they sprout again like an herb.
In the morning it blooms only to pass away;
in the evening it is wilted and withered.

These verses at mid-psalm are likely the main reason why this text was chosen for the Rite of Penance:

Truly we are consumed by your anger,
filled with terror by your wrath.
You have kept our faults before you,
our hidden sins in the light of your face.

Do our sins fill us with fear? Maybe that emotion is not as common as it once was. I think sometimes people are afraid of getting caught.

More on the perspective of time:

Our life ebbs away under your wrath;
our years end like a sigh.
Seventy is the sum of our years,
or eighty, if we are strong;
Most of them are toil and sorrow;
they pass quickly, and we are gone.
Who comprehends the strength of your anger?
Your wrath matches the fear it inspires.
Teach us to count our days aright,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.

This last line, verse 12, seems like a good choice for an antiphon if the given one seems a bit off.

Section III of this lament turns to an exclamation of praise:

Relent, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Fill us at daybreak with your mercy,
that all our days we may sing for joy.
Make us glad as many days as you humbled us,
for as many years as we have seen trouble.
Show your deeds to your servants,
your glory to their children.
May the favor of the Lord our God be ours.
Prosper the work of our hands!
Prosper the work of our hands!

This is a lengthy text. For the Liturgy of the Word, a music director might want to select verses for the psalmist. My suggestion would be the text in maroon above: verses 1-2, 8-9, 12-13, and 14-15. Otherwise, my favorite contemporary setting by the fine composer Timothy R Smith is a fine choice.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Rite of Penance, Scripture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reconciliation Lectionary: Psalm 90

  1. Liam says:

    “Do Catholics see the experience of the Sacrament of Penance as joy? Or duty? Or something to be endured to remain in God’s good graces?”

    It occurs to me that the elder son could have said something like this if he wanted to present a less egoistic (and less honest) face to his father. While it’s wonderful to accept reconciliation with God for the best of reasons, that doesn’t exclude the less lofty reasons such as that of the prodigal son.

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