Scripture for the Sick or Dying: Psalm 102

I don’t recall ever devoting a post to Psalm 102 in the past. This lament has been awaiting a brief mention in this series on Pastoral Care of the Sick. It appears but once during Lent at weekday Mass, in the fifth week on a Tuesday. (March 23rd in 2021.) The assigned verses are a bit different but the overall mood is nearly the same.

In the NAB, verse one is a description, “The prayer of one afflicted and wasting away whose anguish is poured out before the LORD.” This gives us a prelude for the following 28 verses.

The liturgical antiphon is lifted nearly word-for-word from verse 2:

O LORD, hear my prayer
and let my cry come to you.

Those who assembled the pastoral care rites didn’t use all the verses, but they provided quite a bit. If you were to press me for a communal singing of this psalm with stanzas, I think I’d divide them into six or seven as follows:

LORD, hear my prayer;
let my cry come to you.

Optional, I’d say, since the antiphon is identical. Perhaps in a setting of the Hours, one might alternate in two “choirs,” and then use more of the text or even all of it.

Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Turn your ear to me;
when I call, answer me quickly.

Let this be written for the next generation,
for a people not yet born,
that they may praise the LORD:
“The LORD looked down from the holy heights,
viewed the earth from heaven,
To attend to the groaning of the prisoners,
to release those doomed to die.”

He has shattered my strength in mid-course,
has cut short my days.
I plead, O my God,
do not take me in the midst of my days.
Your years last through all generations.
Of old you laid the earth’s foundations;
the heavens are the work of your hands.
They perish, but you remain;
they all wear out like a garment;
Like clothing you change them and they are changed,
but you are the same, your years have no end.

Some commentary:

Verse 3 sets the scene for an extended complaint in verses 4-12. It’s a powerful text, and perhaps for individual prayer, it might permit the sick person to identify with lonely animals or even withered grass, feeling abandoned by God. This is classic material for a Jewish lament. The psalmist lays it all out in the open, making no bones that God is the one who has failed in this situation.

With verse 13, there is a change in tone. The Psalmist recalls the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and God’s promise of fidelity. The liturgy gives part of the concluding text of that section, reminding worshipers that God does consider those condemned to imprisonment and death and chooses to respond with love and compassion.

It seems that the psalmist has uttered words of confidence too soon, as the final section renews the complaint. It reads like a bit of a guilt-trip played on God: you are eternal and we, though your own creation, will fade away. Not fair.

Does God listen to such antics? Does he smile with a certain familiarity, given that he perceives us playing the same trick on one another? Still, it’s an audacious bit of petition we don’t ever read or sing at Sunday or daily Mass. Does it do the soul good to utter such sentiments? Maybe it would. What do you think?

So often I find the psalms the most honest expression of faith in God. When we’ve been harmed or when we suffer illness, we often want to lash out. Not my fault! I’ve expressed that opinion. Let’s be honest: most all of us have thought it, even if not out loud. Perhaps the healing process is helped by such raw honesty. If you agree, this psalm is worth planning for a communal liturgy of anointing or healing, or to recommend to a person feeling bitter over their lot in life.

For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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