I have to admit upfront: Psalm 103 is one of my all-time favorites. I smile when I see one of its appearances in the Lectionary for Mass. So many good musical settings of it exist, and in just about every conceivable genre. I have yet to compose one that satisfies me. My wife disagrees; she likes something I did about thirty years ago. But it was our pre-courting days, so …
Scripture scholars classify this text as a hymn. What does that mean? The psalmist is basically in a steady and stable relationship with God. For the time being. The psalmist is in no particular trouble, and is just feeling good about being a believer and that God is so good.
In the middle section of this psalm (verses 6-18) we engage an extended meditation on mercy. Perhaps that suggests more strongly we are in need. After an initial acclamation praising the Almighty (verses 1-5) the psalmist realizes her or his time of need was not so far in the past, not outside a significant memory.
The two possible antiphons reflect each of those themes. The first, a brief shout of praise:
O Bless the Lord, my soul
And the second, a recognition of the need for mercy:
The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion.
Twelve select verses are excised from the full text and assigned for the pastoral care of the sick. Six stanzas might be a bit too much for a communal liturgy, but here they all are:
Bless the LORD, my soul;
all my being, bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, my soul;
and do not forget all his gifts,
Who pardons all your sins,
and heals all your ills,
Who redeems your life from the pit,
and crowns you with mercy and compassion,
For as the heavens tower over the earth,
so his mercy towers over those who fear him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our sins from us.
As a (parent) has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.
For he knows how we are formed,
remembers that we are dust.
As for (us, our) days are like the grass;
(we) blossom like a flower in the field.
A wind sweeps over it and it is gone;
its place knows it no more.
But the LORD’s mercy is from age to age,
toward those who fear him.
His salvation is for the children’s children
of those who keep his covenant,
and remember to carry out his precepts.
For the music director at a communal liturgy of anointing or a pastoral care visitor, having that bit of background knowledge on the psalm might dictate best use.
On one hand, pray the whole psalm. It’s genius.
On the other, the ill person or the community might need to focus on the praise of God. The first two stanzas spell out that theme. Mercy is an important virtue to keep in mind when accompanying the sick. If that wistful reflection that touches on the universe, family relationships, the brevity of life, and/or the commitment to faith is important, it would seem an emphasis on those latter verses with the second antiphon is dictated.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.