In considering care for people who are dying, the twenty-third Psalm may offer one of the best options. This would surely be true for private prayer–it might be one of the most memorized* passages in all of the Bible.
Neil’s commentary from sixteen years ago is well worth a visit. Our friend saw in Psalm 23 a “new exodus, new march through the wilderness, new covenant, and new settlement in the Promised Land” connected to that “new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer 31:34).
What struck me next was my recollection of Psalm 23 in its many utilizations in the sacramental rites. Neil reminded us of the use of Psalm 23 to accompany a post-baptismal procession. The liturgical procession is symbolic of the pilgrimage, an experience of moving from one’s familiar surroundings and being drawn to a new place for an encounter with God. The middle verses of the psalm suggest pilgrimage, on both right paths and in the shadow of death.
When Neil referenced Jeremiah’s new covenant, it occurred to me that passage is also an option for the wedding Liturgy of the Word. There, it strikes me as an expression of a sea change in people’s lives.
We know this psalm is likely the most-used text for Christian funerals across all traditions. What greater rupture will a human being ever experience? Likely nothing like life to death. As a Christian, we will enter a new reality, a pilgrimage to a wholly new encounter with God. The full realization of Jesus’ saving acts will be an experience, not an expression of faith. That first verse makes for a perfect antiphon, that expression of trust that God alone will suffice:
The LORD is my shepherd;
there is nothing I lack.
If sung with antiphon and reserving the rest of the text for a cantor, the remaining five verses are usually split into four stanzas like this:
In green pastures he makes me lie down;
to still waters he leads me;
he restores my soul.
He guides me along right paths
for the sake of his name.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff comfort me.
You set a table before me
in front of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me
all the days of my life;
I will dwell in the house of the LORD
for endless days.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.
* Never underestimate the value of selecting Bible passages for memorization.