Over a decade ago, we blogged on section 347 of the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF). There, you can find a raft of psalms intended for use in the rite. They are presented in their entirety, often with antiphons unfamiliar to those who celebrate at Mass. I think Psalm 126 was one of the texts suggested for use in the Office of the Dead, but the OCF endorses its use at any time.
Perhaps the mention of tears suggests this psalm is more directed at mourners than a description of the later life of the deceased. The given antiphon derives from verse 5:
Those who sow in tears
shall sing for joy when they reap.
The original context of this psalm is the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These words may well have been on the Lord’s lips when, as a boy, he accompanied Mary and Joseph to the Temple. There are two undercurrents in the text that might help our understanding.
First, the bondage of Babylon is recalled. The Jewish tradition does not forget disaster–one reason Holocaust deniers are viewed as heathens. God rescues people from bondage. God uses agents in human history, both the broad global stretches of time as well as life experiences. Sometimes experiences like a grave illness or a lingering death can seem like an exile from ordinary life. Serious caregivers don’t avoid that. The sudden change wrought by death might seem like a dream. When my elder brother died in an auto accident, the first experience was dream-like–did it really happen?
When the LORD delivered Zion from bondage,
it seemed like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter;
on our lips, there were songs.
The heathens themselves said, “What marvels
the LORD worked for them!”
What marvels the LORD worked for us!
Indeed, we were glad.
Deliver us, O LORD, from our bondage
as streams in dry land.
Those who are sowing in tears
will sing when they reap.
They go out, they go out, full of tears,
carrying seed for the sowing;
they come back, they come back, full of song,
carrying their sheaves.
The second theme involves agriculture. Today it is a tiring job. In ancient times, certainly more so. Spiritually and emotionally, the activities of planning, sowing, and preparing can be a heavy weight, maybe even a backbreaking burden. No wonder we want to feel relieved when it’s all over. Can we give ourselves permission to do so when the death has been a happy one, a graced conclusion to a life well lived?
I suppose this psalm should be used with some sensitivity. Perhaps caution. Many others would be higher on the list. Most mourners find themselves in the third stanza above. We feel tied down by grief and sadness. We are weeping tears down our faces, into our laps, onto the ground. We want instead to see God’s stream of life spill into the sands of our hearts and refresh us when we are exhausted and thirsting for some sign of God.
The other day I was speaking with a friend–it is near the anniversary of her husband’s death. She expressed much joy in life. She chides her spouse that he doesn’t have much better to do, so he might as well help out with a few whispers here and there for their children. I mentioned her goddaughter is attending Sunday Mass now and then, and getting involved a bit. See, she said, he must be interceding in the right place. We chuckled over it.
The Psalms are so rich, regardless of our encounter at Mass, in the Office, or in our prayer life. Worth the time, whether we are in sorrow or find ourselves surprised by joy.
The text above is the one given in the OCF. It’s the old Grail translation–the new version, now official, differs in some phrasing.