Here is Fr. Stephen’s homily for last Sunday, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 20th September. At Mass every day after the First Reading, we say the Responsorial psalm. That name is actually a bit misleading. People think it is called the Responsorial psalm because the congregation say or sing a response. This is not the case. The psalm is intended to be a reflection on the First Reading and so the whole psalm is the response by the faithful to the words that they have just heard.
The book of Psalms, which we find in the Old Testament, was the Jewish Prayer book. The earliest of them would have been at least 1000 years old by the time of Jesus, and he would have known many of them by heart, having heard and recited them both at the synagogue and at home since his earliest childhood. Sometimes they are called The Psalms of David. In part this is historically accurate for David died around 970 BC and there is no reason why he could not have written, or at least edited some of them, but a number of them were written during the Exile of the Jews to Babylon – some 400 years later than David. When the psalms were used in the liturgies of the Temple, they would have been sung and would have been the skilled work of the musicians of the Temple staff. So the singing and chanting of them with which we are familiar today, especially in monasteries and religious houses, is by no means new. It has happened for 3000 years.
The literary and poetic construction of the psalm in Hebrew is almost impossible to reproduce faithfully in European language. But the twofold pattern which we often see in the construction of the psalm survives – we call it parallelism – and this is a feature we all recognise: the second part of the sentence enlarges on the first part. Here is an example in today’s psalm:
The Lord is kind and full of compassion; Slow to anger, abounding in love.
And again: The Lord is just in all his ways; and loving in all his deeds. He is close to all who call on him; who call on him from their hearts.
We might wonder why there such emphasis on the psalms, not just at Mass, but throughout the offices of the breviary which priests and religious say every day of their lives? And what use are they to us as we say our own prayers? Their value is twofold. First, when we say or sing the psalms, we are using the same words, the same expressions, which God’s people have used since the earliest history of the Jews. We are united in prayer with so many holy people of so many generations, who recited these verses, including, of course, The Lord himself. Second, individual psalms connect with us and fit almost every type of human experience and mood. I do not know of a book in which the psalms have been arranged to suit our varying needs, but someone should surely do this if it has not yet been done.
There are prayers of protest when God seems totally absent and deaf – For instance: psalm 88, which ends with the depressing words: ‘Friend and neighbour you have taken away; my only companion is darkness.’ There are prayers of anger and betrayal: Psalm 55: ‘If this evil had been done by an enemy, I could bear his taunts, but it is you my own companion, my intimate friend; how close was the friendship between us.’ There are prayers of desolation, such as psalm 22, used by Jesus himself on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Prayers of joy: for example, psalm 100, ‘O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands.’ Or the last psalm in the book, 150: ‘Praise God in his holy place, praise him in his mighty heavens. And then there are psalms which acknowledge the constant presence of God in our lives: Here is a favourite of mine: Psalm 139. ‘O God, you have searched me out and you know me; you know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar.’ These are just a few examples.
In the news sheet I have produced a very small compilation, such as space permits. When we cannot find words to pray; when we are low, or angry, or frightened or the opposite: full of joy, reach out to these psalm prayers, for they are ancient, they are tried and tested, they excel and they are very special.