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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Responsorial Psalm and Hearing the Word of God (C15O)

I've been writing weekly "liturgy updates" called Liturgy Corner for our parish bulletin, the Clarion, since Advent of 2015. For a while I was using and adapting parts of material from Modern Liturgy and what they called "Liturgical Bits and Bytes," a subscription service. Then RPI went off the scene, and Liturgical Press chose not to continue that resource. I continued to adapt material, but found that I needed to nuance it and adapt it for our community so much that I started writing my own columns, and that may be one of the reasons that I've fallen so far behind in writing this blog. Also, it's just a busy time of life for me. I haven't forgotten or given up—I just needed one more thing to feel guilty about, I guess.

Anyway, when I was looking over music for rehearsals and going back over notes for the last few weeks, I came to discover that I had overlooked a change from the 1970 lectionary to the 1998 lectionary. Maybe you don't look at what music you've done in previous years as you are choosing music for your current year, but I do, and one of my most frequent holdovers is the psalm setting. For this Sunday, the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, the 1970 lectionary had Psalm 69 as the psalm, and it is the only time in the 3 year Sunday cycle that that psalm is used, with the refrain "Turn to the Lord in your need, and you shall live." As I was looking over the USCCB website readings again for Sunday, I discovered that in the 1998 lectionary, a second option was provided, Psalm 19, with the refrain "Your words, O God, are spirit and life." This made me start to wonder why, and as I was writing my piece for the Clarion, the fourth of four pieces about the structure of the Sunday lectionary, I tried to tackle at least one possible solution to that question.

Benedictine Sister Irene Nowell wrote in the introduction to her unique book Sing to the Lord (Michael Glazier, 1993) that the responsorial psalm helps us both “understand and appropriate the readings.” By this she means that, first, being the linchpin between the first reading and the gospel, the psalm helps us to “unlock” the texts themselves and understand what God is trying to tell us is different in the reign of God from the “kingdom of this world,” or what I would call “business as usual.” Then, they help us “appropriate” the readings by allowing us to participate in proclaiming God’s word by our physical participation in the psalm event: we actually sing the psalm, hear the text, and are able to take it into ourselves along with any insight that might come from our liturgy. Sr. Irene quotes the late Notre Dame liturgist Ralph Kiefer in saying, “The responsorial psalm constitutes a summation of the liturgy of the word for that day. If there is a theme, it is in the antiphon of the responsorial psalm.” (The quote is from Kiefer’s book, To Hear and To Proclaim: Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass with Commentary for Musicians and Priests.)

Last Sunday, the 14th in Ordinary Time (Year C), in the first reading from Isaiah, we heard the word of the Lord promise comfort and prosperity to Jerusalem, and that “the Lord’s power” would be made known through this gift. In the gospel, Jesus gives the disciples power to cure the sick as they preach the gospel in the towns of Galilee and Judea, and to announce that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Psalm 66, the responsorial that day, is about the wondrous deeds of the Lord bringing salvation (by which the scripture always means salus or “healthy living” and freedom) by the events at the Red Sea and then in the life of the psalmist. We sang together, “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.” The gospel has come to the whole whole world, which should “cry out to God with joy,” but not just any God, this God, the Father of Jesus, who brings peace and community through the Holy Spirit.

This Sunday, we have that interesting change in the lectionary from the 1970 version. Today’s first reading from Deuteronomy tells us that the word of God is close within us, easy to comprehend, in fact, already in our hearts and mouths. In the gospel story, Jesus and a lawyer discuss the law, "which is the greatest commandment?" When they agree on that, the lawyer pushes the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, and Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan with its famous “punchline,” “Go and do likewise.”

I mentioned that in the original (1970) lectionary, the responsorial psalm for today is from Psalm 69, “Turn to the Lord in your need, and you will live.” At first blush, this may seem strange, until we realize that there is an interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable, perhaps a dated one, that sees Jesus as the Good Samaritan who comes to the aid of mortally wounded humanity, left for dead by the roadside. In this scenario, “Turn to the Lord in your need and you will live” sounds like good advice! (Well, it is good advice, but…) But when we begin to see the parable in its context, as a midrash from the rabbi Jesus on the law to "love your neighbor as yourself," taken together with the first reading, the scripture is not so much about turning to the Lord as it is seeing that God’s word, God’s “law,” changes us, it gives us spirit and life, and acting upon it moves us from the “business as usual” of prejudice and suspicion and into a new world of community and interdependence, as shown in the parable. For this reason, I decided to go with Psalm 19 this year, rather than my usual choice, Psalm 69, because Psalm 19 opens up the scripture more fully in a way that is consistent with the way the homily generally goes.

It’s good for us to wrestle each week with the responsorial psalm. If Sr. Irene Nowell is right, and I think she is, it can lead us more deeply into the other scriptures, even finding resonance, Sr. Irene reminds us, with that “rogue” second reading once in a while!