"The Would-Be Responsory"
I never preach about the responsorial psalm on Sundays. And it disturbs me.
Preaching about the psalm could stir empathy across a range of emotions from terror to comfort. It could uncover the prophetic role of the psalms that unfold God's expansive plan of salvation. It could place the Sunday assembly in the timeless world of those who praise God in the eternal present with words of the distant past. Preaching about the Sunday psalm could accomplish a lot. But I never do it.
It's my own fault. I'm sure I stand with many other homilists who share the burden of this guilt.
The main reason I choose a different text is that the psalm appearing in the lectionary may not be the psalm we actually sing at worship. The lectionary allows planners wide berth to choose the psalm it provides, a seasonal psalm, or some other psalm. With coordination, I could work this out with the musicians, so that I would know before I prepare to preach which version of which psalm will be sung. But I usually succumb, as I'm sure many other homilists do, to the temptation to preach on what I know will be read, rather than on what is not so likely to be sung.
As a result, many a psalm is a would-be responsory.
The purpose of a given psalm is often lost on the assembly. On paper it integrates meticulously with the lectionary's other scriptures. But in practice it too often appears as a song between the readings, a break, like a torch song that relieves the tedium of a talk show.
Musicians often treat it this way. If a family requests three hymns for a funeral or a wedding, we often shovel one into the slot of the psalm, as if the songs were interchangeable parts, without much thought about how the responsory functions in relationship to the readings or the flow of the ritual. What was a communion hymn for one service becomes the responsorial psalm for another. Ho-hum. But the psalm should be different.
Sometimes the piece selected for the psalm isn't even a psalm at all, but a hymn based on several scriptural texts or on spiritual reflection. True, the lectionary sometimes departs from the Book of Psalms to select a canticle from the Old or New Testament as a responsory after the first reading. But not every sacred song can do what a responsory is supposed to accomplish.
The sung psalm sometimes attracts more attention than the other scriptures. Composer and musicians can create a beautifully moving piece of music, but its complexity and artistry may distract from the readings rather than embellish them. These should be responsories, not arias.
Further complicating matters, even the lectionary does not respect the forms of diverse psalms. In the bible, some psalms are individual laments. Some are dialogues between the singer and the community. Some are processional hymns. Some have refrains. But they do not all have refrains. Nonetheless, the lectionary sets each responsory into the form of antiphon and verse, even though the original psalmists rarely had this in mind. It is sometimes difficult to convey the original spirit of a psalm when its very form is disrupted by the expectations of the lectionary.
The poetry of the psalms functions both internally and externally. Within each psalm the poetry is lovely. But the psalm's metaphors express more relationships in the context of the liturgy.
The lectionary chooses a psalm for some rather subtle reasons. Sometimes a mere word or phrase makes the connection to the other scriptures of the day. That text may appear in the refrain, or it may be buried in the verses, but the psalm comes with a purpose.
As one example of the lectionary's nuance, consider the text for year B of Trinity Sunday. Psalm 33 is lengthy, so the lectionary recommends some very specific verses. The refrain comes from another verse of the same psalm, "Happy the people the Lord has chosen to be his own."
In the first reading for that Sunday (Deuteronomy 4:32-34, 39-40), Moses proclaims to the people the wonder of God's immanence. Many people preparing the music for this day would zero in on the refrain for the psalm as it reflects the first reading's expression of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. But the real reason this psalm shows up on Trinity Sunday is in verse 6: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made; by the breath of his mouth all their host." Get it? The liturgy sees in Psalm 33 a prophetic announcement for the Trinity of Creator, Word, and Spirit. But it shows up in only one line, a verse, not even the refrain. If the musicians have chosen a sung version that omits that line or another psalm altogether, the lectionary's nuance will be lost.
Surprising to many, the lectionary's choice of psalm does not always revert to the first reading. For example, see Year C of the First Sunday of Lent, where Psalm 91 follows the account of Israel's creed (Deuteronomy 26:4-10). The refrain, "Be with me Lord, when I am in trouble," doesn't fit the first reading at all. Rather, the key line of this responsory comes from one of the verses: "to his angels he has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways." Of course, it has nothing to do with the first reading. This is one of the passages Jesus quotes in his dialogue with the devil in the gospel.
Other times, the psalm is simply seasonal. For example, on the weekdays between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, all the responsorial psalms are prophetic allusions to the ascension. Proleptically, we use the ones on Friday and Saturday even in those communities that celebrate Ascension on a Sunday. The psalms have nothing to do with either reading. They have everything to do with the season of the year.
Part of the musician's task, then, is to divine why a psalm appears in the lectionary, and then to seek among the various musical versions of a psalm the one that best brings out the text that will enlighten the assembly's prayer. It's hard.
Another part of the musician's task is to conceive the entire word service as a unit of spoken and sung texts. The composer of a sonata writes several movements that have individual integrity but form one whole when heard in sequence. In a similar way, the music and speech of the Liturgy of the Word form a whole. The psalm should serve the sequence of the movements.
Often, simple is better. When the music draws little attention to itself, the words can stand out. This is the principle behind chanting psalms to a repetitive tone during the Liturgy of the Hours. The music is boring. It's supposed to be. It frees the mind to reflect on the words. Psalm tones share a formal affinity with repetitive musical phrases in styles as diverse as new age, jazz, and rap. When the musical form is diminished, people more easily focus on the words.
Here are some suggestions for communities who want to explore more of the responsorial psalm's potential.
This article first appeared in GIA Quarterly: A Liturgical Music Journal 12/2 (winter 2001):14-15