THE PSALMIST OF LENT
[This article first appeared in Eucharistic Minister 155 (February, 1997):1-2.]
"God is pruning the tree."
Bob looked intently across the living room as he spoke these words to Lorraine. She glanced out the back window at the branches felled by a recent storm--until she realized what he meant. She returned his gaze now with fear, and met his eyes--eyes which had witnessed many winters and many illnesses like the ones he and Lorraine each carried these days. The doctor thought they both were getting stronger, but too many years had slipped away for them to fool themselves about the future. They lacked the strength they used to have, like trees once richly laden with ripe fruit, but now standing stark against snow.
Our conversation about health unfolded as I prepared to offer them Communion in their home. Their strong faith in God steadied their weakening bodies. To faithless eyes, God had abandoned the covenant of love, leaving them languishing in illnesses which stole so slowly their strength. To their eyes, God was merely pruning the trees.
We long for faithful covenants. Our hunger for trustworthy relationships often goes unsatisfied whenever we face divorce, fear separation, grieve the death of friends, and faintly hear the footfalls of advancing age. Does anyone else really understand what it's like to hope God's promises will hold true?
Yes, someone else understands. The psalmist of lent.
The responsorial psalms of lent this year accompany our struggles for belief in the covenant of God. They celebrate hope, anguish, and ultimate fidelity. The writers of these psalms seem to know the quiet thoughts of our heart.
At Mass we use these psalms to echo a theme from the first reading. However, your parish musicians may substitute another psalm to simplify the music. You may also find that the psalms in your own bible do not match the numbers here. If not, subtract one. You can pray them on your own or with those to whom you bring Communion.
Lent opens this year with one of the oldest stories of God's covenant: Noah and the ark (Genesis 9:8-15). God punished a faithless people with a major flood, but saved faithful Noah, his wife, and family by sequestering them in a floating zoo. Afterwards, swearing this would never happen again, God created the rainbow, a colorful sign of our covenant.
Psalm 25 follows this story. We sing the refrain, "Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant." It prepares us for the long history of God's faithfulness.
One of scripture's most horrifying accounts awakens us on week two: Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac--at God's command (Genesis 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18). Abraham had just received God's covenant, including a promise that his descendants would be numerous. Now, in his old age, Abraham finally has one son, and God asks him to sacrifice the child he loves. Fighting off sorrow and despair, Abraham remained faithful. Then God spared Isaac, and renewed the promise to this faithful servant.
We sing Psalm 116, "I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living." This psalm foreshadows our Christian faith that life will follow death. Abraham and Isaac believed they would walk in God's presence, even when it seemed hopeless.
The most famous summary of God's covenant came from the stone tablets Moses brought from Mt. Sinai, the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). These commandments, representing the entire covenant with Israel, invite the chosen people into specific God-pleasing behaviors.
After hearing this reading, we sing Psalm 19. "Lord, you have the words of everlasting life." Having received the word of God's covenant, we meditate on it.
Israel's most harrowing event in history surely was their captivity and exile. The first reading for this Sunday (2 Chronicles 36:14-17a, 19-23) recounts the awful deportation, the sin of the people, and the terrifying loss of homeland, family, temple, and faith. But the reading concludes with the proclamation of King Cyrus of Persia, who permitted the chosen people to return home.
The psalm for this day (137) was written in that exile by a singer who refused to lose heart. Addressing God from the rivers of Babylon, the refrain calls out, "Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!"
The last Sunday before Holy Week presents the words of Jeremiah (31:31-34), who comforts the people as their exile ends. God speaks through the prophet that the covenant never ended. Even through the people's infidelity and persecution, God has always stood ready to renew the covenant. Now God writes it again--this time on their hearts.
We sing with Israel the desire to start again, to return to the arms of God, but with better intent than ever before. "Create a clean heart in me, O God" (Psalm 51).
On the cross Jesus quotes the psalm we sing after the first reading this day (22), "My God, why have you abandoned me?" At the end of lent our meditation on God's covenant faces the final test. Do we believe God has abandoned us? Or has God pruned a tree into a cross, shining with the hope of resurrection?
The psalms summarize the sweeping history of God's covenant with Israel. When we offer Communion, we're meeting folks like the psalmists who have rejoiced and despaired at God's covenant. Some feel punished. Some feel sinful. Some feel incapable. Others feel pruned.
The communion we share seals our covenant of God. It proclaims to the faithful and the faithless the steadfast covenant of God's love.