When we gather for worship on Sundays, we almost always hear from the Psalms.
This ‘hymnbook of the Bible’ is a resource full of rich imagery. From psalms of thanksgiving to psalms of lament, these songs are representative of a wide range of responses to the human condition. It is fitting that the designers of the Revised Common Lectionary, the schedule of readings we use on Sunday mornings, chose psalms as responses to the first reading every week.
For example, Sunday, September 18th, we read in Amos that God warns those who deal unfavorably with the poor:
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land…
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
The psalm for the day, Psalm 113, continues the theme, this time focusing on God’s response to the poor. We sing:
The Lord takes up the weak out of the dust
and lifts up the poor from the ashes,
enthroning them with the rulers,
with the rulers of the people.
So, these two excerpts work together to show two sides of the same situation. After hearing of God’s warning, our response as a community is to sing of God’s faithfulness and mercy to the poor. You’ll notice that I just said we sing these words. This is important! As I mentioned at the beginning, this is our first hymnbook and these words are meant to be expressed through music. But how do we do this at St. Peter’s?
The psalms are the worshiping community’s response to the first reading of the day.
We have a variety of ways to sing the psalms. At our traditional services, we primarily alternate by whole verse with a cantor or choir singing one verse of the psalm to a tone and the congregation the next verse. The goal in singing psalms is for the pace of the text to be as natural and free-flowing as is possible. Imagine, if you will, that singing a psalm to a tone is like a galloping horse. If you look at the main body of the horse, it is always moving forward. Yet, if you look at its legs, you can see exactly when each one strikes the ground. The legs are the individual words of the psalm, each one having its own space. The body of the horse is the phrase constantly moving forward to its ending.
Alternating verses isn’t the only way we sing the psalms. Sometimes, the choir will sing the verses of a psalm in a more difficult setting, while the congregation sings a composed refrain throughout. Still, other times the choir will sing a psalm composed in a more formal setting. Sometimes the congregation and choirs will sing a hymn out of the hymnal that is a paraphrase of the psalm text for the day. In fact, some hymnals are made up only of these psalm paraphrases. Hymnals don’t have the corner on the market, though, when it comes to singing the psalms. There are a number of contemporary songs with texts from the psalms. At our own New Day service, the prayers are couched in song with the intention to mirror psalmody.
With such a variety of ways to proclaim the psalms, it’s clear they have been a source of creativity over the centuries. Joining our voices together in these poems of praise and lament connect us to the thanksgivings and tragedies experienced by humankind throughout the generations. Singing the psalms also reminds us of God’s constancy in times good and bad. This fall we get our voices galloping again by singing the psalms and praising the Lord.