I remember one time chatting with my dad about preaching (since he was a preacher before becoming Catholic, it is one of our favorite topics.) I remember him telling me that the most underappreciated part of the Liturgy of the Word is the responsorial psalm. I’m just as bad at ignoring it as the next guy. However, I do agree with my dad. It is vastly overlooked compared to the other readings. Since I started praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I have gained a much greater appreciation for the psalms. I hope to share some of that learned appreciation with you.
First, what are the psalms? The psalms are a collection of prayers and songs written by various authors, of which King David is perhaps the most prominent. Because they are a part of Sacred Scripture, they are of course co-authored by God himself. Hence, the psalms are an incredible toolbox. They are essentially prayers to God provided by God himself. Do you want to know how to pray? Read the psalms. Pray them. It is no wonder that the Jewish practice of praying with psalms daily was taken up by Christianity in the form of the Liturgy of the Hours and the Responsorial Psalm.
Second, how does one pray with the psalms? It doesn’t take much experience with the psalms to find out that they cover the whole gamut of emotions. The psalmists don’t hold much back in conversation with God.
They cry out to God for help and thank him for his abundant aid. They rejoice in his evident goodness and faithfulness one moment and get frustrated with his apparent absence and apathy the next. There is sadness, joy, anger, despair, comfort, longing, etc etc. So, it makes sense that any given psalm is not always going to fit our current experience of life or of God. When they do, it can be very fruitful. They can provide a guide for us to express ourselves to God (sometime try to find a psalm that fits exactly how you are feeling and just speak the words as your own to God). But what of when a psalm does not fit our current situation? Well, one of the best bits of advice I got about the psalms is that they always fit SOMONE. If we are praying with a psalm or singing the refrain of a responsorial that simply does not match our current state of being, we can pray it for those people it does. We are invited to step out of ourselves and remember that we are part of the united body of Christ. All across the world are people who are feeling exactly what the psalmist is expressing. We can pray in unity with them. And we may find that this practice balances us. When we are sad or lonely, we can receive the assurance of hope in joyful psalms and rejoice with those who are experiencing God’s goodness. When we are joyful and experience great consolation from the presence of God, we can pray the despairing or frustrated psalms in solidarity with those members of Christ that are in bad straits.
Third, let’s talk a little more specifically about the responsorial psalm. Certainly, everything I have said thus far applies to the responsorial psalm at Mass. But there are a few extra things to consider. First, we have an extra point of focus provided by the Church for each psalm: the response. The line selected for the response tends to reveal the theme of the whole. Hence, for Psalm 23, we usually have, “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want,” for the response. Second, I mentioned in the last Liturgy Corner that the psalm often serves as the ‘bridge’ between the Old Testament reading and the Gospel. Usually, the selected line for the response serves to highlight that bridging. We can often look to the response to see how the Church envisions the link between the Old Testament and Gospel. And so, the response can be a lens through which we interpret the other readings. We must use common sense in this process and recognize that the link can’t always be perfect. But we also can’t simply dismiss the possibility of a link when it is not readily apparent to us. It wouldn’t be worthwhile if it was always obvious and didn’t, at times, draw us to go deeper than our preconceptions. Scripture always invites us to change, transform, grow, and convert. The psalm can help us to see how.