Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The evolution of the Psalms. . . from corporate to individual use

Aside from the snippet of a Psalm in the introit, I grew up in a Lutheran parish in which the Psalms were largely absent from Sunday morning.  It was probably not intentional.  In part it was the result of a culture of minimalism in which the Old Testament reading had disappeared and the Church was focused upon the Epistle and Gospel.  The Psalms were not sung or spoken with any great regularity.  Even when we used Matins and Vespers, we sang the musically appointed Psalm in the office but did not include any additional Psalms as the rubrics both allow and intend.  We sang the hymns of the hymnal but the songbook of the Scriptures was largely a personal devotional resource and not something that touched our common life around the Word and Table of the Lord.

Having been around when the earth was moving (at least in terms of worship) and a new three year lectionary was underfoot, it was a radical change from what had been.  In addition to the limited verses of the Introit Psalm, we now had a full Psalm appointed for each seasonal Sunday, feast day, and festival.  Even then, the Psalm was often omitted, perhaps for the sake of time.  It was not an intentional oversight and no one decided that the use of the Psalms in worship was a bad thing.

Of all the things that have been introduced (I should have said re-introduced) into the life of a congregation, restoring the Psalm has been one of the more difficult.  Finding a page in the hymnal and having folks turn to the page (not the hymn number but the page number) proved to be an irritant to many folks in church on Sunday morning.  Whether TLH or LW, it was often confusing to those unaccustomed to turning to that section of the book.  The idea of chanting the Psalm was a radical new discovery of a very ancient practice but somehow people kept thinking the idea too Catholic to be comfortable.  The choir had used the spot of the Psalmody for their anthem and some felt it was too much to have both a choir anthem and a Psalm.  I persevered but progress was slow.

Hymnal Supplement 98 offered us a responsive format in which the people repeated the refrain while choir or cantor sang the actual text of the Psalm, usually all of us joining in the Gloria Patri.  This was the place where we really began to sing the Psalms in earnest.  Introducing Evening Prayer and its second appointed Psalm was also instrumental in recovering the Psalm to our common prayer.

Now, with LSB, we more regularly chant the Psalm using one of the appointed tones, alternating with the voice of the cantor who introduces the tone and sings the Psalm in alternapraxis with the folks in the pew.  We have been doing that often enough so that it is no longer new and no longer associated with things Catholic (of course it is a catholic practice).

Still, wherever I go I often find the Psalm missing from the Divine Service.  Funny, there were some Protestants in the beginning who insisted that the only songs which could be sung in worship were the Psalms and now their heirs seem to sing everything but the Psalms.  The Psalm competes against the classic hymnody of the Church as well as praise songs and choruses too many to count.  Who has time to sing the Psalm on Sunday morning?  We all should... but we do not, at least not universally.

Instead the Psalms have become more the domain of our private prayers and personal and family devotional lives.  We love them there.  We recognize the words of some Psalms more quickly than most references from the Scriptures.  We cannot have a funeral without the 23rd Psalm and we probably have a plaque in our house that proudly declares "This is the Day the Lord Hath Made; Let Us Rejoice and Be Glad in It." 

I certainly do not want to displace the Psalms from the treasured place in personal and family prayer (see the Treasury of Daily Prayer for how extensively the Psalms are used there).  But I do think we need to recover their place as a regular part of the Divine Service and their regular use (chanted preferably but spoken is good, too) as part of the pericopes.  Part of our kinship with the Old Testament Church lies in the singing of the Psalms.  Christ insists that He is the subject of the Psalms as well as the words of the prophets.  We sing them (or speak them) and confess Christ by it.  I challenge those congregations who regularly omit the Psalm of the Day to begin including it -- if not every Sunday, a couple of Sundays each month and certainly on the high and holy days of the calendar.


Anonymous said...

You might even consider chanting the gradual (a small psalm text) appointed for each Sunday. There are some nice free settings available online. The one we uses has the same tone so now the congregation doesn't need to think about the notes as much. This allows for more meditation on the text. And this is VERY ancient for the Church. You can find evidence for assigned graduals back to AD 200. You won't be as successful using Graduals with LSB if you use the Three Year Lectionary as they tend to repeat the same gradual for 4-6 weeks at a stretch (doesn't exactly fit the readings as well). -Peter Sovitzky

Anonymous said...

Oops. excuse my typos.