by Michael O’Connor
Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd” is among everyone’s favorites. It appeals to us with its sense of quiet confidence and serene trust: “I shall lack nothing.” It usually appears in the liturgy to affirm the continuity between the pastoral care of the divine shepherd and the ministry of the church—at a funeral, on the feast of a saintly pastor, or at the ordination of a priest. Most musical settings convey a sense of tranquillity, serenity, trust, and peace; a lilting, moderato, 6/8 time works very nicely.
But that’s not the whole story. Earlier this week, I was struck by the way the Roman Lectionary paired this psalm with a reading from Ezekiel excoriating false shepherds. The fidelity of the divine shepherd is proclaimed over against the failings of the appointed human shepherds—their treachery, greed, violence, negligence, and callousness. Recited through gritted teeth, the psalm is now a testament to conflict, disappointment, and reckoning: the sheep walk in the valley of darkness, abandoned by those who should have walked with them; the Lord has laid a banquet for the sheep in the sight of their treacherous enemies, the abusive shepherds and their enabling superiors who should have cared for them but did the opposite. The reassurances are tentative: The Lord’s rod and staff offer no uncomplicated comfort; and the fear of evil cannot be so easily dispelled.
I don’t know of a musical setting that fosters this darker, faltering reading of the psalm. Such a setting might help us pray through these days.
Michael O’Connor is Associate Professor in the Teaching Stream, Christianity and Culture at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.