A “default” communion canticle: Wisdom 16: 20–21, 26; 17:1.

This morning’s use of the Canticle of Wisdom as the reading for morning prayer in Give Us This Day (alas not used in the Lectionary) put me in mind of its significance as one of the default communion psalms and canticles.

In our catholic tradition slightly more than half (78) of the 150 psalms (or portions thereof) may be sung at communion, and about thirty percent (22) of the seventy-five biblical canticles. Of these, the “usual suspects” are in the line-up: “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16), “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23), “I will bless the Lord at all times” (Psalm 34), “God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46), “O God, you are my God, I seek you” (Psalm 16), “Happy are those whose way is blameless” (Psalm 119, 37 portions). Of the canticles, Mary’s song of praise (Luke 1: 46–55) is sung at least ten times a year; and the song of praise from Revelation (4:11, 5:9–12), at least eleven.

There is one “surprise” in the list of “default” communion canticles, Wisdom 16: 20–21, 26; 17:1, used seven times a year.


20    Instead of these things you gave your people food of angels,

and without their toil you supplied them from heaven with bread ready to eat,

providing every pleasure and suited to every taste.

21    For your sustenance manifested your sweetness towards your children;

and the bread, ministering to the desire of the one who took it,

was changed to suit everyone’s liking.

22    Snow and ice withstood fire without melting,

so that they might know that the crops of their enemies

were being destroyed by the fire that blazed in the hail

and flashed in the showers of rain;

23    whereas the fire, in order that the righteous might be fed,

even forgot its native power.


24    For creation, serving you who made it,

exerts itself to punish the unrighteous,

and in kindness relaxes on behalf of those who trust in you.

25    Therefore at that time also, changed into all forms,

it served your all-nourishing bounty,

according to the desire of those who had need,

26    so that your children, whom you loved, O Lord, might learn

that it is not the production of crops that feeds humankind

but that your word sustains those who trust in you.

17:1 Great are your judgements and hard to describe;

therefore uninstructed souls have gone astray.


This passage is a meditation on what God did for the Israelites in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. God fed his people with manna, the food of angels, the bread from heaven, which covered the ground like snow and ice but did not melt in the sun (the fire of vv. 22 and 23). The Egyptians were the enemies, the uninstructed souls (17:1), whom God pursued with a pillar of fire even through rain and sea.

We, the new Israelites, believe that the eucharistic Bread and Wine is ready to eat, providing every pleasure and suited to every taste. They manifest God’s sweetness towards us, his children; through them God ministers to the desire of the one who eat and drink them, changing them to suit everyone’s liking. Skillfully playing the stringed instrument of creation (“exerts” and “relaxes,” v. 24), God changes bread and wine into all forms: They serve God’s all-nourishing bounty, according to our desires and needs, so that we, whom God loves, might learn that it is not the production of crops that feeds humankind (“not by bread alone”) but that God’s word sustains those who trust in him. As a Passionist missionary once preached as part of a Forty Hours Devotion, if we dare God to meet our deepest needs and desires, God shapes the Eucharist to our tastes, pleasures, desires, likings, needs. There is nothing we need or desire that the Eucharist cannot satisfy.

For older Catholics this theology is not really a “surprise.” We grew up singing Wisdom 16:20 at Benediction: V/. Panem de caelo praestitisti eis.
 R/. Omne delectamentum in se habentem (V/. You gave them bread from heaven. R/. Containing within itself all sweetness).


  1. What about Psalm 78? This July and August of Year B is a great time to teach communion psalms to a congregation….

    Also Psalm 84 can be useful, too; interestingly, as important a Psalm as it is, it’s absent from Sundays in the three-year cycle, IIRC (it’s big for ritual Masses, though), but there’s nothing keeping anyone from using it as part of a rotation of communion psalms.

    Imagine: Psalm 34, 42/43, 78, 84, the Magnificat (to my mine, the preeminent canticle to consider for Communion), et cet. Very doable in any context.

  2. KLS, this is why I posted: “This July and August of Year B is a great time to teach communion psalms to a congregation….”

    And I agree with you too about the Magnificat, which is also one of the default songs of praise after communion. Anything to replace the (ab-)use of any form of the Ave Maria as a communion song or as a song of praise after communion! The Ave Maria—and only the first part of it, mind you— is a song for the preparation of the oblations, if it must be used outside the context of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    About Psalm 78, I’m not so sure. The Church uses only verses 23 through 29 the eleven times Psalm 78 is a communion psalm; the rest of its verses are so fierce that no amount of explanation will make them useful at this time of the Mass.

    By my count, Psalm 84 is used five times in the communion psalm repertory. I didn’t know that about its absence from the Sunday lectionary. Thanks.

  3. Dr. Ford, Outside of the opportunities a few Catholics have in attending the offices and Benediction, few Catholics ever have the opportunity to experience the riches of canticles and psalms. I recall reading some pamphlet on the liturgy in the 50s where the author said something to the effect Holy Church in it’s wisdom has seen fit not to unload the often “confusing” symbology and “misleading” imagery of the Old Testament into the eucharistic liturgy and into parish rites.

    That we were forunate not to be mislead, as were Protestants. To retain our readings in Latin was alone sufficient reason for retaining all the services in Latin. It’s use would discourage us from venturing forth into the mysteries of the old dispensation, etc. The Jewish scriptures might be too rich for our diet and had best be kept to a strict minimum.

    Of course, the clergy could be “confused”, but somehow we the laity should not be. I hear shades of this coming through again from the one-size-fits all TLM,, or ” hit the highway and become a Lutheran” voices. These voices arguing against the addition of a third Old Testament reading in the sunday and feastday liturgy. Let’s not overpower the folks with too much psalmody and scripture reading.

    It’s unfortunate that Anglicans and Lutherans traditionally have been more exposed to the beauties of the psalms and canticles–the Old Testament period, than have most Catholics. Due, largely to the importance of matins, the music and images in the prayers of the communion service, and the role of evensong in Anglican and Lutheran liturgical life.

    Fortunately, the growing popularity of Lauds and Vespers, often with scripture from the Office of Readings included or as an add-on rite, is beginning to change all this, and for the good. It gives Catholics a more balanced diet of scripture, psalmody, and canticles to enrich other aspects of their private and public prayer life

  4. Paul

    Indeed, Psalm 78 is one of those psalms with Jekyll and Hyde tendencies, but unless one is a stickler for only singing psalms in their entirety (a mindset I find more appropriate for the Divine Office than for Mass), then being, um, selective is fine by me and I believe traditional practice for that matter.

    A minor correction re Ps 84: It was added in 1998 when Holy Family got separate proper readings per each year, for Year C. (But, as I am often in communities where the choir does not sing on that Sunday, or in places where choirs use the seasonal psalm for light duty, as it were, it’s often lost in the holiday shuffle).

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