In the 1970 Apostolic Constitution Laudis canticum, Pope Paul VI wrote at no. 8: “The praying of the psalms . . . must be grasped with new warmth by the people of God. This will be achieved more readily if a deeper understanding of the psalms, in the meaning in which they are used in the liturgy, is more diligently promoted among the clergy and communicated to all the faithful by means of appropriate catechesis.”
While Paul VI was speaking of the Liturgy of the Hours, his words are no less true of the Mass. The reformed Graduale Romanum of 1974 provides proper antiphons for the entrance, preparation of the offerings, and communion of each Mass. In some cases it was possible to provide antiphons tied to the themes of the post-conciliar three-year lectionary. In many other cases the psalms simply run their own course and speak of our salvation in Christ in a more general but quite profound way.
In Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, the U.S. Catholic bishops say at no. 115 that “the Psalter is the basic songbook of the liturgy.” At 117 they say that “proper antiphons from the liturgical books are to be esteemed and used especially because they are the very voice of God speaking to us in the Scriptures.” They continue that “the Christian faithful are to be led to an ever deeper appreciation of the psalms as the voice of Christ and the voice of his Church at prayer.”
There is no shortage of resources in English for proper Mass antiphons. There is, for example, the Lumen Christi Missal and the Simple English Propers of Adam Bartlett, the Psallite project from Liturgical Press, and the entrance antiphons of Richard Rice. Readers might wish to recommend further resources.
Drawing on John Witvliet’s excellent The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources, which I use in liturgy and liturgical music courses in our grad school, I’ve been thinking about how the proper psalms can be “grasped with new warmth by the people of God” and how “a deeper understanding” of them can be “communicated to all the faithful.”
I wonder: as we sing at the entrance on the First Sunday of Lent “When he calls to me, I will answer” (Ps 91) or on the Second Sunday of Lent, “My heart has prompted me to seek your face, O Lord” (Ps 27), do the faithful readily appropriate these texts in their full Christological meaning? Do they readily interpret these texts in the rich allegorical senses of Patristic exegesis? Do they see in the Psalms the paschal mystery? Do they know that the crucified and risen Lord is singing in them as they’re drawn into Christ’s dying and rising? I wish I could be more optimistic.
At Saint John’s Abbey we sing entrance antiphons at Sunday Mass during important seasons such as Lent. (Love of hymnody is so strong in these parts that we sing opening hymns rather than entrance antiphons throughout Ordinary Time.) We’re singing Richard Rice’s antiphons this year. They are handily in the same mode as the Gregorian introits, so I can have the chant schola sing the Latin introit as a prelude and call to worship, and this leads seamlessly into the congregational antiphon as the processing monks make their long path into the church and the sanctuary.
Channeling Pius Parsch, who never tired of opening up the liturgical mysteries to the faithful, I’ve made a small change in the congregational leaflet this Lent which I think goes some distance toward the stated goals. Instead of simply printing the entrance antiphon, I’ve been adding in brief titles which focus the antiphons Christologically.
Like this. (My added part is in italics.)
It’s good fun devising these titles. It forces me to reflect on why a particular antiphon text ever made its way to this point in the liturgy. It challenges me to be as free and fanciful as the Fathers sometimes were in their Christological reading of the Psalter. “My eyes are ever fixed on the Lord,” we sing this morning on the Third Sunday of Lent. Huh? Whose eyes are fixed, and why? Is it simply that we should always look to the Lord? No, the entrance antiphons of Lent say rather more than this. They sing of the mystery of Christ and the Father, of Christ’s movement toward the Passion and being raised up by the Father. And so my title, “The Son looks to the Father for rescue.”
The revised three-year lectionary for Lent is rich in its themes of baptism and conversion. It is no contradiction of this when the inherited one-year cycle of entrance antiphons sings of the paschal mystery without referring to the lectionary themes. Since the entrance antiphons are there as they are, we might as well make the most of them, and drink deeply from what they have to offer us.
Join in the fun, Pray Tell readers! What titles would you propose for the last two Sundays of Lent? Here are the antiphon texts:
IV. You will find contentment at her consoling breasts. (Isaiah 66, it’s Laetare Sunday.)
V. Give me justice, O God, and defend my cause. (Psalm 43)
I look forward to your creative ideas.