AMEN CORNER: Apprenticing Ourselves to the Antiphonal

from  Margaret Daly-Denton, “Apprenticing Ourselves to the Antiphonal,” Worship 93 (January, 2019), 4-11:

In a recent “Amen Corner” John D. Witvliet wrote of how the use of set texts in worship can be an unsettling, but ultimately enriching experience. Initial perplexity and discomfort can give way to new insight, as we find ourselves using “expressions and emotions we never would have imagined on our own.” [1] This was my experience on first encountering the traditional Entrance Song, Resurrexi, for the Easter Sunday morning Eucharist in the Roman Catholic liturgy.

I have risen, I am with you once more, [alleluia].
O God, you laid your hand upon me, [alleluia].
How marvellous your wisdom, alleluia! [2]

I would hazard a guess that this antiphon, intended for singing as a refrain with verses from Psalm 139—”O Lord, you have searched me and known me”—is rarely sung, that it would be a cause of bewilderment to most Roman Catholics today, that many church musicians of all traditions would find it a strange choice, preferring a hymn such as, “Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia.”

Who is speaking in this antiphon? Who is being addressed? The church musicians of the past who disseminated this chant would have said, “David, the psalmist, Jesus’s ancestor, who also wrote “You will not let your Holy One experience corruption” and that “since he was a prophet, spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah” (Ps 16:10, cited in Acts 2:25-31). They would have been quite at home with the antiphon’s invitation to join in this joyful song addressed by the risen Christ to the Father. The liturgical Latin would have helped, because in verse 2—“You know my sitting down and my rising up”— the word for “rising up” is resurrectio.

Maybe, though, this strikes us today as a rather tenuous claim. Our more sophisticated understanding of the honorific nature of the attribution of the psalms to David inhibits us from sharing our forebears’ confidence that in a psalm such as this they could hear the voice of Christ. The gospels do mention Jesus’s awareness of his Father’s profound knowledge of him ( John 10:15) and of humanity in general (Matt 6:4). However, rather than ask if Jesus might have known and prayed Psalm 139, we need to take a broader view: that the New Testament writers, in quoting, alluding to and echoing the psalms more than any other part of the Hebrew Bible, were making the point that Jesus is the answer to all the hope and expectation for a definitive intervention of God in the world that was bound up with the memory of David and the promise made to him (2 Sam 7:12-16). We are familiar with the instances in the gospels where Jesus prays the psalms, his intonation of Psalm 22 on the cross, for example (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46). The synoptic accounts of the crucifixion include further details—the mockery of the bystanders, the sharing out of his clothes—making it clear that Psalm 22 is Jesus’s prayer. It would seem from John 19:23-25 that the later the gospel, the more detail there is from the psalm. One can sense a developing interpretive tradition, even more so when the author of Hebrews cites the risen Jesus as saying “I will tell of your name to my brothers” (Heb 2:12, citing Ps 22:23). The same author claims that Christ came into the world singing a psalm: “See, God, I have come to do your will” (Heb 10:5-7, citing Ps 40:6-8). To give just one more example, Paul, who seems to know little about the historical details of Jesus’s life, let alone his personal prayer, puts Psalm 69:9— “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me”—on his lips (Rom 15:3). So, an antiphon such as the Resurrexi can insert us into a line of continuity going right back, not only to our Christian origins, but to the Israelite tradition of prayer in which Jesus was formed. When, as people “raised with Christ” (Col 3:1), we sing, “I have risen . . .” we experience the liturgy’s capacity for gathering up our prayer into the psalm-shaped prayer of Jesus.

The Resurrexi comes from what is known as the Antiphonal (or Antiphonary). In the Roman Catholic liturgical books of recent centuries, the Antiphonal has been included in the Missal. The treasure that is the Western church’s song book—a collection of psalms, antiphons and other chants appropriate to all the seasons and feasts of the year, intended for singing at the Eucharist—has been largely lost in practice, except perhaps in monastic communities. From The Apostolic Constitution (VIII, 13, 1) we know that Psalm 34:9 (“Taste and see that the Lord is good”) was sung as a communion song. Jerome, writing in the fourth century, confirms this (Commentary on Isaiah, 1. II). The existence of an actual collection with psalms appointed for particular days could perhaps be traced back to the fifth century, as the pilgrim Egeria mentions the singing of appropriate psalms at various Holy Week liturgies in Jerusalem (Pilgrimage of Egeria, XXV, 4–5). However, the earliest actual manuscript antiphonals with musical notation are early medieval. The Antiphonal fell into disuse in churches that accepted the Reformation, as vernacular hymnody replaced the Latin chant. While to some extent psalm singing was retained in metrical form, the disappearance of the antiphons often meant that significant connections between the psalms and the New Testament no longer found liturgical expression. Then, four centuries later, in the early stages of their liturgical renewal, Roman Catholics, generally choosing to replace the chants in the Antiphonal with more accessible songs, gratefully adopted chorale-style hymns from other traditions to supply their need for vernacular material. Even when a responsorial form of Entrance and Communion Song, structurally modeled on the Antiphonal, was subsequently found to be more appropriate to these processional moments, the Antiphonal’s texts tended to be side-lined in favour of new compositions. This was, to some extent due to the translation of the Antiphonal in ICEL’s 1969 Roman Missal which did not tend to light composers’ creative fire. For its revised Sacramentary of 1998, ICEL involved an international group of liturgists, biblical scholars, people with a flair for poetic language, musicians, and experts on the Christian reception of the psalms in the production of a fresh translation of the Antiphonal, designed for singing. Sadly, though, the 1998 Sacramentary, approved by conferences of bishops throughout the English-speaking world, was rejected by the Vatican. It is to be hoped that Pope Francis’s recent Magnum Principium, restoring the responsibility for liturgical texts to the local church, may pave the way for this resource to be taken out of moth balls, used, and shared with the wider Christian community.

Even if the singing of the Resurrexi might be too much to ask, I still think that there is much to be learned from “apprenticing ourselves” (Witvliet’s expression) to the Antiphonal, letting it surprise us, stretch us, and even discomfort us. I would love to think that more composers might do settings of texts from it and that musicians might at least consult it for guidance on their choice of entrance and communion songs. Writers of new texts for these liturgical moments might even consider using what the Antiphonal offers as the starting point for their own creativity. After all, the Resurrexi is not a literal quotation from the psalm, but a Christian adaptation. As I see it, there is a twofold challenge: to restore the psalmodic element that has traditionally distinguished these chants and to highlight the connection that the Antiphonal so frequently makes between the psalms and the New Testament to help worshipers experience psalmody as the “voice” of Jesus and make it their own.

This would be a genuine continuation of the way the Psalter was mined as a resource and imitated as a model for the composition of new songs during the late Second Temple period. We know from copies of the psalms found among the Dead Sea Scrolls that the so-called “historical” titles added to various psalms to connect them with events in David’s career (e.g., for Psalm 3 “A Psalm of David when he fled from Absalom his Son”) were in place by the time of Jesus. This shows that the psalms were being heard as the “voice” of an idealized David, a holy man who in every eventuality turned to God in prayer (2 Sam 15:31). In the Judaism that was the matrix for early Christianity there was ongoing composition of “Psalms of David,” all of it intended to bring to expression the prayerfulness of this “man after [God’s] heart” (1 Sam 13:14). Extra-biblical “Psalms of David” found in the Cave 11 cache of Dead Sea Scrolls, composed about 1,000 years after his lifetime, imagined his prayers when anointed by Samuel and when he had defeated Goliath. A series of psalm-like poems composed in the late first century BCE and attributed to David’s son Solomon were even included in some early Christian manuscripts of the Bible. In continuity with this tradition Luke has Jesus, son of David, praying his filial adaptation of Psalm 31:5, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). And then Stephen making that prayer his own, adapts it even further, addressing it to the glorified Jesus (Acts 7:59).

It is such a short step from all of this to the Antiphonal. Take, for example, its provision for the First Sunday of Lent when we listen to the synoptic accounts of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. The Entrance Antiphon for Psalm 91— “He will call to me and I will answer with freedom, honour and length of days”—recalling Jesus’s riposte to the tempter, is strongly redolent of resurrection, God’s answer to Jesus’s faithful prayer. The Communion Antiphon—“ We do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”—sung with lines celebrating the scriptural word from Psalms 19 or 119, again recalls Jesus’s reply to Satan while committing us to make greater appreciation of the Scriptures part of our Lenten observance.

Apart from encouraging us to craft our liturgical song in psalm-inspired patterns, the Antiphonal stretches us in another way. It helps us to catch the spirit of a liturgical day or season. Take, for example, the Entrance Song for the Evening Eucharist on Holy Thursday. Most music directors would pick a hymn referring to the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist or perhaps Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The Antiphonal proposes, “We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our resurrection, our salvation and our life” (Gal 6:14), sung with verses from Psalm 67 ( “May God be gracious to us and bless us” ). This reminds us that we are embarking, not just on this Eucharist of the Lord’s Supper, but on the whole Easter Triduum. It also makes the point that every liturgy celebrates the entire paschal mystery.

Another example is the Entrance Song for the Third Sunday of Advent, the mid-point of this season of expectation. There may well be some Anglicans who would enjoy a break that day from hearing that God is “wroth very sore” with their iniquities, as their Advent Prose (Rorate Caeli) tells them. [3] The Antiphonal would invite them to sing the “Rejoice” that gave this Sunday its name, Gaudete Sunday: “Rejoice! The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5) with verses from Psalm 85 or 96. Again, those same Anglicans are likely to be in repentance mode for their “Lenten Prose” (Attende Domine) on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, whereas the Antiphonal would allow them to sing another “Rejoice!,” the one that has given the name Laetare to this Sunday halfway through Lent. On Laetare Sunday, those in the final forty days of their preparation for baptism look forward with intensified joy to becoming new-borns in the waters of baptism, like those blissful babies at the breast described in the Laetare antiphon drawn from Isaiah 66:10.

Were we to sing the Entrance Antiphon for the Second Sunday (Octave) of Easter we would sense again the presence of those new-born children of God, if not in our assembly, surely in others all over the world, This antiphon, based on 1 Peter 2:2, exhorts the newly baptised, and all Christians, to keep on longing for the pure spiritual milk that will make them thrive in Christ.

We could benefit from reconsidering many of our choices for Entrance and Communion Songs in the light of the Antiphonal. The idea has developed that these songs should refer to the liturgical action in process. So, we have all these “gathering songs” in which we tell ourselves how comfortable and cosy it is to be “one body.” I recall a dear friend, the eminent English liturgist J. D. Crichton (1907–2001), referring in conversation to the proliferation of “self-regarding songs” being sung at the Eucharist. Then there seems to be an idea that at communion we should sing about nothing else but the bread broken and the cup outpoured. Some of the communion antiphons in the Antiphonal do, but generally there is a far greater variety and richness than what most communities experience.

Greater recourse to the Antiphonal would solve the continued use of hymns that reflect the highly individualised understanding of eucharistic communion of the past and that, in certain cases, were clearly composed for adoration, as distinct from participation. Often their strophic form, requiring a hand-held text, also makes it difficult for communicants to join in the singing. The communion antiphons proposed in the Antiphonal include nothing remotely like, “I received the living God and my heart is full of joy,” let alone “Sweet Sacrament Divine.” Instead we find, to give just a few samples: for Passion Sunday, a reminder, as we share the eucharistic cup, of Jesus’s prayer, “If I must drink this cup . . . Father, your will be done”; for Ascension, “I, the Lord, am with you always until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20); for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, “The eyes of all look to you to give them their food in due time” (Ps 145:15). The Antiphonal sometimes links in with the Lectionary. So, for the three Sundays of Lent (in Year A, or every year in communities that have catechumens), when the three Johannine stories—the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus—are read, an excerpt from each forms the communion antiphon.

At the moment, to find what the Antiphonal offers for a particular day, one has to look up the proper for that day in the Roman Missal where one will find only the antiphons. ICEL’s Antiphonal, which includes suggestions for psalm verses to be sung with the antiphons, exists as a thirty-five page section of the 1998 Sacramentary. Since this was circulated as part of ICEL’s consultation process among R.C. Bishops’ Conferences and their advisors in countries where the liturgy is celebrated in English, it should not be difficult to obtain. However, as mentioned above, the Antiphonal shares the “fate” of the Sacramentary. Chant settings of the antiphons only, such as those of Fr. Columba Kelly, have been published ( /liturgical-music/downloads/) but without the psalms verses can scarcely function as real entrance and communion processionals. Paul Ford’s 1999 book By Flowing Waters ( is an unofficial, plainsong version of the Graduale Romanum and the Graduale Simplex providing settings of the antiphons and psalm verses. The publication by Liturgical Press (2005–2007) of Psallite, a music resource for the Sunday Eucharist inspired by the Antiphonal—and, no doubt, by the monastic liturgy at Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota—is a welcome development. This timely initiative on the part of The Collegeville Composers’ Group provides more popular settings of antiphons and psalm verses for the Entrance, Responsorial Psalm, and Communion. In a telling write-up, it has been hailed as a ‘one-of-a-kind music program.’ Surely, though, such liturgically apt provisions for psalm singing at the Eucharist are exactly what should be happening all over the church.

One of our daily newspapers in Ireland concludes its radio advertisements with the line, “Before you make up your mind, open it!” So, Christians of all traditions, before you make up your minds about what to sing as an entrance or communion song, get hold of the Antiphonal and open it!

Pray Tell is pleased to feature the first article from each issue of Worship, the “Amen Corner.” Sincere thanks to editor Bernadette Gasslein and Worship for their gracious reprint permission. Subscribe to Worship here.

[1] John D. Witvliet, “Amen Corner: The Mysteries of Liturgical Sincerity,” Worship 92 (2018): 196–203 (201).

[2] From the ICEL Sacramentary 1998.

[3] In the Antiphonal Rorate Caeli (Isa 45:8) is appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, with Psalms 19:2-7 or 72.


  1. It’s almost as if the ancient texts of the Mass are superior and wiser than hymns written in the 1970s.

  2. The Processional, a very useful resource, originally compiled by John Ainslie for the Society of St Gregory, gives the antiphons (in English) of the Roman Missal 3rd edition, the Antiphonal of the 1998 Sacramentary, the Roman Gradual, the Simple Gradual, the 2012 ICEL Antiphonary, and other sources, all in one place. It is available from the UK Liturgy Office at

  3. The ancient texts of the Mass are derived from Scripture. As are the antiphonal songs written in the 1970s. And afterward. I observe the trench warfare of the post-conciliar period has moved from organ-n-hymns vs guitar-n-songs to propers vs the rest of the world. Charming and helpful, that.

    I consult the antiphonary for programming songs and a few hymns. But it does need reform and expansion. We need more Christological songs. More New Testament canticles would be a start.

  4. The proper place to find sung antiphons is not the Roman Missal. Those were specifically written NOT to be sung. The last approved English translation of the Graduale Romanum was in 1965 and was included in the 1965 Roman Missal. I have been undertaking a project to assemble the texts from the RM65 and rearranging them according to the Ordo Cantus Missae. The Graduale Romanum was not reissued after the Second Vatican Council, the OCM stipulated which texts were to be rearranged and added a few additional texts, thus, the same thing is perfectly licit to do with the English text [that is, using OCM to rearrange the texts]. I have it ~95% finished, however I am often distracted by other things. Just to clarify, the ’65 translation has never been superceded by any other text, nor has any bishop’s conference (to the best of my knowledge) recinded permissions. If anyone thinks otherwise, I’d be interested in hearing from you. I also use the texts at my university chaplaincy Masses, we set them to a psalm tone rather than learning all the proper tones.

    1. The ’65 translation is not part of the reformed rite. Literally, the cat’s out of the bag. Organists from the Low Mass gifted us the four-hymn sandwich. Guitarists pulled things back to antiphons and verses based on Scripture once they got past the catechetical songs. I don’t think the liturgy will benefit from a return to the cool-song-of-the-week mentality that turned people off in the immediate post-conciliar years. But perhaps a wider, deeper examination of the entire body of Scriptures. If, for example, believers find Isaiah 43 a convincing expression of faith, why did the Antiphonary or the GR miss it? Simple answer: the liturgy needs reform and renewal.

      1. The Gradual Romanum was never reformed, the OCM only rearranged the chants, a new official volume was never published. There are a number of parishes that have adopted the use of the gradual chants in english, however they often do not use the official translations. The GR is still listed as the first option for music in the Missal, (unlike hymns, the GR chants are a proper part of each individual Mass, thus they are often called the propers of the Mass). Considering that the GR was revised in accordance with the new calendar, it is quite incorrect to claim it as pre-reform. The English translation is not dependent on the changing rubrics of OCM or else the Latin GR would have been revised as well. (Think of it as using the old translation of the Order of Christian Funerals whilst including relevant rubric and text changes from RM2011.

        I think the texts may still be under copyright in the United States, but it has been out of copyright in Canada since January 2015.

  5. In the parish I serve, we have nearly completed a year’s cycle of singing the entrance antiphons.

    I use all sorts of resources, from Gelineau to English traditional music. I try to keep the chants as simple as possible and generally the congregation pick them up in the five minutes’ rehearsal time before Mass.

    We have no choir so stuff has to be uncomplicated musically. I will often adapt the same melody to different sets of words where there is a ‘fit.’

    At Mass on Sundays we recite the Angelus, then the leader asks for a few moments silence ‘to prepare ourselves for Mass.’ Then we sing a hymn, at the end of which I enter with the Reader carrying the Book of the Gospels. After the Hymn I lead (no cantor either!) the Antiphon and then go to the Chair.


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