Cutting the Psalms short…

In the Byzantine prayer life, our divine liturgy normally first sings the Scriptures through what are known as Antiphonal or Typical Psalms. Depending on the tradition, one may prevail over the other (and this of course depends on the time of year etc.), but regardless there is a genius to the songs that we sing, both in terms of the connection it gives to the Old Testament, and with regard to the specific Old Testament passages chosen (not to mention our lectionary of New Testament readings!).

In our day and age of hustle and bustle, sometimes these prayers are cut short. It is sometimes thought that the faithful cannot endure a long service, and truly there was a time when what we sing in the nave was done as a procession of sorts, which covered much more than what happened at the final destination where the divine Eucharist was celebrated. The “stational” nature of the liturgy has been described by many, but at the end of the day the psalm verses were intermingled with refrains, and this is particularly true of the antiphons.

As one on the Gregorian Calendar, my thoughts have turned to a recent set of antiphons particular to the feast of the season. For the Ascension (and in its post-festive days), the first antiphon is,

“All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness.”

after which we repeat the refrain “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.”

and then we sing

“Glory to the Father…”

with the same refrain,

“Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.”

In older times/fuller services, this would not be the extent of the antiphon. The first verse of the Psalm would extend further into the Psalm. One could ask whether this was a lengthening that is merely quantitatively longer, but I think if we look more closely we will see some unique qualities of the liturgy and the liturgical calendar, which are arguably somewhat compromised through the current practice which we have of shortening the antiphons.

 

To see this clearly, let’s look at the first antiphon as it is printed in an older liturgy book. There we find:

All you peoples, clap your hands; shout to God with cries of gladness.

Through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Savior, save us.

For the Lord, the Most High, we must fear; Great King over all the earth.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

He subdues people under us, and nations under our feet.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

God ascends amid shouts of joy; the Lord ascends amid sounds of trumpets.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

Glory be: Now and ever:

Through the prayers of the Mother…

(emphasis added)

The psalm which begins with claps and shouts of joy is allowed to blossom into a prophecy of the Ascension itself. The refrain of the prayers of the Theotokos is allowed to echo more loudly in our ears as well.

Thus, there are times when the first verse of an antiphonal psalm may not be the clearest testimony of the grandeur of a feast. Thus, we may ask whether we are losing something qualitative in such a shortening of the antiphonal songs. Immediately we must note two key points, however, which do not make this a clear cut matter.

First, the original antiphons almost certainly sung all the verses of the whole psalm. So while some other jurisdictions may sing all four verses found in our own particular Church’s older liturgical books, the older historic practice was to sing all verse of the psalm selected for a service.

Second, the key psalms relating to a feast find their way into the service on multiple occasions. Clearly, “God ascends amid shouts of joy…” is perhaps the most clear Old Testament testimony to the Ascension of our Lord. As such, it finds its way into the Psalm verses of this Feast’s Entrance Hymn, Alleluia verses, and Communion Hymn verses.

In that sense, we have not lost the emphasis on the feast.

Nevertheless, we can ask whether our increase in technology and power has illogically left us less able to fully celebrate our salvation through Christ and His Church. To the extent that we have cut things short to only have more free time, we have lost a wonderful treasure. In that regard, I note the enthronement homily of my own Church’s Metropolitan, Metropolitan William (Skurla).

“As we look to the future, I have been asked by the media and people what is the most immediate problem for our Church. My answer is that we need to present Jesus Christ and His Gospel teachings in a way which touches the lives of our people. In the same way, our beautiful Divine Liturgy has been translated to the language of the people living in many different countries. We need a method of teaching the faith which opens their minds to a deeper dimension of spiritual life. God has not changed, but just within the lifespan of my generation, the world has radically changed. Some changes have been good, but many have undercut the pillars of the family and the Church. The cool things we have received from technology have chilled and dulled our ability to see God.”

Might our eyes be more open to the Gospel when we hear the genius of our liturgy with fuller harmony? Might the refrains that were written so long ago be the key to reinvigorate the deadness of our hearts?

Through the prayers of Our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us!

 

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