Parallelism and Penitence

gerrit-van-honthorst-king-david-playing-the-harp-1611-1156x1407x300Notice anything a bit unusual in the lectionary readings for this Sunday (Aug. 1)? Remember Psalm 51, that very long Psalm we either sing or say after the Imposition of Ashes in middle of the Ash Wednesday Liturgy? Yes, that Psalm with 20 verses? Okay, well perhaps it’s not that long; at least it’s not as long as Psalm 119 with its 22 sections and 176 verses.

In this Sunday’s first reading from Second Samuel, David displeases the Lord, finally admitting to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” With its penitential nature, Psalm 51 is the perfect response to this reading:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Psalm 51:1-3

The Protestant Bible and the Hebrew Scriptures contain 150 Psalms, while the Roman Catholic Bible contains 151 Psalms. This variation is due only to a different numbering system. In the Book of Common Prayer, we note that each Psalm has its Latin title listed after its number, which is actually only the first phrase of the Psalm in Latin. Psalm 51, titled Miserere mei, Deus, is simply “Have mercy on me, O God” in Latin.

As devotional readings, the Psalms provide consolation, instruction, inspiration and perhaps motivation. Scholars consider the Psalms to be Hebrew poetry. However, unlike much traditional poetry that ends in rhyme, the Psalms are characterized in rhythmic thought patterns of parallelism.

Scholars have identified several different types of parallelism. Synonymous parallelism is where a thought is presented and then slightly rephrased:

Wash me through and through from my wickedness
and cleanse me from my sin.
(v. 2)

Some Psalm verses are examples of antithetic parallelism, in which the second phrase is in contrast to the first:

Make me hear of joy and gladness,
that that body you have broken may rejoice.
(v. 9)

This penitential Psalm ends with a beautiful prayer to God:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right sprit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
(v. 11-13)

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God’s Board

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The Gospel appointed for this Sunday (July 26) is the story of the feeding of the great multitude with only five fishes and two loaves of bread. For obvious reasons, this Gospel story has long been tied to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist: God’s table is bountiful enough for all, and our challenge is to have faith enough that God will provide for all.

In June, I wrote about singing various hymn texts to the same hymn tune, and this entry could be a continuation of that post. I can hear it now: “The Sequence Hymn today sounded like ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’.” Well, it did… but then it’s not… not exactly.

With its gentle but soaring melodic rise and fall, I think the hymn tune Rockingham is one of the most beautiful tunes in the book, one with which I did not grow up. Indeed, I grew up singing “When I survey” to the Hamburg, a very fine tune by the great 19th-century hymnist/composer Lowell Mason. However, when I first heard this well-known text sung to Rockingham in the Episcopal Church, the text was completely transformed for me and has remained so for me to this day. I then discovered the poetic Eucharistic text “My God, thy table now is spread” by the great hymn text writers Philip Doddridge (stanzas 1-3) and Isaac Watts (stanza 4). Mason, Doddridge, and Watts: all of these names are biggies in the hymnology world.

When studying the history of the Book of Common Prayer in graduate school (English editions 1549, 1559, 1662, and American editions 1789, 1892, 1918, 1929 and our present 1979 edition), I always chuckled at the 1549 Communion liturgy in which an opening rubric referred to the Altar as “Goddes borde.”

Then the Prieste standyng at Goddes boarde shall begin… 

The third stanza of this hymn, in Doddridge’s words, is the only place in The Hymnal 1982 that refers to the Altar as a board:

Drawn by thy quickening grace, O Lord,
In countless numbers let them come
And gather from their Father’s board
The Bread that lives beyond the tomb.

I also love when poets refer to the Divine with other earthly words simply by capitalizing them. Regular bread becomes “Bread [Jesus] that lives beyond the tomb.”

As I often say to our parish choirs in rehearsals, “Now, don’t miss this!” I hope you enjoy singing these rich, powerful, poetic verses of this hymn on Sunday.

No Rest for the Weary

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Jesus and his disciples seemed to stay on the move all the time, and much of the activity centered around the Sea of Galilee. I have never visited the Holy Land, but I know that, while they stayed on the move, we are not talking about great distances here. Nevertheless, wherever Jesus and his disciples visited, they most often attracted a crowd.

Though I have never visited any of these places in person, I recognize many of the names of towns and places: Jerusalem, Bethany, Jericho and the Mount of Olives in Judea; Nazareth, Cana and Mount Tabor in Galilee; and Capernaum and Bethsaida, located on the Sea of Galilee.

Our Sequence Hymn (567) mentions Gennesaret, another town located on the Sea of Galilee (I looked it up), which is always a topic of conversation in choir rehearsal whenever we rehearse this beautiful hymn. “Where’s Gennesaret?” “How do you pronounce Gennesaret?”

Tired and hungry from “doing the Lord’s work,” as we say, in this Sunday’s Gospel story, Jesus invited the disciples to come away with him by themselves and find a quiet place to rest and refresh. However, many saw them and recognized them and  went ahead to meet them when they landed and moored the boat on the shore of Gennesaret. After they came ashore, many more rushed around to bring the sick to Jesus for healing. No rest for the weary: Jesus began to teach again, and many were healed.

The second stanza of Hymn 567, a beautiful text of 19th-century English priest Edward Hayes Plumptre (1821-1891), Dean of Wells Cathedral, is almost a direct account of that day:

And lo! thy touch brought life and health;
gave hearing, strength, and sight;
and youth renewed and frenzy calmed owned thee,
the Lord of light:
and now, O Lord, be near to bless,
almighty as of yore,
in crowded street, by restless couch, as by Genessaret’s shore.

On the Life and Death of a Character (in all senses of the word)

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John the Baptist is one of my favorite characters in the Bible. I use the word “character” with all its implied meanings, as I believe John the Baptist was, indeed, “a character” as we often say about people, especially Southerners it seems. I am confident that people have also occasionally described me as “a character,” bless my heart.

Truthfully, John the Baptist was probably a little wild for my personal taste and comfort: he lived in the desert, wore tattered clothing about which he probably cared little, ate wild locusts and honey, preached at the top of his lungs, and perhaps scared many, living “off the grid” for sure.

However, he was the cousin whom Jesus sought out for his own baptism, and John the Baptist knew that he was baptizing the Son of God. That’s good enough for me.

The beheading of John the Baptist by King Herod in this Sunday’s gospel reading is not one of the beloved John the Baptist stories for sure, but maybe the actual beheading is not the point. Even though John the Baptist had been beheaded, some were saying that he had “been raised from the dead,” and Herod was confused. Indeed, we all have “been raised from the dead” in the Risen Christ, something that Herod did not quite understand.

Texts quoting John the Baptist or extolling him as one of the great saints abound in hymn and anthem literature. My personal favorite is the Orlando Gibbons setting of “This is the record of John,” commonly used in Advent, but there are also many worthy contemporary settings of this text. Other texts relating to John the Baptist that we frequently sing are “On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry,” “Comfort, comfort, ye my people,” “Prepare the way, O Zion,” all hymns found in the Advent section of The Hymnal 1982.

The Sequence Hymn this Sunday (July 12) is a text that may also be applied to John the Baptist’s message, with exclamations such as “thy kingdom come,” “watches of the night,” “proclaim the day is near,” and “the day of perfect righteousness, the promised day of God.” The tune St. Flavian is found in our hymnal three separate times and is known widely among Protestant faith traditions. The melody was originally a 16th-century Psalm tune, which is exhibited by its strong, unwavering rhythm.

A few recordings of “This is the record of John”…

The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford:

King’s College Choir, Cambridge: