Psalm 51 is one of the most famous psalms in the Bible, I think it’s safe to say. Known in Latin by its opening words, Miserere mei, Deus, it has been rendered into one of the most beautiful pieces of chorale music known to man. And this Psalm pops up, in whole and in part, all over Christian liturgy. Since it’s one of the Morning Psalms Appointed for today (the 10th day of the month), this is an excellent day to visit the many roles of Psalm 51.
In the 2019 Prayer Book, you can find this Psalm appointed for the Communion service on a few different occasions. In mid-September of Year C (Proper 19) verses 1-17 are appointed; on the first Sunday in Lent of Year A verses 1-13 are appointed (with the option of using the whole psalm); and on the Fifth Sunday in Lent of Year B verses 11-16 are appointed (again with the option of using the whole psalm). So this means that there is always one Sunday every year that uses some or all of Psalm 51.
Perhaps the most famous use of Psalm 51 is its place in the penitential office for Ash Wednesday. In the 2019 Prayer Book it is sung or said after the imposition of ashes, though it could also be sung by a choir during the imposition of ashes. In the historic Prayer Books it appears in an analogous position, after the curses and exhortation in the Commination (or Penitential Office), also leading up to the prayers that follow.
Versicles & Responses
Various bits and pieces of Psalm 51 show up in other liturgies. Here are a few examples:
- Verse 7 “You shall purge me with hyssop…” is the basis of a prayer used by some priests at the washing of hands before celebrating Communion. It is also a verse used in the asperges – that is, the sprinkling of holy water, usually upon the congregation.
- Verses 10-12 “Create in me a clean heart…” are the foundation of a few popular songs, contemporary and traditional. They’re also used in the Morning service of the 2019 book’s mini-Office of Family Prayer. Two lines from these verses are also found at the end of the Suffrage in the regular Daily Office.
- Verse 15 “O Lord, open my lips…” is a mainstay of the Daily Office (historically just Morning Prayer, but in modern texts also Evening Prayer), near the start of the service. Although there are sentences and a confession before it, these words are often considered the “real” start of the Daily Office, and everything before it as merely preparatory. In monastic tradition, from what I understand, these words are literally the first words spoken at the beginning of the day’s round of worship.
This is quite a bit of mileage for just one Psalm! Where else can you find its echoes and quotations showing up?