February Psalms: old-school!

Archbishop Cranmer’s 30-day cycle of Psalms applies to each month of the year, but it works out differently according to what month you’re dealing with.  Several months have 31 days, and his appointment was to repeat the 30th day’s Psalms on the 31st day.  February has 28 or 29 days, though, so presumably that means you don’t quite finish the psalter that month, right?

Right, the 1662 Prayer Book (and all thereafter) state that you get to the 28th or 29th day, and leave it at that.

However… this seems to be a simplification of a slightly different approach that came before.  I picked up a facsimile edition of the 1611 “King James” Bible some years ago, and it has a number of Prayer Book rubrics in it, including the table of daily lessons throughout the year and the order of the Psalms.  I expect these reflect the then-current 1559 (Elizabethan) Prayer Book’s order.

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Check out what it says about February (and I’ll update the spelling for you)…

And because January and March have one day above the said number, and February, which is placed between them both, hath only 28 days; February shall borrow of either of the months (of January and March) one day : and so the Psalter which shall be read in February, must begin at the last day of January, and end the first day of March.

In other words, once you finish the 30-day cycle in January, start the cycle at the beginning on the 31st (today!) and carry it through to March 1st.  That means you’ll be a day off between the Psalter and the calendar date throughout February and March, but on the upside you’ll get through all the Psalms three times without repetition or omission in the first three months of the year!

The fact that the Prayer Books after this point don’t include this rubric indicate to me that this proved too complicated in actual practice, and so the powers that be gave up on it and simplified it when the next Prayer Book was produced (in 1662).

The latest draft of the 2019 Prayer Book doesn’t look as flexible about the Psalms as its predecessors, but the fact that it authorizes two different Psalm cycles plus allows the option of further shortening and simplification indicates that our liturgists care more that we pray the Psalms regularly and in an orderly fashion than about total conformity to one system.  Therefore, consider yourself well within your rights to give “old-school February” a try, if you want!  Start with day 1 today, finish with day 30 on March 1st, and carry on through March a “day off” from the norm until we all meet back together with day 1 on April 1st.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter a ton which system you use, as long as you do use one.  It’s just nice to know (and sometimes try out) the ways of our forebears.

Psalm 119 in pieces

The 119th Psalm is, as I’m sure you know, the longest in the Psalter by far.  It’s so long that it has (probably?) never been appointed to be sung or said all the way through in a liturgical setting.  Private recitation and devotion, is another matter.  Thomas Cranmer’s monthly cycle of Psalms splits it over a few days, starting on the evening of the 24th day.

As you will find in most Bibles, Psalm 119 has 22 sections.  These sections are noted in the Prayer Books also; four are grouped together in the evenings and five are grouped together in the mornings.  These groups come from the structure of the original Hebrew poetry: an acrostic.  The acrostic is actually a fairly common poetic structure in the Hebrew Bible: it’s a simple matter of beginning each successive line with the next letter of the alphabet.  A handful of Psalms are acrostics, each chapter of the book of Lamentations is a sort of acrostic (well, chapter five is an anti-acrostic, but we’ll check that out later), and the occasional bit of prophetic writing also uses this device.  Psalm 119, however, does this to the extreme: it has eight lines (verses) beginning with the first letter (aleph), then eight beginning with the second letter (beth), and so on, all the way through the alphabet.  Obviously this effect is lost in translation, but many Bibles (and most if not all Prayer Books) note these eight-verse groupings.

One result of the acrostic structure is that the Psalm doesn’t have another organizing principle or logical flow.  It’s a series of meditations on God’s law and commands (etc.), with little sense of progression from one section to the next.  In that regard it’s like some of our modern songs (Christian or otherwise), dwelling on ideas, topics or feelings, but not developing a logical structure for the lyrics.  This means that, in the context of the liturgy, we can fruitfully deal with each section of Psalm 119 as if it were its own psalm, without missing much context.

In medieval and early Prayer Book tradition, therefore, it was appointed that the worshiping congregation place the Glory be to the Father at the end of each section of Psalm 119.  Today, Prayer Books tend to be ambiguous – we can either say that end the end of the whole Psalmody section of the Daily Office or at the end of each Psalm.  But be it known here that if you opt for the latter option, which was the way of the early Prayer Books, you may even do so with each eight-verse section of Psalm 119.

Getting through Psalm 78

Depending upon your mood and state of mind (or heart) we may have a bit of a Tuesday Terror looming at Evening Prayer: the 78th Psalm.  Assuming you’re using the 30-day cycle of Psalms by Thomas Cranmer that has adorned every Prayer Book for over 450 years, this evening is when we come to Psalm 78, the second-longest Psalm in the book, and the longest that we pray straight through.

In terms of genre, it covers a few bases.  It is a didactic psalm, written with the express purpose of teaching its reader, singer, or pray-er.  It is a history psalm, telling stories of the people of Israel throughout their past.  It is a parable, according to its opening verses, intending to teach us about divine faithfulness and human unfaithfulness through the medium of story.

Something that can help one get through this Psalm attentively and profitably is to break it into manageable sections:

  • Verses 1-8 are a very general introduction to this type of Psalm.
  • Verses 9-40 are the first story, summarizing the exodus, focusing on the wilderness wandering.
  • Verses 41-54 form the second story, also summarizing the exodus, but focusing more on the events in Egypt.
  • Verses 55-72 form a less organized section noting the conquest of Canaan, the split of Israel and Judah, a shout-out to Solomon’s Temple, and the kingship of David.

While the chronology is a bit mixed up, the order that may give clarity to the Psalm is perhaps the level of faithfulness exhibited by God’s people.  Much of the Psalm reveals how sinful and disobedient we can be, but there’s a trajectory of growth towards the end.  The end, reflecting on the Shepherd-King David, is a decidedly positive note to close with.

If you’re singing or chanting this Psalm, first of all congratulations – this will keep you singing for quite a while!  Second of all, consider changing the chant tune at verse 41, breaking the Psalm roughly in half.  I have heard choirs do this before with other long psalms, and it can help both break up the monotony and audibly mark the turn from one section to the next.

Christmas & December Psalms

Merry Christmas!

If you’re reading this on Christmas morning… well, props to you for being a liturgy nerd I guess.  And I’ll keep this short so you get back to whatever you’re “supposed to be doing” at this time.

In the 1662 Prayer Book, Christmas Day is one of the six days in the year that gets its own Psalms Appointed, interrupting the 30-day cycle.

Morning Prayer: 19, 45, and 85
Evening Prayer: 89, 110, 132

If at all possible, I strongly encourage you to replace the “Day 25” Psalms with these.  It’ll make the Offices a little bit longer, but you will find they are festively appropriate for the birth of our Lord.

And, in case you’re concerned that this means you’ll have to skip the Psalms for the 25th Day of the month, fear not!  Because December has 31 days in it, you can pick up with Day 25 on the 26th, Day 26 on the 27th, and so forth such that you finish the Psalms at the end of the month.  If you can stand being “off a day” for a week, I highly recommend it.

Anyway, go have a merry Christmas.

The Renewed Coverdale Psalter!

Great news, everyone, the committees have finished updating the classic Prayer Book psalter, translated by Miles Coverdale, into contemporary English!  If you’re not up to speed with what this is all about….

  • The latest report from the Liturgy Task Force (top of page 2) summarizes the background of this particular project.
  • The Texts for Common Prayer page now has a pdf and Word document form of the Psalter.

Let’s grab a sampling from this evening’s psalms – Psalm 22.  Here are verses 6-8 in three translations, for comparison.

Original Coverdale:

6 But as for me, I am a worm, and no man; * a very scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.
7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn; * they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying,
8 He trusted in the Lord, that he would deliver him; * let him deliver him, if he will have him.

Renewed Coverdale:

6 But as for me, I am a worm, and no man, * scorned by all, and the outcast of the people.
7 All those who see me laugh me to scorn; * they curl their lips, and shake their heads, saying,
8 “He trusted in God, that he would deliver him; * let him deliver him, if he will have him.”

English Standard Version (ESV)

6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

Beauty and taste are fickle things, easily subject to individual whim and preference, so I’m not going to hazard any sweeping statements here.  But what I can observe is that,

  1. The Renewed Coverdale looks like it’s doing a good job of sticking closely to the vocabulary and sentence structure of the original, modernizing it only gently.
  2. The ESV has a tendency to be too literal, so to speak, in the Psalms.  “they make mouths at me” is probably a more precise rendition of the Hebrew than “they curl/shoot out their lips”, but the latter is actually something the reader can visualize and understand.
  3. Modern translations use quotation marks in the Psalms when a different voice chimes in, and it will be helpful to have them brought into our Psalter, as this example demonstrates.

I have already printed out the Psalter and begun to use them in the Daily Office.  I’m hoping the excitement of trying out this newly-completed draft will help me keep up with the offices more regularly this season, and I heartily encourage all of you to do the same.  One of the beautiful treasures of our Prayer Book tradition is our classic Coverdale Psalter, and this re-translation of them is making them easily accessible to the modern reader.  I suspect this will be one of the best features of the 2019 Prayer Book.

Who shall dwell in thy tabernacle?

On the 3rd Morning of the month, the first Psalm is Psalm 15:

Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? or who shall rest upon thy holy hill?
Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life, and doeth the thing which is right, and speaketh the truth from his heart.

Whoso doeth these things shall never fall.

One of the many, many advantages to praying the entirety of the Psalter each month is that we have innumerable opportunities to hear the same psalms juxtaposed against various and sundry contexts.  With All Saints’ Day, and its usual transferred Sunday, awaiting us tomorrow, one might find this an opportune Psalm to reflect upon the universal call to sainthood upon all God’s people.  The opening question – who gets to live in God’s house – is asking point blank for the qualifications of a Saint.  What does holiness look like?  What kind of person gets to live in God’s new heaven and earth?

Verses 2 through 6 describe a litany of virtue – doing good, speaking the truth, humbly refraining from exalting oneself, respecting those who fear the Lord, who keeps his word and lends even at personal loss.  Of course, this is not a complete theological statement; we know that righteousness purely by works and deeds is impossible for us sinners.  But this Psalm shows us two things: it depicts the Righteous One (Jesus) and the end state of righteousness to which he has called us.  We are all invited to receive the Way, Truth, and Life; we are all invited to practice righteousness and to grow in grace.

Psalm 15 shows us where we’re going.  Let that sink in as you pray it in Morning Prayer today.

Halfway through the month…

We’re about halfway through the month now.  How are you keeping up with the monthly Psalter?  Now that it’s the 15th, we’re at Psalms 75-77 this morning and the massive Psalm 78 this evening.

If you’re making a special point of praying all the Psalms this month and catching up on the backlog if you miss an Office, consider making use of Midday Prayer and Compline.  Although they have their own recommended Psalms, there’s no shame in swapping out those for the Morning & Evening Psalms that you missed!  You could even plan ahead – if you know you’ll be out and busy one evening, you could shift over some of those evening Psalms into the Midday Office and perhaps save some for Compline at bedtime.

This evening, though, you’ve got Psalm 78 to contend with – the longest Psalm that is read in one go.  If you feel the need to break it up, the first 39 verses comprise a decent unit of the Psalm, and verse 40 to the end is a good second “half.”  It’s an historical psalm, to a large extent, so the overlapping stories of those two halves are mutually informative, so it doesn’t “ruin” the experience of Psalm 78 if you divide it in two that way.  Like any other portion of Scripture, there is merit both in experiencing it in smaller pieces as well as in its entirety.

In a rush?

In a rush today?  Not sure you’ve “got time” for the Daily Office?

One unconventional way you could shorten the Office, without sacrificing too much of its mainstay ingredients, is to shift some of the daily Psalms into the position of the Canticles.  For example, this morning you would pray Psalm 38, read the OT lesson, then pray Psalm 39 as the 1st Canticle; then read the NT lesson, then pray Psalm 40 as the 2nd Canticle.  In the evening you’d pray Psalm 41 before the lessons, and Psalms 42 and 43 as the Canticles.

The benefits of this little cheat are that that you keep up with the monthly Psalms and retain the rhythm of “read, respond; read, respond” that characterizes the center of the liturgy in the Anglican tradition.  Obviously, the downside is that you lose the usual canticles.  But if you’re praying the Office in full more often than not, then the loss of those relatively-static features is not as great as missing some of the month’s Psalms.

Don’t forget, also, in the rubrics of Texts for Common Prayer, we are permitted to skip the Confession and the Apostles’ Creed, provided they are said once per day!  So if your morning gets out of hand, take advantage of the new book’s leniency and give yourself a break in the morning; just be sure to put all the pieces back together at Evening Prayer 😉

Beginning of the month

It’s the 1st of October, the beginning of a new month!  The traditional pattern in the Prayer Books before the 20th century is to pray through the Psalms in 30 days, beginning on the 1st of each month.  In the 1928 and 1979 American Prayer Books, new cycles were introduced for those who wanted a shorter Daily Office by praying fewer Psalms at a time.  The 2019 Prayer Book is also drafted to present a 60-day Psalter option.

If you don’t normally, consider taking this month to rise to the challenge of the original plan of Psalm prayer.  This is really the bread & butter of the Daily Office, and was once the backbone of Western spirituality, especially before the proliferation of hymns and songs a couple centuries after the Reformation.

At Morning Prayer today pray Psalms 1-5, and at Evening Prayer pray Psalms 6-8.
Tomorrow it’ll be Psalms 9-11 in the morning and Psalms 12-14 in the evening.
Wednesday’s Psalms are 15-17 in the morning, and Psalm 18 in the evening.

The full 30-day table of Psalms is here.

Whatever you undertake, endeavor to stick to it until you’ve gotten through the whole cycle.  And be sure to pray them out loud, pausing at the line breaks, so you have time to take in what you’re saying!