Reflecting on the Psalms: The Psalms in the Church

The Psalms were not, at first, collected into a psalmody in the first two centuries, though they were read in the assemblies and interpreted in a Christian perspective. In the second century, they were used for apologetics and personal prayer.

Oct 29, 2021

By Msgr James Gnanapiragasam

The First Three Centuries
The Psalms were not, at first, collected into a psalmody in the first two centuries, though they were read in the assemblies and interpreted in a Christian perspective. In the second century, they were used for apologetics and personal prayer. The early fathers tried to see Christ the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23 and Christ the Son in Psalm 19. Accordingly, interpretations concentrated on the glorious cross from which Christ reigned over the nations. For personal prayer, these fathers saw in David or in the just persecuted voice of Christ addressing the Father, or the voice of the Church invoking Christ.

The Fourth and Fifth Centuries From the fourth century, the book of Psalms was considered the basic book of the liturgical prayer of Christians in the assemblies. They used it for the feasts and vigils of the Sunday when the community met for worship. This was the time when there was a remarkable increase in conversions, which also had a negative outcome. Resources were lacking to educate this mass of catechumens. The bishops began to arrange for a shorter catechumenate (which became the Lenten season) with lesser demands.

The aspirants were not expected to have a global knowledge of the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Gospels. Rather, they were expected to memorise the Psalms. Frequent use of the Psalms in the liturgy, and extensive and systematic commentaries on the Psalms in homilies, facilitated memorisation. This greatly helped the faithful to gradually remove some Christian hymns of earlier centuries, the doctrinal content of which was less orthodox.

This was also the period when a special category of the faithful embraced religious life espousing a life of celibacy, prayer and penance. These men and women devoted themselves to nocturnal, Sunday and Festive vigils and made use of the psalmody in their assemblies. They began to know the Psalms by heart because their personal prayer sprung from the content of the Psalms. Listening to the Word, meditating on what is heard, responding in prayer at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit became the base of what is termed as Lectio Divina in the centuries that followed.

The Fathers of the Church of the fourth and fifth centuries grappled with the main question of speaker and addressee in the Psalms. Many considered David as the speaker, praying in his own name, or in the name of the Jews of various periods. Some also considered Christ as the speaker in several Psalms. It should be noted that St Augustine, who had this great concept of the Whole Christ, head and members, was mainly responsible in recognising Christ in the whole of the Psalter. This meant that Christ was present in the Old Testament. Many Psalms thus took on the image of the Just and Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 who took our sins upon himself. The New Testament identified Jesus as the suffering servant.

In this sense, it was possible to speak of Jesus as the speaker talking about his sin. St Paul says, “For our sake he (God) made the sinless one a victim for sin, so that in him we might become the uprightness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21; Rom 8:3; Gal 3:13)

The Psalms and Christ Today
There are two principles of interpretation that one must remember from the above regarding the Psalms: The Psalms are an echo of the Bible, and the Psalms summarise what humanity experiences. As a Christian, one must join these two aspects for the confession of our faith, as the Lord explained to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and to the Apostles, “This is what I meant when I said, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms, was destined to be fulfilled.” (Lk 24:44). Just as Christ is the key to understanding the Scriptures, so also, we accept the Pauline concept of history that the Christ was already present in a quasi-sacramental way in the history of Israel. We can, therefore, speak of Christ as recapitulating within himself the whole of humanity. (1 Cor 10:1-11).

As a conclusion to our study, I would suggest that we pray with the Church the Divine Office (The Everyday Prayer). We could at least fit in the morning and evening prayer into our daily schedule. Constant repetition of the Grail translation as given in the Divine Office helps us to ponder the meaning and pray. We might even be able to pray some of the Psalms by heart and this certainly would aid growth in our prayer life.

(Adapted from: Mathieu Collin, Le Livre des Psaumes, Cahiers Evangile, no 92, 1995).

-- This ends Msgr James’ reflection on the Psalms. We thank Msgr James for his contribution.

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