Sing A Psalm Commentary
“My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me?”
“Being Made New As We Experience the Paschal Mystery Anew”
Psalm 22, a psalm of personal lament, is the proper psalm for the Catholic liturgy of Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord. It is also the ‘common psalm’ for use during Holy Week.
In this reflection, I should like to talk a bit about the concept of ‘lament’ in the psalms and in worship. From there, I will speak about how, through holy remembering, (anamnesis) the celebration of the liturgy makes present the Paschal Mystery, and how, in particular, the liturgies of Holy Week help us experience this anew as ‘all things are made new.’ Lastly, since this is a resource directed primarily toward church musicians and artists, I will share some thoughts on the experiences of abandonment and loneliness creatives often must endure. This time of year can be very taxing for people who work in church ministry. We need to remember to care for our physical and emotional well-being. As well, this is a perfect time to remind us to support and care for each other.
Lament Is Not a Dirty Word
We tend to think of ‘lament’ in unfavorable terms. In fact, many of our tendencies in modern worship have downplayed or even ‘disallowed’ lament. We feel we’ve somehow failed if people don’t always come away from our worship feeling warm and fuzzy. We tend to think that, if we’re people of the Resurrection, we shouldn’t ever give expression to sadness or lamentation in our worship. We shouldn’t be so negative. We should be more filled with hope. We fear that lamenting will somehow make us sound ungrateful to God. We’re afraid to tell God how undone or even angry we are about a situation. This downplaying of being allowed to lament before God is a disservice to ourselves and to our common worship. As people of faith, we need to embrace and not be afraid of experiencing and properly expressing the entire gamut of human emotion. The psalmist certainly held nothing back! Neither should we. Lamentation is not the same as ‘despair,’ which is the state of having given up all hope. On the contrary, lamentation is an act of faith in God. All our feelings are laid before God openly and honestly. Underlying lamentation is the belief that God is indeed in charge and can effect the change for which we long or put an end to the strife and suffering we’re encountering. Lamentation gives healthy expression to grief. It is not grief expressed without faith or hope for a future. Psalms of lament always crescendo toward praising God, affirming our faith and hope in Him and even recommitting ourselves to being agents of making God’s wondrous deeds and trustworthiness made known. The final verse of Psalm 22 that is used liturgically for Palm Sunday shows this:
I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you:
“You who fear the Lord, praise him;
all you descendants of Jacob, give glory to him;
revere him, all you descendants of Israel!”
In our task of being agents of God’s word and of His compassion and mercy, we pray psalms of lament on behalf of the entire human family. We must remember that we live not only for ourselves. The Church’s liturgy also ‘lives’ not only for itself. Rather, the prayer of the Church is a lightning rod collecting the many needs of God’s people and charged with making intercession on their behalf. That is why, for example, the Church prays psalms of lament when they appear in the daily office, even if nothing on the local scene is necessarily calling forth such emotion in any apparent way. We ourselves may be feeling entirely joyful within our given situation that day. Yet, we know there are brothers and sisters in far too many other places experiencing situations that cry out in lamentation. As lightning rods and conduits of God’s grace and mercy, we unite ourselves to them in solidarity and earnest prayer. Thus, the prayer of the Church is a 24/7 living entity, always being animated, sustained and renewed by the Paschal Mystery.
An Excellent Way to Use Psalm 22
As an aside, I wish to make a practical recommendation regarding the use of this psalm during Holy Week. The Missal recommends that Psalm 22 be used as the psalm during the distribution of Communion on Good Friday. I would encourage anyone who has not used it this way to seriously consider doing so, employing the very same setting as was used earlier in the week for Palm Sunday. This helps create a sense that the events of Holy Week have indeed come full circle. With very little effort, you as Music Director can help tie together the events of this entire week. If your setting of this psalm is well chosen, poignant, arresting, one that can bear the weight of the text properly, the reappearance of this psalm at Communion on Good Friday can be an extremely powerful moment liturgically and emotionally. As the last musical utterance of the assembly until the Easter Vigil, this psalm can communicate psychologically that we have arrived at the moment of Christ’s total abandonment, self-sacrifice and surrender to the Father’s will. From here, ‘the only way is up.’ Using this perfectly timed musical opportunity, you help your community stand on the threshold between Good Friday and Easter in a dramatic way.
Experiencing the Paschal Mystery Anew
Let us back up a bit to what I said earlier: we are not without faith or hope for a future. The Church’s liturgy and our worship also remind us that we have a future. In fact, as the Body of Christ we are a people who have a past, present and future, which come together as one whenever we gather to celebrate the liturgy.
We must remember that the Church’s liturgy is never merely play-acting or commemorating an historical event. For example, we don’t begin Holy Week each year ‘pretending’ that Jesus has not already died and risen from the dead. Rather, during the Paschal Triduum, ‘all things are made new’ and are experienced anew as if for the first time. This blurring of what happened in the past and what is happening right now is due to holy remembering, which only makes sense to people of faith. The Greek word for this is ‘anamnesis’… ‘holy remembering’… which makes these events that occurred once in history present again in the realm of faith. Our earthly marking of time suddenly becomes irrelevant. Past, present and future become one. As we enter the Paschal Triduum, the church bells are rung during the “Gloria,” announcing praise to God and our entrance into a very sacred time. Then they are silenced until the “Gloria” is sung once again at the Easter Vigil. This is certainly done to cast a certain somberness over the time between Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil. However, I like to think this is also one more way of communicating that time itself has suddenly stood still. The bells no longer mark the hours or announce the praying of the Angelus. There are no ‘new’ services to which to call the faithful to worship, for once the Triduum begins, it is considered to be as one great service, extended over three days, Holy Thursday evening through Easter Sunday evening.
With each passing year, we as individuals and as a community delve a little deeper into the Paschal Mystery and into living the sort of lives that show we embrace it. So, while the same readings, stories and actions occur in the liturgies of Holy Week each year, it is we who change. Perhaps it is more accurate to say we are changed by our ongoing relationship with God, with each other and in our faithful celebration of the Church’s liturgy throughout the rest of the year. When we celebrated these same liturgies a year ago, we were different from whom we are today. We are different today from whom we will be next year at this time. The words, songs and experiences speak to us anew each time, sometimes in imperceptible ways and sometimes in profoundly obvious, new ways. This is how the church’s liturgy is indeed ‘living.’ It is never static! During the course of the Triduum, ‘all things are made new,’ – experienced anew - the Eucharist itself, the holy oils, the paschal candle, the baptismal font, and us as God’s holy people, especially in the renewal of our baptismal promises! Everything is refreshed, renewed, made new.
Experiencing Loneliness as Artists and the Self-Abandonment to Which We Are Called
Writing this series of reflections on the Psalms has provided me with an opportunity to reflect and look deeply inward. It has also afforded me the opportunity to communicate and rub elbows with other like-minded creatives/artists. It’s led me to talking about life and matters of the heart with family, coworkers and friends, new and old. These conversations have confirmed something I knew all along: artists/creatives experience life in a very unique way. Often, we deal with feelings of loneliness, and for some at least, fear and abandonment. I’m not saying that we’re somehow ‘special’ or that we suffer any more than many other people on this planet! However, I am saying that I think our perspective and how we process our experience of life as creatives is unique. Also unique are the gifts we then offer to others as the fruit of our contemplation and ‘processing.’ You see, we process on behalf of all. We too live not only for ourselves; God uses us as beautiful instruments on behalf of all his people. Along with the entire Church, we are conduits of God’s grace in a very important way, that of giving expression in sight and sound to the entire human experience, including lamenting! Artists and creatives share in their unique way the Church’s universal task of being lightning rods within the human family. The fact that we use our gifts to give expression not only to our own feelings but to those of the entire human family adds to the weight of what we carry around with us at any given time on any given day. However, this is what we are called to do. We embrace it with much love in our hearts…but also at a price, often to ourselves or our relationships. I don’t know about you fellow musicians out there, but I’m a person who, at the drop of a hat, can suddenly become so ‘taken’ with a single chord progression or passage of music, that I listen to it, contemplate it, process the meaning of it over…and over… and over, sometimes for days. Then, in another moment, another situation, on another day, it’s gone…dealt with…or life presents something else with which I become completely ‘taken.’ One friend describes this as ‘going down the rabbit hole.’ What we experience in being led to deep, secluded places is what then allows us to come back out of that rabbit hole and say to the rest of humanity, “Look what I’ve seen! Look what I’ve experienced. Now, I offer it to you in song, in writing, in painting so that you too may have a chance to experience it as wondrously and full of awesome mystery as I have.”
Life can be very lonely for an artist/creative. So often, I’ve wanted to say to people, ”Oh! You mean, that’s all that passage of music does for you? You’re really able to move on to the next thing so easily, so quickly? What’s ‘wrong’ with me that I can’t or don’t even wish to do that?” It’s also lonely when, every once in a while, we’re reminded by something that happens or a comment someone makes (usually a criticism) that what we offer is seen as being merely a commodity. It stings when we’re forced to admit that everyone seems to adore artists when a little background music or an emotional ‘fix’ is needed. Yet, when the event, the worship service, the party, the tragedy is over, suddenly the world no longer seems to have any patience for our emoting and perceived ‘neediness.’ “Why do you artists have to go around thinking and feeling so much?” “Why does everything always have to be so ‘deep’ for you creatives?” “Can’t you just get out of your head for once and just be?” Seriously? From where do people think all the depth and beauty we share comes? It isn’t formed in a vacuum!
It comes from being that ‘lightning rod’ for the human experience. It comes from knowingly saying ‘yes’ to being that for others. It comes from people who are willing to sacrifice and give of themselves by carrying the burden of interpreting the entire human experience in addition to what they carry as part of their own attempts to live a ‘normal,’ everyday life.
As musicians/artists, we also tend to isolate ourselves. This, because many of us identify as introverts, even though one would never guess this to be the case watching us at work during worship! We must also admit our sin: many of us can be very territorial and judgmental, becoming very easily threatened by someone whose interpretation or style doesn’t agree with our own or what we were taught by our teachers. Then there are also the ‘style wars’ within church music ministry: contemporary vs. traditional. Do we ever see each other first as fellow pilgrims and seekers in need of each other’s support, rather than as the labels we love to create?... that ‘contemporary’ musician vs. ‘traditional’ organist vs. that singer from the ‘other’ music group in the parish?
Loneliness for us as artists and creatives is not limited only to our personal relationships, self-perceptions, self-sabotage or failures with our colleagues. It’s found in church life and ministry in general as well. Worship and music directors, liturgical artists, etc. are often very alone as the only professionals in their ‘department’ or position on church staffs. The loneliness is especially compounded when there’s a change of pastor and the new leader doesn’t share the same philosophy or vision of worship. As well, we often bear the burden of being fellow pilgrims, seekers and parishioners while also having to maintain the perspective and objectivity required of a staff person. Here too, in community, artists find themselves serving as lightning rods. A pastor I knew once said that, of all the various facets of life in a parish, the lightning rod for the faith community is usually located within its worship. Think about that for a minute. While every facet of community life is important and exists for the benefit of all, building up the Body of Christ, it is the worship that directly affects everyone. Not everyone may directly experience or participate in every ministry of the community. However, all who come through the doors of our churches personally experience and are affected by the worship! So then, is it any wonder that if there are unresolved issues within the community, they usually somehow manifest themselves within the common worship? Finally, the artists in a community are often overworked, underpaid, misunderstood, underappreciated, until the music is suddenly gone and everyone wonders what happened.
Fellow Artists Who are Lamenting
What about artists who are truly lamenting right now, who are lonely and hurting at this time? We all probably have friends or colleagues in music, liturgy, worship and the arts who are dealing with some pretty serious issues. It might be due to illness, broken relationships, burnout, a sense of having lost direction, purpose or value as a person. Perhaps they are someone with whom we have lost contact in recent years. Do we need to change that?
When I started these reflections, I told myself that I would always try to write from personal experience. I vowed that I would always trust the Holy Spirit to lead me in the direction I should go. This reflection has been no different in that regard. A person very dear to me, a phenomenal artist who I look up to very much, has been experiencing loss and abandonment in this most recent season of life. So much of life no longer seems to make sense for this person. Sometimes, what they are experiencing seems like some cruel joke on the part of God. As a friend, I also feel a sense of abandonment. I hurt alongside them when they hurt. While I try to offer support and encouragement, there are many times I simply don’t know what to say. I feel helpless in my desire to truly make a difference for them. I can sometimes feel rather ineffective as a friend or impotent as a witness to the Gospel of life. I find myself sometimes becoming angry at God or filled with cynicism: “God, if you truly cared, you wouldn’t let this person suffer.” Luckily, these episodes of lamentation have never lasted to the point of despair. I manage to maintain hope that God has a wonderful plan for this person and a vision for them that is much wider than anything either of us can imagine. However, I must be honest and acknowledge that I struggle and doubt with and for them.
Right now, my friend is physically unable to sing! This affects their ability to ‘sing’ emotionally and spiritually too. Even when I’ve been ill, I don’t think my voice has ever been completely silenced. I’ve found myself trying to imagine being in my friend’s shoes, wondering how awful it must be to be a singer who can no longer sing. What does someone feel who is worried whether they will ever be able to sing again? What does their inability to sing do to their overall sense of wellbeing or purpose? Surely, they must ask, “Why have I seemingly been silenced when all I wish to do is God’s work, to “proclaim God’s praise to my brethren and friends…amidst the assembly,” just like the psalmist? Do they feel duped, as did Jeremiah? “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped!” How do they eventually surrender to God’s will and plan for them when so much of what they have known as an artist is seemingly being taken away from them?
Therefore, I ask all of us to consider: Is there a fellow musician/creative in your life who is hurting or who needs a friend? Is there a colleague who feels they are without a future?... who needs prayer, encouragement or support? Is there a friend who has recently lost their voice, whether literally or because the budget at church no longer could sustain their position? Let us bravely ask ourselves: “What is the level of ‘lamentation’… ‘abandonment’…amongst our friends and colleagues these days?” Are we truly doing all we can to ‘be there’ for each other and to help each other be made new?
Let us take heart and find hope in the promise of renewal given us in Revelation 21: 1-7:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.”
David Orzechowski is Director of Liturgy and Music at the Church of Saint Joseph in St. Joseph, Minnesota.