24 June 2022
Praying with the Psalms in Ordinary Time:
24 June 2022 (Psalm 121)
In the Calendar of the Church, we are in Ordinary Time, but today the church celebrates the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist. Today also marks the anniversary of my ordination as priest 21 years ago on 24 June 2001 by Archbishop Walton Empey in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections drawing on the Psalms.
In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:
1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;
2, reading the psalm or psalms;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
Psalm 121 is the second of a series of 15 short psalms (Psalm 120-134) known as the ‘Songs of Ascents.’ These psalms begin with the Hebrew words שיר המעלות (Shir Hama’a lot). In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is counted as Psalm 120. It is sometimes known by its Latin opening words, Levavi oculus.
Many scholars say these psalms were sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals. Others say they were sung by the Levite singers as they ascended the 15 steps to minister at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Mishnah notes the correspondence between the 15 songs and the 15 steps between the men’s court and the women’s courtyards in the Temple. A Talmudic legend says King David composed or sang the 15 songs to calm the rising waters at the foundation of the Temple.
One view says the Levites first sang the Songs of Ascent at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple during the night of 15 Tishri 959 BCE. Another study suggests they were composed for a celebration after Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. Others suggest they may originally have been songs sung by the exiles returning from Babylon ascending to Jerusalem, or individual poems later collected together and given the title linking them to pilgrimage after the Babylonian captivity.
These psalms are cheerful and hopeful, and they place an emphasis on Zion. They were suited for being sung because of their poetic style and the sentiments they express. They are brief, almost like epigrams, and they are marked by the use of a keyword or repeated phrase that serves as a rung on which the poem ascends to its final theme.
Psalm 121 is one of the great expressions of trust in God’s protection, often recited in times of trouble. The Hebrew word sh-m-r, ‘guard, protect,’ appears six times in this short psalm.
I try to imagine the writer of Psalm 121 setting out as a pilgrim on a journey or pilgrimage to the hill country, perhaps to Mount Zion and the Temple in Jerusalem, perhaps to hill country where earlier people imagined pagan gods were dwelling.
As he looks up to the hills, he asks himself, perhaps rhetorically, ‘from where is my help to come?’
He then answers his own question: his help comes from God, the creator.
He then hears another voice, perhaps a priest in the Temple, tell him of God’s protection of his people: God is always vigilant in protecting the pilgrims’ path, protecting them along the way against the sun and inclement weather, by day and by night, protecting them against all evil, not only through their own lives, but ‘from this time forth for evermore.’
Yosef Karduner sings his classic song ‘Shir Lamaalot’ (Psalm 121), with Ari Goldwag at a benefit concert in 2018
Psalm 121 (NRSVA):
A Song of Ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.
The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Swarupantor programme in the Church of Bangladesh. This theme was introduced on Sunday.
Friday 24 June 2022 (The Birth of John the Baptist):
The USPG Prayer invites us to pray today in these words:
Today we remember the birth of John the Baptist. Let us give thanks for his preaching and witness.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org