This week, starting with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter, is known amongst Christians as Holy Week and is the last week in Lent. This week is a time when Christians prepare themselves for the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. The week starts off with Palm Sunday commemorating Christ entrance into Jerusalem and ends with Easter. But during this week we also remember Christ’s passion (death) on Good Friday. On Good Friday the Christian community remembers Christ’s death, Christ’s covenant with God, our covenant with God, covenants God has made with the prophets in the Old Testament, asking God to forgive our sins and wrong doings and remembering that Christ died for our sins. This day is filled with sorrow, prayer, remembrance and attending long church services.
This, then, brings me to Psalm 50 or 51 depending on if you are using a Bible or a prayer book. Psalm 50 (51) is a psalm of repentance where the author is asking for God’s forgiveness and then asking if God will restore Jerusalem and Zion.
Psalm 51 (Book of Common Prayer, 656)
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. And so you are justified when you speak and upright in your judgment. Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb. For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly. Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your holy Spirit from me. Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit. I shall teach your ways to the wicked, and sinners shall return to you. Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation. Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, but you take no delight in burnt-offerings. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Be favorable and gracious to Zion, and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will be pleased with the appointed sacrifices, with burnt-offerings and oblations; then shall they offer young bullocks upon you alter.
I mention psalm 50 (51) because in some Christian traditions it is part of two services during Holy Week: Wednesday and Good Friday services. This tradition in the Western Church started off with Holy Wednesday and Good Friday services in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The version of the psalm that is sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week is in Latin and was put to score by Allegri some time before 1638. Earlier versions of the psalm have also been sung in the Sistine Chapel as well but Allegri’s score is the current one that is in use or being sung by choirs. The psalm is usually sung during Holy Week services that take place in the early and dark hours of the morning during a Tenebrae service. This is a service that takes place in the dark with candles being put out one by one until there is only one candle still lit while Christ’s Passion is being read. Then, at the end of the service is when Psalm 50 (51) is sung while the Pope kneels in from of the one lit candle in prayer.
Psalm 50 (51) is, when it comes to chanted and sung psalms, is one of my favorites. When this psalm is sung it sums up the emotions that one feels during Holy Week and during Good Friday services. One of the beauties of this psalm when sung is that organ playing doesn’t accompany it (if your are Anglican/Episcopalian you know that we like our organs) and that beauty comes from the voices of the men and boys singing the psalm. The way the psalm is sung is quite solemn and can be emotion. I consider to one of the wonders of liturgical music in the Western Church.
The psalms are scripture in the Old Testament of the Bible and in the Torah/Tanakh. These are poems that have been written by various ancient authors through out Israelite history. The psalms also cover every human emotion imaginable when thinking about God and also show very raw human emotion as well. Religious scholars also know that the psalms were meant to be sung as well but how they were sung or what instruments would have accompany the psalms is not known. Regardless, the psalms are still sung in many churches to this day. How the psalms are sung now in churches depends on the traditions of the church or if they tend to be more modern or traditional. In the Episcopal/Anglican church the psalms are sung at every service and are usually chanted in some form while in church or are spoken during private prayer or when a chanter or choir person is not present. The Episcopal/Anglican church has a love affair with the psalms and with traditional music as we view both psalms and music to be forms of prayer. The psalms have always been seen as prayers by the church and are used as such.