The reading from the Book of Psalms often gets overlooked in Mass. As a former music minister, I struggled with the fact that there’s not a perfect melody for every psalm each Sunday, but there’s only so many times during Mass for actual music. Because of this, often psalms with good melodies are substituted for others whose words may not have been put to song. This is why, if you follow along on your phone for Mass readings, the words of the psalm might be quite a bit different than the ones being sung. Today, I hope, you will hear the psalm as written. If not, now’s your chance to get caught up!
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Psalm 126 is a striking song of lament and praise. A song fit for Advent, of hope and loss. As a side note, I particularly appreciate the original Jerusalem Bible translation for the Psalms. The translations aren’t perfect, but they worked hard to make the psalms actually feel like poetry..something very few translations are able to do. Some try to remedy this, especially Robert Alter in his masterful Psalms, but its a difficult task…as it should be!
Poetry, good poetry, is never easy to write. When you combine the challenges of writing good poetry with the challenges of translation, the entire task becomes nearly impossible. When you add to this the challenge of translation as a group effort–which nearly every Biblical translation is–well, the results are not surprising. Translators want to make sure that readers understanding the meaning of the passage. Poetry, at its best, hides meaning behind meaning behind words twisted and arranged. Poetry seeks not simply to speak to your intellectual understanding, but to your heart, your soul.
Compare the psalms with the Pauline epistles. Paul is not a fan of fluff. He argues, compels, pleads, preaches, and prays. Sometimes he quotes a popular hymn (Phil 2), but typically he writes in decently straightforward prose. The Psalms offer no such solace. They are written, likely, by a wide variety of authors over many centuries. Alter writes, “The dating of individual psalms has long been a region of treacherous scholarly quicksand. The one safe conclusion is that the writing of psalms was a persistent activity over many centuries. The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition has no credible historical grounding. It was a regular practice in the later biblical period to ascribe new texts to famous figures of the past.” (Psalms, page XV).
This doesn’t mean the psalms aren’t ancient. Some likely date to before the time of the monarchies, while others are likely as recent as the fourth or fifth century before Christ. Imagine translating a group of “best of” poems ranging from the 12th century until today, with a wide variety of authors! No simple task, to be sure, especially when every poet uses words and phrases a little bit differently.
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With this introduction, we come to Psalm 126.
A Song of Ascents
When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage,
it seemed like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
on our lips there were songs.
The nations said: “What marvels
the Lord worked for them!”
What marvels the Lord worked for us!
Indeed we were glad.
Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage
as streams in dry land.
Those who are sowing in tears
will sing when they reap.
They go out, they go out, full of tears,
carrying seed for the sowing:
they come back, they come back, full of song,
carrying their sheaves.
Reading the psalm slowly, perhaps you can also feel the ebb and flow of the poetry, especially in the last two paragraphs (vv. 4-6).
Those who are sowing in tears will sing when they reap.
They go out, they go out, full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing
They come back, they come back, full of song, carrying their sheaves.
Advent, for me, is a time to ebb and flow. A time to realize our distance from God, to realize the brokenness of the world and the promises God has given us in this brokenness. In this focus on brokenness, Advent is not far from Lent. Lent calls us to see our brokenness, to recognize its existence, and to see our brokenness taken on by Christ on the cross. Only after this calling does Lent bring us to the joy that is Easter.
Advent, on the other hand, begins by God acknowledging that we are already broken. Advent sees us in our brokenness, accepts this brokenness, and consistently points us to the eternal healing that is to come. Advent reminds us that our brokenness must not only be seen as healed in the present, but must be seen as a brokenness that will be healed, forever, completely, in the future. We are not condemned, in other words, to only live the lives in front of us. Those who suffer on Earth are not condemned to bear this suffering for eternity. It is a central Christian message, a central piece of the Gospel, and Advent celebrates and accentuates this point.
We may go out weeping, some days more than others, but we will come back full of song. We will come back rejoicing. We will be healed, those around us will be healed, and justice will reign, forever.
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It is perhaps the most challenging of all Christian beliefs, this fairy tale of Christianity, that in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all will be well.” But it is precisely the childishness of the belief that makes it all the more important to our everyday lives. Complexities will always intertwine some of us, challenging our faith in theologies and philosophies of belief, doubt, politics, science, and power. But the Gospel–salvation–freedom–is meant for all.