"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) January 22, 2023

Isaiah 8: 23-9:3; Psalm 27;
I Corinthians 1: 10-13; Matthew 4: 12-23

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

When we hear the Word of God proclaimed and preached at our Sunday celebrations the focus is very frequently on the Gospel. Sometimes the preacher will draw our attention to the first reading, usually from the Hebrew Scripture or, even more rarely, to the second, usually chosen from one of the Letters. But the Psalm response to the first reading is often overlooked. After all, it is "just a response to the reading." In light of this, I thought we would break a pattern and focus this reflection on today’s Responsorial Psalm – number 27. Let’s not forget, it too is the Word of God. First, some general words on the Psalms.

For those of us in traditions that employ the Lectionary, the Psalms are part of every liturgical celebration. They are always "there" – found after the first reading. Sometimes sung, sometimes recited, but they are otherwise often neglected. What a shame, for the Psalms, in their varied and profound response to God, are such rich sources for our prayer and meditation. Their language expresses deeply felt emotions, as the Psalmist, speaking from the highs and lows of life, turns to God. Because of this we can adopt their words to what we are feeling at particular moments in our lives. Each day brings a variety of experiences and feelings — and the Psalms are there to provide help as we try to voice all this in our prayer.

Psalms were an integral part of public worship. While Israel used no images to depict God, when the Psalms were prayed, the community was before God in a special way. To state the obvious, Mary of Nazareth and Joseph taught the Psalms to Jesus. When the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people taken into exile, or scattered to foreign nations, the Psalms traveled with them. They had to leave everything behind, Temple, altar and their liturgical settings. But the people took the Psalms to sustain their faith in the God of the covenant. As the Russians continue to pound Ukrainian cities and countryside I am sure that devout Jews and Christians there are praying their Psalms.

Every human response can be found in the Psalms. They express trust, meditation, hymns, thanks, grief, joy, praise, anger and complaint. They remind us that God is concerned about all we feel and all that happens to us. About a third of the Psalms are laments, indicative of the very difficult historical situations of the Israelites who prayed them. No wonder so many today still turn to the Psalms for personal prayer throughout the seasons of their lives. No wonder too, that the church has found them an eminently suitable prayer for its public worship.

So, let’s look at the Psalm we pray today at our Eucharist: Psalm 27. As is frequently the case, the designers of our Lectionary (the book of the liturgical scriptural readings) have selected a part of the Psalm to serve as a response to today’s first selection from Isaiah. For our purposes, I suggest we go to our Bibles to read and pray the entire Psalm. Psalm 27 is a fitting and necessary prayer for these shaky times: whether we are going through personal trauma, or are distressed by recent events we’ve experienced in the church, nation, or world. There is plenty afoot these days to rattle our spirits!

Psalm 27 is a prayer of confidence. The Psalmist is in a dark place, but is expressing trust in God: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear?" And then repeats, as if for assurance, "The Lord is my life’s refuge of whom should I fear?" Other parts of the Psalm, not chosen today, express the situation the Psalmist finds themself in: "When evildoers come to devour my flesh… Though an army camp against me.…" See how bad it was?

While it is a prayer for help from God it also expresses a yearning for God’s very self: "One thing I ask of the Lord, this I seek, to dwell in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life." For the devout God dwelt in the Temple and so this prayer yearns to be with God. The present conditions seem far from this hoped-for-rest in God’s presence. Still, the final verse in today’s excerpt voices hope, "I believe I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living." "Bounty," because the present is empty and I can not provide what I need by my own powers and resources.

The Psalmist encourages hope in bleak times. "Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted and wait for the Lord." It does take stamina and a "stout heart" to trust that God is still standing with us, will not abandon us in our need and our waiting will be fulfilled by God’s coming to us.

If someone were to ask, "What is God’s character in this Psalm?" Surveying the entire Psalm I would say: God illumines, protects, saves and dispels fear. Reading the Psalm what would you add?

My favorite guide to praying the Psalms was given by a liturgical theologian some years ago. "The person that prays the Psalm, becomes the Psalm." Because the Psalms are the Word of God, they do what they say. Today’s Psalm expresses confidence in God. If I am feeling shaky in my faith, praying Psalm 27 can do what I cannot do, as hard as I try – enable me to be a more trusting person, a person who is "stouthearted" as I wait for the Lord.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:
https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/012223.cfm