April 21, 2024

Acts 4: 8-12; Psalm 118;
1 John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Have you noticed how often we pray the psalms...at least some of us? Nuns, monks, priests, deacons pray the psalms, many psalms, every day. (It’s called the Divine Office. The prayer book they carry with those Psalms is called a Breviary.) But what about the rest of us Catholics? Some pray the psalms when we make retreats, others pick up their Bible daily to pray a psalm or two as part of their prayer. Does that describe us, is that what we do?

When asked, “How many Scripture readings are there at your Eucharistic celebrations?” we tend to say: “Two at daily mass, three on Sundays.” Notice we usually do not count the psalm response (“Responsorial Psalm”) to the first readings. I would suggest, for some, psalms are treated like a second-class form of scriptures, not as important as the rest of the biblical books.

As an overview: there are 150 poem prayers we call “The Psalms.” They are divided into five books (Psalms 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150). The particular numbering might vary. The fivefold division is an imitation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were used in liturgical settings and for personal prayers – and still are. Jesus’ parents would have taught him the psalms. The psalms we call “Responsorial Psalms,” are frequently put to musical settings for our liturgical celebrations.

Every time we come to Mass, Sundays and weekdays, as well as for baptisms, funerals, and weddings, there is at least one psalm at each service. There are Psalms of praise, thanksgiving, petition, confession of sin, and lament. They are poetic prayers and so fit many human moods, needs, and hungers. You can find a psalm to express your mood and need for the day.

Did you notice the Responsorial Psalm after the first reading today? It was taken from Psalm 118 and is a thanksgiving psalm (suitable to pray more than on just Thanksgiving day). It can express, or even stir us, to thanksgiving and, if needed, make us aware of our all-loving God and the gifts God gives us daily. Psalm 118 has 29 verses. Nine have been chosen as a response to our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We will focus on the chosen nine, but for a fuller reading why not go to your Bible and pray the full Psalm 118 from the Book of Psalms?

As poetic prayers the psalms can touch us, as poetry does, at a deeper level than ordinary words. They can help us slow down, stir our imagination to play with different words and images. So, for example, to pick a word from today’s Psalm 118, where and to whom do we go for “refuge?” How do we do that? How is God our refuge?

Psalms encourage us to pause over a word, or image; ask questions; explore the feelings the psalmist stirs up; cast a loving gaze on God. We do not just read a psalm and move on to what’s next, as when we read historical or informational document. We can approach a psalm from different perspectives. For example, how would a young person, widow, newlywed, infirmed senior, etc. hear and pray this Psalm? Try praying the psalm with one of them in mind.

Psalm 118 is prayed by a thankful person. There are about 20 psalms of thanksgiving; some are personal, others are the grateful prayers of the community. Thanksgiving psalms seem to overflow with joy and receptivity. The person praying a thanksgiving psalm seems surprised by God. We can sense that wonder and surprise when the psalmist prays, “By the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our eyes.” Thanksgiving psalms build up a relationship of gratitude with God. Doesn’t that happen when someone does us a favor, or surprises us with a gift we haven’t earned and our singular response is, “Thank you?”

The first reading incorporates a verse from today’s psalm: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Acts identifies Jesus as the one who suffered, was rejected and then exalted by God.) The psalm encourages us and the community to give thanks for God’s marvelous deeds and, when necessary, to seek refuge in God who is trustworthy and will not fail us. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord God.…” Notice how the psalm uses repetitions. “Give thanks to the Lord….”, addressed to the community (The opening and closing verse), and, “I will give thanks to you for you have answered me.”, addressed to God. By repetition the psalmist is doing what we do when we want to stress an important point, we repeat, or use similar words for the same purpose.

Grateful acknowledgment of God’s gifts leads us to the Eucharist, our community prayer of thanksgiving. (The Greek word “eucharistes,” means to give thanks.) For what, or whom, shall we give thanks in our celebration today? The gifts of creation; our family; church community; sufficient food; good medical care, etc.? And, as we pray our psalm of thanks, we are also aware of those without food; healthcare; safety for their families; employment, etc. The psalm of thanks stirs our awareness of others in our world who are without and challenges us to ask, “How can I help them so they too will give thanks to God?”

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: