March 2, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Psalms were the prayers Jesus prayed

John F. Fink(Nineteenth in a series)

Many Catholics have never been taught to appreciate the Psalms.

That’s too bad because these ancient Jewish prayers remain essential to the life of the Catholic Church.

Part of a Psalm is included in almost every Mass. But, too often, those at Mass don’t pray those Psalms with any great devotion.

The Psalms were the prayers that Jesus prayed. As any good Jewish boy of his time, he probably knew most of the 150 Psalms by heart. Even on the cross, he prayed Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And his final words, “Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit,” is from Psalm 31.

St. Thomas More loved the Psalms. Some of them were part of his daily prayers, particularly the seven penitential Psalms—6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. For night prayer with his family, he chose Psalms 51, 25, 67 and 130.

Toward the end of his life, he wrote an extended commentary on Psalm 91, and while in prison he collected verses from 31 Psalms to form one powerful prayer he could pray in his cell. His final prayer was Psalm 51.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Psalms “the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament” (#2596). They were composed from the time of David until after the exile to Babylon, but not as late as the Maccabean period, about 165 B.C.

Most of the Psalms were composed for liturgical worship, although they are both personal and communal. Today, someone who prays the entire Liturgy of the Hours over a four-week period will pray at least parts of 146 Psalms. They will not pray Palms 54, 58, 83 and 109. They either contain accusations against God himself or curse antagonists.

Some Psalms are prayed more often than others are. The one prayed most frequently is Psalm 95, since it is the Invitatory Psalm, a call to praise God, the first prayer of each day.

Praise of God is the most common theme of the Psalms. Indeed, the Psalms were collected into five books of the Psalter, which means “Praises.” But there are many other forms of prayer, too— lament, contrition, petition, thanksgiving. Some, too, reflect Jewish history and theology.

They usually are simple prayers and they sound spontaneous, but some are literary masterpieces, especially Psalm 119. By far the longest psalm in the Psalter, it has 176 verses. It is an acrostic: Its 22 stanzas (of eight verses each) are in the order of the Hebrew alphabet and each verse within a stanza starts with the same letter.

Everyone can have his or her favorite psalms. Mine are Psalms 8, 15, 23, 25, 27, 42, 51, 84, 90, 100, 103, 130, 139, 145 and 150.

St. Ambrose wrote, “A Psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, praise of God, the assembly’s homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song.” †

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