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Talk: Praying the Psalms - Canon Dr Julie Gittoes

Education is a central aspect of the Cathedral’s mission.  We offer opportunities for learning, dialogue and engagement with issues of public debate.

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Thursday 17th March 2016
Lent Series 2016
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Praying the Psalms in Holy Week

Praying the psalms during Lent has been a great blessing: we are a learning and praying community; we’ve been drawn into lives of others with great wit and wisdom; insight and challenge. There’s been quite a bit of laughter along the way; as well as a deepening of our knowledge of God and each other.

Praying the psalms as we move into Holy Week, we speak, sing and hear our psalmody afresh: images, language, symbol, re-enactment; the words Jesus knew; hearing them in light of death and resurrection; yet remaining our words.  This is the culmination of all we’ve shared together. 

Orientation, disorientation and reorientation: expresses the reality we undergo this week.

Liturgical expression of these texts: their musicality and setting; hearing some in different registers.

The reality of sleep: of Sabbath that is the sleep of death itself.

The mystery of word and sacrament: facing the challenge and liberation of the imprecatory psalms.

When we think of psalms in the context of Holy Week, perhaps we leap to psalm 22 and the heartrending cry ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

The words of the Psalms on our Lord’s lips; but they are also on ours, day by day. This evening may well take a more contemplative turn; it’s a bit risky on my part; but hopefully words, images and conversations will form and inform us.

How do the Psalms help us to be drawn more deeply into the drama of Holy Week? How does reciting them enable us to reflect more deeply on the mystery of salvation?

The crowds had them on their lips as they sang: as they sang and shouted hosanna to the son of David; the disciples may have sung them as they left the upper room and walked to Gethsemane.

Walter Brueggemann contends that the Psalms are the ‘most reliable theological, pastoral, and liturgical resource given us in the biblical tradition’. Yes, we do find in them a voice for our own hopes and doubts, joys and afflictions, laments and praise; but there’s more to it than that.   As songs of disarray and of surprising new life, might we find in them, a way of being caught up in Jesus’ death and resurrection?

On Tuesday morning, sixty children used scissors and sellotape to transform piles of newspaper into palm branches: the rustling was noisy and effectively conjured up something of the atmosphere of a jostling crowd.  In a way, their liveliness was an expression of the psalmist’s imperative in psalm 118 – ‘bind the festal procession with branches’. News print might be a pale imitation; but the spirit of rejoicing, gladness and thanksgiving was palpable in their singing and waving.

Hosanna is on our lips as we approach Palm Sunday.

We hear echoes of Psalm 118 in our readings, hymns and prayers on that day: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

It is indeed a lively invitation to join in worship. In verse 24 we hear: ‘this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.’

Gates are flung upon; the righteous enter.   The celebration is invoked because the Lord has acted; the triumphant leader is welcomed in.  We glimpse a moment of deliverance. We can perhaps imagine the melee, the noise, the energy. The binding together of branches in procession speaks of the unity of the worshippers – tips of leaves touching perhaps; a canopy of light and colour.

Psalm 118 includes the proclamation and praise of God, echoed by the people: ‘O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, / for his steadfast love endures for ever.’

The crowds were united on the streets of Jerusalem, as they too greeted a king.

But as they sang words of blessing, would the words of rejection and salvation also have resonated?

Verse 27 is one that we hear on Jesus’ lips in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘the stone that the builders rejected / has become the chief cornerstone’.   It’s a phrase picked up by Peter in Acts.

Cornerstones give buildings stability. According to God’s purposes, the people of Israel were to be such a focus for the kingdom. Yet they were rejected by the nations. To hold the Psalm in mind as Jesus enters Jerusalem – not as a triumphant leader but as one who comes in humility – plays with our notions of time and linear narrative.

We stand with the crowds – carrying too the memory of God’s faithful and steadfast love. We stand not just in anticipation of glory but in anticipation of rejection.

In our passion liturgy that tension is heightened. We know that the crowds will turn. We know that those who cry hosanna will shout crucify; we know that those who pour out blessings will utter scorn and derision; we know that those who flung open the gates and threw down palms will watch Jesus become the man of sorrows walking to his death at Golgotha; the place outside the city wall.

Only part of Psalm 31 is set for the passion: we a thrust into the darkness of distress, grief and misery. There a pleas for the Lord to be gracious and yet… my life is spent, my strength fails and my very bones waste away. To be scorned by adversaries, regarded with horror by neighbours and dreaded by acquaintances is such a degree of alienation that the psalmist says I am ‘like one who is dead’, I am a ‘broken vessel’.

Scheming, plotting and whispers of terror: yes, those things too are part of our Palm Sunday drama.

This is not just personal physical and mental distress. It is pointing us to the cost salvation. Human fear and the desire for power – or in the words of the psalmist, lying lips, insolent speech, pride and contempt are exposed. God’s response is to love us to the end. In Jesus we see the steadfastness of God’s love; our servant king. He is the one of whom we can say ‘you are my God’; God with us in the messiness and brutality of life.

As we pray through Holy Week, the psalms continue to speak to us, addressing our human condition. Or is it we who are transformed as we speak them?

The psalmist reaches out to God - articulating hopes of deliverance. 'Lord, deliver me' perhaps summarises the heartfelt cries our hearts - expressed by generations gone before us; expressed in our own lives.

Psalm 25 begins 'To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. / O my God, in you I trust'.

This is our first most and most fundamental orientation: our desire for God and a desire to walk in God's ways. Perhaps this is what we might describe as a way of holiness? The psalmist goes before us in this way - in the face of adversity, there are hopeful echoes that God's character will shape our lives.

This psalm enables us to overhear, to stand alongside, to become a pupil of prayer; learner in the ways of God.  'Make me know your ways, Lord': teach me and lead me; remember not my sins but be mindful of your mercy, O Lord. For 'all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.' 

The language is both of intimate friendship and also of reverence and awe. To say that we fear the Lord is to enter into a Hebrew frame of thought expressing love of God as our first priority.  Out of this place of trust, the psalmist names concerns which are our concerns: loneliness and affliction; the desire for forgiveness and relief from troubles. 

In naming them before God, they become arrow prayers. In the midst of human anxiety and confusion and the desire to live in God's love - such prayers root us moment by moment in that love. We are hooked into God. We're filled with a patient impatience.

I wait. I wait. I wait.

If the words resonate with our lives; they resonate too with the way Jesus himself walks this week. We catch our breath as we hear in psalm 41 the line: 'Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, / who ate my bread has lifted the heel against me.'

If that makes us flinch with an awareness of what is to come as bread is broken, as friends speculate about who will betray their Lord, then so does the expression of the desire to repay such disloyalty.

Yet, in the face of acknowledging such human instincts - the thoughts of our innermost hearts - the acknowledgement of God's character remains. The Lord delivers, protects, sustains and heals. The Lord is the stronghold of our life - of whom shall we be afraid?  Assurance breaks in. In psalm 27 we hear: 'The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?'  This is a psalm full of conviction - that God is faithful; God is with us.

Our horizon is extended beyond the trials of this life: desire to abide with God, to behold the mystery and beauty of the Lord. That is our ultimate hope. It’s so boldly declared that songs and melodies combine with cries of the heart.  Even when parental bonds fray, the plea for face to face encounter is directed to the Lord. Perhaps such defiant assurance shaped Paul's letter to the Romans, when he lists all the threats and adversities that overwhelm us, and writes boldly that 'nothing can separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus'.

Yet again we are bidden: wait for the strong... take courage... wait.

Even when it is our equal, our companion and our own familiar friend who taunts us? Even when it is the one whose company we've enjoyed - who walked with us to worship God - who betrays us? Then do we have courage and strength?  As we enacted the Last Supper with the Year 2 children from St. Peter's, one of them said 'betrayal is when your friend goes on to the other side'.  To be human is to know the reality of the violation of trust, friendship; psalm 55 expresses that burden of such anguish.

Then is our heart stricken. Then we groan. Then we lie awake. The restless isolation of being taunted is described in psalm 102 as being like 'a lonely bird on the housetop'.

'Hear my prayer, O Lord; / let my cry come to you.'  Such patience and persistence is part of our spiritual discipline; is it perhaps an impatient patience?

For when our soul is troubled, when it feels that our cries go unheard, our questioning intensifies. The litany of psalm 88 is a longing for salvation in the depths of despair: forsaken, without help, as if in the grave already; cut off, forgotten, overwhelmed; darkness encroaches and we feel shut in. Even then we spread out our hands to God.

Is God's steadfast love declared in the grave? Is there hope for the dead? In the depths of despair, the 'whys' of our cries ring out.

In our own generation, where death might be regarded as the final annihilation of all that we are; the Hebrew thought of this psalm perhaps has a contemporary twist. Yet we are called to have hope; we are to declare that death is not the ultimate reality; it doesn't have the final world.

In this holiest of weeks, all this is taken up by God in Christ: the betrayal by our familiar friend; the isolation of garden, cross and grave; the depths of despair and overwhelming darkness. All our cries are heard and made by God with us.  There is no longer anywhere where God's love is not: even in the depths of the grave.

For us, these psalms have immersed in the drama of human life. These laments and praises, prayers and honest self-expression are offered by us; but also lead us in to the nature of God's love. They invite us to walk with Jesus this week - confronting betrayal, suffering and death in a real time out working of the drama of this week.

Now we turn to the events of Maundy Thursday: an upper room is prepared, feet are washed and bread is broken. God's faithfulness is remembered. Yet Jesus' own words this night disrupt and deepen the meaning of redemption. All that the psalmists hoped for is made flesh.  Take, eat, this is my body. Do this. Remember me.

The psalm we hear on this night is draws us into the expression of the goodness of God. In psalm 116, the writer declares his love of one who is gracious, compassionate and faithful: ‘I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications’ is the opening tribute to God.

It’s a claim rooted in personal experience.  Cries for help had been heard: in the face of death and at the lowest ebb; in tears and affliction; in consternation when confronted with lies. Is this perhaps an expression of grace? The psalmist loves God and calls upon the divine name – the one who’d remained faithful to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would surely remain faithful in this generation?

Praise takes on a visible and tangible form: offering the sacrifice of thanksgiving; fulfilling vows in public; being a servant of the Lord. A life dedicated to God becomes a form of witness – in what we do as well as what we say; in the strength we find in worship as well as the freedom we find in God’s service.

But let’s go back to the psalm and hear these words in the context of the unfolding drama: ‘O  LORD, I am your servant’. Tonight we remember how our teacher and Lord disrobed, wrapped a towel around him and washed his disciples’ feet; we remember how Peter resisted; how he was challenged about what it was to be one with Jesus; how his whole-hearted response – wash my hands, my head – led to the command to wash each other’s feet. ‘I have set you an example’ says our Lord, ‘if you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’

Even when, perhaps especially when, there is disagreement, mistrust, consternation and affliction, this is what we are to do. This is who we are to be. This is at the heart of our witness. How do we learn to improvise faithfully on this command? What does it look like – where is the Spirit calling us to serve?

We do not do it in our own strength but by being nourished by Christ himself. ‘I will lift up the cup of salvation’ says the psalmist ‘and call upon the name of the Lord’.  Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember God’s mighty acts of creation and salvation; we pray that by the power of the Spirit the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands might become for us Christ’s body and blood. 

We remember this night. On the night that he was betrayed, he had supper with his friends. Our remembering is more than subjective recollection – remembering that something happened, once upon a time. It is more than that. Our remembrance is a point of encounter with our Lord: we receive what we are, we become what we receive, the body of Christ. And because we remember in the light of the resurrection, we also catch a glimpse of a new future. The horizons of God’s Kingdom are extended; we commit ourselves to work for justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.

Every time we break this bread; we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. But on this evening, we stand as those who are penitent in the face of our own acts of denial.  We do so in the assurance that Jesus’ giving of himself; his laying down of his life for his friends, liberates us from the snares of death, distress and anguish.

This is the cup that Jesus takes up: the cup of suffering.

‘I will lift up the cup of salvation’, says the psalmist.

‘Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me’, says our Lord.

‘and call upon the name of the LORD’, says the psalmist.

‘Yet, not my will by yours be done’, says Jesus.

Luke tells us that in his anguish ‘he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’

The disciples slept – in grief and exhaustion; unaware of the enormity of events.

A crowd gathers; there’s a kiss. This is what betrayal looks like; my own familiar friend. And Jesus says: ‘this is your hour, and the power of darkness’.

Perhaps it is the pairing of psalms 42 and 43 that make sense now. ‘Where is your God?’

‘My soul is cast down’.      

‘My tears have been my food day and night’.

‘Deep calls to deep’.

‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, / and shy are you disquieted within me?’

‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God’.

The throng going in procession to the house of God; the shouts and songs of thanksgiving and the multitude making festival: all this feels a long way off. Yet and yet, ‘Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.’

Vindicate me; defend my cause. In the face of grief and the oppression of enemies: ‘O send out your light and your truth, let them lead me.’

Yet in a few hours, passed from the Jewish police and soliders to Caiaphas the high priest; in a few hours his taken to Pilate; in a few hours he’s condemned, flogged, mocked and handed over as the crowd cries ‘crucify’.

And in the midst of this noise and violence, he says: ‘for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

‘What is truth?’ says Pilate. And later he says, ‘Where are you from?’

And Jesus gave no answer. His silence echoes the silence of psalm 39: ‘I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail’.

‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’

Life hangs in the balance: as in psalm 39 -  life is fleeting, a few handbreadths; a mere breath, a shadow. ‘My distress grew worse’… ‘hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry’.

The walk is painfully slow.

The weight of the wood is too much.

The psalms are like a drum beat. In 130 we hear the pulse of prayer from the deep; we hear cries of supplication.

‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice!’

‘I wait for the LORD, my soul waits’.

‘If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?’

‘But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered’.

‘O Israel, hope in the LORD!

‘For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.’

From the cross, our Lord speaks words from psalm 22.

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

The psalmist goes on – perhaps on Jesus lips too:

‘The words of my groaning… O my god, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest’.

And yet: ‘you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel’. People trusted and God delivered; they cried and the Lord saved.

This is he: God with us – enthroned on the cross.

This is he: scorned, despised and mocked.

This is he: poured out like water, bones out of joint; mouth dried up.

This is he: stared at and gloated over, as ‘they divide my clothes among themselves and for my clothing they cast lots.

The words of psalmist, the expression of desolation and human cruelty are born by the one who is God with us.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

We know that the psalm goes on to speak words of praise; the poor shall eat and be satisfied. All the ends of the earth ‘shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him’.

That is our hope. Standing here we see that love and glory.

But standing there, do we continually cry the petitions of psalm 143:


‘Hear my prayer… the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground’.

‘Answer me quickly, O LORD; my spirit fails.’

‘Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit’.

And he cries out: ‘into your hands O Lord, I commend my Spirit’; ‘It is finished’.

Friends come.


They stretch out their hands to hold lifeless limbs.

Preserve my life?

Bring me out of trouble?

Destroy my adversaries?

Are these hopes of the psalmist now crushed forever?

In psalm 22 we hear that ‘to him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go to the dust, and I shall live for him’. Friends tend him; they bring spices and linen clothes; they lower him into the cold and darkness of a tomb.


‘Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.’

‘And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.’

‘Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord…’

Can we continue with the psalmist, reaching the end of psalm 22?


We are those future generations: proclaiming ‘his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it’.

The substance of this ‘it’ is deliverance from sin and death.     


All the cries and voices of supplication are heard: this death destroys death.

Yes, the distress is real; the grief of disciples who’d fled and the women who’d watched and the men who’d buried is real.

As psalm 31 puts it: ‘be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief; my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away’.

Do we hear these words differently on Holy Saturday than on Monday evening? Then perhaps the words condemning the wicked to go ‘dumbfounded to Sheol’ revealed our human desire for justice or revenge; yet perhaps  there a difference when we hear cries of scorn, horror and brokenness when we know that the one who is our stronghold has broken the stronghold of hell. He has plumbing the depths.


We face the silence of the grave: ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit; for you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God’.

Yet the work of our redeemer is being done: ‘incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily’ says the psalmist.

Continuing: ‘Blessed be the LORD, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me…’ The psalm speaks of being alarmed as when a city is besieged. Here, being driven from sight takes us beyond the grave; such is the depth of the love of God in Christ Jesus.


As Paul writes: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

He is indeed our refuge. The words of psalm 142 heard on this holy, silent day of grief: ‘you are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living’.

In death there is hope. This is more than the psalmist could have imagined. Companionship not just in loneliness or when our spirit faints; but God bringing light into the very depths of darkness, where there is not breath.

On this evening of vigil, we wait into the evening hours; until the breaking in of dawn. We wait for fires to be kindled; candles to be lit; for bells to ring and for the A-word to be sung. The glory of God rings out because the tomb is empty.


We remember on this night the story of liberation; a story known by the psalmists – recited by them time and time again. Psalm 114 describes power of the LORD leading Israel out of from Egypt and the ‘house of Jacob from a people of strange language’.

‘Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water’. The God who delivered a people long ago, still delivers us.

And on Easter Day, we repeat again the words of Psalm 118: ‘I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders has become the chief cornerstone’.

We say and sing these words in the assurance that this is the Lord’s doing; that it is marvelous; that this is the day that the Lord has made.


But rejoicing is far from the lips of the women when they arrive at the tomb – bringing with them the aroma of spices to the coldness of death. They are afraid. He is not here. He is risen.

Rejoicing is far from the lips of Peter and John when they hear the news; when they hear the Mary Magdalene tells them the stone has been moved, they run, trying to outdo one another in haste. They look in and see. They go in and look. One sees and believes.


‘I shall not die, but live’ says the psalmist as he writes of glad victory songs.

‘They did not yet understand the scripture’, wrote John, ‘that he must rise from the dead’.

‘he did not give me over to death’, says the psalmist, rejoicing with his people after battle is done; threats have subsided.

‘But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb’.


She stands alone in what my supervisor Dan called ‘cross light’: the mystery, agony, glory and redemptive power of the cross. She stands where the sting of death becomes the life abundant. She cannot see it yet.

She knows what she sees – an empty tomb. Her instinct tells her that she must find out where her Lord has been taken. She does not recognize him; she assumes he’s the gardener. She hears here name; she knows her Lord. Her instincts tell her to reach and hold him. ‘O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever!’

But she can’t cling on. it’s a very human moment. Embracing new life means letting go. It’s lesson perhaps we all need to learn. One of the reasons I think this story so affects me is that I recall hugging my father the night before major surgery and he said ‘don’t hold on to me too tightly, Ju’. And I thought how absurd because I wasn’t. Not physically. But perhaps he had a better grasp of letting go than I did. Perhaps he had a level of trust I the face of death that meant for him it was the beginning of life.

Weeping and naming; letting go and being sent.

‘The LORD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation’.


Where does it come together? Where does it make sense? For me returning to the beginning – hearing the words of Palm Sunday ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ as we remember the Last Supper; as in the power of the Spirit we encounter Christ in bread and wine. There psalmists and saints, with Dan, my dad we tell of God’s marvelous works.  As we hear in psalm 66: ‘make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise; say to God “how awesome are your deeds!... All the earth worships you’

On Easter Day, the psalms resound with that vision: ‘Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds among mortals’. Yes, in psalm 66 this refers to passing through the red sea on dry land.

But now we rejoice in liberation for all people.

We are called and sent to be a people of praise and prayer; to be a people living in reconciling love; to be a people witnessing to that in word and dead; to be a generous pilgrim people.


Psalm 117:

Praise the Lord, all you nations!
    Extol him, all you peoples!
For great is his steadfast love towards us,
    and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.
Praise the Lord!