Each year, Advent has its emerging flow which leads us to Christmas. It is a season of hope, rejoicing, preparation and anticipation, as well as a season of yearning. Responsorial Psalms, as sung expressions of God’s Word, play an important role in expressing each of these through liturgical ritual. In this article, I am going to explore the prescribed Advent Psalms for each Sunday and how they help fully express the rest of the scripture passages chosen for those days. I will also speak to the importance of choosing an appropriate musical setting of each psalm or canticle.
First Sunday of Advent
For the first Sunday of Advent, the response is from Psalm 80, with the refrain “Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.” The readings themselves are an appeal to God to come, not as a baby, but to come from the heavens and reveal the very self of God to us. The gospel has those great phrases: “Be alert!” “Be watchful!” We do not know when the Lord will come, and so we must be alert. This is a warning of sorts for the whole of the Advent season.
And so we appeal, in the responsorial psalm, to let us see the Lord’s face, so we will know. The musical setting might have a yearning or longing quality when sung. This is not a necessity in the setting itself, but in the sung interpretation. It is neither too bright, nor too mournful, but simply longing for God to be revealed.
Second Sunday of Advent
The second Sunday of Advent for Year B, provides what most of us think of as the dominant theme of Advent every year – Prepare! From Isaiah to John the Baptist, to our own homes, this overarching call to be prepared for the Lord to come is striking. The psalm calls us to kindness, so that we will be prepared for salvation. Psalm 85: Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation. When the Lord comes, we will know through kindness, truth, justice and peace. Even now, when we experience kindness, (or truth or justice or peace) we know the Lord is present.
This week, the psalm expresses both how we will know the Lord, but it provides a reminder that we grow in our own understanding of God’s presence in our lives as we work on being kind, truthful, and just to one another. The music should be uplifting, and express that understanding.
Third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday
Each year the gospel of the third Sunday presents John the Baptist, not as the forerunner, but as the one who knows immediately that Jesus is the Christ, the promised one. This is cause for rejoicing. This is Gaudete Sunday. And the “responsorial psalm” is the Canticle of Mary, the Magnificat, with its simple refrain “My soul rejoices in my God.” This is the height of rejoicing for the Advent season. We know that God is in our midst, and that our whole being rejoices each day as we accept God in our lives. There are beautiful settings of the Magnificat. Find one that fits your musicians’ voices and instruments, and is uplifting.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
The fourth Sunday of Advent this year centers on the Annunciation, the promise fulfilled. While it might seem unusual to have Mary’s canticle sung on the third Sunday as the psalm, it is the fulfillment of the promise and the covenant that are expressed in Psalm 89. While the psalms for weeks 1 and 2 are psalms of lament, Psalm 89 is a royal psalm. We sing “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord” with confidence and faithfulness. We find that goodness in each reading, and the royalty of God in king David establishing a house that will endure forever.
This mystery made known to all nations, as described in the letter to the Romans, is also made known to a humble maiden, Mary, and to all of us through all time. Psalm 89 reminds us of that covenant, established forever. It also reminds us that we, like Mary, are to remain faithful to that covenant. As you search and study new settings of Psalm 89, find one that speaks this to you, so that you can sing it with your assembly.
This year we can express in new psalm settings, clear and simple, that this one weekly flavor connects the Sunday with the season with our assemblies and our voices, our own heart’s preparing and rejoicing for the Lord to come.
Prescribed Advent psalms – Further Reading
Sing a New Song: The Psalms in the Sunday Lectionary by Irene Nowell, OSB is a great resource to learn more about the connection between a prescribed psalm and the other readings for every Sunday/Feast of the three year liturgical cycle.