'Tis the season of getting a savior
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2002
Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7
Psalms 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
Christmas is all about getting things. Kids get toys. Adults get bills. Houses get decorated. Churches get packed.
But Christmas is also about giving. Giving gifts, giving time and giving thanks.
When Advent begins next week, the lectionary gives a message about getting. The refrain for the responsorial psalm (Psalm 80) is, "Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved" (4). We pray that we might get a savior.
Each week the lectionary recommends a responsory as part of the liturgy of the word. Normally this text comes from the Book of Psalms, but there are exceptions. Normally, it echoes a theme from the first reading, but there are exceptions.
You may not even sing the psalm assigned for the day. Your community can choose a different one. Often the musicians lead a song similar to the recommended psalm. The switch is permitted, but the original psalm was selected carefully. When you sing that psalm, you enrich the liturgy of the word.
The church has long honored Psalm 80 as a prayer especially fitting for Advent. It includes many themes that suit the season. Next week those themes also appear in the first reading (Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7).
The adjective "responsorial" has more to do with the structure of the psalm than its placement. Many people assume it is a "response" to the first reading. This placement does let the assembly sing as a response to what the reader has proclaimed. But the psalm is responsorial because it alternates in a kind of call and response between the cantor and the assembly. Everyone sings a refrain, and the cantor or choir sing the verses.
Psalm 80 is a public lament acknowledging that the people have not kept the covenant with God. They ask for mercy and promise never to stray again.
Next week we sing a few verses excerpted from the psalm. We address God at the beginning. We skip to the verses asking care for the vine that God's right hand has planted. We close with the belief that God will come to help and the promise that "we will no more withdraw from you."
All these verses are wrapped with the aforementioned refrain. Actually, very few psalms have their own refrain. At mass, we assign a refrain to all the psalms, even those that have none in the bible. Psalm 80, though, actually does carry a refrain, and it is the one the lectionary assigns for us next week.
We sing this psalm as Christians. We believe that God foretold the mystery of Christ through the psalms. We believe that Christ is the answer to the prayer in Psalm 80, "Let us see your face and we shall be saved."
The psalm includes many loving details.
God is called "the shepherd of Israel," who keeps a "throne upon the cherubim." God is a royal shepherd. God rules over all, yet tenderly cares for the sheep. The throne is probably a reference to the "Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned upon the cherubim" (1 Samuel 4:4 and 2 Samuel 6:2). This solemn address recognizes the holiness of God before the psalmist asks God to rouse up that divine power and "come to save us."
The word "save" is a key element in Advent. The name Jesus means "savior." When we ask for salvation, we are asking for its personification: Jesus.
The psalm also mentions the vine that God has planted. In the omitted verses, this is the vine God took from Egypt and planted in Israel: the chosen people rescued from slavery and brought to safety. The psalmist asks the divine horticulturist to tend the unkempt garden.
The psalm also mentions "the son of man." This probably referred to the king of Israel, the one whom God made strong and who could rely on God. Christians see those words and think about Jesus, who applied this expression to himself, and of the body of Christ, the church, in constant need of God's protection, nurture and care.
"Give us new life," the psalmist begs. Here, too, for Christians, we see an allusion to the fullness of life coming in the word made flesh.
Next week's psalm is about getting and giving, in the true spirit of the season. It prays that we might get a savior. It promises that we will give ourselves back and call upon God's name.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Church, Cameron.