The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.
This Sunday’s responsorial psalm (121) is one of 15 “songs of ascent” in the Bible. Most are attributed to King David. As pope emeritus Benedict XVI explained, songs of ascents “accompanied (the pilgrim) to the encounter with the Lord in the Temple of Zion.” That is why “songs of ascent” are also called “pilgrim songs” — they remind us that we are on a journey.
You can hear the journey theme in the psalm verses this weekend: about feet not slipping, raising eyes to mountains and needing protection from the hot sun in the day and darkness at night.
The U.S. bishops remind us that Psalm 121 is meant as “a blessing given to someone embarking on a dangerous journey.” In Jesus’ time, it was used during journeys to and from Jerusalem for holy days.
Pope Benedict added that Psalm 121 “is a psalm of trust, for the Hebrew verb shamar, ‘to safeguard, to protect,’ is repeated in it six times.”
Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, noted that “some Jews recite the final verse of Psalm 121 when kissing (by touch of hand) the mezuzah (a case holding biblical verses recorded and posted on the doorpost) when leaving or entering a home.”
Practicing Jews place a mezuzah on every door and usually touch the mezuzah often — whether for a long journey or a trip to the kitchen. It’s a way they stay in touch with the reality of God in their lives.
We don’t have mezuzahs on our doors, but we do stop at our church doors to bless ourselves with holy water, using the sign of the cross. We then repeat the sign of the cross many times at Mass. And, as Mass ends, we are sent forth with a blessing in the same sign of the cross.
If you attend a Mass celebrated by Bishop David Ricken, you will hear words similar to Psalm 121 (2) in his final blessing:
V. “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” / R. “Both now and forever.”
V. “Our help is in the name of the Lord”. / R. “Who made heaven and earth.”
This is “the episcopal blessing” (sometimes called “the pontifical blessing”). It is used by bishops, but not priests. Its words actually come from another song of ascent, Psalm 124:8 and from Psalm 113:2. Psalm 113 is part of what is called “the Egyptian Hallel.” Hallel is a Jewish word from which we get our word “Alleluia.” Psalm 113, like Psalms 121 and 124, reminds us of God’s work both in the lives of ancient Israelites and in our lives today.
As you journey into a new week, remember that God goes with you to guard your steps.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of multiple books.