On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, those parishes with catechumens in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) are encouraged to use the Sunday readings for Year A. These include, for the psalm response, the 23rd psalm.
The well-loved psalm reminds us that “the Lord is my shepherd.”
Today, this psalm that reminds us that “the Lord is my shepherd” is often used at funerals. However, Psalm 23 was not always tied to funerals or as a prayer for those who are in danger of death. It is also the perfect psalm for those preparing for the Sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation.
In Jewish tradition, Psalm 23 is indeed one of several psalms that may be used at a funeral, but it is also sung at the meal prayers on the Sabbath. Rabbi Shlomo Kesselman, who teaches Jewish law to rabbinical students at Central Lubavitch Yeshiva in Brooklyn, notes that the psalm is a prayer of protection.
“The psalm is a timeless testament to the rock solid faith of the Jewish people in knowing that God is always with us, protecting and guiding our path,” the rabbi explained.
Other psalms used for Jewish funerals and at times of mourning include psalms 16, 32, 90 and 91.
Despite its popularity, the use of psalm 23 at funerals in the United States only dates back about a century. It rose to prominence when the famous preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, described it as songbird among the psalms:
“The 23rd Psalm is the nightingale of the psalms,” Beecher wrote. “It is small, of a homely feather, singing shyly out of obscurity; but, oh! … It has charmed more griefs (sic) to rest than all the philosophy of the world. … It has poured balm and consolation into the heart of the sick, of captives in dungeons, of widows in their pinching griefs, of orphans in their loneliness. Dying soldiers have died easier as it was read to them.”
By the 1900s, the Book of Common Prayers of the Episcopal Church in the United States suggested this psalm for funerals. And, by 1916, the Methodist Church in the United States was doing the same.
The psalm’s connection to funerals springs largely from verse 4 and its “valley of the shadow of death.” However, the original Hebrew translation of this verse does not refer to “death” at all, but only “a dark valley” or “a valley of shadows.” So this can mean many dangers or trials, besides terminal illness and death.
However, the psalm’s ancient Christian history does view this verse as a form speaking of a valley of death — but not of bodily death. Rather, the link is to spiritual rebirth. St. Cyril of Alexandria noted the verse’s link to baptism: “Since we are baptized in the death of Christ, baptism is called a shadow and an image of death, which is not to be feared” (Patrologia Graeca, 46). St. Gregory of Nyssa said much the same thing: “Then you must be buried with him in his death by baptism. But this is not death itself, but the shadow and the image of death.”
This begins to reveal to us how the church has viewed Psalm 23 since ancient times: as a guide for those entering the church through baptism. Early catechumens — those who were baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil, and then received first Eucharist — were required to memorize this psalm and recite it at the Easter Vigil.
In fact, the entire psalm has been seen as an image, not only of Christ as the Good Shepherd, but also as words that visually remind us of the first three sacraments we all share: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist.
Think of the images invoked by the psalm: “still waters that restore the soul,” the “table set before enemies,” the “anointing with oil” and the “overflowing cup.” The images of the three sacraments come readily to mind.
In 1956, the Jesuit theologian Fr. Jean-Guenolé-Marie Daniélou, wrote a book titled, “The Bible and the Liturgy.” In it, he reviewed many writings of the early fathers of the church and what they said about sacramental preparation. He drew heavily from a source called Patrologia Graeca which contained the writings from the early church up to the fourth century.
From this source, and others, we hear St. Athaniasius saying, “The water of repose without doubt signifies holy baptism by which the weight of sin is removed.”
For images of the Eucharist, we can turn to St. Cyprian of Carthage, saying that the “overflowing cup” brings about a form of intoxication, but that, “It intoxicates in such a way that it does not make one lose his reason; it leads souls to spiritual wisdom.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa said much the same about “this wine that gladdens the heart and that produces sober inebriation in the soul, which raises the thoughts from what is temporal to what is eternal.”
St. Paul of Jerusalem noted that the “table in the sight of my foes” refers to “the sacramental and spiritual table which God has prepared for us” in the sight of demons “full of diabolic powers.”
The symbols of confirmation, especially of oil, are also clearly referred to in the psalm. However, the presence of the Holy Spirit is less apparent. Archbishop Dimitri Royster of the Orthodox Church in America says of the verse that the shepherd’s rod and staff refers to the Spirit. “He comforts the believer, or guides him, with the rod and staff (the shepherd’s crook) of the Spirit,” said Archbishop Dimitri, “for the one who guides or comforts is the Spirit.”
So we see the fathers of the early church found that Psalm 23 to be, as Archbishop Dmitri said, “both a prophecy and a summary of the mysteries (sacraments) of Christian initiation.”
This is what makes it such a perfect preparation for those about to enter the church — and a great reminder to those who have already been baptized and confirmed who receive Eucharist often. From the start of our lives in Christ, through our passage from this life to eternal life, the verses of Psalm 23 offer both guidance and comfort.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in an October 2011 teaching on this psalm, noted, “Psalm 23 invites us to renew our trust in God, abandoning ourselves totally in his hands. Let us therefore ask with faith … that he welcome us to his house, to his table and lead us to ‘still waters’ so that, in accepting the gift of his Spirit, we may quench our thirst at his sources, springs of the living water ‘welling up to eternal life’” (Jn 4:14; cf. 7:37-39).
Sources: orthodoxresearch.org; vatican.va; ncregister.com; graeca.patristica.net; bibleodyssey.org; the Catholic Encyclopedia; chabad.org; biblestudytools.com; myjewish learning.com; livingchurch.org; Christianity.com; Charles H. Spurgeon’s Treasury of David; and bible.org.