Water in the Book of Common Prayer

The freighter plowed its way steadily across the North Atlantic as I stood in the prow of the ship, looking out over an immense and empty expanse of water. No other boats in sight, no sea birds, no jet trails up above, only water. For the third day in a row water, only water.

More than 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean water. Half to three-quarters of the human body is made up of water. A child’s first home is in the water of the mother’s womb. Our everyday vocabulary conveys the power of water to shape and misshape our daily life: tsunamis and hurricanes, spring rains and relentless drought, the Colorado River and contention over water rights, polluted coastlines and the Exxon Valdez, dirty rivers and streams, and the call for universal access to clean water.

Without water there is no life. More than food and clothing and shelter, it is needed if life is to survive. From the womb to the last sips taken by a person close to death, water is our close companion whose presence is all too often taken for granted but whose absence is dreaded. Is it an exaggeration to take Saint Paul’s words to the Athenians (Acts 17:28) and apply them to water: “In [it] we live and move and have our being”? And what is true for us is true for every animal and plant. Water in all its life-sustaining abundance and awesome beauty is God’s gift to all living things.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

You send the springs into the valleys;

they flow between the mountains.

All the beasts of the fields drink their fill from them,

and the wild asses quench their thirst.

Beside them the birds of the air make their nests

and sing among the branches.

You water the mountains from your dwelling on high;

the earth is fully satisfied by the fruit of your works. (Ps. 104:10–13)

The Psalmist celebrates the precious gift of water and is awed by the God from whom this and every good gift comes:

You visit the earth and water it abundantly;

you make it very plenteous;

the river of God is full of water. (Ps. 65:9)

The Lord changed rivers into deserts,

and water-springs into thirsty ground……

He changed deserts into pools of water

and dry land into water-springs. (Ps. 107: 33, 35)

Mightier than the sound of many waters,

mightier than the breakers of the sea,

mightier is the Lord who dwells on high. (Ps. 93:5)

These and the twenty-eight other psalms that make reference to water are all part of the worship the Church offers to our Creator. If we look further than the Psalter, what place in our prayer and praise does water hold— the gift on which all life depends? The scope of this article is necessarily limited, so let us seek a partial answer to that question by examining just one liturgical resource— the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church (BCP).

At the heart of the Episcopal Rite of Holy Baptism is the Thanksgiving over the Water (BCP, pp. 306–7), which begins with these words:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.

Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their

bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.

In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John

and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ . . . .

The second paragraph of the prayer thanks God for the water of Baptism through which “we are buried with Christ in his death . . . share in his resurrection (and) are reborn by the Holy Spirit. “

The celebrant then touches the water and prays that it may be sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit so that “those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.”

The rich biblical references and the cumulative use of prepositions (“over/through/in”) make this a memorable prayer to proclaim and to hear. However, what is remarkable is that, despite the opening words of the prayer, the water is not itself the gift for which we thank God. Instead it provides the medium through which the saving acts of God are effected. In that respect the water of Baptism is similarly the medium through which the salvation of those baptized is brought about.

Elsewhere in the Prayer Book there is a surprising absence of references to water. In the extensive section of prayers (pp. 814­–835) there is just one petition—for rain “in this time of need” (no.43). In the section entitled Thanksgivings (pp. 836–841), no mention is made of the wonder of water in all its forms and the indispensable blessings that it brings to us.

Eucharistic Prayer C (pp. 370–372), which is notable because of its focus on the created order, makes no reference to water. In the Daily Office, Canticle 8 (p. 85) recalls Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea,[1] but once again it is God’s saving act that claims our attention.

Only the Benedicite (A Song of Creation, Canticle 12) celebrates the gift of water which responds to its Creator with exuberant praise:

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew . . .

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord . . .

Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas and streams,

O whales and all that move in the waters . . .

Praise him and glorify him forever. (pp. 88–89)

Here is one of the few places in the Book of Common Prayer where there is a clear echo of the Psalmist offering thanks to the Creator for God’s wondrous works in creation, water included.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Why this drought? Why this dearth of references to water in the prayer and praise of the Episcopal Church?

In the first place, the prayer of Christians in the West has been largely focused on the redeeming life and work of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. In the past century the sanctifying and empowering activity of the Holy Spirit has come to the fore. Now, with a growing sense of urgency, God the Father is being celebrated as the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Those familiar words from both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are now being amplified with references to God as Creator in the Eucharistic Prayers and the Prayers of the People and in the Daily Office.

Secondly, this failure to celebrate both the Creator and the creation he has brought into being has led to a divorce between the staples of daily existence and their sacramental use in worship. A communion wafer has nothing in common with the crusty bread on our table; a sip of wine from the chalice bears little resemblance to a festive drink; a handful of baptismal water does not suggest being washed clean all over; a smudge of chrism on the brow is a poor substitute for anointing the body with perfumed oil. By failing to use these elements of daily life liturgically in an immediately recognizable form, we diminish the close relationship between our sacramental worship and the created world we live in. This can lead to indifference to the material universe that impoverishes our worship and diminishes our sense of responsibility for the creation entrusted to us.

A third factor is the trivialization of the Rite of Holy Baptism. In his book, Celebrating the Rites of Initiation, James Turrell recalls the church in which he grew up:

The parish used a small bowl, no larger than a salad bowl, as the baptismal font. But because it was inconvenient to clean and polish this bowl, there was placed within it a Pyrex custard cup, about two ounces in capacity. The custard cup held the water to be used in baptism. This was such seriously impoverished symbolism as to render the deep language of the baptismal rite ludicrous . . . . If the vessel under consideration makes one snicker as one describes its contents as the waters of creation and as the Red Sea’s tides, then one needs a larger vessel.[2]

This is an extreme example of trivialization, but the majority of baptisms even today make for a disjunction between the way the sacrament is celebrated and the powerful images recalled in the lessons and prayers accompanying the baptism. Even when the congregation is asperged immediately following the baptism, the appropriate teaching has not been done and as a result the people are not reminded of their own baptism. Sadly, when all this is the case, the most public use of water in a liturgical context does little to drive home the material and spiritual significance of God’s gift of water.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

All creatures of our God and King,

lift up your voices, let us sing: Alleluia, alleluia! . . .

Swift flowing water, pure and clear,

make music for your Lord to hear, Alleluia, alleluia!

So, what are we to do? As one way of rectifying the dearth of attention to water in our worship, we might sing and preach about Saint Francis’s great hymn of creation. We might also draw on the Psalter, especially on those psalms that have significant references to water (Pss. 65, 93, 104, 107, and 124). We can select biblical lessons that have water at their heart: Jonah overtaken by a mighty storm as he seeks to avoid God’s call to go to Nineveh; Jesus calming the wind and the waves; Saint Paul shipwrecked en route to Rome.[3] We can find or compose prayers that give God thanks and praise for water in its many forms. Above all, we can celebrate Baptism with careful attention paid to the powerful words and actions that constitute the rite. All these will provide much needed springs in the desert.

Most promising in this regard is the “Season of Creation” which is being increasingly embraced by Christians around the world. This optional season in the Church Year begins on September 1 (the Day of Creation in the Eastern Orthodox Church) and extends through four Sundays to October 4 (the Feast of Saint Francis). Each of these four Sundays in the three-year cycle is devoted to an element of God’s creation. Those Sundays that bear directly on water are the Fourth Sunday in Year A (River Sunday) and the First Sunday in Year C (Ocean Sunday).

Each Sunday in the Season of Creation is provided with lessons, prayers and hymns, and sermon material. Taken together, they allow for all that God has brought into being to be in our minds and on our lips as we worship. Humankind in all its diversity, the beauty of the physical world, and the magnitude of the universe beyond our sight— all are the subject of our prayer and praise.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis have called on Christians to pray and work for the protection of the earth and its peoples, all alike the work of God’s hands. Like all else that God has made, the gift of water is to be celebrated, cherished and conserved. In that way we will give glory to God and help in realizing Jesus’s words: “I have come that all may have life and have it in all its fullness” (John 10:10).

In conclusion here is the Prayer for the Day from the Australian liturgy for Ocean Sunday:

God our Creator,

as we reflect on the mysteries of the ocean depths,

we celebrate the wondrous design of the seas that surround us. Help us to discern how we have polluted our oceans

and to empathize with the groaning of creation beneath us.

Teach us to sense the presence of God in the tides and currents of the surging seas.

Teach us to care for the oceans and all our waterways.

In the name of the Wisdom of God,

the creative force that designs and governs all creation.



Jeffery Rowthorn

Jeffery Rowthorn came from Union Seminary to Yale in 1973 as one of the founding faculty members of the new Institute of Sacred Music. For the next fourteen years he taught liturgy and served as Yale Divinity School’s first Chapel Minister. In 1987 he was elected Suffragan Bishop of Connecticut and then from 1994 to 2001 served as Bishop of the Episcopal congregations in Europe. Over the past forty years he has compiled and edited three hymnals and written hymns, among them the school hymn for Berkeley Divinity School and a hymn commissioned to mark the tercentenary of Yale University.


[1] Canticle 8, The Song of Moses (Cantemus Domino) consists of selected verses from Exodus 15 (vv. 1–6, 11–13, 17–18).

[2] James Turrell, Celebrating the Rites of Initiation (New York: Church Publishing, 2013), p. 79.

[3] Jonah 1:1– 2:10; Matthew 8: 23-27; Acts 27: 13–44.

[4] The Season of Creation, First Sunday, Year C (Ocean Sunday)

Note: Under the leadership of Dr. Norman Habel, the Uniting Church of Australia developed the first “Season of Creation,” providing a liturgy for each of the Sundays in the three-year cycle. The most recent liturgies for all the Sundays can be found at: season of creation.com/worship-resources/liturgies.
A further resource is: The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, edited by Norman C. Habel, David Rhoades and H. Paul Santmire (Fortress Press, 2011).


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Rowthorn, Jeffery. (2015) “Water in the Book of Common Prayer,” The Yale ISM Reivew: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 11. Available at https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Water in the Book of Common Prayer




Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane

An earlier version of this essay appeared as “He Who Hesitates is Human: Literary Portrayals of Gethsemane” in Perspectives on the Passion, ed. Christine Joynes. London: Continuum, 2008, 30–41; reproduced by kind permission of Bloomsbury-T&T Clark.

“Who do men say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels. They provide him with the various possibilities voiced on the street, but he is not interested in popular opinion. He wants to know where they stand. One way in which Christian tradition has responded is with creedal statements that aim to avoid error through clarity and definition. Take, for instance, the fifth-century Quicunque vult, the so-called Athanasian Creed. It wants to affirm at once that “our Lord Jesus Christ” is “Perfect God and Perfect Man”; he is “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father, as touching his Manhood.” By contrast, biblical approaches to the question of Jesus’s identity bring the messiness of human experience into play: the Gospel stories, like narrative in general, open up possibilities rather than closing them down, require interpretation rather than assent.

A case in point: who do the Synoptic Gospels say that Jesus is, based on his last words? We find one “equal to the Father” in Luke’s gracious savior, who is merciful to those who mock him (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” 23:34) and who promises the “good thief” a reward for his faithfulness (“Today you will be with me in paradise,” 23:43). Likewise, the Gospel of John presents Christ in control of the horrible scene on Golgotha: he has the wherewithal to find his mother another son (19:26–27) and, before his final breath, to announce that enough is enough, “It is finished” (19:30). On the other hand, Matthew and Mark have Christ give up the ghost in a cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The dissonance between these “last words” is lost when the tradition of preaching the Seven Last Words, for instance, merges the six “comfortable” sayings found in Luke and John with the single cry of Matthew and Mark: “Elo-i, Elo-i, lema sabach-thani?” Numbers talk, at least if you can get the cry of dereliction out of your head.

But what about the Garden of Gethsemane? The Gospel of John has us barely enter it: John places Jesus in an olive grove across the Kidron Valley (18:1) for the merest moment, and then only as the backdrop for his arrest. In the Synoptics—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—we find something quite different. Take Matthew’s account in chapter 26:36–46. In this dramatic scene, Matthew’s Jesus remains extraordinarily vulnerable until he sees that the end is nigh and takes charge, saying, “Get up, let us be going.” Underscoring his loneliness, Matthew puts only Peter, James, and John in the Garden with him. When this trio was last assembled by Jesus, they beheld the apotheosis of the Lord in a cloud of glory and heard a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt 17:5). But now we have a reversal of the Transfiguration. Instead of encountering the Father’s beloved Son in blinding glory, we find a Jesus in passionate turmoil, as described by the narrator (“He was grieved and agitated”) and confirmed by Jesus himself (“I am deeply grieved, even to death”).

Add to these words dramatic gesture. When Jesus advances into Gethsemane’s “oil press”—the etymology of the place name—he also moves more deeply into his grievance-unto-death: “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground.” Again, one recalls the Transfiguration account, when it was the disciples who fell to the ground “overcome by fear,” only to have Jesus comfort them: “Get up and do not be afraid” (17:7). Here Jesus comes to the disciples, appealing to them three times to watch with him, only to find them fast asleep. “The spirit indeed is willing,” he says, “but the flesh is weak.”

It is not the disciples’ weakness that is at the center of the story, however; rather, it is Jesus’s humanity: his deep emotion, his need for creature comfort, and his dependence on the men who were his “little children.” Whereas Peter, James, and John cannot stay awake even one hour, Jesus cannot rest for a single minute. Instead, he throws himself repeatedly on the ground, praying, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” The Evangelist Mark further heightens the emotion by having Jesus call out not only to his Father but also (in a sudden move from Greek to Aramaic) to his Abba, his Papa—a one-word shift into an intimate mode of address. However, no loving paternal presence shows up in Matthew’s Gethsemane. Jesus is devastated and alone.

This vision of Jesus at such a loss is one the Evangelist Luke cannot abide. His Savior may be “inferior to the Father concerning his manhood”—he may (as in Matthew and Mark) pray that the cup be removed; he may even sweat “like great drops of blood falling down on the ground”—but he is not alone. Suddenly there is an angel on the scene, come to give him strength. Nor does Jesus thrash about on the ground—Luke says instead that he “kneels”—or keeps trying to wake his three closest disciples. There is neither fear nor anguish in this scene, only a hero fighting the good fight, about to earn his crown of glory.

There is very little glory in more contemporary literary renderings of Jesus in the Garden. Nor is there much of any Godhead in his Manhood. For instance, in Rainer-Maria Rilke’s “The Olive Garden” (1908), Jesus says, “’I am alone, I am alone with all of human grief.” Rilke does not allow any divine intervention: no angel enters the scene. Furthermore, he insists that Jesus’s aloneness in the Garden links him to everyone else’s plight: he is no different from anyone “born in the world.”

And then there is Nikos Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ (1955), which presents Christ’s whole life as a struggle between willing spirit and wavering flesh. Gethsemane is where “the longing to see men, to hear a human voice, to touch the hands he loved” overwhelms Jesus. Thought of heaven all but disappears as he longs “to find on earth the only paradise anyone could want.”

“Father,” Jesus murmurs, “the world you created is beautiful, and we see it; beautiful is the world which we do not see. I don’t know—forgive me—I don’t know, Father, which is the more beautiful.”

For José Luis Saramago, in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), Gethsemane turns into a temptation scene, in which God and the Devil are revealed to be two sides of the same divine coin. Together, they present Jesus with the “cup” of the future. They predict the deaths of the disciples, give a lengthy alphabetical procession of subsequent martyrs, and foretell the horrors of Crusades and Inquisition. This vision of continual suffering provokes a final confrontation between Son and Father. The scene ends with the Devil’s observation, “One has to be a God to countenance so much blood.” Saramago’s Jesus is a dupe, his Father a vampire. We have come a long way from the Gospels here, let alone from the both/and mystery of the eternal Word made mortal Flesh.

Where I want to conclude, however, is with a contemporary poet, Denise Levertov (1923–97), who attempts not only to affirm the two natures of Christ, following orthodox Christianity, but also describe a dynamic tension between them. She wants to convey the tightrope that Jesus walked, that Jesus was.

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis[1]

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of His depth,
like anyone who has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit,
nor the faithless weakness of friends (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

With the double title of her poem, Levertov places her text in the Latin world of the West, as well as (literally and figuratively) in Jerusalem. We are asked to behold the Savior of the World along the Holy City’s tortuous Way of the Cross, long memorialized on the walls of many a Catholic church and perhaps presented most horrifically in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. But “Salvator Mundi” also points to another Christological reality—to a traditional iconographic pose, in which Christ (holding an orb or some other accoutrement of authority) looks straight into the eyes of the viewer, as in the Albrecht Dürer painting of this name. This is John’s Christ, radiant with glory.

Levertov depends heavily on visual art, but it is no Christus Rex whom she actually conjures up; rather, she alludes explicitly to two very different portrayals of the human savior of the world, each of which offers us a “Maybe” (the poem’s opening word) of what Jesus was like. To begin, she names Rembrandt and refers to his portraits of unnamed Semitic-looking young men taken to be “a Christ head after life”; his models were, in fact, contemporary Amsterdam Jews. Levertov does not allude to Rembrandt’s Philosemitism or her own Jewish ancestry. Rather, she concentrates on the vivid, welcoming humanity of an un-haloed Christ—a thirty-something rabbi, an itinerant healer, or perhaps the word-playing stranger who engaged the much-married Samaritan woman at her village well.

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.

In contrast to this gentle, serene visage—this portrait of the Savior as a young Jew—she then conjures “that face, in extremis” and therefore moves us away from the day-to-day life of Christ’s ministry to the terrible end-game of his passion. But whereas Rembrandt could give a probable likeness of the young Jew, she says, none of the Old Masters (“even the greatest”) could convey in line or paint what the tortured man must have looked like in his agony. “That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth / in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.”

The rest of the poem takes us along the Via Crucis—the second part of the poem’s title—from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha, by means of an imaginative exploration of the Savior’s interior life. Levertov signals Christ’s divinity not only by referring to him as “He” and “Himself” in the reverential upper case, but also by the quasi-creedal language she uses in her God’s-eye view of the Incarnation. The descent into human vulnerability was “what He, Who was God, / had promised Himself, and had entered / time and flesh to enact.” Here we have one “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead.”

Most of the text, however, explores what Levertov refers to as Christ’s “burden of humanness,” that is, the sheer weight of his being human. This Jesus is “like any mortal hero out of his depth.” He tastes “the humiliation of dread”; he experiences “the cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go.” In a show of personal empathy and identification with the male Christ, the female poet likens him to “anyone who has taken a step too far / and wants herself back.” She also suggests what the final refusal of the cup would have meant:

Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.

“Maybe.” The poem begins in surmise, and uses the resources of art history, lectio divina, and the work of sympathetic imagination to give us a keener sense of the God-Man. It draws to a close, however, in a flourish of the indicative, with the repeated assertion of what is (or, rather, what is not) the case. We approach the mystery of Christ’s anguish by eliminating the likely possibilities of what he felt: we cannot know for sure. In her final lines, however, Levertov moves very subtly away from negative assertion and back into surmise. She won’t presume to fathom the Savior’s heart and mind any more than the “greatest painters” could capture his full likeness. All she has to go on is the fervor of her personal identification, her own conviction:

Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

In these, her poem’s “last words,” Levertov brings together the passion accounts of Matthew and Mark with those of Luke and John without erasing their differences. The “sublime acceptance” of the Passion we find in Luke and John had to have, could only have “welled up” from the depths we witness on the bare ground of Gethsemane. For the God-Man to have been human indeed, and not merely playing at humanity, he would have had to (repeatedly) throw himself on the earth, his soul “deeply grieved, even unto death.” Before the Manhood could be taken into God, it would have had to return to the dirt from which Adam was molded, dust thrown down into dust, ashes to ashes.

In “Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis,” Levertov works valiantly to maintain the precarious balance of dogma but with an obvious tip of the scale in our human direction. She upholds the “purpose” of the Incarnation with orthodox conviction; she gives us a Savior of the World “Who was God.” Yet her poem both lingers and terminates where it must, in the drift of those very “mortal moments” that link us to the God-Man—the “maybe” moments that may be all that mortals ever know for sure.


Peter S. Hawkins is Professor of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. His work has long focused on Dante. He is the author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination; Dante, a Brief History; and Undiscovered Country: Imagining the World to Come. With Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg he has published two collections of essays on biblical reception in literature, Scrolls of Love: Ruth and the Song of Songs and From the Margins I: Women in the Hebrew Bible and Their Afterlives. Currently they are collaborating on a Bloomsbury Press book on the Bible and the American short story.


[1] ”Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis” By Denise Levertov, from EVENING TRAIN, copyright ©1992 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Hawkins, Peter. (2015) “Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 2, Article 6. Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu

View article as a PDF: Who Do You Say That I Am? Jesus in Gethsemane

Great Art and a People’s Music

Ask directors of amateur Jewish choral societies to name great pieces of “Jewish music.” Chances are, their answers will include several psalm settings: from selections of Salomone Rossi’s 1622–23 Songs of Salomon, to Louis Lewandowski’s 1870s showpiece arrangement of Psalm 150, psalm settings by prominent Israeli composers such as Tzvi Avni and Yehzekel Braun, Leonard Bernstein’s 1965 Chichester Psalms (Pss. 100, 108, 2, 23, 131, 133), Robert Starer’s Psalms of Woe and Joy (Pss. 6, 136, 148), Benjie Ellen Schiller’s Psalm 150, and even, as a crossover curiosity, Franz Schubert’s late 1820s setting of Psalm 92. Featuring Hebrew texts, these settings connect singers with traditional canons of Jewish knowledge. At the same time, they represent “art” as long-form examples of melody, harmony, and form.

Ask congregants what psalms they know from the liturgy. Some might offer numbers (150, 145, 92, 23), or substitute Hebrew names (“Halleluyah,” “Ashrei,” “Mizmor Shir”/”Tzaddik Katamar,” “Hashem Ro’i”); some might identify specific liturgical moments for introducing sets of psalms (Kabbalat Shabbat, P’sukei D’Zimrah, Hallel). But to most, psalms instead integrate deeply into Judaism’s ritual fabric: as a spiritual “warm-up,” as part of the liturgy’s emotional trajectory, as spiritual sustenance when preparing a body for burial, as a marker of spiritual time, as a medium for private reflection. For most worshipers, psalms are one part of a multilayered liturgy, alongside prayer texts, biblical and rabbinic writings, praise songs (piyyutim), and vernacular-language readings. Worshipers include psalms in their musical knowledge, whether in near-silent prayer, lined-out, read in interpretive translations, or sung with full-throated melodies. But, for the most part, Jewish worshipers don’t “sing psalms.” Rather, they pray, using all of the textual and musical sources available to them in a single worshipful package.

In my years of studying cantors, I have seen the psalms receive respect as part of a larger body of Jewish prayer materials. But I don’t recall hearing students or cantors give the psalms their own category, or hearing the psalms singled out as a unique genre within Jewish worlds of music.

Look closer in all of these settings, and you’ll see an internally consistent system at work. The act of singing psalms in concert offers a means for Jews to connect to broad social and spiritual conversations. In 1963, Washington, D.C. cantor Sholom Katz led a “Choir of Cantors” on a two-LP album of psalm settings, where he noted that “the Psalter has become the hymnbook of humanity because it is an inexhaustible and indispensable expression of the human spirit.” Fifty years later, the Zamir Chorale of Boston released its album Psalmsensation, presenting prominent psalm settings by Jewish composers alongside settings by William Billings, Charles Ives, and other international artists, to create “a multiethnic concert experience.” Follow many of these same singers into personal and communal prayer settings, however, and the psalms will change their role accordingly. Such is the flexibility of a canonical text, both liturgically and musically. Through whispering or recitation, monophonic or choral singing, Jews thus mediate the psalms’ foundational place in Judeo-Christian tradition with their own specific traditions of spiritual practice.


Judah M. Cohen is Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Musicology at Indiana University. He has authored The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment, and Sounding Jewish Tradition: The Music of Central Synagogue. Recent publications include the “Jewish Music” article in the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, and the Music entry for Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies. He is currently at work on a study of World War II-era narratives in musical theater.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Cohen. Judah M. (2014) “Great Art and a People’s Music,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 9.
Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu/

View article as a PDF: Great Art and a People’s Music

Psalm Singing in Roman Catholic Liturgy

Before the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholics were an unbiblical people. Today, all that has changed and the scriptures are familiar to regular churchgoers. Two major factors in making this transition have been the use of vernacular translations and the reintroduction of the Responsorial Psalm into the Mass after an absence of over fifteen hundred years.

With the Responsorial Psalm, the object of the post-conciliar liturgical reformers was to place into the mouths of worshipers the sung texts of brief psalm extracts as refrains, for this was always a sung item in the form in which it flourished in roughly the fifth through sixth centuries. The reason it had died out was because the musicians got hold of it, resulting in its replacement by prolix Latin Gradual chants, which effectively excluded the assembly as the music became more and more elaborate.

The post-conciliar reformers, then, were intent upon engaging the people once again as an integral part of the chant after the First Reading, which links that reading to the Gospel. To aid this, along with the reinstatement of the Responsorial Psalm, has come the reinstatement of the role of the cantor or psalmist (and this in turn has led to the development of the ministry of cantor or leader of song for the entire celebration, not just the psalm).

The classic Responsorial Psalm form consists of a refrain (often called a response) sung first by one or more cantors and repeated by all, followed by a stanza (often of four lines, or two psalm verses) sung by the cantor, with the people singing the refrain after each stanza. The form is called “responsorial” not just because it includes a response but because it is a response (to the First Reading). Not all scholars agree that this is the case, but the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does include instructions for singing the “Responsorial” Psalm without a response. (Very few people in fact do this.)

Responsorial psalmody developed out of an earlier form in which an Alleluia or other brief refrain was sung by the people at the end of every line of the psalm. The effect was something like a litany, and it is sometimes known as “antiphonal psalmody.”

A large musical repertoire has been generated in different styles over the forty-five years since the revised Ordo Lectionum Missae appeared in 1969. Some have been disappointed that the new Lectionary contains only excerpts from the psalms, normally four stanzas, rather than psalms being used in their entirety (which has in fact happened more recently with the increasing use of Entrance and Communion psalms with their antiphons). Complete psalms are, however, used in the Liturgy of the Hours, where they are bookended with an antiphon before and after. (For that reason this form is often incorrectly known as “antiphonal psalmody,” whereas, in its monastic form, it should be termed “alternating psalmody,” as it is sung by two sides of the choir or church in alternation.)

Anglican and Episcopal churches have also now adopted the responsorial format as a new way of singing the psalms, though not yet to a large extent. In the Catholic Church, the Psallite project has shown the pathway for numerous new variants on the basic refrain-plus-psalm form, and future challenges are emerging in the area of multilingual or intercultural psalmody. The Responsorial Psalm is undoubtedly one of the success stories of the post-conciliar reforms, and one can truly say that the vast majority of congregations now respond enthusiastically to the Psalmist’s exhortation: Psallite sapienter — “Sing praise with all your skill!” (Ps. 47:8).


Paul Inwood is an internationally-known liturgist, composer, organist, choral director, author and clinician. His work is found in hymnbooks across the English-speaking world, and he is a frequent contributor to liturgical journals, blogs and forums. He was responsible for the introduction of the music of Taizé into the UK in the 1970s and the music of the Iona Community into the USA in the 1980s. From 1986 to 1998 he was a president of the international liturgical music study group Universa Laus. In 2009 he was named Pastoral Musician of the Year by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Inwood, Paul (2014) “Psalm Singing in the Roman Catholic Communion,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 10.
Available at: https://www.ismreview.yale.edu/

View article as a PDF: Psalm Singing in Roman Catholic Liturgy