A Natural Celebration

An extra Reflection for the Coronation based on Psalm 122

The last coronation of a British monarch took place seventy years ago and most us will not remember that wonderful occasion when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Now, we look forward to the coronation of King Charles III and his wife Camilla. Whilst it has undergone several changes through the years, St Dunstan drew up the original liturgy, for the coronation of King Edgar in 973AD. (St Dunstan’s Church contains a stained glass window of Dunstan which includes a picture of that coronation.)

Psalm 122 was first sung at the coronation of Charles I and Sir Hubert Parry’s setting has been used since the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, sung at the entrance of the monarch into Westminster Abbey. The title in one of my commentaries for Psalm 122 is “Joy on Arrival.” Parry’s beautiful setting, reflects the solemnity and grandeur of the occasion, with it’s opening words, “I was glad!” The composer added the words, “Vivat Rex!” and “Vivat Regina!” [Long live the King/Queen] making the psalm even more appropriate for this solemn act of worship which combines the hopes of the nation.

Of course the psalm dates back many years before any coronation of a British monarch. It was written to recall the joy of being invited to join a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. As verse 1 says, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’.” Such pilgrimages were thwart with danger for those who travelled alone. So being invited to share the journey with others was especially important. Imagine the joy, what we might call the ‘wow factor,’ behind verse 2. The pilgrims have arrived at their destination, ready to join the crowd as they worship in the Temple! “And now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” If you watched the recent BBC2 television series, “Pilgrimage,” you will recall the sheer joy and awe on the faces of those who arrive at Fatima, having walked together for 15 days, sharing stories about their faith, or their searching for one. Such a programme gives a clue to the emotions lying behind Psalm 122.

From verse 6, the mood changes: from celebrating the end of the pilgrimage to a call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” This change in mood is reflected in the change of music and tempo. And perhaps it is in this and the following verses which is why Psalm 122 is so fitting for this great occasion. For Jerusalem was, for the author of the psalm, the place where impartial justice was assumed to be given and this justice, along with truth and mercy its companions, were – and still are – essential for the welfare of a nation. They are needed to help its citizens to live together in harmony, though we know from experience that this isn’t always the case even in a country like ours. Justice, truth and mercy are also what God requires of us and for many years the monarch was considered to be the one whose role included the administration of these things. Hence, perhaps, the phrase “thrones of justice” and where that exists there can be peace, the peace which verses 7 and 8 of the psalm speak of: “‘Peace be within your walls and tranquillity within your palaces.’ For my kindred and companions’ sake, I will pray that peace be with you.”

The pilgrim, who began his journey alone until he was joined by others, has arrived and in the last verse he continues his prayer for those who joined him and for all the pilgrims and residents of the city. “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do your good.” Being with others has helped him to see that he shares responsibility for peace.

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An Answer to Prayer

A Reflection on Psalm 116.1-7 by Canon Rob,
23rd April 2023, The Third Sunday of Easter

In his book, “How to Pray,” John Pritchard – who was Bishop of Oxford until 2014 – wrote, “Prayer is the gift of ourselves to God in response to the gifts he has given to us…. Prayer is holding open the door of opportunity in places of despair. Prayer is struggle, joy, laughter and pain.” As you reflect upon the verses of today’s psalm, you may find it helpful to keep these words in mind especially if you haven’t thought of prayer in these ways before. Prayer can take several forms, but one will almost certainly be “asking prayers” and they are legitimate because, during a lesson about prayer, Jesus said, “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you….” [See also Luke’s Gospel 11.1-13.]

Psalm 116 is a personal prayer of thanksgiving after the writer has recovered from a very serious, possibly terminal, illness. If you read the first verse several times you may sense the sheer relief and joy being expressed. “I love the Lord, for he has heard the voice of my supplication; because he inclined his ear to me on the day I called to him.” Then, in verse two, we can see how ill he had been. “The snares of death encompassed me….” Coping with this illness had been a real struggle: “by grief and sorrow was I held.” Yet, even when he was at his lowest, he knew that God would listen to his prayer. [See verse 3.]

Some scholars suggest that today’s psalm is reminiscent of King Hezekiah’s prayer of thanksgiving after he recovered from a severe illness. [See Isaiah Chapter 38 in the Old Testament, especially verses 9 – 20.] Whether or not that is the case, Hezekiah’s prayer is heartfelt. Just as important, the illness was a turning point in the King’s life just as his illness was for the author of the psalm. Hezekiah says, “Lord, I will live for you, for you alone…” The psalmist says in verse 14 – beyond our reading today – “O Lord, I am your servant….” This is life-changing. For both the author of the psalm and King Hezekiah, their prayers have not only been heard by God, God has answered. They are healed and they offer their lives in His service. Years later, this was to be the same when Jesus healed those who were sick. Their lives would never be the same because they experienced, through Jesus, what the writer of Psalm 116 experienced: a God who “is full of compassion.” [See verse 4.]

Allan Harman, in his commentary on the psalms captures this experience well, when considering verse 6: “Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has been gracious to you.” Harman writes, “The needy child has met with gracious, parental care, and there is abundant rest for the soul trusting in Him.” God is experienced as the loving parent, which is certainly not always the case in the Old Testament. No wonder then that the author of the psalm wants to serve God in whose presence he now knows he lives. God can be trusted with his life and he rejoices over this new relationship in verse 8, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” These words are echoed in Psalm 56 verse 12 where,addressing the Lord, the author says, “…you will deliver my soul from death and my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living.” Both are about being constantly in God’s presence: a presence which brings light and life. Presumably this is why these verses from Psalm 116 are chosen for use during Eastertide when we celebrate the enduring presence of the Risen Christ, who is the Light of the world and whose gift is life in all its fullness. [See John 10.10]

Psalm 116 is a prayer of thanksgiving because God has rescued the author from death and that will be true for others who have recovered from a serious illness. The prayer has been answered in the way that was hoped. But that isn’t always the case as we know. Other psalms address this and, no doubt, we will meet them in other Reflections during this year. For today though we celebrate!

“Risen Christ….. strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace…”

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Thine be the Glory

A Reflection on Psalm 118.14-24 by Canon Rob,
9th April 2023, Easter Day

The hymn, “Thine be the Glory” (672 in the hymn book we use at St Dunstan’s) always brought our Easter Morning Eucharist to an end at the Church of the Transfiguration in Kempston, near Bedford, where I was the Vicar for 15 happy years. The worship was very much like ours at St Dunstan’s, but what made singing this hymn memorable was that it was the only occasion when we all let our hair down and vigorously waved the pew sheets each time we reached the chorus!! “Thine be the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son, endless is the vict’ry thou o’er death has won.” It was simple joy after weeks of learning through Lent and entering the pain of Holy Week.

We find the same joy in today’s psalm which was almost certainly written to celebrate a great national event and which is perfect for Easter Day. Verse 14, where our reading begins, clearly recalls the Song of Moses, following the Israelites’ safe crossing of the Red Sea, which you can read about in the Book of Exodus Chapter 15. Verse 2 of that chapter in the NRSV translation of the Bible says, “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation.” The psalm is a hymn of praise to God who, alone, has won a great victory and has saved His people.

Some commentators believe Psalm 118 was written to celebrate victory after a battle in which many suffered. If so, then verses 14 – 18 may be the king, or other leader, retelling the relief when it was over. Verse 15 might possibly be a reference to the soldiers’ celebration: “Joyful shouts of salvation sound from the tents of the righteous.” Certainly verse 16 are words spoken, or sung, praising God: “The right hand of the Lord does mighty deeds; the right hand of the Lord raises up.” Then, like the earlier verses which we don’t use today, the tone becomes personal: “I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord. The Lord has punished me sorely, but he has not given me over to death.” As you reflect upon these words, it’s not difficult to see why these verses are set for today. Again, as you reflect upon verse 19, you can imagine a procession reaching Jerusalem, or perhaps another major city, with the king at the front shouting: “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter and give thanks to the Lord.” The national celebration, mentioned above, will soon begin!

Verse 22 may sound familiar to you. They are words which were spoken by Jesus, about himself. We find them in Matthew 21.42 when, having told the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard (where Jesus is the son of the owner of the vineyard who is killed by the tenants) he says, “Haven’t you ever read what the Scriptures say? ‘The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all.’” [See also Mark 12.10, Luke 20.17, Acts 4.8-12 and 1 Peter 2.1-10. You might also like to look up Isaiah 28.14-17.] Verses 23 and 24 are important for us at Easter for they remind us that all that happens is because God acts. “This is the Lord’s doing…” and “This is the day that the Lord has made….” In her book, “Let Me Go There”, Paula Gooder says that the writers of the Bible “describe God’s character in terms of what he had done.” In the Old Testament, God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. In the New Testament God raised Jesus from the dead. She believes it is possible to read the Bible as if everything happened in the past. But she says, “If God has saved people in the past we can be confident that he will do so again and again.” We find confirmation of this in the first and last verses of Psalm 118: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.

God bless you this Easter time. 

God of glory, by the raising of your Son you have broken the chains of death and hell:
fill your Church with faith and hope; for a new day has dawned and the way of life stands open in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
[Common Worship Alternative Collect for Easter Day]

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