Psalm 40: 1-10
July 11, 2021
During the late 1960s, as construction of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. was underway, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis commissioned conductor Leonard Bernstein to compose a piece of music to be performed at the centre’s official opening.
Commissioning music or other forms of expression to celebrate new buildings and honour the labour that made them a reality has been common practice over the centuries.
These are … after all … transformative moments in the life of a community.
Bernstein … who was the son of Russian Jews … leapt at the opportunity and made an interesting decision regarding the music. He used the Catholic mass as the template for his performative piece.
Simply called “Mass,” Bernstein created a theatrical event that places the centuries old liturgy of a Tridentine Mass into a dramatic dialog with music and lyrics of the then-contemporary world marked by social unrest and angst over the Vietnam War.
Mass has participants arguing with God, exploring such areas as the crisis in faith, the cultural breakdown and confusion of the time, and through it all … advocating for peace.
In Mass, the ceremony is performed by a Celebrant accompanied by a formal choir, a boys’ choir, acolytes, and musicians.
The congregation of disaffected youth offer songs that challenge the formal dogma of the Church. As the tension grows and the Celebrant becomes more and more vested in what is occurring, the cynical congregants turn to him as the healer of all their ills, violently demanding peace.
In a climactic moment, overwhelmed by the burden of his authority, the Celebrant hurls the sacraments to the floor and has a complete spiritual breakdown.
The flood of emotions creates an opening for a return to the simple, pure faith with which he had begun the ritual … this faith is expressed in piece entitled … “A Simple Song.”
Even though Mass challenges divine authority by exposing its contradictions and questioning religion’s relevance to the modern-day world, the composition actually serves as a reaffirmation of faith and hope for universal peace … a reorienting of life.
A Simple Song marks the transformation in the Celebrant and in the life of those participating in the mass, just as Bernstein’s composition marks the transformation of community with the creation of the cultural centrepiece.
As an aside … since Bernstein was well-known for his liberal views, the FBI cautioned President Nixon from attending the inaugural performance of the centre … lest he be embarrassed for applauding the piece and its expected anti-war message.
The president stayed away from the inaugural event.
I’m not sure what that says about the openness to new things or transformational moments within the political world … but I think it’s interesting that a song can mark such moments in life.
Indeed, that’s what happened in the psalm we just heard canted.
Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann said the writer of today’s Psalm … Psalm 40 … is experiencing a new life through God’s actions in his life … by lifting him up … setting him on a firm foundation … and placing a new song in his heart.
Verse three says:
“He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.”
In the original Hebrew version of the Psalm, the phrase “new song” translates into the term “shir chadash.”
Shir chadash offers a perspective of giving praise that reflects a constantly changing world and the diverse ways that God is active in our lives.
About a thousand years ago, French Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki … known in some circles as Rashi asserted that this new song is a song for the future and that it is clear that the “new song” is an exuberant, joyful song of praise meant to be greater than any song that came before it.
It marks the moment when the person realizes that the old way … the old, tired life … falls away and … through God … a new thing happens … a new life is born.
The old words that drip with fear … doubt … anger … or uncertainty … are gone.
The transformation … the change … is so profound that only new words … new rhythms … new tunes … can communicate its power and beauty.
The old song … the old words … the same tune, sung in the same manner … won’t do anymore. They are the soundtrack of the old life … a life that has a terminal point that has passed.
The new song is a sign of reorientation … a split from the past … a sign that unrestrained, heart-felt notes will fill our lives and the lives of those who hear and experience it through us and with us.
It is a song that is both personal and public … it is not meant to be sung solely as a solo … try saying that three times quickly … this song of joy is meant to be offered as a voice among many … as a member of a choir joined through faith.
And as any choir member will say … you need to hear those around you to be able to properly hit the right notes and pitch.
This is underscored in verse 6.
In it the psalmist thanks God for giving him an open ear … in the original Hebrew, the verse thanks God for “ears you have dug out for me” … God has removed the barriers that have kept the writer from hearing God’s call to him … or that have prevented him from hearing the songs of others that praised God’s goodness … and calling him to join in to that transformational act.
The gift the writer received requires a new language … new words … new ways methods of sharing the message with others. The re-orientation toward God gives birth a new song.
New music … new songs … are commissioned to mark the inauguration of new buildings … or new authorities … so it seems more than appropriate that a new song … a joyous song … should mark new life that God’s actions … God’s love … makes possible.
And by sharing this song of praise … of joy … of love … of belonging … we are brought together as a community … a faithful … a faith-filled community.
The final verse of Psalm 40 calls on listeners to share the news of God’s actions … to bear witness to how God works in our lives and in the life of the world.
“I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great assembly.”
The verse calls on us to offer testimony of God’s love … God’s grace … through our thoughts, words and deeds.
It calls us to reflect and reorient ourselves toward God’s call … and to do so with a song in our hearts and on our lips.