Missing Saints and Psalms

By Deirdre Good

Last Thursday was St. Bartholomew’s Day. How many Episcopalians know saints like Bartholomew or other saints and their days and why does it matter? Once upon a time if the saints day fell on a “green” Sunday we celebrated the life of that saint and even if people only went to church on Sunday or if the saints day fell on a Sunday once every seven years, church-going Episcopalians got to know a few saints beside the patron saint of their own local parish. If they were Anglicans they might know St George or St Patrick. Reduced knowledge of the Saints is one of the casualties of the modern prayer book. This year we lost the feast of Mary Magdalene on July 22nd even though that date fell on a Sunday. The 1979 Prayer Book mandates that when a saint’s day falls on a Sunday, the saint’s day is subordinated to Sunday liturgy.

Another casualty is the psalms. Even though the 1979 daily office lectionary includes the entire psalter, the Sunday churchgoer is no longer exposed to the daily office. Both of these losses, knowledge of saints and recitation of the psalms, reduce diversity in our churches. Loss of knowledge about saints reduces the diversity of models of what it means to be a Christian and loss of psalm knowledge reduces the range of human relationships with God available to the language of prayer.

There has been an effort to include more celebration of saints in “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” but for (most) people who worship only on Sundays, only the Sunday liturgy is available. Even the red-letter days such as the feasts of the apostles and St Mary, are relegated to a weekday service on Monday. And nobody goes to church on Monday! Not even (most) priests!

Starting from Advent 1, all the Psalms are covered in the Daily Office by Epiphany 8 (14 weeks) and some more than once. Why some Psalms (e.g. Psalm 1) are repeated twice is a mystery. However this is only the case if an individual says the daily office. If you go to church on Sundays you only get psalm snippets. In most of the liturgies I attend, clergy elect not to read the whole psalm.

Of course the church is always in the business of recreating itself and its liturgies. In this particular case, it simply needs to rethink privileging Sundays over Saints Days. But most churches don’t present the fact that there are saints to be celebrated in the coming week or readings to enrich personal or corporate prayer life. This is a missed opportunity.

Assuming that reading the word of God is central to the life of worshipping Episcopalians, we need to be intentional about providing a context in which people have greater exposure to reading about saints and the psalms.

What might this look like in our parishes? Here are some ideas. It might look like having more than one psalm per service. It might look like inviting people to read the entire book of psalms for Lent or Advent. It might involve inviting people to follow readings like those in the recently published St Helena Breviary.

A priest friend of ours lamented that he was assigned to preach on the feast of St. Bartholomew three years in a row. Why not supplement the assigned gospel with the Gospel of Bartholomew? It contains an account of Jesus’ descent into hell-a declaration of the Apostles’ Creed that we say in Morning and Evening prayer, at the Easter Vigil, and at baptisms-and it provides an opportunity to think about the symbolic language reflected in the creedal affirmation that there is no place untouched by Jesus’ presence. Knowledge of the psalms gives range, depth and texture to our prayer life. Reading about saints and traditions associated with them fills out and celebrates traditions of holy lives.

Deirdre Good, a professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary in New York City, wrote this with Julian Sheffield and The Rev. Dr. Kris Lewis.

Past Posts