It’s always fun when a reading for the day turns out to be a favorite. Why? I tend to like anything I can sing, and versions of Psalm 47 are among those pieces. It is so much easier for me to remember things like scripture when it is set to music rather than simply memorizing words.
One of the psalms for today is number 47, beginning with “O clap your hands.” There have probably been lots of arrangements by various composers, but my favorite is the one written by Orlando Gibbons in 1622. My first exposure to it was in the recording done by The Harvard University Choir. It was beautiful to listen to as well as sing. Oddly enough, Ralph Vaughn Williams also wrote a version of the same text in 1922.
If I listen to either of these versions with a Bible open, I will see instantly that the Biblical text doesn’t match those in the musical librettos word-for-word. Some lyrics are changed, some phrases omitted, and many are repeated multiple times. I began thinking about how musical composition is done, and how sometimes things must be cut, rearranged, or changed so that the lyrics and the music convey the message in a tuneful, memorable, well-constructed way.
That led me to ponder how things, even sacred things like scripture, may need to be changed to fit a situation, ceremony, event, or artist’s concept. Painters and sculptors have taken Bible stories and, through their culture, imagination, and wishes of the patron commissioning the work, have dressed characters in period costume rather than in clothing of the Biblical time. Poets and writers described people and actions to convey how they perceived the characters and situations to have been at the time, although often throwing in emotions, activities, and thoughts of the current time. It was a change done for artistic purposes, and hopefully, to illustrate how the scene or time would have looked if Biblical characters were present at the current time. Versions of “O clap your hands” represent the musical forms of their times, three hundred years apart. Gibbons used an excerpted form of the psalm as a framework for the melody and harmony to build around—or maybe he did it the other way around. Vaughn Williams did the same thing, using the same words in crafting his composition. Each represented change, an economy of words that removed what was considered to be extraneous material and highlighting the essential parts. They were emphasizing certain words, sounds, and phrases without clutter.
Every day we face having to change things to eliminate the unnecessary and adapt to new ideas and situations. Even when we encounter something that has happened before, like a natural disaster or even a pandemic, we approach it and react in different ways. We may make use of coping mechanisms that we had used in the past, or we may choose to handle it in a totally different way, hoping for better results. Sometimes old and cherished actions must be discarded, even if temporarily, for the good of the many rather than just the comfort of the few. It is this kind of change that makes our current situation so upsetting. Even though many things have changed over the centuries or even weeks, we still resist change, no matter how necessary it is. We can’t just cut out parts and fit the rest of it together to make a pleasant whole like Gibbons could with his composition.
Changes are a part of life. That’s it, plain and simple. There are examples of many changes in the Bible: Adam and Eve went from having an intimate relationship with God to outcasts; Abraham changed from idolater to monotheist; David started off as a fair-haired boy, becomes a king, and turned into a murderer, adulterer, and unworthy to build God’s temple. Mary had to risk being labeled as a loose woman to obey God and give birth to God’s son. The disciples had to completely change their thinking to follow an itinerant preacher and teacher and then go out and teach others what they had been taught. Rearrangements of things have to happen so that life could continue, even if they are different than before.
Maybe having to wear masks or distance ourselves from others, even to the point of having to seek “church” on an electronic device, means we have to make changes to emphasize what is needed to keep healthy, save lives, and reduce risks. It may not always be familiar or even pleasant. Still, it is loving our neighbors as ourselves, or perhaps even more so.
Just for today, I think I’ll keep “O clap your hands” in my mind, remembering to be joyful and sing praises, even if it is just for myself and God. Luckily, I can always go to my iPod or YouTube to provide the other voices I lack. The rest, especially the intent, is up to me.