The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
People in any era have been fascinated by the mysteries of the universe. Gods, elemental matter, dreaming, creative spirits good and evil, magic and more have been devised in many mythologies to tame, explain or narrate. In more recent years, the Schrödinger wave equation, the little-understood W-boson carrying the weak force, and now gravity waves have equally fascinated as wordless signals “go out to the ends of the world”. But this is not science. Any single interpretation of this soaring imaginative poetry will surely serve to blinker and constrain. Readers dream afresh according to their history, situation and current cognitive settings.
A brief blog post can not do it justice; so stop now and read the psalm for yourself here> (NIV). And for more discussion on this poem and associated music — which ranges blithely from Händel and Hans Hassler and even, sort of, to There’s a bear in there — please see the post on 3.10.2017.
None of the text and music mentioned therein might happen at your meetin’ house this Sabbath; International Women’s Day 2018 — an important day to those who recognise the strong threads of justice and equity in the psalms and in this blog — is nigh. It deserves attention and might displace the psalm.
The near absence of direct reference to the role of women in the Psalter was acknowledged and discussed in a March 2017 post. Psalm 19 is a lovely song but again, quite generic.
If an alternative is sought, songs and chants celebrating women may be found in many traditions:
- The song of Mary, Magnificat, is an obvious choice:
- several are offered in PFAS (pages 1018-1022) including one from Taizé
- And holy is your name sung to the traditional Wild mountain thyme
- also a tone and refrain chanted setting
- in NCH a simple tune by a female writer My soul gives glory is at No 119.
- Hildegard of Bingen was prolific. At South Woden, O frondens and O rubor by Hildegard have been presented, although these are not an easy sing
- A Shaker song, Simple gifts, might appeal
Admiration of Mary is embedded in much of Christian thinking, although Reformed theology draws the line at an intercessory role for the mother of Jesus. As well as the Magnificat, the Roman and high Anglican traditions, exemplified by Hildegard’s compositions, are replete with Marian songs. Evensong or compline/vespers liturgies regularly include a Marian hymn or antiphon, such as the one shown below, first line only. The theology of asking Mary to pray for us may not sit comfortably with UCA tastes but those who enjoy plainsong might not object too strenuously:
Hail, Queen of Heaven, Hail mistress of the angels. Hail, holy root, hail holy gate from whom came light to the world. Rejoice, glorious virgin, beautiful above all others. Hail and farewell, most gracious one, plead always with Christ for us.
Then [have I kept the best wine till last?] an excellent set of words by John Bell of the Iona Community has great appeal:
There is a line of women extending back to Eve
whose role in shaping history God only could conceive
And though, through endless ages their witness was repressed,
God valued and encouraged them through whom the world was blessed.
The song goes on to acknowledge many unsung but brave, loving and influential women in the biblical record: Sarah, Tamar, Hannah, Mary, Puah, Rahab, Esther …