As a little girl I memorized Psalm 23 and I remember longing for those things. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” I thought it must be about Heaven, the place where people go when they die. When the world seemed big and confusing, that psalm brought me peace. There was something about it, I dreamed of it.
That’s why when I learned that this very psalm is a summary of the ancient initiation rites of catechism, it blew me away as if I’d been overcome with some sweet perfume of truth that left me gasping. Yes, literally. Liturgical historians say that the psalm was sung by the newly-baptized in the early Church as they processed in the Paschal night, what we now call the Easter Vigil, to receive their first communion, knowing martyrdom may lay ahead. It is a summary of Christian initiation, the process they used then, the process we use now. This psalm of the Old Testament was typologically interpreted to be the progression of the Sacraments of Initiation.
Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion are all represented in it. It is a catechesis.
The shepherd is of course a reference to Christ. The pasture is the fresh and green words of scripture that nourishes the hearts of believers and gives them spiritual strength, a place of repose. The cool, still water is the water of Baptism where sin is destroyed and a new creature is born. The sacraments, being protective, lead on a sure path safe from fear or harm from demons. The rod and the staff are understood to be the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who guides. On the Paschal night, the newly-baptized catechumens are led to the table prepared for them, the Eucharist, to assist at Mass for the first time. Their heads are anointed with oil, the sign of the Cross, a mark of protection and of identity. The overflowing cup, the chalice, is the Eucharistic wine, a sober inebriation that fills the heavy and gloomy heart with the joy of divine goodness. All the days of life are a process of conversion, a journey toward the dwelling in the Lord’s house forever, a journey in the visible Church, a membership in the people of God, hoping for the Kingdom of Heaven.
You see, this psalm is not about a world or a death we can only long for. It is about a reality available to us right now, one you accept when you become Catholic.
For me, it is a dream come true.
If you are interested in reading more, see Chapter 11 of Fr. Jean Marie Daniélou, S.J.’s The Bible and the Liturgy found in e-format here. He thoroughly references the writings of the Church Fathers. The Greek numbering of the psalm is 22.