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The Psalm Prefigured the Sacraments

June 18, AD 2013 15 Comments

Psalm 22

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.

Hello, and thank you for reading. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge. Read more about me here, with pictures. Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. "Like" my Facebook page Science Was Born of Christianity to follow updates about my book. God bless you!

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  • Howard

    Your memory in the old language of the King James version of the bible is the same as mine. This beautiful psalm does not always have the same poetic feel in other translations. I still like to read the KJV but rely on the RVSCE.

    Some interesting first lines from several translations:

    God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
    Jehovah is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
    The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    The LORD is my shepherd. He gives me everything I need.
    The LORD is my shepherd. I am never in need.
    The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.
    The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
    The Lord takes care of me as his sheep; I will not be without any good thing.
    Yahweh is my shepherd; I will not lack [for anything].

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Exactly Howard. I remember the KJV. To add one more to your list, the Douay Rheims translation from Latin Vulgate (which was translated from Hebrew, I think) has this:

      The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing.

      Ruleth me: In Hebrew, Is my shepherd, to feed, guide, and govern me.

  • Doug

    This is beautiful. As a convert to Catholicism I am constantly amazed at the insights the Church has into scripture. This is one fine example. Another is an interpretation of what our Blessed Mother meant with “They are out of wine.” was that they were without joy, and this shows how she is looking out for our needs. Clearly God is interested in our well being. But I digress.

    Your post leads me to weeping. Well done.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Doug, take a look at Danielou’s book linked below the post. It’s much richer, and much more moving. The language of the Church Fathers is beautiful.

  • Daria

    This is a wonderful post. I’m going to link it on my blog about the Liturgy of the Hours. A great example of fruitful exegesis according to the allegorical sense.
    And also,this explanation of Psalm 23, the psalms that everyone knows, would be a great thing to share with protestants–a door to explaining both the sacraments and the liturgical use of scripture..

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Daria, I had the same thought about sharing this with protestants as a way to begin a conversation about sacraments and liturgy.

  • JoyInTheLord

    Wonderful! Never heard of this.
    BTW, is that the lake you see from your office in the background of the Psalm?

    • Stacy Trasancos

      That is indeed the lake. The little head in the bottom right is my daughter’s. She wanted me to snap that shot and I accidentally got her head, but it was a great surprise.

      • JoyInTheLord

        Now that you mentioned about the head, I see it. Prior to that, I just saw a very inviting lake for a dip. How deep is the lake? I could see a wild duck making a streak on the surface on a very peaceful morning. ‘He not only leads me beside the river but to the Fount of All Grace Itself.’

  • Jack Daniels

    Your noodlings on the 23rd Psalm – based on the typological reading of it – reminds me of how the early believers in Jesus Messiah were enabled to see their bible (Hebrew scriptures or the Greek translation, the Septuagint) differently in light of the risen Christ. The power of the experience and/or knowledge of the resurrection to re-frame completely, and so re-imagine the meaning of their bible – vastly different than the original author(s) would have imagined – is amazing.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Are you saying they imagined too much or that it is amazing how much they interpreted from it? Nice blog!

      • Jack Daniels

        No, not that they imagine “too much” – but differently, due to the power of the experience of the risen Christ. The resurrection became their interpretive frame – like the frames and lenses of my glasses. I was raised to see the Hebrew Scriptures through Christ-centered lenses. It must have been an amazing experience to be raised in a 1st century Israelite family with their own sacred scriptures, and then experience something profound enough to utterly change how they “saw” the text. The experience of the risen Christ, was the catalyst of it all.

  • Cassandra

    Aaaaahhhhhh! You have a LAKE?! Waves of jealousy.
    I do however have green pastures out my window where I can watch my real sheep while I attend to my “day job”.
    I’m not going to dispute your reflection in any way, but I am going to offer a different perspective. As a shepherd I have to tell you that when our Lord compares us to sheep, it is NOT a compliment. A shepherd’s poem I ran across laments that no matter how hard the shepherd works to protect his sheep, they find new and interesting ways to kill themselves.
    The problem with the translation that you use, is that it loses the more direct relationship to sheep, and so the analogy loses impact. Augustine says it is very beneficial, even necessary, to learn about things in nature because we can understand better the analogies God uses.
    >He makes me lie down in green pastureshe leads me beside still waters<
    I can't personally attest to this (yet), but a friend who raised sheep says that being lazy they prefer to wade out into the water until it is high enough so they can drink without bending down. The wool becomes waterlogged. In still waters this is manageable. In running water, the sheep is top-heavy and the current will topple them over and they drown. there's a whole sermon on gluttony and temperance.
    The shepherd is never more popular than when he has a grain bucket in his hand. The sheep will push and shove to get all they can. They will bolt their grain and choke on it, sometimes even fatally. (so I like to make sure they've eaten hay first). It is both hilarious and pathetic to listen to a sheep try to bleat with a mouthful of food in order to complain that you're actually rude enough to give some of the grain to another ewe.
    Truly, I have a year's worth of sermon material.

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