The Psalms and Canticles of the Easter Vigil

This is a continuation of a series highlighting the Lectionary text of the Tridiuum liturgies, at least the NAB Lectionary used in the United States. It is a text rarely appreciated for its beauty and oft-criticized on the internet, so several years ago I decided to write an appreciation of it on Timothy’s old blog, as well as a couple guest posts in which I compared the Lectionary text with the NAB editions.

My aim was to challenge the generalities and dismissiveness with hard data and appreciation, but even I, a proud NAB lover, dismissed the 1991 Psalter. I believe I used a sentence like, “trust me, no one likes this psalter.” Of course that is cruel hyperbole. I’d gather that almost half of the NABs in existence feature that Psalter—seeing as how it was featured in editions printed from 1991 to 2010. It was rejected for liturgical use due to its incautious use of inclusive language (applying it to God and not just people). On a superficial level, this makes it stick out like a sore thumb in the history of the NAB, which begun with no inclusive language whatsoever, but in its 1986 New Testament and 2010 Old Testament used moderate inclusive language in a way I think is extremely tasteful, clear, and restrained.

So, the 1991 Psalter is a bit like the 1970 New Testament. Seen as unfit for liturgical use, they were superseded and have gone out of print with no one mourning their demise.

But does that Psalter deserve me spitting on its grave? Partly to repent of that parroting of what other people have said, I added the 1991 Psalter to this comparison, which will add interest, because except for one word and one verse, the Lectionary text here reprints its 1955 Psalter source material verbatim.

I once thought that the 1991 Psalter was a completely new piece of work, with no roots whatsoever in the 1955 Confraternity Psalter which was featured in NAB editions printed between 1970 and 1991. Furthermore, I thought that the NABRE Psalter ignored the 1991 Psalter, reaching back and revising the 1955 edition. I can report that this is definitively not true.

The Easter Vigil responsorial psalms, which act as yearning and joyful commentary on the Old Testament readings I commented upon last week, are quite varied and mostly brief. This makes for an especially interesting cross section of the 1991 Psalter, showing its expected faults, but also its surprising successes. You will find, I think, there is more than a little of the 1991 in the NABRE Psalter.

To simplify matters, we will just call that 1955 Psalter the NAB 1970, as that is the setting in which it was most widely read.

I will bold the differences between the 1991 and the 1970 NAB, and then bold the NABRE where it has altered the 1991 text.

Psalm 104:1-2, 5-6, 10, 12, 13-14, 24, 35

Lectionary Text/NAB 1970

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD, my God, you are great indeed!
You are clothed with majesty and glory,
robed in light as with a cloak.
You fixed the earth upon its foundation,
not to be moved forever;
with the ocean, as with a garment, you covered it;
above the mountains the waters stood.
You send forth springs into the watercourses
that wind among the mountains.
Beside them the birds of heaven dwell;
from among the branches they send forth their song.
You water the mountains from your palace;
the earth is replete with the fruit of your works.
You raise grass for the cattle,
and vegetation for man’s use,
Producing bread from the earth.
How manifold are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you have wrought them all—
the earth is full of your creatures.
Bless the LORD, O my soul!

NAB 1991

Bless the Lord, my soul!
Lord, my God, you are great indeed!
You are clothed with majesty and glory,
Robed in light as with a cloak.
You fixed the earth on its foundation,
Never to be moved.
The ocean covered it like a garment;
Above the mountains stood the waters.
You made springs flow into channels
That wind among the mountains.
Beside them the birds of heaven nest;
Among the branches they sing.
You water the mountains from your palace;
By your labor the earth abounds.
You raise grass for the cattle
And plants for our beasts of burden.
You bring bread from the earth
How varied are your works, Lord!
In wisdom you have wrought them all;
The earth is full of your creatures.
Bless the Lord, my soul!

NABRE

Bless the LORD, my soul!
    LORD, my God, you are great indeed!
You are clothed with majesty and splendor,
    robed in light as with a cloak.
You fixed the earth on its foundation,
    so it can never be shaken.
The deeps covered it like a garment;
    above the mountains stood the waters.
You made springs flow in wadies
    that wind among the mountains.
Beside them the birds of heaven nest;
    among the branches they sing.
You water the mountains from your chambers;
    from the fruit of your labor the earth abounds.
You make the grass grow for the cattle
    and plants for people’s work
    to bring forth food from the earth
How varied are your works, LORD!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
Bless the LORD, my soul!

Comments:

Out of 21 lines of text, the 1991 Psalter edited 10. The NABRE revisers obviously started with the 1991 work and edited 9 lines, changing only a single English word in 6 of them. Only once did the NABRE reach behind the 1991 Psalter to get closer to the original NAB psalms: in the line “and plants for people’s work”, which makes the line about humans, rather than animals. That was the only place where the 1991 Psalter changed the meaning of a line. Otherwise the language was simply updated. The 1991 Psalter retained “wrought”, which the NABRE turned to “made”. “Manifold” became “varied” in 1991 and has stayed as such. A typical transformation is “watercourses” (1955) to “channels” (1991) to “wadies” (2010). The poetic flourish of the original NAB Psalter was exchanged to clarity of the 1991 Psalter to the specificity of the NABRE. While its returning to the tradition has been overstated some, the NABRE at times does in fact insert what I consider “Bible English”—using “deep” instead of “ocean”, out traditionalizing not only the 1991 translators but the 1955 ones as well! This isn’t reflected in the selection of this psalm taken from the lectionary, but one thing I find interesting is that the 1955 Psalter, Grail Psalms, and the Revised Grail Psalms have “alleluia” whereas the NAB 1991 and NABRE psalms have “hallelujah.” As God is addressed directly in the 2nd person, none of the 1991 Psalter’s infamous “vertical inclusive language” rears its head here in Psalm 104.

Psalm 33:4-5, 6-7, 12-13, 20 AND 22

Lectionary Text/NAB 1970

Upright is the word of the LORD, 
and all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right;
 of the kindness of the LORD the earth is full.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made;
 by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as in a flask; 
in cellars he confines the deep.
Blessed the nation whose God is the LORD,
 the people he has chosen for his own inheritance.
From heaven the LORD looks down;
 he sees all mankind.
Our soul waits for the LORD,
 who is our help and our shield.
May your kindness, O LORD, be upon us
 who have put our hope in you.

NAB 1991

The Lord’s word is true;
All his works are trustworthy
The Lord loves justice and right
And fills the earth with goodness
By the Lord’s word the heavens were made;
By the breath of his mouth all their host.
The waters of the sea were gathered as in a bowl;
In cellars the deep was confined.
Happy the nation whose God is the Lord,
The people chosen as his very own.
From heaven the Lord looks down
And observes the whole human race,
Our soul waits for the Lord,
Who is our help and shield.
May your kindness, Lord, be upon us;
We have put our hope in you.

NABRE

The LORD’s word is upright;
    all his works are trustworthy.
He loves justice and right.
    The earth is full of the mercy of the LORD.
By the LORD’s word the heavens were made;
    by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathered the waters of the sea as a mound;
    he sets the deep into storage vaults.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
    the people chosen as his inheritance.
From heaven the LORD looks down
    and observes the children of Adam,
Our soul waits for the LORD,
    he is our help and shield.
May your mercy, LORD, be upon us;
    as we put our hope in you.

Comments:

There is one word altered in the Lectionary adaptation of the 1955 Psalter, which reads “happy the nation”, rather than “blessed the nation”. So, the 1991 Psalter retained the rendering from the 1955 in that instance. The NABRE, however, followed the Lectionary (and Liturgiam Authenticum) and used “blessed”.

Here we can see the 1991 revisers’ use of “vertical inclusive language in action”. Inclusive language, as I’m sure most of us who visit Marc’s blog know, is the use of language to make clear that women are meant, and not just men. Usually, it is used to make clear that, say, Paul was writing to the women as well as Men in the church he was addressing. It can be used by changing the traditional “brethren” to “brothers and sisters”, or “mankind” to “humanity” or “mortals” or so forth. This is inclusive language in its “horizontal” usage. In its “vertical” usage, this strategy is applied to pronouns applied to God. While I am a man, I trust the Church’s stance that this strategy is misguided, as when God was incarnated it was as a male and the Hebrew people used male pronouns to refer to God.

How does the 1991 Psalter get around this? It seems to use a grab-bag of different techniques. It changes third-person to second-person. It rearranges the line so that they can use a noun instead of a pronoun. They use the “theological passive”, saying “the waters of the sea were gathered as in a bowl”. This tense contains the suggested actor as God without introducing the troublesome need for a pronoun. Notice that it is used at some points and not in others in this selection. God is referred to as “he” in at least two points in this selection. Unless I’m misinterpreting their use of the Liturgiam Authenticum guidelines, the NABRE Psalter seemed to be translated with the end goal of being liturgically acceptable. They change quite a bit here. With my untrained eye, it appears that they likely had the 1991 Psalter on hand and the original Hebrew, which they translated without consulting the 1955 Psalter. The NABRE retains the flows and rhythms of the 1991 Psalter. If you don’t believe me, read them aloud. While the 1991 revisers rearranged syntax and vocabulary, I find that the NABRE revisers were mostly just cleaning up where the 1991 revisers were uninspiring in word choice or strayed too far from traditional understanding of the text. A typical alteration is “the whole human race” being revised to “the children of Adam”. It is more literal. It is a more felicitous use of English. Double win, in my book.

When I first started doing these comparisons, I was surprised to find just how much the NAB editions published after the 1986 New Testament but before the 1991 Psalms matched the Lectionary. As I continue doing these comparisons, my new surprise is that I will miss the poetry of those 1955 Psalms when they are replaced in the Lectionary. I can honestly say that I have never heard or read a single person compliment them (besides Bruce Metzger). They are not used in the Liturgy of the Hours. They have been out of print since 1991, though if you get a Daily Missal in the United States you will get quite a bit of them. Depending on your parish’s music ministry, you may not hear them at Sunday Mass, but at weekday Masses, they are my constant companion and their rhythms are in my bones. Repetition? Probably. But I think there is more there. I for one think they are gorgeous in the same way that I find the Revised Grail Psalms gorgeous. I suppose I don’t mind that affected, inverted word order thing.

Psalm 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11

Lectionary Text/NAB 1970

O LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,
you it is who hold fast my lot.
I set the LORD ever before me;
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence;
because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence,
 the delights at your right hand forever.

NAB 1991

Lord, my allotted portion and my cup,
You have made my destiny secure.
I keep the Lord always before me;
With the Lord at my right, I shall never be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices;
My body also dwells secure,
For you will not abandon me to Sheol,
Nor let your faithful servant see the pit.
You will show me the path to life,
Abounding joy in your presence,
The delights at your right hand forever.

NABRE

LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,
    you have made my destiny secure.

I keep the LORD always before me;
    with him at my right hand, I shall never be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices;
    my body also dwells secure,
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
    nor let your devout one see the pit.
You will show me the path to life,
    abounding joy in your presence,
    the delights at your right hand forever.

Comments:

If the revisions of the NAB over the last thirty years are any indication, one thing we all ought to get ready for is the distinct possibility that the word “abide” will evaporate from the New American Bible with the 2025 New Testament revision. The “True Vine” section of the Farewell Discourse from John’s Gospel will sound weird for a few decades, but people will understand it better, I suppose.

First off, the 1991 Psalter, and the NABRE following it, have saved me the trouble of figuring out what it means that the Lord “holds fast my lot”.

For all you Netherworld haters, it may give you peace to know that the NAB has been scrubbing this three syllable monstrosity from its pages since at least 1991, when it was replaced by “Sheol” in this psalm. The credit for this joyous and well considered revision has been assigned by some to the NABRE, but it was in fact the despised 1991 revisers who slayed the “netherworld dragon”. (I’m being a bit silly. I have never minded “netherworld”, even if it does sound a bit strange and it contains the three ugliest English vowel sounds in quick succession, which I think is why people don’t like it.)

The NABRE makes three, and only three, small changes here: undoing some vertical inclusive language shenanigans, replacing “me” with “my soul”, and “faithful servant” with “devout one”. As a New Englander, where “devout Catholic” means “someone who doesn’t flagrantly contradict Church teaching, has eaten fish on Friday at least once, and goes to Church at least four times a year”, I don’t have overly good associations with the word “devout”. This is a commonly used psalm, though, so maybe if it becomes the Lectionary text it will get drilled into my head and form a new association. I know this is possible, because I came to the Church in my mid-20s after years of agnostic acedia with occasional weekend depravity. As someone who came of age in the years of hip hop’s triumph on the radio, it has taken about four years of going to Mass at least five times a week to stop giggling interiorly when I hear the word “booty” in the NAB 1970 Old Testament.

Exodus 15:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 17-18

Lectionary Text

I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
He is my God, I praise him;
the God of my father, I extol him.
The LORD is a warrior,
LORD is his name!

Pharaoh’s chariots and army he hurled into the sea;
the elite of his officers were submerged in the Red Sea.
The flood waters covered them,
they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, magnificent in power,
your right hand, O LORD, has shattered the enemy.
You brought in the people you redeemed
and planted them on the mountain of your inheritance
the place where you made your seat, O LORD,
the sanctuary, LORD, which your hands established.
The LORD shall reign forever and ever.

NAB 1970 is the same except for verse 17 which reads:
And you brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your inheritance—
The place where you made your seat, O Lord,
The sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands established.

(No NAB 1991 Selection, since this reading comes from Exodus)

NABRE

I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;
    horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.
My strength and my refuge is the LORD,
    and he has become my savior.
This is my God, I praise him;
    the God of my father, I extol him.
The LORD is a warrior,
    LORD is his name!
Pharaoh’s chariots and army he hurled into the sea;
    the elite of his officers were drowned in the Red Sea.
The flood waters covered them,
    they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O LORD, magnificent in power,
    your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.

You brought them in, you planted them
    on the mountain that is your own—
The place you made the base of your throne, LORD,
    the sanctuary, LORD, your hands established.
May the LORD reign forever and ever!

Comments:

One of the things the 1991 and 2010 NAB Psalms sometimes revise out of the text being revised are its parallel constructions. Happily, this habit is not a rule throughout the various translation committees, and while “courage” has been altered to “refuge”, the construction is retained: “My strength and my refuge is the Lord.” Somehow, the repetition of that second “my” makes a big difference when read aloud.

The changes in the NAB 1970’s Exodus 15:17 when it was adapted for the Lectionary are a bit odd. The Israelites described as “the people you redeemed” is not present in that verse, but several before. A quick look at the Douay Rheims and the Knox suggests that this is not a change to accommodate an ancient rendering from the Vulgate, but rather is the antecedent of a particular pronoun being brought into the lectionary from the section of Exodus which has been left out.

The revisions are more of the same: the NABRE doesn’t change much, but the changes it makes give off an air of vigor and specificity: Pharaoh’s officers are “drowned” rather than “submerged”. God is “my refuge” not “my courage.”

Psalm 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13

Lectionary Text/NAB 1970

I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the netherworld;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.
Sing praise to the LORD, you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger lasts but a moment;
a lifetime, his good will.
At nightfall, weeping enters in,
but with the dawn, rejoicing.
Hear, O LORD, and have pity on me;
O LORD, be my helper.
You changed my mourning into dancing;
O LORD, my God, forever will I give you thanks.

NAB 1991

I praise you, Lord, for you raised me up
And did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
Lord, you brought me up from Sheol;
You kept me from going down to the pit.
Sing praise to the Lord, you faithful;
And give thanks to God’s holy name
For divine anger lasts but a moment;
Divine favor lasts a lifetime.
At dusk weeping comes for the night;
But at dawn there is rejoicing.
Hear, O Lord, have mercy on me;
Lord, be my helper.
You changed my mourning into dancing;
O Lord, my God,
Forever will I give you thanks.

NABRE

I praise you, Lord, for you raised me up
    and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.

Lord, you brought my soul up from Sheol;
    you let me live, from going down to the pit.

Sing praise to the Lord, you faithful;
    give thanks to his holy memory.
For his anger lasts but a moment;
    his favor a lifetime.
At dusk weeping comes for the night;
    but at dawn there is rejoicing.
Hear, O LORD, have mercy on me;
    LORD, be my helper.”
You changed my mourning into dancing;
O LORD, my God,
    forever will I give you thanks.

Comments:

Of the psalms I’m familiar with from the 1991 Psalter, this is among those which most resemble that psalter’s poor reputation. Rather than “his anger lasts but a moment,” it has “divine anger lasts but a moment.” Yes, it means the same thing, basically, but reads like the “Behavior and Diet” section of an animal’s Wikipedia page. In all seriousness, it sounds like we are talking about a category of anger among other categories of anger, not the faithfulness of God. The NABRE switched this back, not to the traditional text, but to its plain meaning. The “male-ness” of God which is played up in some sectors is an idol, but one that ought to be purified with the teaching of the Church on who God truly is. Trying to push the boundaries of the English language in renderings of the scriptures won’t, I think, be very effective. One thing this vertical inclusive language imparts is an image of God as a thing and not a person. Does anyone else feel that way?

Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6

Lectionary Text/NAB 1970

God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
With joy you will draw water
at the fountain of salvation.
Give thanks to the LORD, acclaim his name;
among the nations make known his deeds,
proclaim how exalted is his name.
Sing praise to the LORD for his glorious achievement;
let this be known throughout all the earth.
Shout with exultation, O city of Zion,
for great in your midst
 is the Holy One of Israel!

(No NAB 1991 selection, since this reading comes from Isaiah)

NABRE

God indeed is my salvation;
    I am confident and unafraid.
For the LORD is my strength and my might,
    and he has been my salvation.
With joy you will draw water
    from the fountains of salvation,

   give thanks to the LORD, acclaim his name;
Among the nations make known his deeds,
    proclaim how exalted is his name.
Sing praise to the LORD for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known throughout all the earth.
Shout with exultation, City of Zion,
    for great in your midst
    is the Holy One of Israel!

Comments:

Once again the NABRE has taken out the word “courage”, which is fine by me. I’d rather God be “my might” than “my courage”, personally. I wonder if there was a change in understanding of a Hebrew word that lies behind this. The Old Testament revisers and Psalter revisers were working under entirely different committees, so the change cannot be chalked up to one person’s preference. Once again, my ability to comment on these matters with any intelligence whatsoever has come up against my lack of knowledge in biblical languages.

Psalm 19:8, 9, 10, 11

Lectionary Text/NAB 1970

The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul;
the decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the command of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eye.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true,
all of them just.
They are more precious than gold,
than a heap of purest gold;
sweeter also than syrup
or honey from the comb.

NAB 1991

The law of the Lord is perfect,
Refreshing the soul.
The decree of the Lord is trustworthy,
Giving wisdom to the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
Rejoicing the heart.
The command of the Lord is clear,
Enlightening the eye.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
Enduring forever.
The statutes of the Lord are true,
All of them just;
More desirable than gold,
Than a hoard of purest gold,
Sweeter also than honey
Or drippings from the comb.

NABRE

The law of the LORD is perfect,
    refreshing the soul.
The decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
    giving wisdom to the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
    rejoicing the heart.
The command of the LORD is clear,
    enlightening the eye.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
    enduring forever.
The statutes of the LORD are true,
    all of them just;
More desirable than gold,
    than a hoard of purest gold,
Sweeter also than honey
    or drippings from the comb.

Comments:

For four verses at least of the psalm praising the Law, the NABRE and the 1991 Psalms are exactly the same. I will leave this here, with the 1991 Psalter partially rehabilitated. (Or at least it will be rehabilitated until you look up Psalm 136 in that rendering, which sounds phenomenally bad with inclusive language.) Nonetheless, I can conclude that much of the work of the 1991 revisers was well done. Once the bone-headed stuff was handled and replaced we got the NABRE, a well-reviewed translation which has even received some love in the pages of this blog! Funny what changing the curtains and replacing the couch will do for a room.

One thought on “Comparing the NABRE, the Lectionary for Mass, and the 1991 NAB Psalms for the Easter Vigil — Guest Post by Bob Short”

  1. I very much enjoy reading these comparisons of yours. The Psalms are a tricky book to translate, particularly when considering them for liturgical use. It will be interesting to see what will actually be in print in 2025 in regards to the Psalms.

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