Psalm 90(91) in the Proper Texts of the First Sunday of Lent

All of the proper chants this Sunday are taken from the same Psalm, 90 (91). “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shade of the Almighty, says to the Lord, “My refuge, my stronghold, my God in Whom I trust.’” Psalm 90 is traditionally sung at Compline, the last canonical hour of the Divine Office’s day, before the sleep of night. It is full of sentiments of trust on the part of human beings, and trustworthiness on the part of God.

It is unusual for a single Psalm to sweep cleanly through the Mass, and what makes this Psalm even more remarkable in this context is its place in today’s Gospel. Today is Temptation Sunday, when we hear in the Gospel of Mark how the Lord answered Satan who tried to tempt Him. This is a key moment in the ministry of Jesus, when he binds the strong man who rules this world and makes him powerless before plundering his house. Jesus answers Satan with Scripture.

As we read in the parallel passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Satan tries, once, to tempt Jesus with Scripture. He tells Jesus to throw himself from the Temple using, or rather misusing, Psalm 90 (91), which reads in part, “For you has he commanded his angels, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you upon their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answers by quoting the Law, “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

The Church’s musical response to this unique dialogue is to re-interpret the Psalm that was quoted for evil purposes, In the context of the Mass, the Psalm teaches us the true meaning of trust as we begin our fasting. It is not a time of daring feats but of adherence to God. More deeply, the Psalm is Christological. Paradigmatically, it is Jesus Himself Who clings to God. Alone in the desert, Jesus calls to God, as we sing in the Introit, and God answers Him. He rescues Him and gives Him length of life, both against Satan and then most triumphantly in the Resurrection and Ascension. As we sing in the Offertory, it is in the desert, and in the garden, and in the court of Pilate, and on the Cross, and in the grave, that God’s faithfulness is Jesus’ shield.