Psalm 23 and the Sacraments

Posted By on August 29, 2018

My Charming and Patient Husband and I took the kids to a Christian family conference last week, and while the kids were in age-appropriate groups for play and singing,  we adults heard two exceptional speakers named Bill Butterworth and Rene Schlempfer. They were both very funny, but also had good, broadly applicable messages. Rene structured his talks around Psalm 23.

It wasn’t till almost the end of the week that it occurred to me that the Psalm distinctly prefigures the Sacraments. (I wonder what these Evangelical speakers would have thought about that.)

Below I offer first, the Psalm with one word connections to the Sacraments; and below that, my reflections on those connections.

The Psalm:

The Divine Shepherd

A Psalm of David.

23 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
    he makes me lie down in green pastures.   MARRIAGE
He leads me beside still waters;                           BAPTISM
    he restores my soul.                                         RECONCILIATION
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I fear no evil;                                                         ANOINTING OF THE SICK
for thou art with me;
    thy rod and thy staff,                                           HOLY ORDERS
    they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me                     EUCHARIST
    in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,                         CONFIRMATION
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

My reflection, broken down:

Marriage

23 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
    he makes me lie down in green pastures.   

To attach this verse to marriage might sound like a stretch. The “lie down” part, however, is more than a bawdy joke or a euphemism. The nature of marriage is both unitive and procreative. Lying down (together) is unitive, and green pastures are fertile and thus procreative. Thus, the verse points not only to the sacrament, but also to its dual purpose. A healthy, sacramental marriage is furthermore a life assistance by sharing burdens, which allows physical, emotional, and spiritual rest.

Baptism and reconciliation

He leads me beside still waters;                           BAPTISM
    he restores my soul.                                         RECONCILIATION
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake.

These lines and corresponding sacraments could have been separated, but the verse seems to use them together not merely to name the action of the sacraments, but to show connection between them and grace. Both baptism and reconciliation absolve sin and instill grace. The first row refers only to baptism, but the restoration refers to both: the one time baptism, and the grace we receive with ongoing forgiveness. It is through this grace that He leads us in paths of righteousness. 

Anointing of the sick

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I fear no evil;                                                         

Considering that the anointing of the sick is also part of last rites, the parallel here is somewhat obvious. The valley of death, in the context of the sacrament, can be metaphorical (spiritual or emotional pain, stress, etc) or physical (illness, deformity,  physical suffering). I have heard a number of priests say that anointing of the sick sometimes brings physical healing but always brings spiritual healing. I fear no evil because God heals, and because earthly suffering is temporal. 

Holy orders

for thou art with me;
    thy rod and thy staff,                                           
    they comfort me.

Jesus is with us as He promised (Mt 28:20.) Both spiritually and physically He is with us in the ministry of the Church, both through teaching and through the Eucharist. The rod and staff represent the guidance (teaching authority) of the Church and the priest who acts in persona Christi and as a personal representation of the Church. It is through holy orders that we are able to receive the comfort of the sacraments, and only through holy orders are 5 of the sacraments possible. (Marriage and baptism can be performed by a lay person if it is impossible to have a priest available, such as in countries where the Church is underground, or where death is imminent.)

Eucharist

Thou preparest a table before me                     
    in the presence of my enemies;

A whole separate study could be done just on the phrase “in the presence of my enemies” but for now I will leave it with the historical fact that no matter how much persecution the Church experiences, the Eucharist has always continued.  

Confirmation

thou anointest my head with oil,                         
    my cup overflows.

This looks like an obvious prefiguring of the Oil of Chrism used in the sacrament of confirmation, also called chrismation. As the sacrament is deeply connected with baptism, the oil in the Psalm is connected with the overflowing cup.

The conclusion: grace

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    for ever.

Through the acts of consecration (both direct (baptism and confirmation, marriage and holy Orders) and indirect (The rest of the sacraments, which renew and refresh our consecration), God grants graces. He is the goodness and mercy, and he promises to follow us, not give up on us, because we are His. And if we allow Him to lead us, or lead us back, He will lead us to His home.

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