The Importance of the Psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours
The official prayer of the Catholic Church is the Liturgy of the Hours, which consists of the recitation of the psalms, readings from Sacred Scripture, intercessions, and the Lord's Prayer. “Prayer directed to God must be linked with Christ, the Lord of all, the one mediator through whom alone we have access to God.” (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, hereafter, GILOH, 6) This link is best represented in the psalms. St. Augustine tells us that in various psalms, it is Christ himself who is the speaker, or voice of the psalm.
We use the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours because of their relationship to Jesus Christ. The Church herself states that the psalms have an allegorical interpretation, “The person who prays the psalms in the name of the Church should be aware of their total meaning (sensus plenus), especially their messianic meaning, which was the reason for the Church's introduction of the psalter into its prayer.” (GILOH 109) This can be clearly seen in Psalms 22 and 69 which foreshadow Christ's passion. In fact, the Church has given a short heading, usually from a Church Father or the New Testament, to each psalm which “...invites one to pray the psalms in their Christological meaning.” (GILOH 111)
Through the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, we dedicate our time and day to God, “...the Liturgy of the Hours, which is distinguished from other liturgical actions by the fact that it consecrates to God the whole cycle of day and night, as it has done from early Christian times.” (GILOH 10) Lauds (Morning Prayer), and Vespers (Evening Prayer) come from the morning and evening sacrifices that the Israelites had to make after their sin of idolatry with the golden calf.
“Mind and voice must be in harmony in a celebration that is worthy, attentive and devout if this prayer is to be made their own by those taking part in it...” (GILOH 19) King David introduced music into the liturgy, and was one of the major psalm writers, authoring approximately half of them. Thus the psalms have a musical quality about them, uniting all the faculties of man to give beautiful praise and glory to God through their singing. “To sing the psalms 'with understanding' we must meditate on them verse by verse, our hearts always ready to respond in the way the Holy Spirit desires.” (GILOH 104)
“Man's sanctification is accomplished, worship offered to God, in the Liturgy of the Hours in an exchange or dialogue between God and man....” (GILOH 14) The dialogue between God and man can be easily seen within the psalms, especially when there appear to be multiple speakers. “In praying the psalms we should open our hearts to the different attitudes they express...” (GILOH 106) This means that we must take on the attitudes of the psalms. There are many different types of psalms. There are psalms of lamentation, penance, thanksgiving, wisdom, and imprecation. “...They express accurately the pain and hope, the unhappiness and trust, of people of every age and country, and celebrate especially faith in God, revelation and redemption.” (GILOH 107)
The antiphons for the psalms are picked to help those who pray them better understand the meaning of the psalm: “The antiphons help to bring out the character of the psalm; they highlight a sentence which may otherwise not attract the attention it deserves; they suggest an individual quality of the psalm, varying with different contexts...” (GILOH 113) The antiphons for the psalms are also a great help in seeing the typological character of the psalm, “...they are of great value in helping toward an understanding of the typological meaning...” (GILOH 113)
Although the Liturgy of the Hours is a communal prayer that should be sung, the Church also says that there must be silence within the liturgical celebration: “It is a general principle that care should be taken in liturgical actions to see that 'a sacred silence is observed at its proper time.' An opportunity for silence should therefore be provided in the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours.” (GILOH 201) This silence helps us to be able to take in and internalize the psalms we pray.
It is truly beautiful to see the only prayer given to us by Jesus himself, the Our Father, has such an exalted place, not only at Mass but also in the Liturgy of the Hours, twice a day: “The Lord's Prayer has a privileged place in the daily liturgy. It is recited three times: Morning Prayer; daily Mass; and Evening Prayer.” (GILOH 195) It sums up all of our wants and desires and tells us in what order we should ask for them.
The psalms are arranged into a four-week psalter. The psalms are assigned to specific days and times of the liturgical year. For instance, psalms of joy and thanksgiving are used on Sundays, and psalms of penance and lamentation are used during Lent. Unfortunately, certain imprecatory psalms and verses were omitted, due to their difficulty in being understood: “Three psalms (58, 83, and 109) are omitted from the psalter cycle as being heavily imprecatory in character. In the same way, some verses are omitted from certain psalms, as noted at the head of each.” (GILOH 131) I feel like this was a major mistake because some believe these psalms and verses are not truly the inspired Word of God when in reality, they actually are. Instead, I would have suggested that these imprecatory psalms and verses be explained in the General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours. What better place to explain imprecatory psalms and verses than here?
In the end, then, the psalms are an integral part of the Liturgy of the Hours, which help us to see Christ speaking in them, and foreshadowed in them; while at the same time opening our hearts to experience the same emotions as the psalmist, in order to give praise and honor to God.