Liturgy in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

“I love the house of your dwelling, O Lord

And the place of the tabernacle of your glory.”

As we enter into the symbols of the Psalms, this week let us take a few minutes to discover the “tabernacle” they are discussing, the heart of the prayer world of the Old Testament, and the ultimate symbol of the prayer world of the New.

“Tabernacle,” of course, is the word for “tent.” But it is specifically used for the tent, described beginning in Exodus, that would be the principle place of Israel’s worship.

We now use tabernacle to describe where the Eucharist is kept, but that usage is relatively recent. As late as the sixteenth century, it was more typically called the “sacrarium.” It is interesting, then, to see the Tradition so intentionally in embracing the language of the Old Testament: it is supposed to be an explicit reference to the Psalms.


God dictated the construction and liturgy of the Tabernacle in the second half of Exodus (also Leviticus). When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, it was to the same specifications as the previous Tabernacle; all that changed was that it was no longer moveable, and thus no longer built of moveable materials.

Both the Tabernacle and the Temple had the congregation and priests facing west. Ratzinger’s liturgical writings have brought a renewed discussion of ad orientem worship, the Christian practice of facing the rising sun. But the Old Testament worship faced the setting sun.

This is more dramatic considering that the Temple was in the northeastern part of Jerusalem. It would be more practical for people to approach from the West – but it was important to them to have the worshippers face west.

It is dramatic to imagine that experience of orientation: of standing outside, with the sun rising at their back, and then looking into the evening. Worship in the Temple was dramatic. Sometimes to moderns it seems obscure to talk about the relationship between the sun and our worship. But for the Israelites, natural symbols like this were a vivid part of worship.

In this environment how could you not think of the sun as a symbol? How could you not think that Israel’s worship was bound up with the passing away of the world, as you looked into the sunset?


Outside the central building of the Temple, in the courtyard to the east, was a great altar, on which sacrifices were burned. There were three principle forms of sacrifice.

A holocaust, or burnt offering, was entirely consumed in the flame: a sign that God alone is to be worshipped. The animals sacrificed were all animals worshipped by neighboring religions. Here they were offered in the fire, as a sign that God alone is to be worshipped. Imagine the drama!

A second kind of sacrifice was the thank offering, or free will offering. These were freely chosen, something given to God as a sign of gratitude. Because this was a celebratory offering, some was kept for a picnic for the worshippers. Other parts were given to the priests, as a sign of worship being offered in union with the temple. The central parts, the fat and the blood, were offered in the fire.

And the third kind of sacrifice was the sin offering. An animal was offered as a sign of a sin committed: a vivid experience of our sin being consumed by worship. Here, some was burned and some was offered to the priests, as a reminder that we are reconciled through our participation in the Temple. But none was taken for the worshippers to eat: we do not celebrate our sin.

Finally, there were special provisions made for the poor, so that those who could not afford to offer precious animals could still bring a sacrifice to the Temple. They offered wheat or pigeons: because pigeons were very easy to come by.


This is a very minimal introduction to Temple worship. Let it simply introduce us to the way of worship of the Old Testament.

It was intensely communal: true worship binds us together into the people of worship. The truest image of the Church is found in the people of Israel coming together to worship in the Temple.

It was intensely symbolic – and human. True worship does not leave our humanity behind, but draws it in. The symbols were meant to make worship more real – just as, in the sacraments, we come to God not through vague disembodied aspirations, but through our physical, human gestures.

The worship of Israel ended with Jesus, in whom it was fulfilled. But it is a reminder of how intensely human, and how intensely God-focused, our worship is meant to be. Let us love God’s holy Tabernacle!

How could your prayer better draw in your humanity?

The Psalms on Worship

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Our Psalm 26 next turns us from moral concerns to worship – and thus takes us to the heart of the Psalms.

The move already began in the section we considered last week.

I do not sit with the fraudulent

I hate the coming together of those who do evil

And I do not sit with the impious.

In Hebrew, “those who do evil” is “those who spoil things,” whereas “the impious” is a rhyming but unrelated word that means those who are just plain wicked. The Greek of the Septuagint, however, translates that wickedness as “impiety”: to be just plain wicked, rather than a ruiner of things, points more deeply, to one’s relation with God. The deeper problem is not just what we do, and what we ruin, but who we are, and how we relate to the Ultimate.


The next strophe addresses worship more directly:

I wash my hands in innocency

And I circle round your altar, o Lord

This is the verse the priest used to begin with as he washed his hands before offering the Eucharist, though in the reformed Mass he says only a loose paraphrase. From a glance at several other ancient rites of the Mass, it looks like those who do not use this Psalm do not wash their hands at all. In other words, the priest washes his hands because it goes with this Psalm.

It’s a nice image. We want to be prepared for worship. Jesus gives a parallel image when he talks about wearing wedding garments at a wedding feast. It’s simply a matter of fittingness. It is only right that we come to the altar “clean,” prepared, made right.


We could go a step deeper and say this kind of preparation is itself an essential part of our worship.

There is a parallel between the two verses we put above: “I wash my hands,” “I circle round your altar.” Worship is something we do. The “circling round” is itself worship, the person actively “entering in” (here, literally) to the praise of God.

Similarly, washing his hands is not just preparatory to worship. It’s part of worship, part of proclaiming who God is and how we stand in relation to him.

And we wash our hands “in innocency.” It is part of worship, to be sure, to include our bodies: to walk around, physically wash our hands, stand, kneel, turn to the altar, lift up our hands and voices, etc. Our bodies are part of us, and so they are part of our prayer.

But even more, our hearts are our inmost selves, and so as we lift up our hands and voices, we above all lift up our hearts. We truly lift up ourselves in praise of God.

And so we not only wash our hands in water, but in innocency. We offer our souls in worship. And central to offering our souls is our moral state.

The point of all this is that, in the Psalms, morality and worship are not two separate things. “I will wash my hands in innocency, and circle round your altar” means that my whole life enters into worship.


The Psalms root us firmly in the imagery of the Temple in Jerusalem. Going “round the altar” bespeaks the pride of the people of Israel in the house of God. It was somewhere you went with joy, somewhere you longed for, “the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, the fairest honor of our race.” (The phrase will later go to Mary, but Mary and Jesus are prefigured in the Temple.)

Worship is joy. The only thing more wonderful than getting ready to go to the Temple (washing our hands) is going to the Temple itself (circling the altar). Or: washing their hands as they entered the Temple was a time of great joy.


The question is sometimes posed whether worship is “for God” or “for us.” When people say, “worship is for God, not for us,” I think they are trying to make the point that worship means nothing if it is not focused on God.

But worship is for us. It is good for us to look to the Lord. It is good for us to enter in, liturgically (through ritual washings) and morally (through washing in innocency). This is our highest fulfillment.

One of the greatest glories of the Psalms is making vivid for us the goodness of worship. Indeed, the Psalms themselves manifest the point: by talking of all of life, but in the context of praise.

Are there parts of our life that would make more sense by thinking of them as on the way to worship?