From the Psalms:
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 22, introduction – August 31, 2012)
Episcopalians reciting the Daily Office usually read the Psalms from The Book of Common Prayer, not from the Bible. This can cause some confusion about psalm verses because the versification and number of verses in the BCP differs from that in most Bible translations. The Psalter used in Anglican prayer books, including that of the Episcopal Church (until the 1979 book) was based on Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Bible which predated the Authorized (King James) version by nearly 80 years. The Coverdale Psalter had been used in all editions of The Book of Common Prayer, back to the first in 1549; while some editorial changes were made, the basic versification and numbering was maintained and this was continued in the 1979 version, which is a new translation but follows the tradition of Coverdale. Although not metrical, the translation was rendered with chanting in mind.
I often take a look at the Psalms in the New Revised Standard Version (my preferred translation) to see what differences there might be. Among the things not included in the BCP’s Psalter are the introductory directions and titles found in the Psalms in the Bible, so it was the introduction to this evening’s Psalm that caught my attention today, particularly the image “the Deer of the Dawn.”
Not all of the Psalms have these introductory directions; in fact, the majority do not. Some of them are clearly musical instructions: “On stringed instruments” (Ps. 41, 54, 55, 61, and 67), “For flutes” (Ps. 5), “According to the Sheminith” (Ps. 6 and 12, apparently a reference to an eight-stringed instrument, or perhaps to a particular meter or octave); “For the harp” (Ps. 8 and 81 ). Fifteen of the Psalms (120-134) are titled “songs of ascent”, which may be a liturgical direction or a reference to particular festival usage. Several Psalms, like this one, have introductory authorship ascriptions: for example, many say “a psalm of David”; a few are labeled “a psalm of Asaph”.
A few psalms, like today’s, have lovely, poetic images in their introductory rubrics. Psalm 56 is labeled “concerning the silent dove afar off”; Psalms 45 and 69 are “for the lilies”; and Psalms 60 and 80 are described is “on the lily of the testimony.” Some believe these might be references to popular tunes to which the Psalm is to be sung, but no one really knows.
In any event, the image of the “deer of the dawn” caught me up today. Psalm 22 is familiar to most Christians because Jesus is said by Matthew and Mark to have quoted its first verse on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34) Psalm 22 is prescribed in the liturgy for Good Friday, and is sometimes recited during overnight prayer vigils on Maundy Thursday. But in none of those usages is the introductory rubric and this image, “the deer of the dawn,” mentioned; the introductory directions are not read as part of the liturgy.
I am not a hunter. I can safely say that I have never shot at a wild animal, ever. But I have many friends who are hunters and they tell me that dawn is the best time to go after deer. They tell that the earliest hours of the morning are when the deer are most active. Right around dawn is when they leave their beds and move to feeding areas. A spot near a trail between the two will give a hunter a good opportunity for an hour or two after sunrise. I believe this because our home backs up to a wooded easement a few miles in length and about 500 yards wide. I usually rise just about at dawn and as I get my first cup of coffee in the dim light of the kitchen, I can just make out the woods and any movement there may be. Frequently, a doe and one or more fawns or yearlings will be moving through the trees . . . often headed for our landscaping to munch on our hostas and other plants! (I have never shot at a wild animal . . . but I have been tempted.)
It seems somehow oddly appropriate that Jesus quoted from this Psalm and that it is used at late-night Maundy Thursday vigils and at Good Friday liturgies. Not simply because of Jesus’ words, nor because the Psalm includes such crucifixion-relevant language as
All who see me laugh me to scorn;
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, if he delights in him.”
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them;
they cast lots for my clothing.
(Ps. 22:7-8, 17)
But because of this almost-forgotten introductory image “the deer of the dawn.”
We are told in Mark 14 and Matthew 26 that after the passover supper, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to the garden at Gethsemane and spent some time in prayer. It has always seemed to me that this must have stretched over several hours and that his betrayal and arrest must have occurred in the early morning hours. The Temple authorities, soldiers, and police who came to get him chose a time and a place not unlike a deer hunter, a time when they would have the best opportunity to find him, the best shot to take him. Jesus is “the Lamb of God” but it seems he is also “the deer of the dawn,” the innocent taken in the quiet of the new day’s early hours, the blameless bagged at sunrise.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.