Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was probably the most important composer in the transition from Renaissance Polyphony to Baroque.  This beautiful piece from his Vespers composition, Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610), is a musical setting for Psalm 127 (sometimes listed as Psalm 126).  

This particular psalm (printed in full below the music video) has always resonated with me. It is fairly short (four stanzas), but beautifully reminds us of our dependence on God and his providential care.  The psalm opens with the image of house construction: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”  (Ps 127:1)  The psalmist then presents a series of images illustrating how useless our efforts are without God’s help:

Unless the LORD watches over the city,

the watchman stays awake in vain.

It is in vain that you rise up early

and go late to rest,

eating the bread of anxious toil;

for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Ps 127:1-2)

What an eloquent reminder that it is only through Grace that our efforts bear fruit!

     We see a shift of focus in the last half of Psalm 127: instead of building a house, here we are building our “house”, that is, our family, again only through the Grace of God: “Lo, sons are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.” (Ps 127:3)  Here, too, God is the real author; and our children are His Providence in tangible form: both gift and blessing, which is to say their source is God, and that’s a good thing. And not good in only a spiritual sense:

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior

are the sons of one’s youth.

Happy is the man

who has his quiver full of them!

He shall not be put to shame

when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (Ps 127:5)

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. -Psalm 127:4

You can’t ask for images more down-to-earth than these: our sons are like weapons, they’ll back us up when we face our enemies . . . and all through the generosity of the Lord.

     It will come as no surprise that the idea of our progeny as gift and blessing is not as common as it once was.  More than forty years ago, in his introduction to Pope John Paul I’s Illustrissimi, John Cardinal Wright wrote:

     The present almost pathological lack of joy shows up in every vocation and in every area of life.  There already exist among us people who rejoice as little in the coming of children as once used to do only some of our neo-pagan neighbors.  Among descendents of people who, only yesterday, spoke of the coming of a baby as a “blessed event,” maternity  is no longer thought joyful.

That train has gone much further down the track since 1979, so that now even a recent President of the United States is on record as having remarked disapprovingly on young women being “punished with a baby”.

     We need to speak out, of course, against this anti-child attitude, the anti-family ethos and what Pope John Paul II called the Culture of Death. But we also need to remember, as Cardinal Wright points out, that our message is at root a message of Joy. Our children, and children in general (sadly, not all who wish to  have their quivers filled in this way are granted that grace) are “a heritage from the LORD,the fruit of the womb a reward.”.  We need to say it often, and live it publicly, and always give thanks to God for building up our house.

The clip below features a perfomance by The Green Mountain Project on January 3, 2013 at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City.

Featured image top of page: “The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Breugel the Elder, 1563

PSALM 127

Unless the LORD builds the house,

those who build it labor in vain.

Unless the LORD watches over the city,

the watchman stays awake in vain.

It is in vain that you rise up early

and go late to rest,

eating the bread of anxious toil;

for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Lo, sons are a heritage from the LORD,

the fruit of the womb a reward.

Like arrows in the hand of a warrior

are the sons of one’s youth.

Happy is the man

who has his quiver full of them!

He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

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