How Psalm 23 Prefigures the Sacraments of Initiation

They may not realize it, but if modern catechumens loved and prayed Psalm 23 as children or adults, they were already preparing to become Catholic in the ancient tradition of the Church.

(photo: “The Good Shepherd” from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, 3rd century)

Probably the most recognizable psalm in popular media and song is Psalm 23 (the Greek numbering is 22). The words inspire a trust in God the protector and caregiver, who leads his sheep through life to the safety and beauty of Paradise. The symbolism, however, had a more precise meaning to primitive Christianity. This psalm of the Old Testament was typologically interpreted to be the progression of the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion. It is a catechesis.

In his 1956 study, The Bible and the Liturgy, Fr. Jean-Guenolé-Marie Daniélou, S.J., cites the mystagogical writings of Church Fathers to explain how the psalm was used to teach Christian initiates.

The catechumens preparing to enter the Church memorized the psalm. During the week of Easter, the meaning was revealed to them by their teachers. The newly-baptized sung the psalm as they processed in the Paschal night, what we now call the Easter Vigil, to receive first Holy Communion, knowing martyrdom may lay ahead.

The shepherd is a reference to Christ. The pasture is scripture that nourishes the hearts of believers and gives them spiritual strength, a place of repose. The cool, still water is the water of Baptism where sin is destroyed and a new creature is born. The sacraments and doctrine, being protective, lead on a sure path safe from fear or evil. The rod and the staff are understood to be the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who guides.

The catechumens, robed in white, were led to the table prepared for them, the Eucharist, to assist at Mass for the first time. During the rite, their heads were anointed with oil (a chrisma) and the sign of the Cross made, a mark of protection and of identity. The overflowing cup, the chalice, they were told, is the Eucharistic wine, a sober inebriation that fills the heart with the joy of divine goodness. All the days of life are a process of conversion, a journey toward dwelling in the Lord's house forever, a journey in the visible Church, a membership in the people of God.


Quotes from the Church Fathers

St. Ambrose quotes the psalm in On the Mysteries. He says the catechumens wear white robes to indicate the washing away of sins as a veil of innocence before the angels (VII, 34). The “cleansed people, rich with these adornments, hasten to the altar of Christ”, and sing the psalm of David:

You have prepared a table in my sight. David introduces the people as speaking, where he says: The Lord feeds me, and nothing shall be wanting to me, in a place of good pasture has He placed me. He has led me forth by the water of refreshment. And later: For though I walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff have comforted me. You have prepared in my sight a table against them that trouble me. You have anointed my head with oil, and Your inebriating cup, how excellent it is!” (Myst. VIII, 43).

Daniélou provides many more quotes. The following citations are found in Chapter 11 “Psalm XXII” of his book. He extensively uses the Patrologia Graeca (P.G.), a collection writings in Greek from early authors mostly before the fourth century, also known as the Apostolic Fathers, and they are organized below. These ancient words beautifully show how the psalm prefigured the sacraments, how it was a “mysterious summing up of the successive sacraments of initiation” (Bible and Liturgy, p. 93).

The Lord is my shepherd;

Christ is the Good Shepherd who feeds and guards his sheep. Just as his contemporary, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory of Nyssa recognizes the Psalm as part of the liturgy: “By this Psalm, Christ teaches the Church that first of all you must become a sheep of the Good Shepherd.” (P.G. XLVI, 692 A-B).

there is nothing I lack.

Didymus of Alexandria, also from the fourth century, writes that the divine wealth will be given in its fullness to the newly baptized. “The Lord leads me and nothing is lacking to me” (De Trinitate, XXXIX). St. Ambrose instructs catechumens to listen to David’s psalm because King David foresaw the sacramental mysteries. Those who receive the Body of Christ will hunger no longer.

“Hear what sacrament you have received, hear David who is speaking to you. He also foresaw in spirit these mysteries and exulted and declared that he wanted for nothing. Why? Because he who has received the Body of Christ hungers no longer. How many times have you heard Psalm 22 without understanding it? See how it fits the heavenly sacraments?” (De Sacr. V, 12-13).

In green pastures he makes me lie down;

The green pastures are the nourishment from the word of God. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes that “the place of green pastures should be understood of the words are always fresh and green, the words of inspired Holy Scripture, which nourishes the hearts of believers and gives them spiritual strength” (P.G. XXVII, 140 B).

to still waters he leads me;

The waters refer to Baptism, the resting place where sin is removed. St. Athanasius writes, "The water of repose without doubt signifies holy Baptism by which the weight of sin is removed" (P.G. XXVII, 140 B). St. Cyril of Alexandria is explicit about the connection between the pasture, the water, and Baptism. "The place of pasture is the Paradise from which we fell, to which Christ leads us and establishes us by the water of rest, that is to say, by Baptism” (P.G. XXVII, 841 A).

he restores my soul.

The soul is converted upon approaching the chalice of the Holy Eucharist. St Cyprian shows how the joy of spiritual wisdom frees the soul and removes sorrow, a sober intoxication, connected to the later verse about the overflowing cup.

“The chalice of the Lord, indeed, inebriates in such a way that it leaves us our reason; it leads souls to spiritual wisdom; by it each comes from a taste for profane things to the understanding of the things of God. Finally, as common wine releases the spirit, sets the soul free and banishes all sorrow, so the use of saving Blood and of the chalice of the Lord banishes the memory of the old man, bestows forgetfulness of profane living, sets the soul at ease, by placing the joy of the divine goodness in the sad and gloomy heart which before was weighed down by the load of sin" (Epist., LXIII, 11).                

He guides me along right paths for the sake of his name.

Christ teaches the Church through scripture and the sacraments. St. Gregory of Nyssa explains that the pastures are the springs of doctrine: "The catechesis leads you toward the pastures and the springs of doctrine” (P.G. XLVI, 692 B).

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

The symbolism for Baptism is also found verse 3, a ritual that is like Christ’s death on the cross. St. Gregory of Nyssa continues his teaching: “Then you must be buried with Him in His death by Baptism. But this is not death itself, but the shadow and the image of death. After this, He prepares the sacramental table. Then He anoints you with the oil of the Spirit. And, finally, He brings the wine that rejoices man's heart and produces the sober intoxication" (P.G. XLVI, 692 A-B). St. Cyril of Alexandria teaches the same: “Since we are baptized in the death of Christ, Baptism is called a shadow and an image of death, which is not to be feared” (P.G. XLVI, 841 B).

I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.

Although the history of the origin of the sacrament of Confirmation is obscure in ancient liturgy, the rod and the staff are understood as a similar outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Bible and Liturgy, Chapter 7). St. Gregory of Nyssa specifically said: “Then He guides him by the staff of the Spirit: for indeed the Paraclete (he who guides) is the Spirit” (P.G. XLVI, 841 B).

You set a table before me in front of my enemies;

These last verses prefigure the Eucharistic banquet. St. Paul of Jerusalem instructs:

“If you wish to know the effect of the sacrament, ask blessed David, who says, ‘Thou hast prepared a table before me, in the face of those who persecute me.’ See what he wishes to say. Before Your coming, the demons prepared for men filthy tables, full of diabolic powers. But when You came, O Lord, You prepared a table before me, which is none other than the sacramental and spiritual table which God has prepared for us” (P.G. XXXIII, 1102 B).

You anoint my head with oil;

The reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace, which unites with the earlier verse about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit symbolized in the rod and staff. St. Cyril of Jerusalem writes: “He has anointed your head with oil on the forehead, by the seal which you receive from God” (P.G. XXXIII, 1102 B). St. Athanasius refers explicitly: “This verse indicates the sacramental chrism” (P.G. XXXIII, 140 C).

my cup overflows.

The overflowing cup, also interpreted in the Septuagint translation as “inebriating chalice”, is a figure of the Eucharist. As in the previous quote about the conversion of the soul, St. Cyprian also teaches:

“The same figure (of the Eucharist) is expressed in the psalms by the Holy Spirit, when He mentions the chalice of the Lord: ‘Your inebriating chalice, how wonderful it is’. But the inebriation that comes from the chalice of the Lord is not like that given by profane wine. The chalice of the Lord inebriates in such a way that it leaves us our reason” (Epist. LXII, 11).

St. Gregory of Nyssa likewise writes of sober inebriation in a way that connects this verse with the last ones in this psalm:

"In giving it the wine that rejoices man's heart, Christ produces in the soul this sober inebriation which raises the dispositions of the heart from passing things to what is eternal; 'And my inebriating chalice, how wonderful it is.' He, indeed, who has tasted this inebriation, exchanges that which is ephemeral for that which has no end, and lives in the house of the Lord all the days of his life" (P.G. XLVI, 692 B).

Indeed, goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life;

Daniélou shows in his book how the first verse about Christ as the Good Shepherd is tied in with the last one of the psalm, a theme dear to primitive Christianity. “The pagans”, he says, “are the prey of bad shepherd who are the gods of the gentiles” (Bible and Liturgy, p. 96). In the ancient Book of Henoch, there are seventy shepherds who are the divinities of the pagan nations, but Christ is the Good Shepherd who separates and marks his sheep with the sacraments. He teaches them. He feeds them. He leads them.

St. Gregory of Nyssa demonstrates this:

"In the Psalm, David invites you to be a sheep whose Shepherd is Christ, and who lacks nothing good, you for whom the Good Shepherd becomes at once pasturage, water of rest, food, dwelling, way and guide, distributing His grace according to your needs. By this He teaches the Church that you should first become a sheep of the Good Shepherd, Who will lead you by the catechesis of salvation to the meadows and to the springs of sacred teachings" (P.G. XLVI, 692 A).

Cyril of Alexandria likewise teaches from the psalm:

“The song of converted pagans become disciples of God, who, spiritually nourished and satisfied, express their gratitude to their Leader for this saving food, calling Him Shepherd and father. For they have for guide not merely a saint, as Israel had Moses, but the prince of Pastors and the Master of doctrine, in Whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (P.G. LXIX, 840 C).

I will dwell in the house of the LORD for endless days.

According to Daniélou, the Church Fathers show us that the psalm in the Old Testament was a prophecy of the New Covenant. The Shepherd would come and lead his sheep into pastures of abundance, rescuing them in the end of time to Paradise. The Lord fights against the powers of evil, and triumphs. This is why, scholars have pointed out, the theme of the Good Shepherd appears most frequently on tombs, especially of martyrs.

Daniélou also offers the remarkably archaic text from the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. This is one of the oldest Christian works from the third century, thought to be a prison diary of St. Perpetua, a 22-year-old young mother still nursing her infant while imprisoned and awaiting martyrdom. She was held with a pregnant slave, St. Felicity, who gave birth before being killed. These two mothers are believed to have been martyred in 203 A.D. at Carthage. Perpetua wrote that she had a dream and saw a ladder rising to heaven. There was a dragon on the ladder, but she got past it. Upon arriving at the top of the ladder, she described what she saw:

"And I saw an immense garden, and in the midst a man sitting, with white hair, in the dress of a shepherd, milking the sheep, and men clad in white by the thousands surrounding him. He called me and gave me a mouthful of cheese which he pressed. I took it with joined hands and ate it" (P.G. IV, 8-10).

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When candidates for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (R.C.I.A.) come before the altar today to be received into the Catholic Church, they continue a procession from the earliest days of Christianity to the table prepared, the Precious Blood, the Eucharistic feast where we become members of the Body of Christ, to dwell in peace and safety forever. They may not realize it, but if modern catechumens ever read, or prayed, or loved Psalm 23 as children or adults—they were already preparing to become Catholic in the ancient tradition of the Church.