The psalms of pilgrimage, or ascent – so called for the title they share (shir hamaalòt = song of ascents) – are 15 short compositions (Ps 120-134) for the “ascent” of the Israelites to the Temple in Jerusalem, on the occasion of the feasts of pilgrimage: the Passover, the Jewish Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles.
The collection of “Songs of Ascent” was not for the exclusive use of pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The number of psalms corresponds to the 15 steps that led from the women’s courtyard of the temple of Jerusalem to the Israelites’ courtyard, through Nicanor’s Gate. It is assumed that the psalms were recited or sung on each step of these “stairs” (which is a possible translation of the Hebrew term maalòt, an alternative to “ascents”), during the temple liturgy. Some exegetes, on the other hand, believe that the psalms of ascent were composed on the occasion of the return to Jerusalem, after the Babylonian exile.
Jesus’ parents went up to Jerusalem every year for the feast of Passover. They therefore recited the psalms of ascent many times from memory. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is in Jerusalem at least twice on the occasion of the Passover, then on the occasion of an unspecified feast, a Feast of Tabernacles, and a Feast of Dedication. The presentation in the Synoptic Gospels of Jesus’ public ministry as an “ascent” to Jerusalem may contain motifs that characterize ascension psalms.
Jesus recited the psalms, not just the ascension psalms, and not just when he went to Jerusalem. The words of these prayers show what was close to his heart, and what the thoughts of his heart were about Jerusalem.