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Friday, April 18, 2014

It's not a funeral for Jesus

It's "Good" Friday. Not weepy, lugubrious, maudlin, self-flagellating Friday. Yesterday, as we began the Triduum, the first words of the Liturgy, which we sang in paraphrase, say this:
We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection; through him we are saved and made free.

These are words of celebration, joy, and freedom. Yes, they are about the cross. Yes, today is a commemoration of the death of Jesus. But Jesus was raised, and dies no more.
And the liturgy today begins with this prayer...
O God, who by the Passion of Christ your Son, our Lord,
abolished the death inherited from ancient sin
by every succeeding generation,
grant that just as, being conformed to him,
we have borne by the law of nature
the image of the man (sic) of earth,
so by the sanctification of grace
we may bear the image of the Man (sic) of heaven.
Through Christ our Lord.
(Try to hop over the translation of "man" which is trying to compare Jesus with Adam without using the names. Never mind that "Adam" was a Hebrew play on words that was close to the word for "human being," somebody's formal translation agenda was out in force today. But I digress...)

...and ends with this one:
Almighty ever-living God,
who have restored us to life
by the blessed Death and Resurrection of your Christ,
preserve in us the work of your mercy,
that, by partaking of this mystery,
we may have a life unceasingly devoted to you.
Through Christ our Lord.
Sometimes, locking into the bathos of our culture, we succumb in this celebration to a kind of individualistic pietism: O what a terrible sinner I am, I did this to Jesus. We lock other people out. Jesus of the first century, perhaps Jesus the pissed-off God, is the focus our attention. We fail to see the structures of society itself which allow the innocent to die, structures in which we participate, are responsible for his death, and the death of millions of others. But salvation is not about individuality: it's about the human race. Religion, by definition, binds together again what is broken apart, or imagined to be broken apart, by our narcissism and navel-gazing. When I was baptized, I was healed of my radical individualism and alienation from others, and became a part of the eternal, living Body of Christ. It now not I who live, as St. Paul said. It is Christ who is alive in me. It is certainly true that I have to learn to live into that, and that is what the community of "resident alien" Christians is about. And it's how we most often fail, too, lured back to the fleshpots of imaginary self-sufficiency and selfish individualism by the surrounding culture.

But way back on the first Monday of Lent, the first weekday after the First Sunday, the first day on which the catechumens could be called the elect, the first day of their and the whole church's forty-day Lenten retreat, in the gospel of the day, we heard the words of Jesus in the parable about the king at the end of time,
"'Lord, when did we see you hungry and not feed you, naked and not clothe you, sick or in prison and not come to visit you?' And the king will answer, 'I solemnly assure you, as long as you did not do it to one of these least ones, you did not do it to me.'" 
All those sayings in that parable are couched in terms of good done and good not done. I wonder about evil done, though. What about, "Lord, when did we unjustly convict you? When did we whip you, ridicule you, strip you naked in front of strangers, curse you and deride you, and kill you like a criminal in a horrible, painful way?" Mightn't we also hear, "Whenever you did that to anyone, any of these least of my sisters or brothers, you did it to me"? This is what I mean when I say that God when God saves, it is the whole human race that is saved, and therefore individuals. All of us make little decisions, for better or for worse, that move humanity in some direction with relationship to God. Yes, our individual actions matter, but they matter not because I'm so unique and special. They matter because I'm the same as every other person on this planet, the living, those who have passed away, and those yet to be born.

In an amazing transformation that, in a way, is a symbol of the way the Paschal Mystery transforms the whole world as we learn to see with divinized vision, the very instrument of terror, torture, and state-sanctioned murder that was the means of the death of the Savior became a symbol of love and overflowing life. Blood-stained wood still echoing with the screams of the condemned was changed by the faithfulness of Jesus into a symbol of life, hope, and renewal. It's as though people could wear an electric chair charm, a noose, or bracelet of atomic bombs or Ricin molecules and be known by those who see them as gentle people who advocate for the poor and love their enemies.

I guess I figure that if God can change the cross so completely, maybe God can change me. Maybe God can change people who run the war machine and every person on the planet who is convinced that the road to security is through the blood of enemies, and that peace can be attained through bullets and bombs, beatings and beheadings.

To me, that's what today is about. Was I there when they crucified my Lord? Well, if his name was Martin, I was just a few hundred miles away. If it was Oscar, I might have voted for some of the people who did, and paid taxes to buy the guns and liquor of the ones who did. If he was from Uganda, or Darfur, or Palestine, or Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia, well, yes, I guess I might have held coats, or pounded a nail, or just hid while tough-talking religious people did the real killing. Dr. Crossan pointed out in a recent article that there wasn't anything outwardly unique about the crucifixion of Jesus. In fact, it was its ordinariness that should surprise us. Pilate and other Roman despots crucified thousands, often in a single day. And though the means of torture and death may have slightly changed, especially in efficiency, down the centuries, the truth is that the killing goes on. What was different about the crucifixion of Jesus was that it was he, a human being whom God revealed as the beloved Son, who was crucified. The victim had a name, "a name above all other names."

I'm just like the one on the cross, and I'm just like the killers. In the words of the prayer above, I have by nature the "manhood" (sic) of the Messiah. May God's grace, impossible to earn but generously given to those who seek it, help us to put on his likeness, risen in glory. Like the cross itself, may we be changed from destruction into life itself. That would make this Friday “good.” Even the possibility of it gives me hope.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Triduum music for 2014


This can be a stressful time of year for church musicians and therefore for choirs and musicians who have to work with us. What I strive for year after year is a Triduum and Easter program with as much familiar music in it as possible, along with the unique and prescribed texts of those days in settings that are self-taught in performance and bear repetition year after year. My feeling is you set up a solid structure of music and you work with it, change a few things if you want to, but once the ritual music is working well, well, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

So we don't do new communion songs, new entrance songs, new acclamations during the holy days. I try to keep a paschal repertoire active all through the year, so that much of our music can be used on any Sunday and also works well for the Easter season. I believe that this is at the heart of what the Church means, in the General Norms on the Liturgical Year, #4, what it states that "on the first day of each week, which is known as the Day of the Lord or the Lord’s Day, the church, by an apostolic tradition that draws its origin from the very day of the resurrection of christ, celebrates the paschal Mystery. hence, Sunday must be considered the primordial feast day." Then, in #18, it says that "the preeminence that Sunday has in the week, the Solemnity of Easter has in the liturgical year." (Both quotations cited originate in Sacrosanctum Concilium.) Every Sunday is Easter; they have a reciprocal meaning.

Repeating a lot of music every year also saves on the stress as these days get closer together and with wonky late winter/early spring weather rehearsals and attendance thereto can be unpredictable. Somehow, I just feel that liturgy depends on this kind of repetition, so that people come to be able to count on music and prayer to feel familiar and comfortable as well as challenging, with multivalent meaning. I feel about it the way I feel about the rest of the liturgy, and scripture for that matter: it doesn't matter so much that it's always the same because we change. The metaphors and allusions might stay the same, but our lives and self-understanding evolve week-to-week and certainly year-to-year. There's no reason that everything has to be new. We're new. God's activity is ever ancient, ever new.

And yet there is that impetus, that energy, that inspiration that demands of us, "Sing a new song unto the Lord." So if that works for you, by all means, do it. Just not all new songs, all the time, OK? ;-)



For the record, this is the music we're using for Triduum this year with a few notes and links for those who want more information. Where I've done a "SongStories" piece on one of the songs, it's linked. I'll try to get as many as possible in the iTunes link at the bottom.

Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper

Gathering: Glory in the Cross (Schutte, OCP)
Receiving the Oils: Chant (based on Mass of St. Aidan)
Glory to God: Mass of St. Ann (Bolduc, WLP)
Psalm 116: "Our Blessing Cup" (Cooney, OCP)
Gospel Acclamation: Mass of St. Aidan (Cooney, WLP)
Washing of Feet: This Is My Example (O'Brien)
Preparation Rite: To You Who Bow (Cooney, GIA [unpublished])
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Creation (Haugen)
Fraction: Lamb of God (Daigle, GIA)
Communion: May We Be One (Daigle-Cooney, GIA)
Procession: Praise the Savior's Glorious Body/Tantum Ergo (chant)



Good Friday Solemn Commemoration of the Lord's Passion and Death

Psalm 31: I Place My Life (Cooney, GIA)
Gospel Acclamation: Mass of St. Aidan (Cooney, WLP)
Passion Acclamation: based on "Faithful Cross" (Kendzia-Cooney, OCP)
Solemn Intercessions: based on "Good and Gracious God" (Haugen, GIA)
Showing the Cross: "Behold the Wood" (Schutte, OCP)
Veneration:

  1. Adoramus Te, Christe (DuBois)
  2. Faithful Cross (Kendzia-Cooney, OCP)
  3. Glory in the Cross (Schutte, OCP)

Communion: Christ the Icon (Cooney, WLP)


Vigil of Easter

Procession and Exsultet: (setting by Tom Kendzia, OCP)

Liturgy of the Word
Genesis Reading (with acclamations and psalm) (Cooney, Balhoff, Daigle, Ducote, GIA)
Exodus Reading (sung) (Cooney)
Isaiah 12 "With Joy You Will Draw Water" (Haugen, GIA)
Easter Alleluia (O Filii et Filiae)

Liturgy of Baptism

Litany of Saints (Becker, OCP)
Blessing of Water acclamations (Haas, GIA)
Baptism Acclamation "You Have Put on Christ" (Daigle, GIA)
Renewal Acclamation with sprinkling "We Have Put on Christ" (Daigle, GIA)
Confirmation Music: "Rain Down" (Cortez, OCP)

Response to Intercessions: "O Lord, Hear Our Prayer" (Ray East, GIA)

Liturgy of the Eucharist

Preparatory Rites: Be Ye Glad (Greer, Lillenas, choir)
Mass of Creation Eucharistic Acclamations
Lamb of God: Mass of St Aidan (Cooney)
Communion: One Bread, One Body (Foley, OCP)
Recessional: O Happy Day (Edwin Hawkins)


Easter Sunday masses

Prelude Music: Barrington Brass Quintet
Gathering: Jesus Christ Is Risen Today
Psalm 118: Today (Cooney, GIA)
Easter Alleluia (O Filii et Filiae)
Sprinkling Rite: Glory to God from Mass of St. Ann (Bolduc, WLP)
Preparatory Rites: Three Days (Holst, Ridge arr. Honoré, OCP)
Mass of Creation (Haugen)
Lamb of God (Mass of Creation, Haugen)
Communion: (1) I Am the Bread of Life (Toolan, arr. Cooney GIA)
(2) Barrington Brass Psalm XIX, Marcello
(3) May We Be One (Daigle-Cooney, GIA)
Recessional: Sing with All the Saints in Glory (Ode to Joy)
Postlude: Barrington Brass Quintet




We make a few adaptations on Easter Sunday in order to fit five masses into the morning, while we generally only have three. St. Anne's is a large church in a suburban neighborhood; we seat about 1400 people, but parking is extremely limited. Ordinarily we have two hours between masses in order to let people mingle, leave, and then new folks come in. On Easter, in order to accommodate the 8000+ people who come to mass, we need to have mass last no more than an hour, so that we can clear the streets and lots for the next mass to come in. Consequently, we use the "Glory to God" as music during the sprinkling, and omit the sequence, both things that I hate to do but which are pastoral necessities, or seem to be. The liturgies themselves are really beautiful and uplifting, and generally by-the-book. Try not to judge us by too rigorous a standard of adherence to rubrics. For the glory of God and the safety of our community, we do what we do.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Prophets and martyrs for a new world

I've been wanting to write about this for some time, but haven't been able to find the words or even the right thing to say. Then, a couple of things happened over the weekend, and they may or may not help. I'm about to find out. First, I was listening to the gospel for the umpteenth time Saturday evening and, not unusually, something so obvious struck me that had never struck me before. It was those climactic words of Jesus that make the cosmos tremble and set into motion the events that led to his death: "Lazarus, come out!" I heard them differently from how I've heard them before, and I'll say more about them in a minute. 
Iconographer Robert Lentz O.F.M.'s 1994 icon of
Ss. Sergius and Bacchus

The second event was an article that appeared in the Washington Post today, that has begun to be shared among my many friends in the Catholic church music business and I'm sure will be read by thousands by the end of today, about our friend J. Michael McMahon, the longtime president of our guild, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. While the article is silent on the details of his departure from NPM last spring, it tells the details of his firing from his post as a parish music director in the Diocese of Arlington (Va.), an event that preceded his departure from NPM, as a result of his having married his partner of many years, Ray Valido. While one must be careful about jumping to conclusions in events that involve complex realities, relationships, and theological issues, I am certain that it is safe to say that there is a relationship, if not a causal one, between his marriage to his partner and his departure from the helm of NPM, an organization with a higher percentage of gay members, I'd go out on a limb to say, sans evidence, than, for instance, the AMA or ABA, if perhaps not of Catholic clergy. I may be wrong, but I think everybody in the organization knows that, and, I'm happy to say, almost nobody cares. 

I'm not an expert in any of this, but the gradual empowerment of the LGBT movement, especially since the 1969 Stonewall Riots, has been on a collision course with many mainstream religious denominations because of long-held beliefs about sexuality. While even "Caesar," that is, American civil and military culture, has begun to move its legal and cultural boundaries wider to embrace the science and widely attested experience of homosexual people as part of a diverse "norm" rather than as derogatively abnormal, the church, at least its Roman Catholic administrative body, continues to use arcane and unintelligible Thomistic language ("inherently disordered," for instance) to distance itself from gay persons and legitimize its sacramental proscription of persons who "act on their disordered impulses" (more philosophical jargon) no matter what science or personal witness may have to say about the lives of gay persons. 

Needless to say, this makes for difficult decisions for real human beings already burdened by the difficulties of self-discovery and acceptance in a culture that places an unnatural value on majorities. And let me just say, as a person of sixty-one years and a lot of experience with both clerical formation  (as a seminarian from 1965 to 1973, not to mention my years of work in the church and my many friends among the clergy) and people who make music for the liturgy (as an NPM member or associate since the early 1980s), that I grew up so completely naive about gay people and their struggles and subculture and closeted lives that I didn't even know that some of my closest friends and acquaintances were gay until, I'm ashamed to say it, decades after we met. That says more about me and the quality of my friendship, I suppose, than about anything else, but it leads me to wonder about other peoples' experience. I mean, if you love somebody, and you learn they happen to be gay, how on earth, why on earth, could you stop loving them? My first instinct was not that they were wrong about something, but that I was wrong about something. I think, for a change, my instinct was right. 

mar·tyr  (märtr) n.

2. One who makes great sacrifices or suffers much in order to further a belief, cause, or principle. (Free online dictionary)

proph•et    1.  a person who speaks for God or a deity, or by divine inspiration.

Those are dictionary definitions of "prophet" and "martyr," but I prefer a more theological and radical use of the words. In scripture, a prophet does, in fact, "speak" for God, and since scripture is a book, it appears to be with words. But prophets often "speak" through prophetic actions, even symbolic acts and pantomimes, in order to get a message across that something is dreadfully wrong with the status quo and needs to be changed. The prophet Hosea, for instance, marries a prostitute and loves her as a sign of God's enduring love for Israel in spite of Israel's infidelities. The book of Jeremiah is full of prophetic puzzles and street theater meant to awaken the city to its evils. Jesus himself used similar actions: the entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, a week before Passover when the legions of Pilate from Caesarea Maritima would be making a similar procession on horseback in full Roman regalia, was meant to conjure to those gathered a scene from the prophet Zephaniah, in which a peaceful king rides into the city riding on a beast of burden.

Similarly, a "martyr" in the Christian church is a witness to Jesus Christ, to the truth of him which surpasses and transcends all other truths. It is this witness that is the cause of the sacrifice or suffering that the martyr endures. The witness makes the martyr as surely as the suffering that is the martyr's lot. In fact, the word martyr itself is from a Greek word that means "witness."

Exhibit A in the prophet and martyr department: I have a friend who is a pastoral musician with a young family, who decided to leave his job as a liturgist musician at a Catholic university, relocate to another city, and begin a doctoral program in choral music. He applied for a scholarship from a national association in his field, which he won. Though certainly in need of the money offered by the organization, he refused the scholarship money offered, in solidarity with the (perceived, at least) injustice to Mike McMahon, the musician who was the subject of the article mentioned above. Others have left church jobs in anger over the incident, shaken the dust from their feet, and canceled their membership in the organization.

Mike McMahon, my friend the doctoral candidate, and the others of whom I'm thinking of today would hardly think of themselves as prophets and martyrs, but I feel in my heart that that is what they are. They are my colleagues in church ministry who have taken a public stand as or for members of the LGBT community, advocating for equality, and transparent equality, in the Christian church (including, let me just say it, the Catholic church) in matters related to employment, membership, and marriage. They want to be known as Christians, not gay Christians. They are musicians, not gay musicians.

Before I say the rest of what I want to say, I want to say categorically that I stand with them. I believe that they are on the right side of history, and that those who quote chapter and verse and canon are on the wrong side of history, and that discrimination of all kinds, inside and outside of the church, that is based on sexual preference will go the way of slavery, geocentrism, heliocentrism, and gender discrimination, and not in the long term, either. 

The tough part about being a prophet, though, is that you cannot expect to be welcomed with open arms. The very nature of prophetic action is that is goes against the current of culture and government because it is on the side of God, whose inclusive and agapic nature is the opposite of those human endeavors. Prophetic action makes martyrs. There is no other option. The more uncompromising, outspoken, and radical the prophetic action, the more swiftly and decisively the opposing forces sweep in with cross and nails, sniper's rifles, warrants, summonses, and pink slips.

The passion story in which we are immersed at this time of year tells all of these truths without equivocation. The good guys, the religious leaders of Jesus's time, wanted to keep the peace in a city and culture that was a tinderbox of unrest and revolution. In less than half a century from the time of Jesus, their greatest fear came to pass, and when nationalists rose up against Roman rule, Rome responded by leveling the temple and the city of Jerusalem at the cost of perhaps a million lives. They perceived Jesus as a threat to them, and they probably convinced the Roman governor that he represented a threat to the pax Romana as well. They may have rejected or misunderstood what Jesus had to say, and he was certainly not advocating any kind of violent revolution, but his message was pretty clear: what passed for "peace" in the empire of Caesar was a counterfeit, and a different kingdom was available by a turn toward the Father, and thus, one another, in love. There was still no mistaking his intention in an empire where god and emperor were the same person: he was guilty of both blasphemy and sedition.

Gradually, though, as more and more of us become convinced that the prophets are right and the status quo is the problem, we can insist that the repercussions stop and that structures be rethought. In church time, this is probably a matter of decades rather than years, down a bit from what used to be centuries (it took three and a half centuries to rehabilitate Galileo). What can we do in the meantime?

I think that many in the institutional church, the magisterial church, are beginning to sense the disconnect between gospel principles and the way LGBT people are treated, on better days, as second-class citizens of the reign of God. Somehow, we have lost sight of the fact that all of us are sinners, that all of us are colluding with Caesar and mammon in violence and oppression of other people as well as in the exploitation of creation for the profit and comfort of a few. Maybe that kind of sin just seems too big for us to tackle, so we focus on what we perceive to be, with microscopes formed by pre-scientific views of Scripture and philosophy, psychology, and sociology, the "sin" of minorities that we haven't really tried to understand.

We who believe in Christ need to agitate with love, and not venom. We need to live in solidarity with those who are hurt and cast aside by the institutions that are currently unable to negotiate that passage from law to love. We need to keep avenues of dialogue open and build consensus, as slowly as that happens, and employ our best powers of persuasion and exhortation, relying on the truth of the gospel and faith in the Holy Spirit to bring the truth forward. What we can't do is expect change immediately, or make demands on our timetable. Anything that engenders further division or hate can't be our way. In reductionist language, we can give our lives away, but not take life. We can lay down our lives, but not maim or kill. When the ultimate goal of Christ is "that all may be one," we cannot continue to use the strategies of Caesar that employ various kinds of force to accomplish that goal, nor can we accomplish unity by breaking away into a kind of pre-selected homogeneity. 

A few years ago, I got a letter from a federal detention facility in California from a woman named Susan Crane, asking for music for a song of mine entitled "Trumpet in the Morning" that she wanted to use in prayer while in prison. After a couple of rounds of having lost the music in the processes of the prison's mail filtering, I was finally successful in getting the music through to her. I didn't know who she was when she wrote to me, but discovered she was a member of Plowshares, a Christian group of peace activists including the late Philip Berrigan who have for about thirty years made prophetic actions against government nuclear installations around the United States. They do peaceful prophetic theater, symbolic actions against stunningly powerful weaponry, and they expect to have their day in court, and go to prison. Another prophet and martyr, Sister Megan Rice, a sister in her 80s, was sentenced recently to three years in prison for breaking into a weapons-grade uranium storage facility in Tennessee and splashing the walls with human blood. She carried the blood in baby bottles to symbolize the danger to children and human life by nuclear weapons. When Archbishop Hunthausen withheld a portion of his income taxes to protest the deployment of Trident missiles from his see, he became not only the enemy of the Reagan administration, he became the target of retribution from within the American episcopacy, the very place from which he should have encountered solidarity. Rejection and retribution are part of the prophet's calling. This explains why so few of us really want to take it up. The list of scriptural objections to the calling runs the gamut: I'm a stutterer, I'm too young, all I know about is growing trees, I'm a sinful man. Jonah, for one, makes a run for it.

This past weekend, to (finally?) put some scriptural and personal context to all this, it struck me why perhaps the raising of Lazarus put the wheels in motion that ended on Calvary. The gospel story that we heard Sunday of the raising of Lazarus, in chapter 11 of John, ends at verse 45. But look what happens in the next seven verses.
Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.
But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said,
“What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs.
If we leave him alone, all will believe in him,
and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.”
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them,
“You know nothing,
nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people,
so that the whole nation may not perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year,
he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation,
and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.
So from that day on they planned to kill him.
In John, at least, the raising of Lazarus set in motion the wheels of church and state that led to the death of Jesus. And my mind went to those words Jesus had spoken at the tomb: Lazarus, come out!

I heard those words spoken to my friends for thirty years who have left the priesthood or their church work, or were forced out of them, because of their inability to cooperate any longer with the code of silence that made them deny the way God made them. They heard the call of Jesus "Come out!", and they began to live in the light of freedom even if and when for a time it meant not knowing what the meaning of their training and education might be, where even their next meal might come from. But they responded to the voice of Jesus, and their friends untied them, and they were free.

I heard those words spoken to all LGBT Christians and Catholics, including Catholic priests, who are inhibited from living full lives because of fear of being known for who they are. I heard those words spoken to the institutional church, trapped in the death of its own aged moral theology and finding itself unable to extricate itself from its bonds. Lazarus, come out! That death has no power over you. Come out, and begin to live in the freedom of the children of God. Learn the meaning of "It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice," and live in the covenant of agape to which you are called.

And mostly, I heard those words spoken to me, formed by many of the same thoughts and people that formed the institution, but blessed with friends and teachers who have taught me to listen with an open heart to all those who are seeking the truth. Lazarus, come out! Don't be afraid to live in the light, don't be afraid to live at all. No one in the land of the living has power over life and death but the one who is calling you out of the grave of your fear and indecision, the one who is resurrection and true life. Lazarus, come out! Advocate without prejudice, advocate without violence, vitriol, and blame, advocate without abandoning the heart of the mission, which is unity among us, peace with justice among all the children of God, friend and enemy alike.

To all of you who have shown me the way with your patient love and faith willing to suffer rather than to keep living a lie, thank you for being the voice that says, Lazarus, come out! Thank you for showing me, and all of us, that the only path to the resurrection goes through the cross.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What do you say?

Every so often you get one of those funerals. A child who dies of SIDS, a young accident or suicide victim, a beautiful, vivacious young woman killed in a “domestic dispute” murder-suicide. As often as one participates in funerals of all kinds, and I’ve done music for well over a thousand over the last 30 years, every once in a while something brings you back to the place of the brutal finality of death, the unfairness of it, and our inadequacy to respond to it in a meaningful way.

To their great credit, homilists often acknowledge that that no words are going to change anything, and nothing can really ease the pain. Sometimes, mutual presence can ease the pain. Sometimes, for some of us, we can make peace with the passing of someone we love dearly. But even the death that some euphemistically call “a blessing” is for one who loves a ripping-away, a wrenching. I remember my stepmother talking to me, years after the death of my father from Pick’s disease at the age of 61, that she would rather have had him alive in his debilitated state, with impaired reason and memory and lapses of violent behavior, than for him to be dead and away from her. On the edges of death, we make rituals, eulogize, and write poetry; in the valley of death, we only wail and wander in the chaos.

My experience has been that there is a lot that the church shouldn’t say, I mean, that we shouldn’t try to say too much. Often, priests tell personal or anecdotal stories of how the deceased is “given back to us” or that they are still present with us somehow. I guess, “somehow,” that that is true, but one person’s sense of presence is another person’s delusion. It’s one thing to believe in the resurrection and the communion of saints; it seems to me quite another to be too explicit about what that means.

Still, for the church, “life is changed, not ended.” Part of the mystery of that changed life is that the change is complete. We don’t know what it’s like, no one told us. All of the biblical stories of resurrection in the new testament (resurrection, not resuscitation) indicate that the resurrected one is not known by his friends, he is mistaken for a gardener, a stranger, or a ghost. I don’t want to make too much of that, just that “change” means “changed completely,” and we don’t know what that means.

What can we say, then? Well, we can surely say what we know by faith, that God is just, and that the injustice of death will be rectified. In fact, what we say is that is has been rectified for the Christian, that in baptism, the old self died with Christ and rose as a new creation, so that Paul is able to say, “I live now no longer I, but it is Christ who lives in me.” What we can say is that from the moment of baptism, we were claimed for Christ, and that death had no more power over us. We were drowned in the paschal mystery of God, where there is only life. To say it differently, death and sin are the problem, and God’s answer is the covenant that began with Abraham and Moses and blossomed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Messiah, when the Spirit of God was poured out onto the world from the cross. Baptism gives us that Spirit, it lives in us as the community of Christ as we live that community. We are alive to the extent that we give ourselves away, or, to say it more starkly, we live to the extent that we die in God.

Also, as we disabuse ourselves of the imperial god and become aware of God as the abba of Jesus, the God who is agape, we can begin to see that death and life are somehow related, and that what appears to be death is a beginning of life. If we see God as one-who-gives-life-away, and yet one who is the fullness of life, we can begin to grapple with possibility that it is death that is illusory. We have to hold that in tension with the truth that the reign of God is here, in this world, and for this world, now, and that this world is meant for life, here and now. Death isn’t a solution, but it is not the awful enemy we may think it to be. (My spiritual guru, James Alison, speaks differently, preferring to say that God has nothing to do with death, that God is completely life, and anything of death cannot be of God. I don’t find these points of view so much opposed as residing in different semantic arenas. If our image of God is not imperial, that is, hoarding life and making a show of it, but is rather based on a view of God’s kenotic life as agape, that is, always giving life away, it seems to me that we can authentically speak of death as being part of the divine economy.)

A little book I recently read, Resurrection, by Geza Vermes, does a survey of biblical texts on resurrection and tries to come to some conclusion about its meaning for Christianity and Christians today. Vermes, a leading biblical scholar, professor at Oxford, and the lead translator of and authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, covers many of the same foundational texts touched on by Crossan in his work on Jesus: Job, Maccabees, Daniel and Wisdom especially. Like Crossan, he concludes that the concept of resurrection from the dead arose late in the consciousness of Judaism and was anything but widespread even by time of Christ. This would particularly be true in Galilee, a world away from the more cosmopolitan Jerusalem with its thousands of priests who would be the ones most likely to be dealing with these conclusions and reflections. What Vermes seems to find most intriguing is that, whatever happened to Jesus, whatever the explanation of the empty tomb, the resurrection seems to have been a complete surprise to everyone. Everyone’s first thought was that something else had happened. If Jesus had known about his death and resurrection, and if he had prepared the apostles to expect it, how is that they were so flabbergasted by it when it happened?

“Life is changed, not ended.” It was first changed at baptism into something greater than we suspect, it was changed from the life of a single person, an individual, into the life of Christ, God’s cosmic response to sin and death in every time and place. What life will be after death we don’t know, and I feel we should be very circumspect about the claims we make about it. We can be certain that it will surprise us, it will change us completely. It may be as different from life we know as an ocean differs from a molecule of water vapor; it is only certain that it is the vapor we experience now, and the ocean lies beyond our present life. Still, the gospel insists that we look here, in this world, for signs of that ocean of divine presence all around us, because it is “at hand, indeed, it is here already.”

These latter days of Lent remind us to be wary of our thoughts about the “imperial” god, whose reign looks like the rulers’ of this world, wielding power and might, arrayed in gold, and dominated by maleness and aggression. Jesus, and him crucified, is the image of the invisible God. Looking upon him, we might catch a glimpse of what life truly is, agape, life-as-love-given-completely, and have our ideas of both life and death transformed. We might come to a new understanding that perhaps God’s nature shares somehow in suffering and death, that suffering is a part of God’s nature and memory, as hymnist Brian Wren has written:
God remembers pain; 

Nail by nail, thorn by thorn, 

Hunger, thirst, and muscles torn.

Time may dull our griefs and heal our lesser wounds, 

But in eternal love yesterday is now, 

And pain is in the heart of God.


God remembers us; 

All we were, all we are, 

Lives within our lover's care. 

Time may dull our minds and death will take us all, 

But in eternal love ev'ry day is now; 

Our life is hid with Christ in God.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Doing our best, and doing right—not necessarily the same thing

We've been holding "Change Our Hearts" Thursdays in the parish this Lent. A couple dozen folks gather in our hospitality room to share soup and bread, and then share some faith experiences from the previous week that might have arisen from their meditation on the daily readings and the reflections from my book on the Lenten readings, called Change Our Hearts: Daily Meditations for Lent. Due to my being in Massachusetts for the 2nd and 3rd Thursdays of Lent, I wasn't able to attend all of the sessions. Last night was the last one, with next Thursday being our parish penance service, and the following Thursday being the Mass of the Lord's supper. But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sitting informally with new and old friends from St. Anne and sharing our faith in wide-ranging conversation for an hour or so.

I was privileged, the first night and last night, to begin the conversation by giving a sort of introduction to the concept of the book, which is a particular view of the Lenten journey through the lens of the baptismal promises, and then applying it to the readings that we had heard or read for the week since the last time we had met. So last night we were discussing the readings from last Friday (the third week of Lent) through yesterday's texts, the Thursday of the fourth week.

Since it was going to be our last evening together, I wanted to try to reorient us toward behavior, and make an attempt to show that myself, how a particular meditation might call us, or, actually, me, to a new way of seeing or acting. It may seem like I spill my guts easily in these little blog posts, but doing so in public, with people I know, in this case, with Terry present, isn't easy for me at all. But I felt like unless I got to a place where I could say, "this is where I am with this, and I think this is where I want to go," then it might all just stay in the realm of theory, and again, nothing will ever change. As I mentioned a few days ago, it's easier to be in love with love than it is to actually love somebody. I'm built for brainstorming, less so for action. One recent Pope asked that very question of us, wondering why so much Eucharist is going on, and the world is changing so slowly, if at all.

So I reminded my fellow parishioners that the baptismal promises we will be asked to renew will ask us to reject sin and believe in God, Father, Son, and Spirit. How do the readings we've read this week, anchored by the great scriptures of this past Sunday, ask us to think about what sin is? I think that the scriptures of Lent give us some new insight, and ask us to rethink some of what we take for granted about the nature of sin. Secondly, who is this God in whom we're asked to believe? Again, we need to re-evaluate the God we worship, because we can, like the Israelites in the desert, make graven images even of the true God, which are no less repugnant than images of false ones. We might be led by the scriptures to think about a God who like underdogs, like the shepherd David, youngest of Jesse's sons, a God who sees behind appearances and norms and looks into the heart. We might see a God who creates light, who brings light out of darkness, who is bigger than the ways our religion sometimes tries to restrict grace or even define what God wants and doesn't want.

One of this week's major themes seemed to be that we all love some god or another. But the God to whom we are vowed, the God of our baptismal promises, is a God of self-emptying love, the God of mercy, a God who acts on behalf of those who are weak, poor, sick. This is a God who is so deeply involved in this world that he enters it personally in the man Jesus. And what we see in the story of Jesus is that the world is so set against this wide-open, wall-crushing, healing, feeding, equalizing love that forces of violence are set by motion by the very act of healing.

We're more than halfway through Lent. What has made a difference for us so far?  Has this journey through the readings helped us see our Christian calling with fresh eyes? Has it made a difference in our prayer, our relationships? In the way we see the demands of work, government, other voices competing for our attention over the voice of God? Has it helped us see that renewing out baptismal promises is actually a choice between gods?

I came clean about my meditation (a lot of this happened in the shower, by the way…I hope I didn't waste a lot of water) on the readings from last Saturday, a piece from Hosea and the Lucan account of Jesus's parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In my book, I focused on hesed and how Hosea plays with its meaning, and how the psalm refrain reinforces that, unexpectedly coming from outside the psalm, from Hosea itself, with the verse, "It is mercy that I desire, not sacrifice." And this leads into the gospel story.

This is where my mind stayed as I reflected on these readings, with the Pharisee and tax collector and their relationship with God in covenant. Their relationship (as Jews) is analogous to mine as a believer in Jesus. They, too, are called to remember and renew that covenant relationship, and the parable is a story about that relationship.

I want to give both men the benefit of the doubt. They do, after all, both go up to the temple to pray. Like me (and you, I assume), they both know something is fundamentally messed up with the world. They both live in a country subject to a pagan emperor who says he's god, and they and their whole nation have to pay tribute to this god. The Pharisee knows something is wrong, but in this mind, it's not him. He's the good guy. He keeps the law, tithes, he's grasping, cheating, adulterous—not part of the problem, like that tax collector over there.

But the tax collector knows something is wrong, too. But notice what he says: be merciful to me, a sinner. The tax collector is our patron saint. The tax collector is the pope. Remember that we're taking the view toward baptismal promises that respond to Jesus and his specific call to turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel. The tax collector knows he's part of the problem, and he is. Literally. He is on the payroll of the other god. No matter how good he is (he also went up to the temple to pray), he's playing for the wrong team. But he's got his heart right. This is the key: he understands that doing his best to navigate the treacherous world of Caesar, but he also realizes that doing his best isn't the same as doing right. Nevertheless, he knows that God is good and source of mercy, and that he is in covenant relationship with this God whose hesed cannot fail, so his prayer is, "have mercy on me, a sinner. I am the problem, he says. It's the best I can do, and it's not good. What does Jesus say? He went away justified, and not the other guy. Why did he go away justified? Because he knows who God is, and who he is, that God is good, and his best is his best but it's not truly good, and that God loves him anyway because that's what God does. The Pharisee, assuming his own goodness, doesn't give God a chance to be God, which means the Pharisee doesn't really have a chance to be human, and live in genuine covenant relationship.

There's irony built into the story, because as Jesus (or the evangelist) is telling it, the audience knows that both men are part of the problem. This is the genius of the storyteller, so wherever the hearer's sympathy might lie, the hearer is in for a shock. Everybody knows that the situation in the world is FUBAR, as they say in the military, but most of us don't really feel we're part of the problem. We're "doing the best we can" in the situation, and I think we feel that's good enough, because all God wants of us is to try. Well, yes and no. 

I'm like that guy. I'm like both of them. I know something's wrong, and I know I'm part of the problem, the wrong god owns my soul. The best I can hope for now, as a Christian, as a man, as a human being, is to know for certain that doing the best I can do isn't necessarily the same as doing good. I can discern that gradually by looking at my life and my actions against the template of agape: am I acting for the good of others? Am I dissipated toward equality with those who have less than I do, or do I hedge my bets? I hedge my bets. "When you've done all you've been commanded to do, say, 'We are useless servants. We only did what we were told.'"

But God is good. Really, really good, and loves me us even in our sin. I need to keep turning, aware of the sin that wants to own me, that wants to reward me with creature comforts and temporary happiness that comes at the expense of the pain and unhappiness of others. Real good, real happiness, calls me to shared life with everyone, and promises the undying covenant of creator comforts and deep-down, eternal happiness, where eternity is deeply now, present in a way that transcends the present. So I keep praying with that tax collector, Have mercy on me, a sinner. 

That's where I am today.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

So that we might turn to you, and find our way to one another

This article was written for the June-July 1999 issue of Pastoral Music, which was a reflection on the millennium and Blessed John Paul II's encyclical on it, Tertio Millennio Adveniente. Though written during the Easter season, it feels Lenten in its heart. Figures...written by a liturgist.
© 1999

Brink of Millennium:  Hell in a handbasket. 

It is Monday of the fourth week of Easter, and I am in hell.

On the Tuesday of Holy Week, my wife's brother disappeared while fishing on a river near St. Louis. Her family, and I along with them, waited a week before Jimmy's body was found. The arrogance of death, the randomness, the chaos left behind, the stupidity and carelessness that invited this tragedy have led us on a difficult path through this season. Not a unique one, but no less difficult.

But we are not alone in hell this Easter. With inexplicable ancient hatred, Serbian forces squeeze Albanian civilians from their homes in Kosovo, raping, looting, burning, and murdering them in the process. The ethnic cleansing gains momentum even though night after night the Good Guys of NATO rain destruction upon Yugoslavian targets (that's a military word for "places where people live and work.") And then, as if the world could take any more strain upon its conscience, last week two teenagers plotted the destruction of their "enemies," and borrowing scenarios from The Basketball Diaries, Natural Born Killers, and the computer game Doom, took the world's attention away from a war and diverted it to a high school in placid Littleton, Colorado.

By the time this article goes to press and you are reading it, much will have been said and written about the events that happened just last week in Colorado on the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the birth of Adolph Hitler. The pain and gravity of these events is more real to me than the millennium or the Pope's writing about it. The panicked rhetoric of the media's designated reactors, playing day and night against the morally ambiguous bombing of Yugoslavia, is a drone of well-meaning banalities and pious bromides with no bite. No one will dare to articulate the irony of a nation decrying a culture of violence while countenancing the stream of million-dollar Tomahawk cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs on the "enemy." The National Rifle Association will still meet in Denver. Milosevic will still be able to point at the beam in our eye while we try to bomb the plank from his. We'll try to get kids to turn each other in for quirky behavior, but we will continue to amass our personal arsenals of assault weapons.

We don't get it. This is a religious issue. It's an issue of who belongs to whom, who's in and who's out. Because it's a religious issue, it's a political issue. To know who we are is a call to act a particular way toward one another in the public arena. But we've forgotten who we are. We don't know how to act, and we've been unable to pass on to our children any corporate religious or even civic identity. What we have passed on to them is the recipe for alienation, cliquishness, and elitism. Our children think that insiders and outsiders, allies and enemies are the way of the world. That's how Littleton happened.

America has sowed a wind of individualism, personal gain, self-righteous retribution, and a triumphalistic sense of manifest destiny that is an archetype and model for the behavior of our young people. We are, in fact, the catechists of their despair, and we have begun to reap the whirlwind of paranoia, intolerance, nationalism, racial hatred, alienation, and isolation. We have failed to hand on to a whole generation a sense of where we come from and to whom we belong. How did we do that while Gallup and Harris were telling us that we were all going back to church in droves?

We did it by being Americans first, and disciples second. We haven't even done that well as Americans: we're not doing too well in insuring "domestic Tranquillity" and promoting "the general Welfare." Those phrases apply more to groups of stockholders and investors than large groups of the American populace.

Is there any good news? Well, lucky for us, like it or not, an unignorable global event, the dawn of the third millennium of the Common Era, is upon us. And John Paul II's apostolic letter about the event, Tertio Millennio Adveniente has something to say to us. It offers the world a way out of despair. We are in hell because we've forgotten who we are, and we like it here. Like our ancestors in the faith, we feel it's better to have our stomachs full as slaves than to risk the hunger of the journey to freedom. Or as the old comedian says, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die." It's not going to be easy. We're going to have to drop our guns.

Year of the Father  
Paragraphs 49 through 54 of Tertio Millennio Adveniente outline the third year of the church's millennium preparation, the "Year of the Father." To summarize, during the year Christians ought to have their horizons broadened so as to see things in the perspective of Christ, and to see that "the whole of Christian life is like a great pilgrimage to the house of the Father" (par. 49). The journey of humanity is a journey of conversion, of turning away from evil and doing good. Love of God and neighbor sums up the life of believers (par. 50). Like Christ, Christians will "have to raise their voices on behalf of all the poor of the world" as a result of this conversion, for the mission of Jesus was to announce the gospel to the poor. It is a year of jubilee (par. 51). The challenge of evangelizing the secularized world that is indifferent to the gospel (par. 52) and of engaging the other great religions of the world in dialogue at the highest levels (par. 53) are embraced as goals of this preparatory year. And the Mother of Jesus, the "highly favored daughter" of the Holy One, is a model for believers both in her proclamation of God's greatness and her willingness to be God's servant, bearing Christ to the world and urging us to follow his instructions.

An Origin and a Family
            For the time being, I need to set aside the challenges surrounding the Church's objectification of the term "Father," and concentrate on the main qualities of God that are suggested by scriptural use of the term. It is the "perspective of Christ" by which we are encouraged to see, and the name "Father" for God is part of the legacy of the Jesus of the Gospels. Following a clear (if secondary) tradition from both wisdom and prophetic literature, the Jesus of the gospels uses the word "Father" to describe the Holy One. The use of this word suggests a number of truths about God to us. First, "Father" suggests that the relationship is only made possible by the generosity and love of Another. Second, it suggests that the relationship is generative, that the child has its origin in the Father. Third, by virtue of the solidarity of Jesus' relationships to all kinds of persons, including "losers and rejects" in his culture, the filial relationship is extended equally to all people.

God is Father of a people.
'Say  to Pharaoh: "Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son."' (Ex. 4:22) "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son...It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms." (Hos. 11:1, 3) It will help us when thinking about this "Father-Son" relationship that is so problematic for some that it has always described in the tradition a relationship between God and God's people, not an individual. Even the "suffering servant," another prophetic metaphor that became identified with the person of Jesus, was, in its origins, the description of the faithful remnant of Israel, the people of God. When Jesus calls God "Father," he's taking us along with him: "Our Father," Jesus teaches the disciples to pray. In his ministry of table-fellowship, Jesus is showing us how to act as authentic children of this one Father by openness, solidarity, and communion. Later, Paul will refer to the filial relationship as one of "adoption," perhaps in deference to the uniqueness of Jesus' status. But Paul was also aware that it was Israel that was God's firstborn, and the Gentile Christians to whom he wrote were not of Israel, and therefore might be perceived as "adoptive" sons and daughters.

 "Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15)
"Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...Do you not believe that I am in the Father and Father is in me?" (Jn. 14:9.10) No one has ever seen God. But there are witnesses to who Jesus was, and what he meant for people. And part of that witness is that Jesus and the One who sent him are so close that they are intimate, even one. What does that mean to us? Who was Jesus? A regent? A general? A moral scorekeeper? We answer, no, of course not. None of those things. We answer with the words of the poet, Huub Oosterhuis:

            He was the way we all would like to be:
            A man of God, a friend, a light, a shepherd.
            One who did not live to look out for himself
            And did not go to death in vain and fruitless. ("Tableprayer: You Who Know")

This one "who knows what goes on in people" is the eikon of the invisible God, that is, he is both a representation of the reality of the Holy One and a touchstone for encounter with that reality, an image that carries within itself the presence of what it represents. To come to know this Jesus in the scripture, in the breaking of the bread, or in the suffering of humanity is to come to know the invisible God. "The Father and I are one...(The) Father is in me and I am in the Father" (Jn. 10:30.38). Jesus Christ, we would say today, is the sacrament of the invisible God, and the Church at its best is the sacrament of the risen and ascended Christ.

 The gospels describe the ministry of Jesus not as the beginning of a new cult with a new God but as a reform within Judaism, an attempt by Jesus to bring his disciples to the heart of the law, and to an awareness of the nearness of God's reign. The immanence of Father's presence called for a change of heart, which for Jesus was not merely a matter of interior attitude but of behavior, of a "righteousness" that surpassed that of the prevailing religious leadership. The reign of God, this one whom Jesus called "my Father" and whose covenant love forged the Exodus of Israel, now in Jesus is revealed as an exodus from the power of sickness, demonic rule, and the narrow human constructs of cultic purity and worthiness, in short, of all counterfeit religion. Jesus' revelation of the Holy One as "our Father" demonstrated the primacy in his consciousness of God's initiative and trustworthiness in the covenant with Israel. The covenant is for all the people, not for a narrowly defined group of the righteous, because only God makes righteous, only God chooses, only God adopts. The loving act (e.g., of the woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee), the righteous deed (e.g., the justice of the hospitable Zacchaeus), the public expression of true faith (e.g., that of the Syro-Phoenician woman), these are what catch the attention of Jesus. Just deeds reveal true religion, as Jesus points out about the widow's offering at the temple. Since the Father is the one who sees in secret, not as human persons see, these outsiders are justified by genuine faith. God has worked in them, they have responded, and no human religion can keep them from the divine heart. Jesus' confrontational practice of dining freely without regard to the status of his hosts and guests leads irrevocably to his death. And the Father offers in that moment the greatest exodus of all: exodus from the grasp of death. At the empty tomb, the Church is challenged to accept the open table of Jesus, and not its own law, as the path of righteousness. Tertio Millennio Adveniente, on the eve of the millennium, takes a formal if timid step at acknowledging that reality when it offers dialogue with the great world religions as part of its celebration of the Year of the Father.

"Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."
So who is the Father? If Christ is icon, if to see Christ is to see the Father, who is the Holy One? I cannot know. But I suspect, as a disciple, as one who walks with and learns from Christ, that Abba is something like I-am-for-you, Life-given-away. Abba is Power-of-solidarity, Freedom-to-flourish, and No-one-outside.

These "names" are some attributes of Christ by which I can understand the Father. You see, I've met this God. I've read about this God in the scripture, heard about this God since I was a child, and there is no mistaking this God's appearance. People whom I know "bear the brand-marks" of this God in their body. God cannot hide, would not hide in humanity—deeds of God in human incarnation glow with holy presence. I heard about I-am-for-you in the Exodus, in Jesus-Emmanuel, in Mary his mother, so I was able to see that presence in my family, in my teachers, in my heroes. I recognized Life-given-away from the story of creation and in the story of Jesus; I have been able to discern it in Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Joseph Bernardin. I've known Power-in-solidarity from Acts of the Apostles and Trito-Isaiah and the Maccabees, so I've welcomed that presence in the Berrigan brothers, in Jesse Jackson and Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa. Freedom-to-flourish opened the Red Sea, made a way through the desert, opened the heart of Cyrus, made healing and power flow through the hands of Jesus, so I have seen it myself in Oscar Romero, Stephen Biko, Mandela, Tutu, and the many martyrs of Latin America. No-one-outside gathered the losers and rejects at the table of the Messiah, made Sara and Elizabeth mothers, fed the widow of Zarephath and cured Naaman the Syrian, and I have seen him in my life in Mother Teresa, John XXIII, and Jean Vanier and the advocates for minority populations in Guatemala, Mexico, and in the ecumenical movement, and in all the great movements of the last thirty years away from bigotry, apartheid, and segregation.

"In memory of me": Not-forgetting whose we are through the liturgy. 
Thus far, the task has been to make some attempt to see with the eyes of heaven, to catch a glimpse of the divine perspective insofar as we are able to glean it from the perspective of Christ, the eikon of the invisible God. We imagine a God who is presence, self-gift, solidarity, freedom, inclusion. From the perspective of Christ, we come to know a God-as-Father who is the origin of the universe, and therefore of the human family, and who is the destiny of that family and its once-and-future home.

 Faith has told us through revelation that Jesus is the sacrament of the invisible God, and faith also tells us that the Church, the community of the baptized, is the sacrament of Christ. The Church is the visible eikon in time of the timeless Christ who has passed into the ever-present but invisible glory of the Holy One. The Church's liturgy is its channel for passing on the genetic material of God's family, the womb where Christians are formed, the table where we are fed. We would expect the dynamic of origin-and-belonging to be evidenced in the liturgy as we have it today, and we should be able to identify the qualities of God-in-Christ as we have identified them above. After all, if the world must be able to recognize the invisible God in the visible Jesus, then the world in this and every age must be able to recognize the invisible Christ by the visible Church, in all of its varied activity, but in its liturgy par excellence. There isn't opportunity here for more than the briefest survey of ways by which the liturgy appeals to the perspective of Christ and keeps us true to Christ's vision of Abba's will for the world. Afterwards, I hope to reflect briefly on some obstacles we face that are built into the liturgy, and what difference all this makes for pastoral musicians. To begin, then, some important ways that the liturgy does not allow us to forget who the God is whom we worship:
All liturgy, rooted in scripture, keeps the story alive and grounded. The story of Scripture will never allow us to forget whose idea all this is, or what that idea is. The movement from chaos/bondage/death to creation/freedom/life is the movement of the Father's action, through God's own lifebreath, the Holy Spirit, in the world. The Church will not be able to reinvent the wheel of Life as long as the One Story is publicly told and witnessed to by the assembly of the elect.

  • All liturgy leads to or flows from Eucharist, whose authentic worship is rooted in the table-ministry of the Messiah, which we have already seen is worship of the God of all people. The other initiation sacraments and the clusters of rites that surround them form us as Christ so that our lives might be open tables that we might celebrate the Eucharist authentically. Penance restores the relationship with the table that can be weakened or broken by the power of sin. Marriage and Orders sanctify two ways of the Christian's publicly offering a life of service to the world. The Anointing of the Sick focuses the healing presence of Christ upon those who might otherwise be driven away from the family by the power of disease, disorientation, or intimidated by the clearly relentless approach of death. The liturgy of the hours, throughout the day from East to West, continually praises God for who God is (origin and destiny) and repents of the world's sin (alienation in the Family).
  • The Eucharistic liturgy, particularly, takes its tone from the speech of Jesus, and is addressed in all its orations to Abba. Only in its most intimate moments, as though the dominion of God were approaching with particular urgency, does it address Christ: namely, when it is telling the truth about its condition before God (the Kyrie eleison), when the Gospel is proclaimed, and during the communion rite (the Agnus Dei and the priest's [silent] prayer before communion). At all other times, the Church with-and-as Christ, prays to Abba.
  • The heart of the liturgy, anamnesis or the Eucharistic prayer, is replete with the language of reconciliation and hope for unity. The prayers dare to imagine a world in process, God's world, a world of restored integrity and newly-created unity, in which the living and the dead, united by Christ in the Holy Spirit, will offer eternal praise to God. In the meantime, we pray that the reconciling life and death of Christ may make the Church "one body, one spirit in Christ" and "advance the peace and salvation of all the world," asking the Father to "unite all your children wherever they may be." (I'm sure that Teilhard, along with George Lucas and Chris Carter, would approve of the range of cosmography implied in the phrase, "wherever they may be"!)
  • The cosmic, nonspecific text of the orations means more to me now than when I was younger and unable to discern their relevance. The theme of the Eucharist is grander than the needs of the day, of the one. This is not to say that those needs of the day are to be ignored: they have their place in the homily, in the general intercessions. But the ritual orations of the Eucharist keep us centered on the unchanging realities: the desire for freedom, the need to change our hearts, and the quest of the Father's heart for the unity and reconciliation of the world.

"On earth as it is in heaven" 
Are there any obstacles in the liturgy as we celebrate it to our seeing with the perspective of Christ? While the correct answer to that question is, "Of course not, that would be a contradiction in terms," let me venture forth with a couple of observations. First, while Tertio Millennio Adveniente offers a vision of Christian life and jubilee activity that is firmly grounded in justice-doing and peacemaking in this world, a vision thoroughly supported by both the Hebrew scriptures and the kingdom-preaching of Jesus, the liturgy is sometimes ambivalent on the subject, and seems occasionally to opt out of the task of transforming this world for the hope of a better world to come. This is nowhere more in evidence than in the Roman Canon, which is more interiorly focused on the unity of the Church (as distinct from the unity of the world), its place in the communion of saints, and finally the salvation of the assembly. The other anaphoras are, to a greater or lesser extent, more outwardly-oriented, acknowledging the presence of a wider plan to "lead all men (sic) to the joyful vision of your light." Without denying the truth of a world beyond this one, it seems safe to say that based on what we know of the preaching of Jesus we ought to be able to expect that the greatest prayers of the church, made in his name, proclaim that the "reign of God is close at hand," that that reign is present in this world, and that what is not of that reign needs to be torn away, rebuked, exorcised, exposed to the light, or redeemed. If Jesus had only preached about a world to come, like so many preachers today, he would have been loved by many and ignored by anyone with the political power of life or death. It had to be his obsession with freedom and equal access to the blessings of God's reign to all persons that caught the attention of those whose fortunes hung on their keeping the gates of status and holiness. Neither church nor state has conspired against Mother Angelica, or Jerry Falwell, or most American bishops (or liturgical musicians). The same cannot be said, I think, of Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Raymond Hunthausen, and even John Paul II. It ought to be clear to us what kind of religious leader Jesus was, what world he was concerned about, and, what concerns this essay, what God he represented in his person.

What is perhaps most problematic for the most people about the liturgy in this context, though, is the very concept of closed communion. One can summarize the situation like this: the Church looks upon the Eucharist as the table of apostles and martyrs, as the place where the community of the fully initiated gathers to be reaffirmed in and to reaffirm their identity as the elect of God and to be sent to continue the mission of Christ. But there is a sense in much of the rest of Christian world, and indeed among many Catholics, that the Eucharist is a memorial and sacrament of the table of Jesus, and therefore access to it should be unrestricted so that it may continue to stand as a place where inquirers and apostles eat together as equals, though perhaps with graduated levels of benefit and understanding. At whichever point along the continuum of that argument one might stand, the rigidity of the Roman church's position on intercommunion and an open table is certainly bemusing. One can certainly make the theological argument that the Eucharist is not the table of Jesus, that the work of the Church is to open its table outside the walls of the assembly so that many will make the journey to the table inside its walls. But in the world of symbol, the gospel symbol of the table of Jesus is so strongly imprinted on the consciousness of even the most casual reader of scripture that the very concept of a "closed" communion table is an oxymoron, and the reality of it a scandalous irony.

Implications for pastoral musicians. 
Most of us aren't biblical scholars and liturgists. We've picked up what we had to know to get along; if we've been lucky, we've been apprenticed to or mentored by those who are experts, we've read their work, sung their music, imitated their prayer and poetry. I still think that there's nothing that will keep us more on the track of worshipping the One who is revealed in a Person and in the Word than by being in relationship with a community, by studying scripture and the liturgical tradition of the Church, and by coming to know Christ through engagement with and service of other people. To come to know Christ in the poor (in its wealth of meanings), in prayer, especially in liturgy, in the give and take, thesis and antithesis of community life, and in intelligent study of the revealed Word is to come to know the Father, for Christ is the image of the invisible God.
Some other strategies for us:

  • Sing what's important. Work toward singing the Eucharistic Prayer. Sing worthy settings of the Psalm every week. Let's imagine a sung rite where all the important exchanges and texts are sung by everyone by heart, and work toward making that a reality.Inclusive language, pace the interim lectionary, is not a choice, but a demand of the reign of God, where everything is inclusive. But this is a matter for community arbitration.
  • Don't try to fix what isn't broken. Leave the prayers alone. Don't edit them for relevance.
  • Look for texts that have the broadest vision and that share the scriptural tradition of a world in which all creation reveals God, and that speaks of God in words reminiscent of our vision of Jesus, the eikon of the invisible God, who proclaims that "the Father and I are one."
  • Being a servant church that serves the Father of Jesus and proclaims the freedom and equality of all God's children means paying attention to the wider reality of the world while we worship in our neighborhood assemblies. In practice, I suggest this means that in suburban white churches it might be important to sing some gospel music; in mixed black and white neighborhoods, it might be important to sing a song in Spanish even if next to no one speaks it as a first language. There is a sense in which intelligibility takes a back seat to symbolic efforts at incarnating with hospitality the vision of Christ. "Unity of style" is an elitist red herring, unless the "style" is the diverse unity of all cultures under one God and Father of all.

At last, a way out of hell. 
In the movie Gandhi, a repentant Moslem confesses to the Mahatma that he has slaughtered a Hindu child. "I am in hell," the man weeps. The weak, fasting Mahatma gazes at him from his bed, and finally replies, "I know a way out of hell. You must adopt a child, and the child must be a Hindu." In other words, to break out of the hellish cycle of violence, or poverty, or revenge, both a prophetic imagination and a bold new course of prophetic action are required. Conversion or metanoia is a "change of heart," which is more than simply a change of mind. Like the act of remembering, it only begins as an interior mental act. It risks a new praxis, a new set of behaviors, in the hope of discovering a new world.

Tertio Millennio Adveniente is a call to conversion, and conversion offers us a way out of hell. In it, John Paul II suggests to us that during this year our horizon needs to be expanded, that we ought to try to begin to see with the perspective of Christ, to see the world "through heaven's eyes," as the song from The Prince of Egypt suggests. To celebrate the millennium and the Year of the Father, we will receive this blessing: we will remember our origin, and we will come to understand that we belong to each other.

Presence. Self-gift. Solidarity. Freedom. Inclusion. These characteristics of the Father are the gift of God in the Spirit to the Church. They are the word that we have to remember and learn to speak again when we are confronted by hell. We have, all of us, our origin in one whom Jesus called Abba, and every public and private action of ours has to be measured against the implications of that Name. If Christians in Serbia, and Kosovo, and Colorado, and Barrington, and every other corner of the earth could live in that full knowledge for this year, and begin to teach our children to live on the journey to the Father's house as well, we would have a millennium to celebrate. We would then be able to pray with a new integrity and authenticity the words of our Eucharistic Prayer:
"Father...in the midst of conflict and division,
we know it is you who turn our minds to thoughts of peace.
Your spirit changes our hearts: enemies begin to speak to one another,
Hatred is quenched by mercy,
and vengeance gives way to forgiveness...
(T)hrough your son you have brought us back.
You gave him up to death
so that we might turn to you, and find our way to one another."

This article is available as an online pdf at this site, page 17. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The good and the bad of first confession

Yes, it's that time of year again.

Every year during Lent these feelings rise in me about the invasiveness and inappropriateness of children celebrating the Sacrament of Penance before First Communion. This is a practice that is mandated in the universal church since the time of Pius X in the early 20th century, though there continued to be some experimentation with other ages until about 1977. The logic behind it seems to be, at least in the mind of Pius X, a kind of habituation of grace as a preventive remedy to the habituation of sin. As with the Eucharist, he saw the sacrament of Penance as an opportunity for a customary practice in a person’s life that will block opportunity for the invasion of sin. For Pius X, the sacrament of penance was not simply for the confession of individual serious sin but an opportunity for intense, personalized spiritual direction.

The source of the disconnect or cognitive dissonance for me arises from the more ancient history of the church, which is that the Sacrament of Penance arose later in the church’s history as a kind of second baptism, or a “baptism of tears,” a remedy for a serious breach with the eucharistic community by people repenting of public sin such as murder, adultery, and especially apostasy. In the apostolic communities, there is no evidence of anything like this sacrament. But what was the church to do when a de facto excommunicant, someone who had betrayed or even caused deaths among the community by apostasizing and "naming names" to the persecuting government, repented and wanted to be part of the community again? The solution seems to have been a “second catechumenate,” called the “order of penitents,” which called for a long process, available to the penitent only once, of prayer, fasting, and public penitence until such time as the bishop saw fit to lay hands on that person and absolve them from the ban from the eucharistic table. Seen in this historical context (admittedly a limited one), using the sacrament of penance with seven-year-olds seems like using a fiery, pneumatic sledgehammer to kill a mosquito.

Of course, that’s mixing sacramental apples and oranges, since over the centuries, thanks to monastic practice mostly in Ireland and the places to which Irish monks and abbesses went on the continent to help spread the gospel, another kind of sacrament developed, more in the model of the anamcara or soul-friend, the spiritual advisor who would listen to the story of a pilgrim’s life, offer advice for spiritual growth, and offer the forgiveness of God in the absolution of the sacrament. It was this version of the sacrament, and not the more austere and monolithic approach of the Order of Penitents, that survived into the present, though the basic movements of the sacrament have remained the same—the telling of the personal story, confronting that story with the church’s scripture and tradition about the mercy of God, the “confession” of God’s mercy in the life of the sinner, a process of prayer and good works as a remedy and restitution for the evil caused by sin, and the absolution from sin.

What struck me and caused me to try to write some of this down and sort it out, was something about “lost sheep.” One of the images that is used with the children preparing to receive the sacrament of penance for the first time is the image of sheep. They have, in the past, made little white sheep on popsicle sticks with cotton balls, and put them into styrofoam pastures, and these have been placed in our gathering space for a week or so as a visible sign of their journey. It strikes me, has struck me, as odd to think of children coming to the sacrament as lost sheep. Exactly how is a seven-year-old lost in sin?

Then, playing for Vespers one night in support of the teens in the parish who were making their Kairos retreat, we heard the text from the gospel of St. Matthew that might have evoked the symbol mentioned above:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“What is your opinion? 

If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,

will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills 
and go in search of the stray? 

And if he finds it, amen, I say to you,
he rejoices more over it
 than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. 

In just the same way,
it is not the will of your heavenly Father 
that one of these little ones be lost.” 

It might have been hearing that, and it might have been the reflecting that I’ve been doing on the “mystery of sin” because of the scrutinies, I don’t know, but I had an insight about this. The thing is, there are all kinds of ways to be lost. We who are adults are quite capable, thank you, of getting lost on our own. “Oh! There’s a nice path. Yes, it’s going in another direction, but it looks great. Let’s try that one!” We’re pretty good about leading each other down paths to known and unknown places of grave danger, or at least of true separation from the rest of humanity. Sometimes we choose bad places, sometimes we’re just not paying attention, or we’re bored, or “one thing leads to another,” and we’re lost. We’re good at that, and generally, we know it. Generally. It’s also true that over years and centuries we adults have contributed so often and so generously to patterns of sin and injustice that we often participate in systemic sin in ways that we’re not even aware of. We can, in fact, be lost without even knowing it.

I think that the wisdom of the Church in this regard bears some reflection. Jesus doesn’t blame a sheep for being lost, just as he doesn’t blame the Samaritan woman for being a racist or an idolator, he doesn’t blame the man or his parents for being blind, and he certainly doesn’t blame Lazarus for being dead, or not eating right, or whatever Lazarus’s problems were. He is just there, with God’s presence, and creates an opportunity for belief. The sheep is lost, it doesn’t matter how it happened. One of the things we cityslickers have found out about sheep from exegesis on this passage is just how dumb sheep are. Getting lost just happens. And the shepherd brings the lost one back to the waiting ninety-nine.

What I have come to appreciate, though it remains to be seen how well this is borne out in the celebration of the sacraments, is that children who have reached the age of awareness, who can, with catechesis, tell the difference (or know the similarities?) between regular bread that they eat with peanut butter and jelly and the “bread of life,” also know in themselves the difference between what is right (to them) and wrong. And even though nothing they can say or do at that age could ever separate them from divine love or the table of Jesus, there is plenty of sin around them, systemic evil in family, society, government, culture, even church, that can render them lost before they’re even aware that there was a track to be on. The evils of unbridled greed, competitiveness, addiction in families, commercialized violence, laissez faire capitalism, nationalism, racism, almost every -ism, these surround and form the matrix in which these little people are growing into maturity. They might be seen as the ancient fruits of the first sin, the desire to be god. They are the habits of the Beast, and all of us who succumb to them are indeed lost.

But God has a remedy for this sin and all sin, and that is sharing in the very agape life of God through the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ given to us in baptism. This is not just a theological concept: it’s a reality made visible by the interdependent agape of the church, lived out in this place and this time in a real community of believers. God’s love and mercy came before and is stronger than sin. Unlike sin, it is not invasive or coercive, though, it waits, invites, searches relentlessly, stands with open arms, as it were. Baptism, confirmation, and eucharist are the way into this community for those who have heard the Shepherd’s call and desire his strength and protective love. The sacrament of penance is another instrument of divine agape — it offers to anyone aware of the power of sin to derail her life or his the incontrovertible and unchanging word of God’s forgiveness and love, the love that never fails, never wavers, and requires nothing, can give nothing, in return.

For children, swimming in a chaotic current of values competing for their allegiance, this outward sign of the invisible reality of God’s gentle love, tender mercy, and forgiveness extended before sin and in the midst of it, might actually provide a still point, something to which to cling, a life-preserver, in their personal development. The word of love and forgiveness might be heard, with the call to the table of the Messiah, as a sound to be trusted and believed above all the others courting their attention.

Of course, the experience of first confession can only be as good as the sacramental administrators, but I can say that the men I’ve come to know as priests in the communities I’ve lived in have been, by and large, men who are aware of God’s loving grace and who try to administer it transparently. Seeing first confession in this way, in the context of the possibility of “being lost” and not knowing it, being lost and blameless, like being caught in a blizzard, makes it possible for me to be at peace with what before seemed like a complete aberration of sacramental principle.

Now, if we can just get adults to talk about sin, and really confront some of these strategies and structures of sin into which we Christians have bought and invested our future, we might understand and appreciate again the Church to which we belong, and learn the meaning, at last, of Kyrie, eleison!