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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Misreading the cross

Back in the 80s, we were flabbergasted that kids didn’t know that Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings. Then, by the late 90s, it was like, “who was Wings?” It hasn’t, probably won’t for a long time, get to be “Who’s Paul McCartney?”, but that is the way things go. Human memory is short. Meanings evolve, change. In Britain, a flat is what we call an apartment in the States; flats in the states are shoes without heels, tires without air, or black keys on the piano. In Australia, a boot is the trunk of your car; in the US, you can put your boots in the trunk, or give someone the boot out of your car (into the trunk?), or put a boot on a car if it’s parked in an illegal space. Same symbol, “b-o-o-t,” but different meanings. We can probably figure out the etymology of each, find how the symbol-word came to have the meanings it has, by going back to uncover its origin in antiquity (probably the origin of “boot” inasmuch as it pertains to motor vehicles isn’t all that ancient!)

I was thinking about all this today as I listened to the gospel with its admonition about what we call the “cost” of discipleship:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.”
I had been reading Sr. Mary Boys’s (of Union Theological Seminary's theology department) very insightful essay on the way that the meaning of the cross has changed across the millennia, to the point where it has been, at different times, a form of torture, a symbol of empire, a sword, a threat, and the focus of the charge of deicide against the Jews. While often explicitly rejected by the papacy, nevertheless, in the catholic “imagination” of the peasantry and countryside, the lamentable but pervasive justification for mistreatment, torture, and murder of Jews arose from the charge that Jews had killed Jesus of Nazareth. Her essay deals with the question of whether the cross ought to be laid aside as a symbol because of its history of misuse. Happily, she does not embrace an affirmative conclusion, but she treats the possibility with intellectual and emotional respect. It’s a good read.

It is unthinkable that, in the context of first-century Mediterranean life under the aegis of the Caesars and their heirs, that Jesus or an evangelist or anyone would use the term “take up the cross” in a psychological or privatized sense. The cross was a matter of almost unspeakable shame, terror, and ignominy. It was a form of punishment reserved for enemies of the empire. No Roman citizen could be crucified; only those in occupied nations, and only for crimes of treason, rebellion, or impiety against the god-emperor, were crucified. The two men crucified with Jesus, called “thieves” in some translations of the gospels, were in fact insurrectionists, fomenting public discord, disturbers of the sacred Pax Romana. To think that Mark or Matthew or any NT writer would use “take up the cross” in the personalistic sense we hear it used today (“caring for my mother is my cross”) is just not an option.

“Taking up the cross” is being aware of the cost of choosing to live in the reign of God. Living with Abba as one’s sole ruler will bring one into conflict with whatever powers claim that obeisance of us here, and will inevitably, in some way, if we are truly aware and faithful to the gospel, lead us to the real cross. It’s a kind of witness to how few people really live the gospel, and how many of them aren’t actually Catholic, that so few of us are killed. Me for instance. Like the victims of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we have been completely assimilated. We think that being a good Christian and being a good citizen are completely compatible. We will even go off to war and kill other Christians, or vote for people who advocate same, or buy stock in companies that work people for slave wages and do violence to the ecosystems of earth and the economy of the world. Sorry. “Taking up the cross” doesn’t mean putting up with the a$$hole in the cubicle across the aisle. It means not putting up with the structures and strategies of human empires that keep people enslaved to each other, hopeless, homeless, hungry, and poor. It means rejecting “trickle down economics” in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It means all of that, and enduring the ridicule and even hatred and violence that befall prophets and whistleblowers who dare speak the word that the emperor has no clothes, nor morals, nor God.

It’s not new at all for Christians to misunderstand the cross, as we heard in Sunday’s gospel. Peter is an eyewitness, with the twelve, to the life, words, and work of Jesus. But it is Peter himself who, even on the very tail of his insight about Jesus’s identity, misses the meaning of it. He has his own way of seeing what "messiah" means. For just coming to that conclusion alone, Jesus has given him credit for insight beyond his own ability to know. But now, when he attempts to impose his meaning of "messiah" on Jesus, who himself has been growing into a meaning for that term and that calling, Jesus calls Kephas (the rock, Peter) a skandalon (stumbling-block), and worse, satanas, that is, someone testing his commitment to the path of God. Jesus, it seems, has come to identify messiah with the "servant of God" who brings good news to the poor, with the "son of man", a human being who restores divine justice to the world in God’s time, with the peaceful anti-king of Zechariah who rides into Jerusalem in humility on a beast of burden. Peter is still thinking “son of David,” a restoration of monarchy, a military victor, a king to stand against and vanquish Caesar with Caesar’s own weapons.

One of the reasons we imagine that Jesus’s calling Peter “satan” was actually ipsissima verba, the actual words Jesus spoke, is the "criterion of embarrassment." That is to say, it would not have been in Peter’s, who was the leader of the Christian community after the death of Jesus and James, best interest to have the text preserved. Likewise the story from two weeks ago of the pagan woman who changes Jesus’s mind about who his ministry was for, about how big God might be, and who should benefit from God’s goodness. This kind of truth-telling might be considered embarrassing or even scandalous in a community that values perfection or sinlessness as possible for human beings, or who imagine perfection does not allow for growth. (If it is natural for human beings, for any life, to “grow,” then is perfect humanity one who grows well, rather than one who just appears, or gets some special kind of map?) So I think we have to deal with this stuff, and not spiritualize it too much. Why do these two stories exist right in the middle of Matthew, and side by side? I think it all has to do with Jesus’s emerging self-identity, and the alignment of that messianic sense with the prophecy of Isaiah, the apocalypse of Daniel, and the natural outcome of facing down the powers of Rome and their Jerusalem collaborators. It wasn’t a mystic vision that allowed Jesus to predict his death: it was the natural order of things. It had happened hundreds of times before.
“Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you
and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.
Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

So, I guess it’s OK for us not to be there yet, if it took his own disciples a while — maybe a lifetime — to catch on. That’s why St. Paul’s words in the second reading struck me, strongest at my fourth mass of the day. It’s all a matter of growth. Even Jesus had to grow into the meaning of metanoia, of a change of heart, of personality, so complete that it means turning away from Caesar and walking anew in the empire of God. Even Jesus’s heart had to expand as he wandered, prayed, ate, taught, and interacted with people. And so I heard, like you did I’m sure, St. Paul speaking to me from just twenty or thirty years after the death of Jesus with words that both push me along and console me in my slow progress:
Do not conform yourselves to this age

but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,

that you may discern what is the will of God,

what is good and pleasing and perfect. 

Have a good week. As John Shea suggests, don’t think of difficult people in your life as your “cross” — think of them as opportunities to live in love, to be like God, to enter into agape. Little by little, the cross will make itself known, and it will not be psychological or symbolic. Real wood, real nails, real death sentence, real death. No need to look for it. If we live in the reign of God, the cross will find us. Faith tells us that, when the moment comes, God will be in that moment, and we’ll have enough experience in kenosis and agape in our Christian life that the impossibility of anything but the fullness of life and light beyond the cross will give us the courage to take it up. We’ve been marked with that sign since before our baptism, it is branded on our soul. Seeing it, up close and personal, even horrendous, leering, and full of bravado, will seem somehow familiar, somehow like coming home.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Song for Labor Day: Do. Be. Do. Be. Do.

I published this last year for Labor Day. I've revised it a little bit and added some groovy work songs etal. in the iTunes playlist. 

So here I am, playing the opening hymn for mass this morning (Morning Has Broken) and pondering the irony of being one of two people on the parish payroll who were in fact “called in to work” on a national (and diocesan) holiday. From there, my thoughts broadened even further as I listened especially to Genesis and the homily.

Off topic: I wonder whether some of these hymnal have Farjeon’s words wrong for verse 3 of “Morning Has Broken.” Many seem to have, as the last line of the stanza,
“Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day.” 
To me, “recreation of the new day” seems tautological; one can recreate the first day, or create a new day, but I’m not so sure about recreating the new day; it doesn’t reveal anything new. I wonder whether she meant “Gods recreation on the new day,” as though God’s rest, God’s play (recreation) were perceived in creation as she is experiencing it? IOW, is it re-creation or recreation? I guess it’s quite possible she meant the former, that this day, with its blackbirds, singing, new fall of rain and dewfall on grass, is a re-creation of the “new day” of creation. Thinking about this, it’s no wonder that I can’t remember how to play the song and lose my place in the middle of the second stanza.

Back on topic, such as it is: Labor Day. Was there ever a holiday so out of favor since the great Catholic working class of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries became the dominant class in USA, and the labor unions which had been reluctantly but solidly championed by Leo XIII fell into disfavor because of their greed, corruption, and often violently monopolistic tactics? And I say that with love, because I’m a guy who would like to see the labor unions reemerge in this country as a force that Wall Street has to reckon with. Labor Day is a working day for the retail workers of the USA, and almost no one pauses to reflect on the dignity of labor, the meaning of work in the life of the country (and, to us, the church), or to celebrate the solidarity of labor unions, which was the origin of this great holiday in the first place.

We heard part of the creation story in Genesis, the creation of people “in God’s own image, male and female,” with the subsequent command to have a lot of babies and fill the earth and “subdue” it, followed by God’s sitting back on day seven in the cosmic La-Z-Boy and seeing that “it was very good,” and sipping a Godweiser and taking a nap. But hearing that story on Labor Day led me to recall that I learned long ago that biblical scholars believe that it was not the creation story that is the foundational myth of Israel, but the story of the Exodus. It was the story of the freeing of their ancestors from slavery that formed Israel and thus formed the creation myth. God rests on the seventh day and makes it holy to set a pattern for people forever. This nation of former slaves writes into its cultural constitution that no one, not even a slave, is to work seven days. Everyone gets a day of rest, because God rests. The corporate memory of the experience of slavery is transformed into the principle of sabbath, and by extension, jubilee.

The homily was about how doing what we love to do makes work not seem like work. This is a divine gift, what anthropologist Joseph Campbell used to call “following your bliss.” And it struck me that this is exactly what God does, if we just add “for the Other” to the formula: Do what you love to do...for the Other. Since it is God’s nature to be-do-for-others, God’s self-giving in creation is a manifestation of who God is. “Do” and “be” in God is one and the same. To the extent that we are able to “do” and “be” for others, so that our work and play are for the good and life of others, our work and play, all of our life, participates in agape, the divine nature of God-is-love.

So this is now yet another thing I shall add to my list of things to pray for for my children: that they will always find work that is more than just a paycheck, more than just a way to kill time. That they will always look for and find work that is both their bliss, something they love to do, and life-giving for others, whether it’s helping other people live happier and more productive lives, or writing a poem or story or song to edify them, or whatever it may be. That, and finding a partner and/or good friends to help see them through life, discern its mysteries and negotiate its bends and turns.

Anyway, nothing too deep there, just a sigh from a Catholic boy who doesn’t quite see the move from working class to middle class for the great-grandchildren of Catholic immigrants in America to have been a universally good thing. Seeing Labor Day go from a celebration of solidarity to a placid threshold between summer and fall doesn’t seem like a step forward. The day is not without its lessons to anyone with ears to hear, even if you are, like me, one of the ironic class summoned from sleep to the chapel office before the malls open or the grills are fired up in summer’s ninth inning.

Revised from 2013, with music and links added. Original post is here.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Escaping from the freedom of a human Jesus

I found it distressing a couple of weeks ago to hear so many people I know, including priest-homilists, bending over backwards to explain away what appears to me to be a fairly clear passage in Matthew's gospel (and a priori in his source, Mark), that one where Jesus experienced a change of heart as a result of the persistent faith and prayer of a pagan woman. Recall the story for a moment: a Canaanite woman's daughter is possessed by a demon, so she confronts the Jewish wonder-worker whom everyone's talking about, and he ignores her. She persists. His retinue grows tired of her clamoring, and asks him to send her away. They may have meant for him to do what she wants just to shut her up, because his reply is them, not to her: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Undeterred, she asks again for help. Jesus parries her plea with an insult: to help her would be like throwing the children's dinner to the dogs. With the clarity of her fierce love, and, I like to think, with an instinct for the best of what Jesus might be, she turns his own metaphor on its head. "In my house, the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table." I unfolded this cultural piece a little more last week, but Jesus changes his mind at this point. What he recognizes in her is faith: what she sees in him is Abba, the God of everyone, who doesn't distinguish between Jew and Canaanite, because, Jesus must realize, Abba already lives in her. That's what faith is: the gift of God.
Jesus Christ, Superman?

With the possible exception of Mark, if it's read out of its NT context, the humanity of Jesus is not easy to discern in the gospels. Jesus always seems to be in charge of his surroundings, he sees his destiny, and is in control of  events with political and spiritual aplomb. That's because the gospels were written from the distance of decades, by people who only knew Jesus by faith, not as a human being. Jesus of Nazareth had already become Christ, Savior, Logos, Son of Man, Son of God, and all the other titles that are given him in the scriptures, titles which even then meant something different than they mean today. Furthermore, they see Jesus through the light of the resurrection, a perspective that was real for the disciples but is largely lost on us who only have the tools of biblical criticism with which to approach, carefully, the historical Jesus. Contemporary references to Jesus prior to his death and the emergence of Christianity in the Roman empire do not exist, so the Jesus of history not really recoverable. But the Christ of gospel faith is, and some insight to the Jesus of history is accessible through history, literary, cultural analysis. Those who say, as I heard about the Canaanite woman passage, that "Jesus knew all along he was going to heal the woman's daughter" or that "Jesus was just testing the twelve and getting them ready to expand their horizons" might be right, but I keep asking myself, Do we really want a savior like that? Do we really have a savior who knew all along what he was going to do? Or, more to the point, does being fully God preclude growth in faith and conscience as a human being?

My answer, of course, is "I don't know." But my desire is for the God I actually want, the Jesus I could believe in. The human one, like me, who doesn't know all the answers, ever, until he has died. I could use that kind of a savior. That one would be like me in everything except sin. I believe that Jesus is uniquely the Son of God (that is, unique in a way that I am not the Son, but a child, of God, like you), but I insist that Jesus is also fully human, and that means that he "did not cling to godliness but emptied himself," abandoned whatever pre-existed Jesus, and became human. I think that works as long as we're not concerned about the criterion of God-ness being omnipotence, the perfection of power, but rather perfection of love and service. It also means accepting "full humanity" not as always being right, but being open to new information, adapting with love, accepting our limitations while pushing our boundaries, escaping the instinctual fetters of self-preservation through love.

"Who do people say that the Son of Man is? What are they saying about me?" Luke's gospel says that Jesus "advanced in wisdom, age, and grace." Isn't it possible, then, to imagine that his awareness of being chosen and the shape of his destiny developed as he grew? Isn't is possible that, in the messianic fever of a nation occupied by the brutal Roman empire and its god-emperor, Jesus might have gradually come to see the futility of revolution and of violence as a response to violence, and, having experienced God as my Father and our Father, have come to see the realm or kingdom of God as a community of healing love, first as a revival among his own people, and then, after the death of John and more experience in his itinerant ministry, with flashes of universality that were later cultivated and amplified by the twelve, Paul, and others? 

We need a messiah who can change his mind. We need truth that adapts to new realities and isn't fixed by interpretations of itself from the past. We live in a vast, complex society, convinced of violence, set in a world where things change fast. We feel unrooted, torn from our foundation. We want to cling to something. But to cling to something when the sea is rising, something that doesn't float, may well be to doom ourselves. We somehow got the idea that truth is unchanging, and that somehow we already know it, have to get back to it. How did that happen? How did it get to be a virtue to never change one's mind, as a former president claimed when confronted with facts about his misbegotten war?

"The truth shall make you free." Genuine truth doesn't tie us down to anything—it enables us to choose to love in whatever way is possible and necessary to heal, reconcile, and move forward. The truth makes us free to choose, and also liberates us from ruts worn in the road by our past. The "truth" that Jesus seemed to embrace in the gospel, that his mission was only to Israel, had to give way to the reality that agape of God was visible in the unrelenting intercession of this Canaanite woman on behalf of her daughter. This "new" truth, or developing awareness of genuine truth in Jesus, allowed him to change, to make a decision for healing and love that, perhaps, found its gospel apogee in the great commission, "Go, and preach the gospel to all nations." From any perspective, this is a turnabout from the restrictions on his mission outlined earlier in Matthew. Taking hope and courage from our messiah, we too can change our hearts and minds (metanoia, or conversion).

The human Jesus, really human, making decisions in the half-darkness, can be a good role model for us. Who needs a savior who doesn't experience the self-doubt, loss, and frustration that we do? We don't need Superman—that's a comic book hero. We need a "son of man," i.e., a human being, one who learns from what life throws at him, who consults with his friends, seeks clarification in solitude, acts generously on behalf of others. That is a savior worth imitating. Tranforming freedom from restrictive law based on division and fear into a generous freedom to serve, to love, to unite, heal, and announce freedom to others really could be good news for a society that is fearing and threatening itself into a netherworld of shrinking boundaries of terror and open-carrying, hostile self-preservation. A world in which nine-year-olds practice shooting Uzis with terrifying, if predictable, results.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Vade retro satanas (A22O)

This Sunday’s readings are good ones. The motif that connects the first reading and the gospel is the motif of vocation, and the prophet's (justifiable) argument that being chosen by God, while at times undeniable and invigorating, is often a pain in the butt, and in a few other places as well. We're with Tevye yet again: "Once in a while," we pray, "couldn't you choose someone else?" So just a few words today about how I think about the scriptures before sharing the music we’re using at St. Anne’s this weekend.

The gospel follows last Sunday’s reading about Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” It's of a piece, the same story, scene, and conversation. Matthew makes more of Peter's confession than does his source in Mark, but however you read it, whatever Peter says, he seems to mean something other than what Jesus is thinking, though Jesus, ever ready to cut us slack, sees the Petrine glass half full rather than half empty. In today’s gospel, Peter shows his true colors, that is, his predilection for a messiah who, rather than following the path of the Suffering Servant, is one who will fight his way, with God at his side, to the throne of David. Jesus tells the apostles that he’s going to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die. Peter retorts, “God forbid! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” This is when Jesus turns on him with that chilling rebuke: Get behind me, you satan! You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” The same human beings, one thinks, who are going to kill him. This after last weeks affirmation from Jesus to Peter that “no mere human has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” One minute, Peter is thinking as God thinks. The next minute, he’s Satan.

Admittedly, Satan has gotten a bad rap for the couple of millennia or so. In the Hebrew bible and the culture of Jesus time, Satan was less a prince of darkness and the master of evil and death than the “tempter” or, in legal parlance, the opposing counsel to God, the devil’s advocate. The name may come from the aramaic word for “the accuser” or it may mean something like “the wanderer” (Job 1:7). Satan is subject to the authority of God. In the narrative that begins the book of Job, he asks permission to put Job on trial for his righteousness.

Here, Jesus is saying to Peter: your place is behind me. Follow me. Learn what God wants, don’t try to show me. Jesus sees, at least through the gospel writer’s resurrection-enlightened eyes, that the path of the Messiah/Christ is the path of the Suffering Servant. He has experienced God not as overlord but Abba, and understands that those who live and rule by the sword will die by the sword. I  give Peter some credit. Satan, at least, is a member of the heavenly court. Peter may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he is by all accounts an instrument of God.

Somehow, being on God’s side feels like, in addition to making us feel really righteous, it ought to mean we’re going to 'win.' But I’m afraid that domination isn’t part of the outcome. Life is. That whole business about the keys to the kingdom of heaven and all that—we have to learn that the kingdom of heaven is “not like the kingdoms of this world.” It’s a kingdom where one rules by service, and where the master washes the feet of all. Even at the Last Supper, Peter doesn’t get it. It comes to him slowly; he starts to understand on the seaside in Galilee after the resurrection; he gets closer at the house of Cornelius in Acts. Maybe he doesn’t really get it until he’s crucified upside down outside of Rome and wakens with the fullness of the kingdom’s light in his eyes.

The first reading recounts Jeremiah’s rebuke of God for seducing him, for sweet-talking him into the life of a prophet and thus into a life of rejection, persecution, and misery. It is Jeremiah who will describe God in Lamentations as a bear lying in wait to tear his flesh from his bones, as lying in ambush to shoot him through with arrows from his quiver, capturing him and leaving him alone, chained the dark. He speaks like a jilted virgin lover, Cecile of Les Liaisons Dangereuses accusing Valmont, “you were stronger than I and you overpowered me.” Jeremiah’s vocabulary connotes sexual violence. But then the prophet confesses that when he most wants to run, to forget the overpowering one, his word becomes like a fire inside, and he can’t keep it in. He must fulfill the call within.

That’s what vocation is like, the holy longing that binds us to the Lover and gives the strength and hope to trust the path of discipleship even when, especially when, the road is  difficult and even dangerous. Thus the psalm has us sing together, “My soul is longing for you, my God.” It is agape that binds Jesus to Peter. Peter may be a rock or a blockhead, he may be incapable of agape at this
point on his path, but God will nurture in him, coax it like fire from the embers of his heart. So God will do for us, that’s what we pray for this weekend. Not to be dominant, not to win, but to be faithful in our love and discipleship.

Perhaps today’s patron saint ought to be Nikos Kazantzakis for his amazing portrait of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ , and for his suffering at the hands of the church. His portrayal of the vocation of Christ as experienced like the talons of an eagle carrying Christ off to the desert, and the blinding revelation that the “last temptation” is, for some, the choice between God and everything else, make him a good candidate for the saint of the day. Replying to the bishops who excommunicated him for his work, he reportedly said, "You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I.” His response to the Vatican’s putting his work on the Index was simply, "I lodge my appeal at your tribunal, Lord.” Kazantzakis understood the call, seduction, and the life-and-death, all-or-nothing nature of relationship with God.

You know, the way the rest of us ought to understand.

Gathering: Glory in the Cross (Schutte) Again, Dan Schutte’s insightful and accessible hymn that helps us celebrate the paschal mystery of God, that somehow, glory and cross are in the same moment, and not one following the other. We’re using the Good Friday text with this one.
Psalm 63: My Soul Is Longing (Cooney) My through-composed setting of this psalm is supposed to conjure both the lush and sere of holy longing. It’s kind of demanding for cantors, so usually we use the Dameans’ “I Long for You.” Just for today, though...
Gifts: To You Who Bow (Cooney, GIA) I won't say much about this, since I wrote about it recently in a SongStories post. I chose it because it's about understanding that God's perfection is about perfect love, perfect self-gift, not power and might. We might start trying to get at least that right, so we can model ourselves after the right One! or Only This I Want (Schutte) Dan’s gem from the St. Louis Jesuits' Lord of Light captures St. Paul’s vision of the cross: to know the Lord, to bear the cross, to wear the crown he wore. I think about this CD and the songs on it: “City of God,” “All the Ends of the Earth,” “Lift Up Your Hearts,” “Jesus the Lord,” and of course “Here I Am, Lord.” Yikes. It’s like the Sergeant Pepper of liturgical music.
Communion: Christ the Icon (Cooney) My litanic song that is a meditation on the meaning of Christ and the cross for understanding both ourselves and the nature of God.
Closing: The Summons (Bell) The call to discipleship spelled out in five verses by the prolific and insightful John Bell.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Identity and authority (A21O)

As I was thinking over the readings for next Sunday, especially the gospel, I heard them in the shadow of last Sunday’s gospel, for which I once heard an excellent homily from my friend and colleague Fr. John Durbin. He said that he lifted most of his ideas from John Shea’s book, The Spiritual Wisdom Of Gospels For Christian Preachers And Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven Year Aabout the cycle A gospels in Matthew, but even if he did, they were ideas that really need to get out into the air, because they ring true, and people haven’t heard them enough.

Here’s the thing I was thinking, for what it’s worth. In Sunday’s gospel, we have the story of Jesus asking the disciples the question, “Who do people say that I am?” “What are people saying about me?” is another way of saying that. And I think that most of us have in mind that Jesus knows who he is, and he’s just sort of “testing” the apostles to see if they know, and of course, Peter answers with the big theological affirmation and gets the tiara. But what if Jesus doesn’t know the answer? What if he’s “advancing in wisdom, age, and grace” as the gospel of Luke put it, and figuring it out as he goes along, as one might expect a human person to do, as one of us might do? “Blessed are you, Simon son of John, because no human being revealed this to you.” That’s another way of saying, “Great is your faith,” which echoed last Sunday’s gospel, which got me onto this thing of identity. If no human revealed it, then it came from God. Faith is the gift of God. So those statements are very similar in meaning. What do Peter and the pagan woman that the apostles tried to shoo away last week have in common, and what do they have to do with Jesus’s emerging self-image?

The pagan woman who approached Jesus last week knew who he was. She was pouring herself out for her daughter, so she was “like God,” who is agape. She knew, better than Jesus, apparently, who he was too, calling him “Lord” (that is, one with power) and “son of David” (knowing him as both Jew and king). Jesus protests that his gift is only for his own, that, in the words unhappily sung since in the hymn “Ecce Panis Angelorum,” “the bread of the children shouldn’t be thrown to the dogs.” (Does anyone else find it woefully ironic that the only part of this dialogue that made it into the church's eucharistic sequence for Corpus Christi, the "Lauda Sion Salvatoris," is the line, "Vere panis filiorum/Non mittendus canibus"? In fact, in this case at least, Jesus was wrong about that!) The intrepid woman, overflowing with love for her daughter and knowing that God’s power would flow from this stranger, appeals to her milieu—“Lord, even the dogs eat what drops from the children’s table.” You see, in pagan households, the family dog(s) roamed the house freely, but in Jewish households, one had to go outside to take the scraps to the dogs, because the dogs were not allowed into the house itself. She’s saying in effect, “your house, or my house—you can take the food outside to me, or let me in to take it from you, I’ll do anything.” She sees, and he doesn’t, that God shows no favorites. In fact, Jesus says to her, “Woman, you have great faith,” which is to say, “I can recognize in your words the presence of God, a presence that I know well.” And he does what she asks. He changes. She changes him. It struck me, too, how this story is related to John’s Samaritan woman story, another story of the frontiers and borders between people, of risk, and of mutual life.

So in this Sunday’s gospel, we have Peter giving the answer to a question that Jesus himself doesn’t know the answer to, and Peter clearly doesn’t know what he’s saying, as we’ll see in next Sunday’s gospel. Peter doesn’t get what involvement with the God of Jesus means for leadership and destiny. Peter sees “son of the living God” and “the anointed (christos)” to mean that Jesus has a destiny like Herod’s or even Caesar’s. He misidentifies God with the emperor, a mistake multiplied over the centuries of the Church’s love affair with Constantine, Charlemagne, and the courts of Europe. Caesar is interested in borders; God’s interest is in reconciliation. Caesar rules by oppression; God rules by invitation and shared good. Caesar rules by victory; God rules by justice. Jesus realizes quickly that neither Caesar nor Herod is going to be interested in the reign of God, and that the powers of earth are going to line up against the God of life and justice. Jesus further knows and trusts that God is God, and Caesar is not, and not even the power of armies and death can staunch the flow of life into the universe.

But the link between rule and service is yet to be learned by Simon and the rest, and there is still time. It’s a new beginning, and Jesus changes Simon’s name to Cephas, or in Latin, Petrus. The new “Peter” will learn, over the period of a couple of decades, the lessons Jesus learned from the pagan woman on the frontier. He, too, will die at Caesar’s hand on a road outside the city, and in a strange reversal of fate that we have come to take for granted as a sign of divine favor, the humiliated Jew, crucified upside-down by the power of Rome, is remembered by a Basilica on the Vatican hill that is a symbol of the faith of billions of Christians who have followed in the faith of Jesus. Learning the way of the God who is agape, who teaches leadership through servanthood, will become the stumbling-block, skandalon, and school of discipleship for Christ’s followers as long as the sun shines. Maybe longer.

This Sunday at St. Anne -

  • Gathering: Dan Schutte's "Glory in the Cross." At some masses, we’ll use Tom Conry’s Psalm 23, “God alone may lead my spirit,” which translates well the Vulgate’s “regit”, “pastures me” or “rules me.” The shepherd-lord cares for me; nothing is lacking.
  • Psalm 138: On the Day I Called (Cooney) We’re using the refrain, “Faithful God, we praise you for your love; do not forget us now.” It’s a good prayer for today’s scripture - teach us, today, to know you as you are and not as we want you to be. Bend us, conform us to Christ the servant.
  • Gifts: Lead Me, Guide Me. "You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God." So I think it seems appropriate to sing "Lead Me, Guide Me" after making our confession of faith with Peter. If I weren't going to be away at a wedding this week, I think we could have also used Tom Kendzia's song, from the same collection, Change My Name,” his adaptation of the spiritual, so we could sing with St. Peter, “I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name!”
  • Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (GIA, Cooney-Gelineau) Ugh, I know, I don’t deserve to mentioned in the same sentence with the great Jesuit liturgist and musician who passed away on 08/08/08 at the age of 80 or so. But as I’ve mentioned before, I used his tune for the 23rd psalm verses with a new refrain that I wrote to celebrate my pastor’s, Fr. Jack Dewes’, 40th anniversary of ordination, a celebration of servant leadership. I hope, in the long run, my refrain and arrangement holds up well against Père Gelineau’s gorgeous and simple music.
  • Closing: We Will Serve the Lord. Enough said, I hope. “Ya gotta serve somebody,” says Bob Dylan. “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but ya gotta serve somebody.” May we learn quickly and thoroughly, and be changed into Christ for the world.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

SongStories 36: Canticle of the Turning (GIA, 1989)

Neither Hannah nor the mother of Jesus, this painting
depicts the "other" Miriam's dance. (Sandra Pond)
2014 is the 25th anniversary year of the publication of our first GIA collection of songs, Safety Harbor. As the page views on my blog inexplicably approach the 100,000 mark (someone who reads this post will move Google's hit counter past that marker), I thought that it might be a good idea to finally write a little bit about the best-known song of mine from the GIA catalogue, which was the first song on that CD. I'm speaking about my 1988 (written) setting of the Magnificat, "Canticle of the Turning."

Advent of 1988 was the beginning of a Luke Year (C) in the lectionary, and as it approached I was thinking about how I might write a song that my parish, St. Jerome in Phoenix, Arizona, might use to tie together the themes of Luke's gospel through the year, and in a special way to begin it in Advent. At the time we already knew a handful of Magnificat settings, including the Dameans' version from their Remember Your Love collection, "My Soul Rejoices," and Michael Joncas's wonderful setting of the Oosterhuis paraphrase that appeared in the same rich collection that gave us "On Eagle's Wings" and "I Have Loved You," a responsorial-choral version entitled, "Mary's Song." The more I thought about the task I had set for myself, though, to craft a song that contained some of Luke's main evangelical themes that could be used through the year, the more I came back to the canticle of Mary from the end of chapter 1.

According to some scripture scholars, the songs in Luke's gospel might have been pre-existing Christian hymn that he was writing back into the story of Jesus as if to say, "Here's how our songs got started; see them again as part of the bigger story." This is not to say he was rewriting history, just that he may have wanted his community to read its own history, including the "new song" of the Lord that its faith engendered, through the lens of his narrative of Jesus and his mission. The song of Mary known by its first word in the Latin version, "Magnificat," (Lk. 1:46-55) celebrates that story in the even wider context of Jewish song, as the Magnificat itself parallels the Song of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, in 1 Kings 2. God takes action in the world on behalf of the powerless, the song goes, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, tearing the mighty from their thrones.

So in setting this canticle for my parish, I decided that I wanted to use music that suggested the revolutionary spirit of the canticle, that cosmic tables are being turned over, as it were. And who has better songs of uprising than the Irish? "Star of the County Down" is not a revolutionary ballad, of course. It's a love song about a man who aspires to woo Rosie McCann, a brown-haired beauty from "the banks of the Bann" near Belfast. The lyrics most of us know were written in the late 19th century, but the tune is much older, and in fact had among its many incarnations a military connection, as there was a lyric called "The Fighting 69th" about the Irish Brigade in the U.S. Civil War. The tune dances a bit, and there's both joy and excitement in the melody that I think fits the spirit of Mary's song well. Like many folks songs (and in the spirit of Martin Luther), it is a self-teaching melody, with a two-line refrain whose melody is expanded and paralleled in the verses (AA1BA1-BA1), making the tune easy to learn and remember. I kept the in-rhyme of the familiar Irish text as another mnemonic device ((aa)B(cc)B etc.)

The idea of "turning" in the title was both a nod to the inner conceit of "revolution," (derived from the Latin "volvere," which means "to turn") and to the message of Jesus's preaching in all three of the synoptic gospels, the core message of which was, "Repent, and believe the good news." "Repent" translates a Greek verb the noun form of which is metanoia, that is to say, a complete change of the self, of mind and heart, which might also be rendered as "turn around." The idea, of course, is that we are all walking a particular course dictated by the gods of "this world," for Jesus and his countrymen, the god's name was Caesar. Jesus was saying, "Look, how is that working out for you? Happy? Well, I have good news: a God with another idea, and his name is Abba. Let's "turn around" and walk in another direction." So the "revolution" is both interior (a change of heart-self) and corporate and visible (a new way of living together). It is, in fact, against the prevailing set of values in society, a revolution. But I want to emphasize that it is a peaceful revolution, a revolution of action, persuasion,  and justice. In the spirit of Miriam of Egypt, Hannah, and Miriam of Nazareth "Canticle of the Turning" invites us to sing around the fire in the darkness while we await the new world's dawn. has a great page about Canticle of the Turning, which I was surprised to discover while ego-surfing as I researched this post. You can click on the title just above and go to the page yourself. In addition to the original arrangement published in the Safety Harbor collection, "Canticle of the Turning" is also available in two different arrangements for choir and organ, both by august arrangers and composers whose sandals I am unworthy to untie, Hal Hopson and John Ferguson.

Songs get a life of their own after they're written. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I'm sure: I write songs because I need to. I need a specific song to be written, because there's some nagging ember inside me that, either out of my ignorance or chutzpah, thinks that there's nothing else serving a specific need of which I'm aware. What happens after I finish that song and start to share it, and occasionally publish it, is way out of my control, and perfectly unpredictable. While I was encouraged and grateful by its reception, early in the days after I had written in, by its reception in Ireland when Gary and I were working there on a Forum institute, I still felt some hesitation and self-doubt for using a completely secular melody with as beloved and sacred a text as the Magnificat, no matter how well-intentioned I was. But the fact that, twenty-five years later, it appears not just in Catholic hymnals, but also in Lutheran, Mennonite, and Presbyterian hymnals, and has been used by such titans (certainly to me, and I think in my world, by reputation) as Hopson and Ferguson in their own arrangements, says to me that maybe, for now, this was a good choice, and has "moved the deal along" a little bit, as songwriter Greg Brown might say.

It was a bit of a revelation to me to see the number of covers of this song that appear on iTunes - about a dozen of them (with a couple of reissues), and the variety in feel and tempo is really remarkable as each artist or group feels the song with the freedom-soaked independence suggest by folk music and the lyric itself! Just click through the right-arrow-in-a-circle audition buttons in the iTunes window below and get a feel for the creative energy of the different artists' interpretations of the Irish tune.

Thank you to everyone who has prayed with, sung, recorded, played, or published "Canticle of the Turning." Terry and Gary and GIA, happy 25th anniversary!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Gentiles-R-Us (A20O)

Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

So, who's your Gentile?

Everybody knows that "gentile" is derived from the Latin gentes which means "nations" or "peoples," and translates the Greek equivalent of the word we know from current Hebrew as goyim, which just means, "anyone with the misfortune of not being born Jewish." In the time that the Christian scriptures were being compiled, this was an increasingly important distinction. At the time of Jesus's death, there were, to the best of anyone's knowledge, no Christians at all, only Jews, some of whom came to believe in Jesus. Jews-who-believed-in-Jesus began to be seen as a threat to the limited resources of the community and to its leadership and orthodoxy, and ultimately were separated from the temple cult, at times with threats and other reprisals.

After St. Paul, also a Jew, and a pious proselytizer at that, had his famous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, things got even more heated. Convinced by his encounter with the Lord and his own study and experience that the law of Moses had no power to save his people, a power that only faith in Christ had, he expanded his preaching of Jesus Christ as the savior of all humanity to some of the great cities of the Mediterranean, probably preaching in the vicinity of Jewish proto-synagogues.  His preaching targeting many of the same potential "converts," the "Godfearers," or Gentiles sympathetic to and interested in Jewish beliefs and moral life, upon whom local Jewish communities depended for financial and political support as well as socialization. So from the outer courts of the Jerusalem temple to the streets of Corinth and Thessaly, the stage was set for tension, mistrust, and conflict between Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians within just a few years of the death of Jesus. It is entirely possible, in fact, that the gospels' near exoneration of Pilate and the Romans for the death of Jesus, a death for which they were almost certainly entirely responsible, was because of the animus between the fledgling Christian communities and their Jewish neighbors. If Acts (see Acts 6: 1-7) is to believed, there was even some dissent in the Jerusalem church itself between Jewish and non-Jewish factions, for instance, in the discrimination against the Greek widows, who were neglected in food distribution, leading to the creation of the first deacons.

All these fights about tradition, being right, who's in and who's out, are present in every stage of the church's development from the beginning of Jesus's ministry, through the New Testament times, and right up to the present day. We cannot know the mind of the historical Jesus himself, but in the hands of the evangelist Matthew, he is at least apparently conflicted. While other evangelists have Jesus preaching in pagan territory and interacting with Gentiles, Matthew's Jesus is clear, the great commission notwithstanding, that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” having told the twelve, back in chapter 10, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

In Sunday's gospel, our hearts open to the possibility that Jesus had some lessons to learn as a teacher, even one who was the incarnate Son of God, and the lesson comes by way of a woman who doggedly (sorry, unintentional pun) wants what she wants on behalf of her possessed daughter. Note too, that this gospel passage is preceded by a condemnation of the substitution of rigorous law for right living (justice) on the part of some Jewish leaders, and is followed by a second miracle of the loaves. While this latter miracle is not apparently very different from the one we heard a couple of weeks ago, it is based on the structure of the two feedings recorded in Mark (chapters 6 and 8), the second of which (corresponding to this one) takes place in the pagan territory. Mark's Jesus does not confine his preaching and ministry to the Jews like Matthew's does, and yet it's the same Jesus. So there is also the possibility, at least, of a literary movement that corresponds to what might be the mind of Jesus: what begins with the condemnation of a rigid and narrow-minded approach to law, a legalism that saves by strict adherence, ends with a feast on the Gentile side of the lake, and arrives there by way of a storm in the boat and the plea of a Gentile mother for the benefits of Jesus's ministry heretofore being lavished only upon his own people. Talk about character development!

This gospel and the whole liturgy today touches on hot-button issues in our church and in every church; for that matter, between churches. What are our sacred cows? What are the matters about which we are so certain we are right that we're willing to push people away who ask for help? Parish registration? Baptism? A certain kind of music? Celibate clergy? Ministry only by straight people? Or expand this kind of thinking into the wider world, the world that we church people populate and in which we vote and do business. What about health care? How about border control and immigration?

What's the goal of religion, specifically, the goal of Christianity? For Jesus, it appears, from at least the point of view of the fourth gospel it was this: "that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, that they all might be one in us." The shattering truth that Paul's letter to the Philippians sings in its quotation from a first-century Christian hymn is that God wanted reconciliation, that is, unity among us and between God and us, so much that, the he "did not cling to godliness,' and became a human being like us, and suffered death on a cross. God, in other words, didn't think being right was worth it. Being God meant nothing if we weren't all together. So God left it behind, and emptied Self into humanity.

Today's gospel suggests—suggests, I say—that Jesus learned that from a Gentile mother who was desperate to save her daughter from the demons that raged within her. Her tenacious love "did not cling to Gentile-ness" but emptied itself and begged from an enemy, or at least, a stranger, for what was available to others. The "faith" that saved her, we know, and Jesus knew, was not her own doing, but was planted in her by God, the only source of that gift. The Giver is the same one who wants reconciliation of all people, and she acts like the giver in emptying herself, and in the process, just maybe, opened the eyes of the Messiah to who he really was.

The repeated metaphor in the scriptures for the diversity (or chaos) of the world is the division between the Jews, i.e., the people who wrote the scriptures, and the goyim, the Gentiles, the rest of us. That is an unbridgeable gap from our side, that is to say, from the side of the Jews. God created the gap. If the Gentiles can come to the Lord, and even serve as priests, Isaiah suggests, then all bets are off. Creation has begun again. If "all the peoples" can praise the God of Israel, then the covenant has been rewritten. The Jews aren't written out; it's that the rest of us are written in. We can't do that. The Jews can't do that. Only God can do that. If that can happen, anything can happen.

It may be a suggestion that it's time to stop throwing up walls, and start tearing them down. At least, it seems to me, all of us should keep in mind that the telos, the consummation, the final goal of all things, the dream of God, is "that they—we—all be one." Everything we do, every rule we make, every decision we make, every law we vote for, every candidate we trust, everything we invest our time and money in, should be oriented toward that goal.

So, who's your Gentile?

GATHERING:   Gather Us In (Haugen) 848
KYRIE/Gloria: St Aidan
RESP. PSALM 98:   All the Ends of the Earth (Haugen/Haas) 70
PREP RITE:   In Christ There Is No East or West or A Place at the Table 832 /812
FRACTION:   St Aidan (G)
COMMUNION:   One Bread, One Body (Foley) 932
SENDING FORTH:   Saving Power of God (O'Connor)