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Thursday, November 20, 2014

For Ray East, my brother (November 1992)

I've known Fr. Ray East for a long time, thanks to the conference circuit to which I was occasionally attached from the mid-1980s for 25 years or so. Ray is still a frequent speaker at major conferences, in fact, he was a plenum speaker at this summer's NPM in St. Louis. Ray touched Terry's and my heart forever when he came to our hotel room in the summer of 1995 after another NPM (Cincinnati?) just a month or so after Desi had been born, and sat on the bed with Terry and blessed Desi in that way that Ray has that makes you know that that baby was really blessed, and things would be good for him.

Ray was also a passenger on the famous Big Island Bus Ride of 1992, and he and I stayed together, with the late Fr. Jim Dunning, at the house of some Malia Puka o Kalani parishioners. My most persistent memory of Ray that year was that somehow he loved to eat breadfruit, which I found puzzling to the point of incredulity. That is some nasty food, at least it was to my then-carnivorous taste buds, and I could only shake my head in amazement at his apparently bottomless appetite for the stuff.

Anyway, in the subsequent weeks to that trip, I wrote this poem about him, which still resonates with me a little bit, the ideas helping me to overlook the shortcomings of my poetic style. Without any further self-pity, here's the poem.

For Ray East, my brother
raymond lives
in the United States of America.
Not one of the fifty, but deep
in the City of Compromises.
He rejoices when a man’s years
exceed his ability to live them,
for he has spent too many nights
like this, tracing oily crosses
on the bloodied brows of boys,
watching the foamy convulsions
of girls whose innocence did not dim
when they opened themselves to strangers
to buy, from a looking-glass Moses
escape or orgasm from a rock. 
raymond sings
when he drives, sings 'Been So Busy,’
or Paul Simon, Jacques Brel.
Saturday night in the District
crouches around him,
lies and broken promises roam freely here,
they resent the rich baritone with tears in it,
hold their ears until hell
can silence him with sorrow, sirens, street beat. 
raymond is
a small man who lives on his smile
he takes his bread
at the table which invites him.
raymond remembers
Moses, and says, Yes, my brother,
raymond worships
Jesus and says, Yes, my brother,
raymond believes
in Sojourner and Harriet and Rosa, says, Yes, my sister,
raymond knows
Martin and Malcolm X, Desmond and Biko, says, Yes, my brothers.
raymond parks
and wonders why the children don’t cry
why the police don’t cry
where are the mothers, fathers,
and why doesn’t the city stop?
Hasn’t a piece of the continent
been washed away? 
raymond weeps
for this boy whose heart has a steelblown hole,
this girl whose dead black eyes need more
this baby whose screams burst her lungs,
(crack convulsions)
raymond leaves
the scene in silence.
darkness is cocked like a gun. Then 
raymond sings.
It is Sunday, raymond thinks,
today I will tell them a story.
Today the ancient Spirit
will enter raymond, a zebra
Spirit, Bantu Spirit, gazelle.
raymond’s people will remind him,
—God is good ALL THE TIME—
sirens. a baby cries. someone
says, Amen, amen. Fat flies
circle over wine like blood.
When the heaven’s black light turns him
to a river of obsidian fire
where his people can swim,
we hear (sirens) drums and music
hammer on spike, a stone rolls.
Raymond dances.
Rory Cooney, © 1992

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cleaning up our mess (Christ the King, Year A)

We buried our friend Tom O'Hern this week. Tom was a former Vincentian priest who had been serving in the seminary in Nairobi. When he reached a certain point in his life, let's call it his conversion, he left the priesthood, but stayed in Kenya. Eventually, he stayed among the half a million people who live in the five-square-mile slum called Korogocho. Unable to cleanse his consciousness of the hopelessness of their situation in a land whose government is thoroughly corrupt and whose poverty is endemic, he left his old life behind, and entered into their world. He saw his job as trying to impart to them some sense of their own value, some glimmer of the truth of their humanity as children of God, by starting soccer teams and support groups, eventually building a charity called "Family Hope Charity" that worked in recovery, halfway houses, medical care, and shelter for abandoned children. He survived thefts and assaults, and with the kind of irony generally associated with fiction, finally lost his life while on an annual visit to the USA and checking in with his family, friends, and the charity's board and benefactors. He poured himself out, and his body could not keep up with his spirit.

Tom did what God does: poured himself out. Entered the lives of the poor, and gave everything. A Kenyan priest, speaking words of remembrance, gave Tom credit for his vocation, and said, "I am—we are (referring to his colleagues)—the seeds Tom planted." People in Korogocho know that God-is-with-us because they know that Tom-is-with-us. Tom lives still because God remembers Tom. Others, inspired by the gospel that inspired Tom, will take up his work. Cleaning up the mess that is the poverty, corruption, and violence of life is a long, patient process of participation in God's project. That's what the feast of Christ the King is about. So let me start with that, and finish up this Year A with some thoughts on the scriptures and music for this week.

At the end of the gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus leaves his apostles with the command to "Go and preach the gospel to all nations," and reassuring them with his promise, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age."(Mt. 28:20) It seems reasonable to imagine, given the chaos in the Roman empire by the end of the first century, that early Christians wondered whether that was actually the case, and if it was, how exactly was it true? How is Jesus with us in the devastation that was Jerusalem and the violent vortex of "civilization," Rome under Nero and his successors?

The chaos wasn't new, but the gospel of "Emmanuel," that is, God-with-us (Mt. 1:23) is proposing an answer to the question about Christ's presence in the chaos in a number of ways, certainly in the "church discourse" in chapter 18, where the gospel points to harmony in the community and unity in prayer as signs of the indwelling presence of Christ. Joseph's dream in chapter one and the parting words of Jesus are an inclusio, sort of literary bookends to the gospel, and the reader is thus alerted to look between them for the meaning of "being-with" in the life of the believer.

One interpretation of the life of the "historical Jesus" is that he was an eschatological prophet, unique in his message, but similar to others who arose in Israel between the time of the Maccabees and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Prophets from Moses to Elijah to Ezekiel (who speaks in today's first reading) to John the Baptizer arose at critical times in Israel's history to help Israel navigate the times when the power of pharaohs, kings, and emperors seemed to be at odds with the power of God, and not just at odds, but winning the battle, at least the exit polls. Prophets are sent to tell the truth to power, usually at mortal risk, and their truth is witnessed by the rest of us, who are, finally, allowed to choose between the truth of God's covenant and the truth of the emperor. In this, at least, Jesus is in the prophetic tradition.

Around the time of the the Maccabees, apocalyptic literature began to appear in Israel, which I understand to be a sort of "underground newspaper", the herald of a different empire, a way of letting people know to "keep the faith" in coded language of allegory and metaphor. The Book of Daniel is an example of this that survives in scripture, with its message of a "son of man" who will arise to clean up the horrors associated with the malevolence of Antiochus Epiphanes and his blasphemous desecration of the temple. Around this time as well, other "wisdom" literature begins to suggest that a just God must have a resurrection of the dead in mind as a reward for those who gave their lives in defense of the faith. Ezekiel's promise in the first reading today, in which God promises, against the shepherds who have misled Israel, that "I myself will shepherd them," is an early parallel of this kind of apocalyptic promise. It is God's intention, scripture promises, that what has been messed up on this planet will be remade, even if God has to do it personally.

The "son of man" who appears in the apocalyptic parable in the gospel this Sunday is first found in the book of Daniel as the agent of God's "clean up" of the situation in the world. (That image is not mine, but John Dominic Crossan's, and can be found, for instance, in his book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now as well as in numerous other books and articles on the subject). "Son of man" is an aramaism that simply means "a human being," so the one called upon by God to do the cleaning up just appears to be a human being, although given divine authority and power to do the job given to him. It is the "son of man" who appears in the parable at the end of time, and while tradition has come to the conclusion that the "son of man" is Jesus, there is no evidence that Jesus thought so when and if he spoke the words, or that it was meant to be prophetic in the secular sense of "seeing into the future." The gospel is describing something about the present situation in a world that needs to be cleaned up. It is answering the question, "If Christ is God-with-us, and present with us now, then where is he?" It's a question about the current situation of the world, and what God is doing about it. And it's answered by the parable. "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."

Of course, there is all the (important, of course) academic and theological discussion about who "the least of these" refers to, and what the condemnation of the goats to "eternal punishment" means. But in any case we need to be careful not to turn the parable into an allegory. The core of it, it seems to me, is that Christ is present in the needs of people here and now, and to serve them is to serve Christ. The "second coming" of Christ, like the first one, has already happened, is happening now. We might miss it if we're looking for the wrong kind of emperor, and the wrong kind of God. This God, this emperor, this "king of the universe," has poured himself out into history, and taken the side of the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the sick, and the poor.

Which brings us back to the feast day today, the feast of "Jesus Christ, King of the Universe." We can put all the red cloth, gold, trumpets, and festival anthems out there that we want to, but the word of God cannot be contravened, and every year it comes back convicting us by its truth and pushing back against our dreams of glory, conquest, and the violent defeat of our enemies. "The Lord is my shepherd," we hear, not "The Lord is my stealth bomber." God's justice is not retributive, paying back evil with vengeance, but distributive, giving to each what each needs. And it is participatory, which is to say, we are invited into the action, to be part of God's great clean-up of the earth, because "whatever you do to one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you do unto me." Whatever the reason the Church had through the years for instituting and revising the feast of Christ the King, it cannot dispense with the gospel, which can only present the true Christ. That Christ is servant, healer, first of many brothers and sisters, whose irrevocable identification and alliance with the poor and strategy of participatory distributive justice is the gospel, is God-with-us, "until the end of the age."

My friend Tom O'Hern knew that, and participated in God's project with his "whole mind, soul, heart, and strength." If our faith is true, then he has heard the words we all ache to hear, and which continue to needle our complacency and call us to be imitators, like Tom, of Christ:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father. 
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink? 
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you? 
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

You can donate to Family Hope Charity here, if you like, in memory of Tom and his work.

What we're singing at St. Anne this week:
Entrance: Let Justice Flow Like a River (Haugen)
Mass of St. Ann-with-no-E Gloria (Bolduc)
Psalm 23: The Lord Prepares a Banquet (alt. refrain) (Cooney, OCP)
Preparation Rite: To You Who Bow (Cooney)
Communion: Whatsoever You Do (Jabusch)
Sending Forth: Thy Kingdom Come (Cooney) or We Are Called (Haas)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Losing interest (A33O)

or, "Use your talents, but not because of this parable."

Because of the way the calendar "interrupted" the normal Year A readings from Matthew on November 2 and 9, we are a little behind in living through the liturgical "logic" of the lectionary. We usually have two or three weeks of late-gospel preparation for the Solemnity of Christ the King, which we will celebrate on November 23 this year. This year, we have only one, the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Not that it's all that important, right? All the rivers of liturgy lead to the sea, that great vision of universal reconciliation sacramentalized by baptism and Eucharist, the divinization of creation promised by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

But it's a bumpy road, and one of the human literary expressions of the dissonance between the Elysian promise and the quotidian quagmire is apocalyptic writing, often a staple on these last Sundays. This year, we have almost none of that. Instead, on this penultimate Sunday of the church year, we have the parable of the talents, paired with a reading from Wisdom literature about the qualities of a good wife, and a psalm extolling the blessings of those who walk in God's ways. It doesn't seem very promising, and I think the homiletic temptation will be to default to the easy interpretation of that parable: use your talents, if you have a lot, a lot will be expected from you, but no one gets to slide. In the worst cases, and hopefully these will not be in church, the text will be used to say that "God helps those who help themselves," and that the bright, creative, and entrepreneurial deserve more than the rest of us.

But modern parable study warns us not to move too quickly to a Karl Rove-ian interpretation, glorifying profit and condemning indolence. We are encouraged by scholars to hear the parable, if we can, with Jewish ears, first-century Jewish ears, and not be too quick to associate the parable's master going on a journey with God. After all, the third servant identifies the master as "severe," a man who "reaps where he does not sow, and gathers where he does not scatter." And to seal the deal, the master agrees with the servants assessment. Do we really want a God like that? Would a God like that be good news to the 99% who get the one talent, or less?

First of all, the word "talent" in the parable is an unhappy cognate of our English word meaning "gift," and prejudices our reading. In reality, the amounts of money entrusted to the servants are ridiculously huge. It's like Jesus would start the story, "A man went away, and gave his servants millions of dollars to take of while he was gone." As 21st century christians in a capitalist culture, we think the guys who invest and make interest on the investment are doing good work, and the third guy is a loser, because all he manages to do is not lose any of his boss's kale.

But how would Jews hear the parable? In all of the Jewish scripture, every reference to interest is a negative  one. The Torah forbids the charging of interest on loans, particularly to fellow Israelites, particularly the poor. Psalm 15, referring to the "just" person, that is, the one who does God's will, describes him as not lending money with interest. (Dominic Crossan, in The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, cites, for instance Exodus 22:25 and Deuteronomy 23, and Leviticus 25, as well as Ezekiel and 2 Maccabbees). Further, consider the structure of the story and the rule of three. Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where we have first a levite then a priest passing by the injured man and not lending assistance, and then the third, the Samaritan, coming by. What is expected is that the third character will provide, finally, some decisive action that will turn the story around. Both pieces of evidence, the Jewish restriction against interest and the story of the structure itself suggest that the third servant, the one who hid his master's money, is the good one, and he is the one who gets punished. What can we make of this?

Well, it's hard to be definitive, of course, but the first step is to hear this story as a parable and not an allegory. The parable's of Jesus are meant to open up our hearts to the reign of God, that alternative Way wherein the values of the dominant society are seen for the empty promises they make, and a different empire with a different rule, specifically, rule by a father (Abba) over a household of equals who take care of each other, is lived out. The Romans, and certainly empires ever since that have been built on the foundation of money and power, had no problem with lending money at interest. Might this parable, like the rest of Jesus's preaching, have been a summons to choose between empires? What world, in other words, do we want to live in? The world of Caesar, debt and interest, violence and threats, or the world of the empire of God? "How's that working out for you?", all those threats expectations of profit and gain from structures that "reap where they don't sow and gather where they do not scatter"? Can we be OK with the ones, right now, who just say "no" to the world of credit cards, life insurance, and funny money created by speculation, and who imagine another way? 

I'm pretty sure that the framers of the lectionary used a "we should use our talents" reading of today's parable whn they chose the first reading. But let's read it the other way for a moment: now, the reading from the Old Testament stands as a corrective against a quietist reading of Matthew, in case one were to plead the case of the third servant and aver that it doesn't matter if we use our gifts or not. Surely we understand that all of scripture is read in a context, and that Pauline admonitions to use our gifts for the good of the community, particularly those in need of them, are among the foundational texts of the church's self-image. The woman of value cited in Proverbs, or any person of value, is praised for many attributes, including the fact that she "reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy."

The responsorial psalm is from Psalm 128, which celebrates the home of those who "fear the Lord," that is, those who know and respect God and God's law. I'd like to suggest that we sing it this week, we accentuate the word "Lord" in the refrain, "May the Lord bless us all the days of our lives." Not wealth, prosperity, possessions, status, but a sense of God's love at work in our lives, participation in God's project of uniting all creatures on this planet, men and women, neighbors, strangers, and enemies, living now and yet to be born, in a family of mutual nurture and self-gift. Those who do so will "eat the fruit of your handiwork; happy shall you be and favored." (It strikes me that the framers of the lectionary may also have chosen this psalm for its equating happiness with "fear" of the Lord. If so, maybe they did foresee a day when the quaking third servant might indeed be the happy one, who did the right thing in spite of his spiteful master!)

What we're singing this weekend:

Gathering: Eye Has Not Seen, (Haugen) 
Psalm 128 All the Days of Our Lives, (Cooney) 
Prep: Covenant Hymn, (Daigle/Cooney)
Communion: Faithful Family, (Cooney)
Sending Forth: We Are Marching, (trad. South African)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How lovely is your dwelling place (Dedication of Lateran Basilica)

You know, don't you, that the readings for this weekend in the Lector Workbook, and the liturgy prep websites like, and even (a cursory reading of) the Ordo are just suggestions, right? For some, they may fit the bill of your parish perfectly, but I think it's more likely they'll be more appreciated in a seminary or a theological university. For this Sunday's celebration of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope's cathedral, your parish can use any of the readings from the Common of the Dedication of a Church. And believe me, there are many more accessible texts than the somewhat opaque ones in those books, which seem to me to appeal by theology-from-above. In the hands of a good exegete (or eisegete, for that matter) these texts could be made radiant for an assembly; the task would be immeasurably easier by choosing other readings from the commons, which is what I did for St. Anne, where we are using:

Rev. 21: 1-5a "The dwelling of God is with the human race."
Psalm 84 "How lovely is your dwelling place"
Eph 2:19-22 "In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit."
Lk 19:1-10 "He has gone to eat in the house of a sinner." (link to post on this gospel)

Basilica of St. John, on the Lateran hill in Rome
Whether we use the readings from the workbook or do a little digging for other wonderful texts, there is some built-in irony between the feast-day, which celebrates the dedication of a building, a house for the church, and the sense of virtually all the scriptures, both Jewish and Christian, which describe a movement in consciousness away from associating God's presence with a place and coming to associate it with a people. Clearly, the church building is a sacrament of presence, but it is both a sacrament of God's presence and a sacrament of the people of God, which is another way of saying it is a sacrament of Christ, who makes that image of God-with-us even possible. By his coming among us, and sending the Holy Spirit among us by his death and resurrection to give us the messianic (Christ-ic) mission of the Father, Jesus makes the church, the healing, compassionate, heart-summoning communion of believers in every age, the agent and locus of God's presence in every age.

The bridge into the final chorus of my song, "You Have Built Your House," pulls together (I hope) all of this with the great theme of Matthew's gospel, "God-with-us", with this short couplet:

How awesome is this temple, the people where you dwell,
Where earth unites with heaven: Emmanuel!

I apologize for the brevity of this post, because this feast merits more time and thought, but I have so much to do to prepare for the conference in Hawaii for which we are leaving tomorrow that this is the best I can do! Wish us well! I shall try to give reports from there, if not here, then on Facebook.

What we're singing at St. Anne's this weekend:

Entrance song: Gather Us In (Haugen) It was an unpleasant surprise to find that, because of the unimaginative grousing of a few orthodoxy police, the last verse ("Not in the dark of buildings confining...") of Marty's great song was excised from the current incarnation of Gather, though it endures in OCP's Music Issue and other songbooks as well. Unpleasant, because it's the very thing that the scripture confronts us with today: it is a people, not a geographical or architectural site, that is the site of God's presence par excellence in the world.
Responsorial: Psalm 84 "How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place" (Joncas) from the strong 1979 collection "On Eagle's Wings", Michael's setting of this psalm is evokes wonder at the presence of God and longing for its fullness, as though the psalmist were separated by exile from the temple, and is trying to sing it into reality from another place and time. Which may, indeed, be the case.
Preparation Rite: We Come to Your Feast (Joncas) Using this song after the Zacchaeus gospel will, I hope, reinforce the joyful truth that the Lord, even today, comes to "eat in the house of a sinner," and we are the ones doing the inviting.
Communion: You Have Built Your House (Cooney, WLP) (The link goes to the SongStories post about the song) See the reference above to the text of the bridge, but the rest of the song goes to the heart of the scriptures about the church, explicit in Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, Revelation 21 and 1 Peter, among others, that God's house is in the heart of a people.
Recessional: All Are Welcome (Haugen) Marty's song takes a little heat because of the hermeneutic of suspicion, the reality gap between the church we have which, officially, anyway, is less than welcoming of some people, and the church we want, which is for everyone equally. My feeling is, we sing the church we want into being. Worship shapes our behavior, it should, anyway, if we do it right. One way we do it right is by singing and preaching the gospel as it is, and not as we make it out to be with our rubrics and other fences.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The end of Year A (from Hosanna! magazine, 1993)

              "Lestat," she said, "it is the larger scheme which means nothing...It is the small act which means all...There are many nights when I lie awake, fully aware that there may be no personal God, and that the suffering of the children I see every day in our hospitals will never be balanced or redeemed. I think of those old arguments — you know, how can God justify the suffering of a child?...But it doesn't ultimately matter.
               "God may or may not exist. But misery is real. It is absolutely real, and utterly undeniable. And in that reality lies my commitment—the core of my faith. I have to do something about it!"
               "At at the hour of your death, if there is no God..."
               "So be it. I will know that I did what I could. The hour of my death could be now." She gave a little shrug. "I wouldn't feel any different."
                                                                                    from Tale of the Body Thief
                                                                                    by Anne Rice [Knopf, New York, 1992]
                        Born now in stillness, distant cry,
                        If you exist, if you pass by,
                        Be life within their longing.
                        If you are not and cannot be,
                        Unspoken word, resound in me:
                        No God for our adoring.
                        You know me well, you bind me tight.
                        I cry out "You" both day and night.
                        Could I forget your presence?
                        Could we be one yet still alone,
                        Be homeless, nameless, still unknown,
                        And not behold each other?
                                                Huub Oosterhuis, tr. Tom Conry
                                                "Song at the Foot of the Mountain"
                                                © 1987 TEAM Publications

            As we approach the end of Year A, what new insights have we come to regarding Christ's continuing presence in the world? "They shall call him, 'Emmanuel,' a name which means, 'God-with-us.'" These words were spoken on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, back in December 1992. Then at the end of the Easter season, we heard on the feast of the Ascension, "And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world."On the 22nd Sunday, there were these words from Jesus, taken again from Matthew's gospel: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.." Finally, coming up on the feast of Christ the King, we hear: "'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or see you thirsty and give you drink?'....The king will answer them, 'I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least (ones), you did it for me.'" The year stretches from one end to the other as a meditation on the great Easter question: how is Christ alive? What does "to rise from the dead" mean? In whom or in what have we discovered the real, living presence of the Christ of God?

            There have been other recurring themes this year: the parables of the reign of God have been heard on many Sundays since July. Have they opened our imagining to any new hope, any new joys? Have we had any insight into the great love and trust Jesus had for his Abba? Have his teachings that flow from that profound faith, teachings about living together peaceably, with forgiveness, and open to the great diversity of humankind, led us to any new behaviors as a community? How have we tried to sing that community into being?

            One great danger is that we have been "just praising the Lord" for the way things are, satisfied with our status quo, and not allowed the axe of God's word to strike at the roots of our complacency. The din of our merrymaking blots out the word. I suppose that we thus tempt God to leave us to our own devices ("Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways!") or to try a less subtle approach, something in the fire-and-brimstone department. (As I reconsider these words, it seems more likely that we simply are reveling too much to hear the sound of God's axe hacking at the root, since the word does not go forth without accomplishing what it was sent to do!)

            The last Sundays are sombre, but there is a great energy underlying them. It is the energy of something-about-to-happen. Beginning with the parable of the vineyard owner and going through the Solemnity of Christ the King, the gospels are largely calls to immediate action: to respond to the son, to render to God, to come to the banquet, to serve the rest, to stay awake, to live up to our abilities, to do unto the least ones. In each case, one of God's options is spelled out in the parable: destroying their city, weeping and grinding of teeth, letting in the bystanders, locking out in the cold, committing to the fire. These are not meant to be prophecies or predictions of an exact reality, but calls to action. Jesus does not expect the listener to fall asleep or ignore the needs of the little ones or refuse to come to the feast! As he did among listeners two millenia ago in the Bronze Age, Christ looks for a new way of living from those who hear in the age of silicon.

(For Hosanna! magazine, by Rory Cooney. Excerpt.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

From death into life (Commemoration of All Souls)

We celebrate the Commemoration of All Souls on Sunday this year, a rare treat for us. Most Catholics attend funerals fairly rarely (I guess that’s good, at least in a sense—for the potential honorees ☺), so the liturgy from Mass for the Dead is a pretty big unknown. Priests and musicians attend a lot of funerals, I suppose in urban and suburban parishes with larger constituencies like mine they’re almost commonplace. I would guess that St. Anne’s has about eighty funerals a year. I know places with different demographics that have a lot more than we do. And I feel like I’m at a funeral mass constantly, though that’s more a function of my attitude than of reality.

It’s good to think about final things. In this middle third of autumn, when the Illinois earth is getting serious about preparing for winter, it’s natural around here to start thinking about death. The days are noticeably shorter, and they’re going to be getting a lot shorter soon, when we go off daylight savings time shortly after midnight Sunday morning. So we have All Hallows’ (Saints) Day on November 1 to remember our forebears in the Christian faith, the saints by whose witness and prayer we ourselves know the faith today, and we have All Hallows’ E’en  on October 31 to help us deal with our fear of the unknown that surrounds death, and we have November 2, All Souls’, to remember the unnamed millions who have gone before us and many of whose names are forgotten, to bring them to mind, to pray for them, and to ask for their prayer as well. The Sunday readings during the last two or three Sundays of Ordinary time also turn to final things, “judgment” (though I think we need to think about what that might mean in the context of a non-violent, non-coercive agape God), life, death, and empire all become part of the patchwork of images during the last weeks of the year. And the first Sunday of Advent does, too, but looking at the mystery of creation through yet another lens, that is, what is yet to be, and how it might arise from what is.

At many funerals, and the last time we celebrated All Souls on Sunday, we used the reading from Wisdom ("The souls of the just are in the hand of God...") which dates from the Hellenistic period of Judaism, probably as late as the 2nd or 1st century BCE, from the period following the persecutions suffered in Judea at the hands of monstrous Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV. This marvelous passage is one of the earlier passages in the Hebrew scriptures to allude to the possibility of the bodily resurrection of the dead, a tenet of Christian Nicene creed, and here, as in the book of Daniel and Job, the possibility is raised by the Jewish philosophers and theologians as a necessary outcome of divine justice. Since the Jewish martyrs, like the Maccabees, were cut down in the prime of their physical life, with so much possibility still within them, it must behoove a just God, they reasoned, to restore their bodies to them at some future time. I suppose there are other possibilities, but when one assumes the Jewish mindset that humans are not spirits trapped inside bodies but bodies filled with divine breath, this makes as much sense as anything we believe about the afterlife. Interestingly, it is from this kind of spiritual awakening (or exercise) that the belief started to rise that life might go on beyond the grave. Belief in the resurrection of the body preceded belief in the resurrection, or for that matter, the existence, of a soul outside the body.

This time we are using the reading from Revelation as the first reading. I have little hope that the political implications of death and resurrection, the matrix of apocalypses like Revelation, will get spelled out two days before the midterm elections, but for those who have hope for the demise of the overfed Beast of campaign rhetoric, "a new heaven and a new earth" will sound like a good place to start. Revelation celebrates those who have made their choice for the reign of God against the rallied forces of Caesar and died for their allegiance. It promises a new world where death's power will be reversed, and there will be no more tears and mourning. The forces of death today sometimes wrap themselves in the symbols of a god, and use language describing death-dealing in terms of good and evil. Revelation helps us remember that it is ever so. All death, not just the death of martyrs, though,  seems like a defeat. Revelation assures us that a reversal is coming; life is changed, not ended.

The second reading we’re using at St. Anne’s is Romans 6, which every paschally-obsessed Catholic knows is the epistle for the Easter Vigil. At how many Easter Vigils (well, at least 30) and at how many more institutes of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate (probably another three or four dozen) have I heard these words, and I never get tired of them, and I wish that I would hear more confident and solid preaching on their hopeful and faith-sustaining words:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus 
were baptized into his death?
 We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, 
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead 
by the glory of the Father, 
we too might live in newness of life. 

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, 
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
We know that our old self was crucified with him, 
so that our sinful body might be done away with, 
that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.
 For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
 If, then, we have died with Christ,
 we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
 death no longer has power over him. 

Your mileage may vary: there are many different options for readings on All Souls’ Day. It is this sense that we are baptized into the death of Jesus, and furthermore, that “when we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” that is the heart of the Christian message. Somehow, in his death, Jesus is the icon of the invisible God. Yes, in his resurrection too, but we have to deal with this whole business of death and resurrection. We believe that we are baptized into the death of the Lord, and that in baptism, our “old self” dies, and we are made a new creation. New. From scratch. We look the same, just like the Eucharist looks like bread and wine, but it, and we, are ontologically different. Once, we were no people. Now, we are God’s people. Once, we were dead to sin. Now, given the gift of God’s holy spirit, we come up from the water and are reborn in the very image of Christ. Stamped with the paschal mystery, our genetic code rewritten by the Spirit of God.

A former associate at St. Anne's, Fr. Jim Hurlbert, used to call attention to this aspect of baptismal faith at every funeral he celebrated: the Christian died on the day of baptism, and rose again in Christ. "Death no longer has any power" over the Christian, because in baptism, we understand that we are immersed in the very source of life, in the One who has nothing to do with death. Others, including our current pastor, often make reference to this same reality. In the end, Christ draws us into the intimacy that he shares with Abba. The amazing part is that "the way" to this shared intimacy is available to us here and now, when we choose to live for Christ.

We can sleep right through that. We can just stay dead. Or, by celebrating the mystery of All Souls’ day, maybe we can waken to life, and become who we are.

Here is the music we’re singing at St. Anne’s, most of it is familiar from our funeral and paschal repertoire.

Gathering: Litany of the Saints (Becker), interspersed with the names of the parish deceased. In the adapted entrance rite Sunday, we are using a display of candles representing those who have died from the community this year as a sort of catafalque in the center of the worship space. While the litany of saints is sung and names are read, the candles (and paschal candle and altar) will be incensed. This is part of our annual All Souls' ritual in the parish.
Psalm 23: Shepherd Me, O God (Haugen). "Though I should wander the valley of death, I fear no evil for you are at my side." There is probably no more beloved prayer among us at the hour of death than the twenty-third psalm. Marty's beautiful setting, sung at so many tens of thousands of funerals since it was written more than 25 years ago, is the setting we most frequently, though not exclusively by any means, use.
Preparation of the Gifts: New Jerusalem (Cooney). Echoing the paschal faith and light-in-the-darkness hope of the first reading, my song "New Jerusalem" uses the language and imagery of Revelations 21 and 22 with the music of the American folk song "Shanadore" (Shenandoah) to evoke the beauty of a home to which we're headed, remembering, though we haven't really seen it yet.
Communion: The Cloud's Veil (Lawton). Our introduction to the music of Liam Lawton came early in the years we first lived in Illinois, when Terry was asked to sing with him on his first GIA recording, The Cloud's Veil. Liam has become something of a phenomenon in the Irish music scene, hardly limited to church music, but his music and ministry has helped to reinvigorate the church there at a time of tested faith and disillusionment. Like "On Eagle's Wings," the images of "Cloud's Veil" are appropriate at weddings and funerals alike, and remind us of God's presence to us in good times and bad.
Recessional: I Know That My Redeemer Lives (Haas). David's setting of the adapted text from the book of Job is a favorite of mine with its strong, confident melody perfectly suited to the recurring refrain, "On the last day, I shall rise again."

Monday, October 27, 2014

"You shall not oppress an alien" (A30O)

Sometimes, scripture is just so fresh that it seems ripped out of the newspaper. I sometimes tell the story, when we’re doing a concert, about writing “Walk in the Reign” for Advent in 1989, which like last Advent (2013) was the doorway to a Matthew (cycle A) year. For this late baby-boomer, it was a time of unparalleled renewal in the world. Things were happening constantly that none of us ever thought we’d see: the Berlin Wall coming down, the crumbling of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe precipitated by the solidarity movement in Poland of Lech Walesa and the Gdansk dockworkers, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and the miraculous, almost unthinkably courageous witness of the students who stood up to the tanks in Tienanmen Square. These were events of biblical proportion to us who had grown up in the Cold War, practicing air raid drills for nuclear attacks by hiding under our desks in school. Reading Isaiah in preparation for Advent that year was like reading it for the first time. It was not a perfect world by any means at all, but when we considered “what we had seen and heard,” the total of our recent experience was that there were indeed signs of the inbreaking reign of God all around us.

That’s what it was like hearing the first reading from Deuteronomy proclaimed. I wondered if the chaplain to Congress had dared to read that passage to our “Christian” legislators at the height of the immigration controversy, when the border wall was being considered, and the deportation machine started to crank at full power. Could we think it was possible to destroy the families and hope we destroyed without so much as a “May God have mercy on our souls” if we had had someone reading words like we heard today?
Thus says the LORD:
"You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. 
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. 
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,
 I will surely hear their cry. 
My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; 
then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.

I don’t always wince at the God of the Jewish scriptures, but for all the tenderness and compassion, there's a lot of violence in there. On the other hand, one can see how retribution in the form of violence can be perceived in retrospect as the punitive hand of God, when in fact it was the hellish outcome of their own bad choices, or the bad luck to be on the road between competing empires. The reason we shouldn’t molest or oppress an alien? Because “you yourselves were once aliens,” and God doesn’t mean us personally, but our ancestors. It’s “do unto others” writ large across generations, and we might think that it’s written into the future, too, about the way we treat the earth, and why we ought to pay attention to the environment, global warming, and so on.

Then there’s that whole second paragraph about charging interest to people who need money, acting like “extortioners.” In the middle of this global financial crisis, again, without proof-texting or expecting a Nostradamus-like prognostication, we certainly could feel the heat of the word of the Lord blowing over the wasteland of our financial practice, bloating portfolios with shadows and mirrors on the one hand, and charging high-interest loans to developing nations in need of cash for survival. It seems, on the one hand, easy to say, “That was then, this is now,” but the principles still hold. “This is what it means to love the Lord your God, with heart, soul, mind, and money. Treat each other with respect and dignity, because the other is as much beloved of God as you.”

Two liturgical issues may reflect some of these thoughts. One is the proposal that was made by some bishops a few years ago, mostly those who are concerned about “reverence” for the Eucharist, to move the Kiss of Peace to another part of the Mass from right before communion. The common excuse given for this relocation is that it makes the kiss of  peace, which is a sign of solidarity, forgiveness, and agape a response to hearing and celebrating the word of God before coming to the table, in obedience to Mt 5:24. OK so far. But there is also the weight of tradition, the ancient practice of the Church in placing the rite immediately before sharing the Eucharist itself.  This is a moment of great intimacy in the community, a moment of shared presence. There is a long history placing it in the context of the communion rite. Giving the kiss of peace consciously and intentionally during the communion rite is a beautiful and significant action. Moving it to after the homily, and not becoming aware of its significance, making it, as some call it, a “greeting” rather than an expression of solidarity and covenant in Christ, might lead to atrophy and ultimately nonsignification.

The other change was the options the new missal added to the dismissal rite. At the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, some bishops thought that the dismissal was not clear in its dynamic, that to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” meant “go and rest.” Therefore, these bishops want the dismissal to be clearer that the dismissal is a dismissal to act, to go and serve, as today’s gospel says, to love God by loving neighbor. Dismissal is for mission. The new texts say it this way:

Along with "Ite, missa est," the Latin phrase now translated as "The Mass is ended, go in peace," the new options are:

"Ite ad Evangelium Domini annuntiandum" (Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord).

"Ite in pace, glorificando vita vestra Dominum" (Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life).

"Ite in pace" (Go in peace).

These were good additions, and my understanding is that Pope Benedict himself had a hand in crafting them. The tautology implied by the current rage, “Go in peace to serve the Lord and one another,” as though they were two different things, has disappeared. Today's gospel makes it clear that it is not possible to do one without the other.

I hope that some of the homilies you heard woke you up to the fresh realities in today's scripture. It might take us three and a half millennia to accept that loving our neighbor means not oppressing aliens, overcharging interest, and ignoring the needs of the poor, of widows, and of orphans, but ask any alien, widow, or orphan: better late than never.

Talk to you again soon. Tonight I'm meeting up with Fr. Roc O'Connor, SJ, of the St. Louis Jesuits. Roc is now at the Gesu church on the campus of Marquette, and I took advantage of his proximity to lure him down to Barrington to give my choir and friends an evening of recollection instead of choir this week. Lots of preparations are underway at home for the trip Terry, Gary, and I are taking west to the BILAC conference in Honolulu next week. With workshops to prepare and all my St. Anne work to do in advance, you may not see much of me here, though I have a few little things in store to reprise from past postings which might be fun to look at again, in case you missed them. But I will be back, and will stay in touch in the meantime as best I can.