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Friday, February 27, 2015

SongStories 41 - Palm Sunday Processional (1998, GIA Publications)

As you probably are well aware, if you read this blog, the liturgy of Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, the Sunday before Easter, begins with a ritual blessing of palms, a reading of the appropriate year's version of the current synoptic gospel passage about Jesus's entry into Jerusalem that day, and then a solemn procession into the church to begin the liturgy of the word. There are some tradition antiphons for that procession, like "Pueri Hebraeorum" (The Children of the Hebrews), but of course as it often does the rubric provides for other appropriate songs as well.

In the early years of the reform, the go-to piece in organ-based music programs was (and often continues to be) "All Glory, Laud, and Honor," and I would say that my experience was for many years the guitar ensembles favored Willard Jabusch's "The King of Glory." Later along the way, we switched very often to my version of Psalm 122, an NALR/OCP piece called "The Road to Jerusalem," for which I had written paraphrases of the Pueri verses:

Jesus came to Jerusalem,
And the populace came out to meet him,
They lay their cloaks in the road and sang,
"Hosanna to David's son!"

Hebrew children waved branches of palm
And aloud they sang glad hosannas,
And so they foretold like the seers of old
Messiah would rise from the dead.

At my parish in Arizona, St. Jerome, people knew this song really well and liked singing it. After we sang the ritual verses we could sing the verses of Psalm 122 and have plenty of music for the procession. This was one of the great things about Palm Sunday and Easter for that matter in a place where it's actually warm when Lent is over. It was common for us to be able to assemble outdoors for the blessing of palms and procession into the church. The next Sunday, on Easter, we actually had a sunrise mass outside. And aside from the stupidly early hour after our Easter Vigil the night before, it was a beautiful way to start the day. One year, we tried to cut out the multiple mass locations and times necessitated by the overflow crowds by having all of our Easter masses outside, converting the parking lot into church that seated enough people that we only had to have three masses. Unfortunately for us, the fair-skinned, it got to be 100º before we had finished the 3rd mass, and there were times when the brass instruments we too hot to touch, let alone play. The pastor at the time, Fr. Vernon Meyer, wore a serape and a sombrero to keep his midwestern complexion out of the scorching sun. It was good idea ecclesially, we thought; it stunk meteorologically.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Ah. Palm Sunday.

So in the early 1990s I decided to try to write a litanic processional so that people wouldn't need any kind of worship aid to join in the singing. We were accustomed to having a lot of instruments during the high holy days, so it also was an opportunity to craft a processional piece that could terrace as it was sung, beginning with just percussion and perhaps a flute or guitar to help keep pitch when we were outside, and then have the arrangement add choral and instrumental parts to the responses that the assembly sings, in this case, "Sing hosanna to the chosen one!"

I think this little piece does what it was intended to do on those counts: provides a simple litanic form that allows movement and participation without the encumbrance of a worship aid, and a terracing arrangement that can be performed simply, even a cappella, or with organ, brass, and strings, or any combination of those instruments.

And I guess that my publisher agreed with me on this, because Palm Sunday Processional appeared in  the last two editions of Gather Comprehensive and Gather 3rd Edition, and Worship, 4th Edition.

Palm Sunday Processional is available as an octavo at GIA Publications website, with parts for strings and brass published separately.

Click on this link to audition or download Palm Sunday Processional - This Very Morning.

In case you missed it, here's Stephen Colbert's rousing version of "The King of Glory." Have a nice day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Who will hold back God's hand? (B2L)

Our family Bible was an illustrated one; as a child I didn’t do much more with it than look at the pictures, and maybe when a little older read the story of Susannah and the elders in the book of Daniel with concupiscent focus and wonder. But I do remember that the picture of Abraham and Isaac caught my attention; I’m sure I asked my mother, who had been raised a Methodist and therefore had some knowledge of Bible stories, what was going on there. And what I saw in Abraham’s face was not a question about what he was about to do, but the duplicity of lying to his son about the purpose of their journey, a bone-chilling portrait of the possibility that a father, and therefore anyone, cannot be trusted.

The Abraham-Isaac story doesn’t fare well in much contemporary theological literature. It takes its place in the pantheon of non-violence, perhaps, as the story of a substitution sacrifice, or perhaps the repudiation by Israel of the child sacrifice practices of their neighbors to the Baals. There is some evidence that child sacrifice might even have played some part in the worship of Israel at times in their early history. But substitution sacrifice isn’t convincing everyone any more either. As Crossan has so convincingly pointed out in his treatment of the subject, even today we (appropriately) describe the death of a fireman who goes into a burning house to save its occupants as a sacrifice, that is to say, the fireman has done a holy thing (sacrum + facere, to do or make holy). But no one today, and he insists that this is true among the ancients as well, would suggest that God (the holy) demanded the life of the fireman in exchange for the life of someone inside the burning building. As absurd as that possibility sounds, much of traditional redemption theology is based on exactly that equation. So let’s not examine the Abraham-Isaac story as a prefigurement of substitution sacrifice, in which God made Jesus die so that the rest of us wouldn’t have to. The truth of the matter is, we all have to die anyway.

And we are, after all, dealing with centuries of redaction, translation, and interpretation. I guess that the best I can say, the best I can figure out for myself, is that the story illustrates in a graphic and primitive way the faith that Abraham had in God’s promise that through Isaac, his "offspring," his family would be “as numerous as the stars.” In other words, even this monstrous idea that he was being asked to murder his son, the very idea of whose birth made his wife laugh with incredulity, could not deter his faith that God would keep that promise somehow, and that in some way unknown to him Isaac would live and be the start of a great clan. Nothing can deter Abraham’s faith in God as God of the living; he risks all that he has that God will be true to God’s word.

So in the second reading, from St. Paul’s magnificent letter to the Romans, he asks the question, “He who did not spare his own son but offered him up for us all, how will he not give us everything else along with him?” I can’t help but consider this thought: God believes in us, like Abraham believed in God. God risks everything believing that we will join in the covenant of life, or in Christ’s words, “repent and believe in the gospel.” When we crushed Jesus in our avarice and thirst for power in this life,  Jesus breathes the Spirit of God upon the world with his last breath, surrendering the Spirit of christos-messiah to all who will believe in the way. The universe waits for the day when our word will "stay the hand of God" so that God’s innocent children will no longer die at our hands in the marginalized and weak, and we will all "walk in the presence of God in the land of the living."

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne this Sunday:

Gathering: Lead Us to the Water (Kendzia, OCP) Keeping the baptismal character of Lent before us all, at least in the music, I chose to use the same opening song and penitential rite for these first two Sundays of Lent. For the next three Sundays, the character of the Scrutinies and their accompanying readings from cycle A will help carry the load, hopefully inviting the preaching to follow.
 (Hey, a guy can dream, right?)
Psalm 116: I Will Walk in the Presence of God (music by Gary Daigle, GIA). 

Preparation: Covenant Hymn
Communion: Mercy, O God (Francis O'Brien, GIA) 

Recessional: Jerusalem, My Destiny (Rory Cooney, verse 2)

He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, 
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Jonah's tiff with Noah's God

See the readings for this Wednesday, February 25.

I wrote a lot last year on “the sign of Jonah,” and mentioned my question about God repenting both in this context and in the context of Ash Wednesday’s reading from Joel. I had picked this idea up from God: A Biography, another book by Jack Miles, author of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. The Lenten weekday readings are the same from year to year. At least one teacher of mine described them as a catechism for the elect, a crash course in Christianity for the last forty days before baptism, and as many of you know this was the kernel of the idea that became my book Change Our Hearts. This Wednesday we come around to Jonah again, but this year (for me) it bounces off yesterday's Year B reading about Noah and the ark.

Some see in the Jonah-fish imagery a sign of Christ in the “belly” of the earth for three days and then resurrected. But Jonah ends up where he doesn’t want to be, and Christ ends up risen from the dead. In the world of meaning, that's some pretty significant difference. So the “three days” connection doesn’t work for me on this one, and I went looking for another convergence on the sign of Jonah.

The book of Jonah is read in its entirety on the Jewish feast of atonement, Yom Kippur. In that context, one can draw a lot from the story: God is God. We humans, therefore, can’t run forever; God will find a way to get us where we need to be, and kicking against the goad only amplifies our suffering and that of those around us. Humanity is one; prejudice against other humans, especially religious or racial prejudice like Jonah’s for Nineveh (in Assyria), is dangerous and will be turned on its head by God. But what about that strange phrase: “He (God) repented of the evil he had threatened...”

Noah’s God is the back story of yesterday's (Lent 1) first reading. The vow of God never to destroy the world again by water was sealed with a covenant sign: God’s bow set in the sky as an everlasting memory. It’s a sign that God was retiring from the people-destroying business, but in the rest of the Old Testament, there was a lot more to come. In fact, in the psalms and elsewhere, the complaint about the situations the Jews find themselves in is turned against God, chiding the deity that if he doesn’t come to Judah’s assistance, the other nations will say, “Where is your god?” In other words, it’s a matter of divine pride. Whose god, like whose big brother on the playground, is really stronger? If the God if Israel is so great, why doesn’t he beat the crap out of the Baals of the other nations? Who gets bragging rights in the divine Super Bowl? Who gets the capital “G”? Certainly it seems, to any objective look at the history of the nation Israel, that its God must be very small indeed. Unless...

Unless, as Jack Miles describes, God is "repenting" of the idea of being a God who will change things by violent, forceful intervention. Reasonable theists might be uncomfortable with this idea on the surface of it, so let me put it in a way that makes more sense to me. Maybe God, inspiring the scripture, is finding a way to gradually disabuse us of the idea that god-ness means power and might, and might mean something more than a particular nation’s anthropomorphizing and apotheosizing of itself by creating a celestial warrior-king who makes sense of a nation’s ups and downs by victories and punishments. Maybe humanity, through the writers of the biblical literature, is gradually coming to understand that violence begets violence, because it always has an object, and the object will always find a way to bite back. Maybe humanity is gradually getting the idea, inspired by an agapic, communitarian, and kenotic God, that all human borders are artificial, that victimizing minorities and externs doesn’t solve problems, that war, murder, and genocide legitimated by religion (that is, by god(s)) are still murder, and that ultimately being with is more life-giving than being right or being powerful.

These are revolutionary thoughts. They’re not original thoughts of mine, but they are the thoughts at the heart of the gospel proclamation about the empire of God, the empire that is not like those of this world, the empire that Jesus peaceably announced as the antithesis and alternative Way to the empire of Augustus, son of god, prince of peace, and savior.

Jonah, cast in his story by a sea beast upon the very shore of the nation which he had gone to great lengths and suffering to avoid, is now faced with the task of preaching to his enemy. His only comfort is that these Assyrian jackasses will not listen to him, and that God will, as promised, burn their city to the ground, an event he hopes to witness from under a tree on a hill. What happens, to Jonah’s chagrin, is that both Assyria and its king repent, leading God to repent as well. Isn’t this about as fresh a word to us as our headlines, and as revolutionary a way of thinking as the preaching of Jesus himself? Never write anybody off, the story is telling us. Our boneheaded apologetics, nationalism, and religious sectarianism are dead-ends, stormy, death-ridden voyages that leave us shipwrecked and reeking of whale vomit on the shores of the very people upon whom we want to rain fire and brimstone. The “sign of Jonah” that calls this and every generation to conversion, then, is the sign of reconciliation, of enemies at table together, of victims lifted up and restored, of blood-feuds revoked and forgotten. The God of Noah is revealed, repudiating the bow, finding a way in the world through covenant and regeneration, starting with Sara’s laughter outside the shady tent at the terebinth of Mamre, and ending with the wedding feast of the Lamb when every clock has ticked off its last nanosecond.

Jack Miles’s literary reading of the Bible shows that it might, in fact, be God there, drenched in fish-puke and still breathing fire, when it’s suddenly apparent that s/he’s on the wrong side of history, and being God, s/he ought to be shaping the future. What better reason for us to change our hearts than the blinding revelation that God has somehow blazed even that trail for us?

When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,

he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;

he did not carry it out.
(Jonah 3:9-10)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

O God, you were a warrior, but you set your bow in the sky (B1L)

About five years ago, I read Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Jack Miles’ very interesting literary reading of the Bible as a book (rather than as a group of books, which is how one might read it in Bible study). He finds a wonderful thread of a story there, what we might call “the covenant,” in which God promises to deliver Israel out of the hands of their enemies, and finds, when all is said and done, that he can’t keep that promise successfully for very long. The warrior God of the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land failed to keep the promise of protecting Israel from the time of David and Solomon onward. In order to be true to himself, God expands the promise to include all of the earth, so that there are no more enemies, as it were, for Israel - the new covenant included everyone.

In Miles’s story, God repents of the emperor-God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and becomes human in order to seal the new covenant in his own blood, to pay with his life for the failures of the past, and start something new. The new covenant, for Miles, is a wedding, the wedding feast of the Lamb as described in Revelation, when God and beloved humanity are joined forever in intimate unity.

Well, it’s an idea that takes some getting used to, but it’s original, and it has some charm. A literary reading of the whole Bible as a book is something that really never occurred to me after the years of studying it as a series of books written in different times, styles, and even languages, redacted and copied and re-redacted, with conflicting versions and varying texts of corrupt manuscripts. Miles’s idea hangs together well as he describes it, but it comes down as too unitarian for me. To me, God has to be a community, and his Christ comes across more like an avatar of a single divinity. For me, there has to be something communitarian about God, and the Trinity works fine. It’s not that I think it has to be that way; I mean, who knows? It’s just that I feel that the reality of divinity seems to be both mystically one and multiple, both simple and dialogical. That’s probably just cultural conditioning, but it’s all I got.

But the warrior-God of the Hebrew scriptures – there’s no denying that one. (This is not to say the portrait that emerges is not complex, it is; just that the warrior-king is a major thread.) And the story of Noah is one of the great stories both of sin and destruction and God’s repentance and amelioration.

Taken with the other great stories of sin and amelioration: the fall of the first humans, the murder of Abel and exile of Cain, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the call of Abram and Sara, and the Tower of Babel (with no apparent amelioration), the story of the Flood moves the story of humanity and God in relationship toward the covenant that will, for Christians, find its fulfillment and re-creation in the person of Jesus Christ. So for the New Testament writers, as we hear in Sunday’s
second reading, the destruction of the world by water in the Noah story is a great symbol of baptism, in whose waters sin is drowned and a person is re-created.

After remembering the story of Noah and how a New Testament writer sees the flood as a sign of baptism, the gospel presents Mark’s Jesus entering his post-baptismal desert retreat, then roaring out of the desert after the arrest of John the Baptizer with news for everyone: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” We can spiritualize that message all we want, but it is a word replete with political implications. What Jesus is saying is, “Whatever king you’re following, it’s the wrong one. Turn around from the direction you’re going, and believe in the king I’m about to reveal to you, a king who rules by service and love.” God is not about to flood the world again and destroy evil by force. In Jesus, God sets in motion a plan to subvert human evil from within, to expose the lie of the kingdom of violence and force by turning its rage against God himself, and then raising the innocent victim from the dead. By sowing the seeds of justice and equality on the lips and in the deeds of one who himself is a grain of wheat fallen into the earth and raised up in bounty, God shows that only the way of Jesus is true and can lead to life that death cannot end.

The bow of the warrior-king is set in the sky forever to remind God - and us - that violence doesn’t work, and that there is a new way. Lent is hardly enough time to begin to see how much we’ve given our hearts to leaders whose agenda is personal comfort, force, and victory over enemies. The new covenant is one of service, justice, and loving one’s enemies. Surrendering one’s life to the new way seems impossible to do alone. With courage, together, it may be possible. I hope someone has the courage to say so in church.

Here’s what were singing at St. Anne this Sunday:

Gathering: Lead Us to the Water by Tom Kendzia (OCP): Tom’s song is a simple gospel-flavored hymn that reminds us that it is God who brings us to the river of peace and light, and who is the source of the power to live a life of selflessness and service together.

Psalm 25: Your Ways, O God by Rory Cooney (OCP): There are a lot of versions of Psalm 25 available; I use this one because it has familiar verses for our cantors and preserves the refrain proper to today, which focuses us on the covenant of God.

Preparation Rite: Live the Promise by Rory Cooney (GIA): I wrote this song for the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress as the theme song 15 years ago, and it became the anchor song of our 1993 recording Stony Landscapes. Congress fell on this same weekend 15 years ago, and I wanted to use the “bow in the sky” imagery to call attention to our hope in God in the worst of times. Other “sky” images, the cloud in the desert, the Bethlehem star, the “rainbow” of Christ’s arms stretched in crucifixion, all set up two final stanzas that call us to “hold on” and live the promise in spite of “fire in the city” and “blood that cries to sky,” as well as the ongoing threat of war (“battle in the family”) and ecological disaster (“a hole of death in the sky”). I was trying to capture the style of folk music with lots of repetition and tumbling imagery related along an oblique and asymmetrical axis. Whether or not this works, I’m not sure, but I think the song is still fun to sing, and evocative.

Communion: Turn to the Living God (Lori True). Lori's song in Gather 3rd Edition was the winner of our "new song" auditions in choir, though my sweet and kindly colleagues said something more like, "we like all of them - you pick." So I did. I like the scriptural allusion throughout the text, and the gentleness of the melody, which I hope will prove memorable for the congregation. (There's no way to assess this in advance; we'll just use it throughout Lent and see what happens!) The refrain is short enough that we will introduce and sing the song at mass itself. I'm looking forward to this.
Recessional: Jerusalem My Destiny (Rory Cooney).  Harkening back to the gospel as well as to the Lenten journey to God and community, the "Jerusalem" of our dreams, JMD has a verse that uses imagery from each of the five Sundays of Lent, with a bridge that is used on Palm Sunday. Today's verse admits that "other spirits, lesser gods / Have courted me with lies," but that the community is the place where we learn to discern the truth and choose a different path. Or, as I like to say, (where have I heard this before?) where we learn to "turn around and believe in the gospel."

I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign

of the covenant between me and the earth.

When I bring clouds over the earth, 

and the bow appears in the clouds, 

I will recall the covenant I have made

between me and you and all living beings.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Songstories 40: Live the Promise (GIA, 1994)

There's a fire in the city,
There is blood that cries to the sky.

I've written about inspiration before, as in, "What inspires you to write a song?" One answer, and for me it truly is down the list, is "a commission." Nothing gets you down to work quite like the need to pay the rent, but with that comes a certain amount of pressure and anxiety, and so I prefer to allow natural forces like that "inner light" and communal need to be the source of my inspiration most of the time.

But another source of inspiration is the rare occasion when a large catechetical conference, or another regional or national gathering of church folk, asks you to write the theme song for said conference. This is particularly inspiring because it's an indication that someone(s) values the "style" of your contribution to the repertoire of church music, and it further means there will be an immediate and receptive performing audience for the work, one that can help launch a work onto a wider local or even national scene in a way that no concert or group of concerts or catalog can.

This has happened to me more than once, but not quite a handful. "I Am for You" was written for a small conference in Hawaii, "Trumpet in the Morning" was for a millennium-preparing 1998 East Coast RE conference. "Turn Around," alternatively called "Announce the Good News," is from my unreleased collection and was part of JustFaith's national release of a small-community based training program on Catholic social teaching. But there's really no equal to the opportunity afforded by being asked to write the theme song for the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress (LAREC) held annually at the Anaheim convention center and jointly sponsored by the archdiocese of Los Angeles and the diocese of Anaheim, and attended by 20,000-30,000 people, with liturgies and other prayer services held in the convention center arena, home of hockey's Mighty Ducks. I've been blessed twice with that invitation, the second time co-writing the theme song with Gary Daigle, "Way, Truth, and Life." The first time was for the 1994 conference, and the song became "Live the Promise."

"Live the Promise?" I can hear you asking. What the heck is that?

I forgot to mention that this kind of a launch is no guarantee of a hit, no matter how highly the songwriter may think of the work. It just doesn't work like that. Sometimes a song translates into the kind of thing that makes its way into the repertoire, sometimes it doesn't. But the song still has a story, and even after all this time, I keep believing in it, like a late-blooming child.

LAREC is held each year in the late winter/early spring, usually around the first or second Sunday in Lent. 1994 was a "B" lectionary year like this year, and the conference was held in the days preceding and ending on the first Sunday in Lent. Part of writing for a conference is taking their theme text and notes and shaping that into a song for the event. But there is a sense (for me at least) that the song has to have legs, has to be able to be used beyond that single event, wonderful as it is, and at liturgies in normal churches on normal Sundays sung by normal choirs and congregations. Congress events are definitely special-needs events. The size of the arena, the festivity of the days, the ethnic mix of the participants, all of these things shape the way the songs are written. So with the conference ending on the first Sunday of Lent in a B year, I wanted to nod to the scriptures of that weekend, because that, at least, would give the song the possibility of some staying power. "Live the Promise/Viva la Promesa" was the theme of Congress, so that was my title. Where to go from there?

Hope in the midst of chaos was the heart of the theme, with the aftermath of the race riots following the Rodney King verdict still smoldering (literally) in the city and outlying area. For myself, I heard in the Genesis story of the flood and rainbow, paired with the gospel about the temptation of Jesus in the desert after his baptism, the promise of a different world, one where even God hangs the divine warrior's bow in the sky as if to say, "No more violence from me. That's not my style." It's a world where Jesus refuses the warhorse of the expected messiah, and instead opts for Abba, the God of the bow-cast-aside, embracing humanity and all its limitations to announce that earth is the place where God's dream must come true.

What I did, then, was start with the promise suggested by the rainbow, the warrior's bow set in the sky, and went forward from there with images of sky and light and earth to describe the dream of God kept alive in the chosen throughout the history of our planet right up into our current day. Verses begin with the flood, then in turn go to the Exodus and pillar of fire, the nativity's star of Bethlehem, the crucifixion when Jesus was "stretched out on the sky," suggesting the rainbow again, and then moving right to the present day with the last two verses, "Fire in the city" and blood crying to the sky, and the "battle in the (human) family" and the "hole of death" in the sky, the environmental mess we have made of the planet. But through all that the repeated section of the verses urges us, "Hold on, hold on! Hold on to the promise and live!"

Because the conference is a conference of all kinds of Christians and not just musicians, I opted for a musical form (and lyric) with a lot of repetition and a familiar folk-gospel melodic form. My hope was that people wouldn't really need to see the musical notes for the song, or even the words so much, but that once they heard the pattern of the words and music, they'd be able to join in on the song enthusiastically and physically, paying more attention to each other and any, say, processional activity than to a book. And freeing their hands for clapping. On two and four, of course.

Well, I don't know. I still pull this out at least once every three years to add to the mix on the first Sunday in Lent in year B, but I suspect there aren't a lot of others. Looking back at reports from the last B year, it appears, but let's just say it wouldn't amount to much lunch money for the week! The way I see it, "Live the Promise" has all the elements to make it useful, but there are downsides, too, like the length of the form and therefore the overall length of the song's development. It's the kind of song that doesn't really require a great choir or band to pull off; the choral parts suggested by the harmonic structure would just as easily be improvised even by moderately talented amateurs. Another element in the structure of the song as it's published is that each group of two verses and a chorus does a key jump of one whole tone, so the song begins in Eb, but goes through F and ends in G. Maybe this is off-putting, too, I don't know.

Was it Mae West who said, "If you have to explain the kiss, it's not much of a kiss"? I've spent a lot of electrons with this apologia pro cantu sua and I think it's time to move on! If you're at St. Anne on Sunday, we'll be singing it, and probably saying goodbye to it until (at least) 2018. It was great fun to sing this to open our concert in St. Louis last month with Peter Hesed's wonderful choir from St. Margaret of Scotland. I got the feeling that the "performing audience" we were with felt the same way. One of these days, who knows, I might get this songwriting thing right.

Live the Promise
Music and lyrics by Rory Cooney

1. O God, you were a warrior, but you set your bow in the sky. (3x)
Hold on, hold on, hold on to the promise and live.

2. (We were) wandering in the desert when your cloud appeared in the sky. (3x)
Hold on, hold on, hold on to the promise and live.

Live, live the promise, live, live the promise. (2x)
We were wandering in the desert when your cloud appeared in the sky.
Hold on, hold on! Hold on to the promise and live.

3. (We were) searching for a savior when your star appeared in the sky. (3x)
Hold on, hold on, hold on to the promise and live.

4. Jesus was a healer, but we stretched him out on the sky. (3x)
Hold on, hold on, hold on to the promise and live.

Live, live the promise, live, live the promise. (2x)
Oh Jesus was a healer, but we stretched him out on the sky.
Hold on, hold on! Hold on to the promise and live.

5. Fire in the city! There is blood that cries to the sky. (3x)
Hold on, hold on, hold on to the promise and live.

6. (There's a) battle in the family, there's a hole of death in the sky. (3x)
Hold on, hold on, hold on to the promise and live.

Live, live the promise, live, live the promise. (2x)
There's a battle in the family, there's a hole of death in the sky.
Hold on, hold on! Hold on to the promise and live.

7. O God, you were a warrior, but you set your bow in the sky. (3x)
Hold on, hold on, hold on to the promise and live. (3x)

© 1994, GIA Publications, Inc., Chicago IL 60638. All rights reserved.

"Live the Promise" at the GIA website

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Seeking solidarity for a new start

Taking that first step toward healing and reconciliation, the first step away from the reign of Caesar and toward the reign of God, that step is the hardest one. That step is a doozy. The gospel story, on those rare occasions when we actually hear it proclaimed, rings like a clarion call in our ears, a trumpet that calls us not to war, but away from war, and toward peace. I’ve been thinking recently about how infrequently the gospel “forest” is proclaimed any more. It seems to me as though the individual stories in the larger gospel are taken from their context and milked for some aspect of “niceness” or self-improvement, forcing us to look at these “trees” (weeds?) while missing the gospel forest. Where is the gospel? What's so good about the good news? Why should these couple of thousand people in this upper middle-class parish give a damn about it?

One stunning insight about this came to me while reading  John Dominic Crossan’s book on St. Paul, In Search of Paul: How Jesus' Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom. His insight on Paul’s conversion just really knocked me over: that Paul’s conversion was not only a change from persecuting the Way to embracing the Way and becoming it’s great apostle. It was a conversion from a style of evangelization and catechesis, a turning away from force, violence, and threats of violence against his ideological enemies to a mode of persuasion, respect, and solidarity with them. The conversion of St. Paul was not movement out of Judaism any more than Jesus himself moved out of Judaism. It was a way of widening his ideological circle, of seeing others, Jews, Greeks, slaves, free, men and women as equals and heirs with him to the promise of God and the salus (health, liberation, salvation) offered by the Messiah, Jesus. This is so obvious a transformation that I was initially amazed that I didn’t notice it before. But we’ve made such a big deal about some of Paul’s other great insights, and about the controversial “civilization” of Paul’s ideas about radical equality in the pseudo-Pauline letters, that we missed the heart of Paul’s conversion, that is, his movement from the violent ways of Caesar to the agape of the reign of God.

Solidarity is necessary for this sea change. The fearful Damascus community of the Way embraces the neophyte and models the Way for him. The first act of Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan (using Mark’s scenario) and his formative desert retreat is to choose a community of disciples to walk with him. The group of townsfolk in Mark 2:1-12, a gospel we don't hear this year, is excited about the wonderworker and presumably about his message. But what is his message? “Your sins are forgiven!” This great equalizing statement puts to the lie the idea that the poor deserve their poverty, the sick deserve their sickness, the dominated deserve their overlords. It is not God’s will that some suffer for their sins and others rule by their righteousness; God is love, and all sins are forgiven. There is equality in that proclamation. Agape is the reign of God.

But as the prophets saw, this must mean that healing is in the land: the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk. And so Jesus demonstrates his ability to cure the sick in the name of God even as he announces the healing of the world in the streets of Galilee. It’s one thing to know we need healing; it’s quite another to get to the place where we can receive it. Solidarity is the only possibility, as the paralytic knows in the gospel, carried by his friends to Jesus and lowered through the roof, as did the crippled hope of Poland and Eastern Europe, carried to freedom on the back of Lech Walesa and the labor unions of Gdansk.

So we have a Church, gathered around the gospel, so that we have a chance to experience this solidarity, embrace the quest, the turning-about and seeking together of the reign of God instead of the reign of Caesar. And yet, as the late Pope St. John Paul II once observed in a speech (I cannot find the source—this is a paraphrase), with millions of Catholics attending the Eucharist every Sunday for so many decades, centuries, millennia, why has so little changed? How is it that, in spite of the intervention of God’s anointed Christ, the world is so firmly in the grasp of Caesar, whose mark can even be seen in the machinations of the Church itself? For me, on the one hand, the answer is in the loss of the proclamation of the gospel itself, the forest being lost for the trees. We’re gathered around the wrong message, the message of niceness and self-improvement, rather than the powerful message of the reign of God. But rather than bemoan that too much, the other hand is that the world has been changed by the gospel, by every movement of reconciliation and peacemaking that has stopped violence, by all the ministries of healing and intervention that have derived from the discipleship of Christians, perhaps most of all by the advocacy for victims’ rights and every act that stands between civilization and the violence of the scapegoating mechanism. 

“I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?” With the approach of Lent and its call to reflect upon our baptismal commitment to gospel life, we could do worse than to reimagine that call, and spend some time in the forest of the gospel, the forest of life, peace, and solidarity.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Imitating Christ: Messiahship for Beginners (B6O)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

I’m an appreciative amateur student of the philosophy of René Girard, the French anthropologist whose theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism really enlightened my understanding of “salvation” after half a century of Catholic education. Studying the culture, religion, and literature of world civilizations, Girard postulates that human beings learn by mimesis, no surprise; but also that norms of behavior in society, both religious and civil, are formed around mimetic desire, that is to say, our desire (some might say “need”) to have what the other person has. We want to have the good that we perceive others to have, and will go to extraordinary lengths to get it. This mimetic rivalry will, when untempered by law, fear, or religion, escalate into violence, as groups begin to want what other groups have, and so on. Girard theorizes that the “scapegoat mechanism,” which takes many forms both in civil justice and religious ritual, is meant to puncture the balloon of the escalating violence of mimetic desire by focusing the rage of the group upon an individual who is murdered (or cast out in primitive societies, the equivalent of murder). By isolating an individual or individuals as the “evildoers,” the society’s violence is focused upon them thus relieving the social structures of the tension of violence. A Catholic, Girard also sees the death of Jesus as the exposure of the diabolic origins of the scapegoat mechanism, because the victim is revealed to be innocent by resurrection from the dead by God, thus putting the whole “civilizing” process of violence to the lie. 

This is a massive oversimplification of a very convincing argument about the connections between civilization, religion, and violence. Much other work has been done in this field by people like Gil Baillie and James Alison. Alison has expanded the repercussions for Christianity of Girard’s work, seeing in the teaching of the Gospel consequences for Christian living. If humans are prone to mimetic desire, then we need someone to imitate who is not grasping, who is not dependent on possession for self-definition. So if God is love, is agape and kenosis, if God’s nature is to give and not to grasp, then God is the perfect object of human mimesis. Christ, who is in faith the eikon or image of the invisible God, is the one human being truly worthy of mimesis. The gospel teaching that God makes the rain fall and sun shine upon the good and bad alike is an invitation to be like God, to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Keeping Christ as the Christ of the gospels and not the Christ of Constantine, who is judge, king, and pantocrator of the universe, is thus an important corrective for Christians. What we’ve tended to do over the centuries is mistake the emperor for Christ. We’ve mistaken the parabolic Christ, say, in the parable of sheep and goats, for the real Jesus who told the story. The “son of man” or “servant of God” who is the messiah was no more an emperor than you or I, assuming you’re reading this and are not an emperor. I always will remember theologian David Power giving a talk at a conference and telling us that when Christians say “Jesus is Lord,” we don’t mean that Jesus is a lord like the lords of earth (“my kingdom is not like those of this world”), but that lordship is redefined by who Jesus is, that is, by servanthood and kenotic love.

All of which brings us to Mark’s gospel and the readings this week. Jesus gathers around himself disciples, that is just a religion-speak word for “learners” or “students.” Disciples are with a “master” to learn a life-style, a way of perceiving and responding to reality. As Mark’s Jesus makes his journey, the disciples are exposed to a man of healing, exorcism, openness, who keeps insisting that their envy for privilege and status needs to be changed to a desire to serve one another. It’s no less a change than a complete reversal of worldview: the last shall be first, and the first last. Modern scripture scholars like Crossan and Borg challenge us to understand the reign of God as preached by Jesus as a clear and unequivocal alternative to the reign of Caesar Augustus, who was, remember, god! Look at any Roman coin or inscription of the era. It is not so much a matter of Christians learning to live in Caesar’s world: it was a matter of rediscovering whose world this really is, and realigning our allegiance, which requires a 180° turn. Hence, the call to metanoia, a complete “change of mind.” “Repent (turn around and walk the other way!) and believe (put your heart into) the gospel (this announcement of a different emperor)!”

St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, both this week and last, has good Girardian advice in its tone, advice that we would like to say is bad psychology, bad like the gospel injunction to “be perfect.” Paul says to try to “please everyone,” even as he himself has made himself “all things to everybody” in order that a few at least might be saved. I see this as meaning something like this, which I’ve made my motto and try to repeat at every workshop I give: If Christ did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, that is, if being totally right, and powerful, and “almighty” isn’t something to hold onto, then exactly what is it about us that makes us want to be right all the time? If God didn’t cling to true godliness, then what about our little claim to “correctness,” or being right, or whatever it is we hold onto that makes us out to be better than the next guy? Why is it we can’t start thinking as a “we” instead of a “me and my own”?
 I've come to see St. Paul as the conversion story par excellence. Before and after his conversion, he was an apostle, but his catechetical style changed radically. After meeting Christ, he put away the sword, and relied on persuasion and example to change minds. He stopped using the catechetical method of Caesar, and became a servant of Christ. He changed gods, in a sense, and began to imitate the new one. "Be imitators of me," he says, "as I am of Christ." He grasps Girardian theory in the middle of the first century, and I'm still struggling with it two millennia later!

At St. Anne’s last weekend, we celebrated the Rite of Sending to Election for our catechumens, combined with the Rite of Sending to the Call to Continued Conversion for our candidates. Today they go to the cathedral for the rites with the bishop. These are people who are trying to imitate Christ by following the Catholic way. They’re imitators of us. No pressure or anything, but whom are we following? I think that’s what Lent is for, for rediscovering our real identity, our real identity, as a people made by God for God’s self, like God, living in agape for one another. We’re not really all that close to that, no matter what we might think in our more self-congratulatory moments. And yet, we gather every week to hear the gospel again, and to keep the story alive of the one who said, “be perfect” and “love your enemies,” two pieces of advice clearly contrary to the reign of Caesar Augustus and every Caesar, czar, premier, prime minister, and president since then.

We may not be going in the right direction, but at least the GPS is on. This week, and in a more intense way starting on Ash Wednesday, it will be beeping out like a relentless backseat driver: “Make a U-turn. Make a U-turn.”

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne this week, some of it is very similar to last week’s music:

Gathering: You Are Mine David Haas
Psalm 32: I Turn to You Rory Cooney

Preparation Rite: To You Who Bow Rory Cooney
Communion: Do Not Fear to Hope Rory Cooney

Recessional: Lift Up Your Hearts Roc O’Connor

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
 do everything for the glory of God.
 Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or 
the church of God,
 just as I try to please everyone in every way,
 not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
 that they may be saved.
 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.