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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ten Songs, 1985-2005, part two

Continued from yesterday. I don't know why this kind of thing is fun. I'm certainly not saying these are the only songs that are important to me, but each one sort of represents certain others, and the list could go on and on. But for today, here we go:

5. "The Winter Name of God," J. Michael Joncas, (GIA). I think it's a terrible shame that the current climate of suspicion and retrenchment among some leaders and others in the church has slowed to a trickle the kind of experimentation with text and music that led to the writing of "The Winter Name of God," an original eucharistic prayer by Fr. Michael Joncas. Much is made in this discussion about "organic growth" in the church's liturgy and music, as though what happened after the Second Vatican Council was not "organic" but somehow grafted on, or planted anew after old material was uprooted. How can such a statement be supported by any person of faith? If new life erupts in the church from its living members, is it not organic? Isn't the "organum" of the church's life its people, filled with the Holy Spirit, giving their gifts for the life of the church and in turn having those gifts discerned over time and space by other members of the church in love and good will? It is our great loss that such works are not being encouraged and tried in faith communities.

I heard "Winter Name of God" in Phoenix when Michael was there for something or other, an FDLC meeting or a regional NPM, and we rehearsed at the church where I worked, at St. Jerome. All of us were completely overwhelmed by the depth of our reaction to the words and music of this beautiful Eucharistic Prayer. I wish he would find a way to save it as a communion song or something so it isn't lost until the end of this liturgical Ice Age.

If you don't know this piece, it contains within it a motival "homage" to Huijbers's tableprayer called "To Become Man in People," made all the more poignant (to me) by its dedication to Tom Conry. Rather than becoming too sentimental about all this, you should read some of the lyrics for yourself, if you don't already know them:
Our parents taught us your ancient story,
Filled us with longing for a land where justice reigns:
Bread for the hungry, rest for the weary,
A God compassionate and tender with our pain.
We felt your thunder, saw signs and wonders,
We staked our future that your word was true.
God of the Promise, God of the journey,
We call to you:
We want to thank you, to sing your praises,
To learn to call you by your winter name;
We long to see you, to feel your presence,
To sing your glory in our lives through all our days.
I wish I could quote you the entire song, but at least that gives you a little taste. The words and music together are such an engaging paean to agape through the language of eros, which is about all we have to communicate with, physically speaking. This reminds me, appropriately or not, of Pope Benedict XVI's recent homily to World Youth Day in Germany (2005?), when he described "adoration" in erotic terms, prompting me to go out and buy his encyclical. Here is what B16 said:
"The body and blood of Christ are given to us so that we will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the body of Christ, his own flesh and blood." 
God no longer simply stands before us as the One who is totally Other. He is within us, and we are in him. The Latin word for adoration is ad-oratio - mouth-to-mouth contact, a kiss, an embrace, and hence, ultimately, love. Submission becomes union, because he to whom we submit is Love. In this way, submission acquires a meaning, because it does not impose anything on us from the outside, but liberates us deep within. (Emphasis mine)
I think B16 and JMJ should get along well. I wonder if the pontiff might liberate Michael's prayer from the censores ipsis deputati before his retirement?

4. "Lead Us to the Water," Tom Kendzia and Gary Daigle, OCP. The thing about this fun gathering song is that it helped to sort of break the hold of the ubiquitous 3/4 gospel rhythm in Catholic church music, and reintroduce the lively and versatile 4/4 gospel style with a tune accessible to congregations even without a choir. That, and a text that celebrates baptismal calling and memory, make "LUttW" a song that incarnates exactly what is joyful about the Lenten season.

3. "Uyai Mose" and "We Are Marching (Siyahamba)," collected and arranged by John Bell (Wild Goose Worship Group, GIA). I don't get Taizé music. It might be that I don't worship in a big, resonant building that can sustain those ponderous ostinatos for ten minutes at a time. But I was instantly drawn to the more rhythmic and percussive acclamations and songs written or collected from around the world by the amazing John Bell and his colleagues from Iona. Many of these I was exposed to at conferences like LAREC and NPM, often by John himself. The experience of singing these African chants is a liberating breath of solidarity, reuniting religious experience with a vision of a politically diverse world united in the Holy Spirit. John's gifts to the church are many, his own songs like "The Summons" and "Take, O Take Me as I Am" enrich the musical language of many Christian churches. But these exuberant opportunities to step into the rich musical tradition of African Christianity are the reason I'm including John in this list. Throw in "Freedom Is Coming," and "We Cannot Measure How You Heal," and the Iona catalog is a force to be reckoned with, like the missionary monks who first settled and then spread the gospel from that island.

2. "Glory in the Cross," by Dan Schutte (OCP). For years, we had relied on "We Remember" or "One Bread, One Body" to begin the Triduum liturgies at the Holy Thursday procession. Then one year not too long ago Dan called my wife Terry to sing on a collection he was working on of music for Triduum. It took me a few listenings to realize that the title song was so good. Using three different sets of lyrics, one for each day of the Triduum, Dan has crafted a stately and beautiful tune around a simple refrain that summarizes the Paschal Mystery with an elegance that summons our wonder:
"Let us ever glory in the cross of Christ,
And the triumph of God's great love."
The lyric for Holy Thursday begins with words that harken back to the Introit for Holy Thursday, the "Nos autem gloriari oportet...", "We ought to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom is our health, life, and resurrection." By the time we got to singing the Easter text the first year we used it on Easter morning while the gifts were prepared, I could barely croak out the words with the rest of the assembly.

There is nothing fancy here; just a solid text that proclaims Jesus Christ and him crucified, and an engaging tune that invites participation from singers and non-singers alike. This is a really good one.

1. "Christ Be Our Light," by Bernadette Farrell (OCP). It is a rare occasion when a sampler CD from Oregon Catholic Press or any publisher stops me in my tracks. But I recall vividly the first time that I heard "Christ Be Our Light," and thinking to myself that this was a liturgical song that was going to be around a while, in the way that has only happened a couple of times in my life (listening to Lord of Light the first time, with "Here I Am, Lord," and "City of God" was another.) Bernadette had a few other songs I had liked and used, notably "God of Abraham" and her lovely setting of Psalm 139, "O God,You Search Me." But this one was different; a cut above. Moving with almost indiscernible ease between the verses set in the relative minor key and the major key refrain isn't such a great musical accomplishment, but the seamless way in which it exposes human need and lack of fulfillment in the verses and the confident plea (or is it an acclamation, or creed, in the ambivalent subjunctive?) of the refrain is a master stroke. This is the kind of song that everyone I know wishes s/he could write: one that is prayerful, accessible, original, and wears well with frequent use.

I think that this may be the best liturgical song written in our time, but I'm not putting any money on it. "Christ Be Our Light" has a lot of august company, and I'm grateful to all those composers whose gifts, given back to the church, have enriched our worship and led us more deeply into the mystery of God in Christ.

That's all for today! Thanks for reading.