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Thursday, April 4, 2013

SongStories 5 - Toward a family-friendly Easter Vigil

Since the Easter Vigil is still fresh in our minds (some of us still haven't caught up on our sleep from last week), I thought I'd do a "songStories" post about a cluster of pieces I've written over the years building a repertoire of music for the Easter Vigil. I'm certainly not the only one trying to do this, and we all have different ideas about how to do this, or even whether it ought to be done, but I want to set the story straight from my point of view. And I want to call your attention to  Tom Kendzia’s “Exsultet,” which is now available at OCP and on his CD "Like a River," which falls into this came genre. Music like this gets us on the right track, I think, for shaping music for an Easter Vigil that is family-friendly, since many of us are involved in initiation ministry that is intergenerational, welcoming children and parent(s) in the same vigil through the Easter sacraments.

I got started in this over twenty-five years ago at St. Jerome’s in Phoenix, which was already interested in and working with the newly implemented Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). As you
probably know, the RCIA is the paradigm for initiation in the Church. This means that the ordinary and exemplary way of initiation is full initiation of adults in a catechumenate of at least three years, suited to their needs, in a group that is mentored or sponsored by the parish community. The ordinary way for this to happen is that the catechumenate period ends with the first Sunday of Lent and a Rite of Election, the 40-day Lent of “purification and enlightenment” during which the three scrutinies and presentations are celebrated liturgically, and finally full initiation at the Easter Vigil, when the catechumens receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and eucharist during the solemn celebration of the Lord’s paschal mystery. Initiated thus into the community over a period of years, they are now incorporated into the Body of Christ.

This journey of initiation, while paradigmatic for adult initiation in the Church, is also the model for all initiation. Therefore, children of catechetical age (usually around the age when they would receive first communion, about age 7) are also, when initiated into the church, initiated by all three sacraments at the vigil, are expected to have undergone a similar catechumenate to be sure that they are bonded to the community as they are made part of the body of Christ.


In 1988, my oldest son, Joel, was 9, and we had waited to have him baptized so that he could remember the event, and so have that as part of his Christian memory. A year or two later, Claire was part of the catechumenate at St. Jerome, and each of them went through a year with another child or two in a catechumenate as well as their “mainstream” connection to their classmates in the school. But the issue of trying to prepare a memorable Easter Vigil was there, and my ongoing studies with John Gallen at the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Study were convincing me that the way to go about this wasn’t to try to reinvent the wheel through slideshows and other additions to the ritual, but to do what was in the ritual well, with a heart open to the needs of the whole community, including the children.

Gradually, over a period of years, I started working on the vigil elements. First, 1989 at the Vigil, came the Exodus Reading. In this piece, by adopting a simple (and optionally accompanied) chant and an interspersed refrain in the style of an Israeli folk song, we try to reimagine the solemnity and faithful excitement of the retelling of the foundational Exodus story in the community. It is this story, and not Genesis, that is the story of creation for Israel. Genesis gives the “back story” if you will, the “infancy narrative” that sets the stage for the later story of Israel’s passing through the sea, and its tempestuous relationship with God through its royal period, exiles, and rediscovery of itself as a nation and people. Executing this reading over a period of years at St. Jerome and the Casa de Paz y Bien (Franciscan Renewal Center, where Gary Daigle was music director) and later around the country at various institutes of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate led me to think that its use would be more widely accepted, so we recorded and published it five years later, in late 1993, when we recorded the CD Stony Landscapes.

When Claire went through the RCIA two years later, I wrote the Genesis Reading music, the refrain at least. We would do simple improvisations and synthesizer effects while the days of creation were read, and then lead the assembly in singing “...And God saw that it was good, and there was evening and morning...” The reading ended with the singing of the Dameans’ setting of Psalm 135, “We Praise You.” When we recorded this piece in 1998 for the CD This Very Morning, Gary wrote some playable “improvisations” for the various days of the week which became part of the published version of the music. We were also thrilled to be able to publish it with the "Contemporary English Version" of the text, the version used in the Children's Sunday Lectionary. It's playful, vivid language is perfect for the narrative. "God said, 'I command the light to shine.' And that's what happened!" My favorite line is the CEV translation for "Be fruitful and multiply." God tells creation to "Have a lot of children!"

In this same period, I decided to write the four Easter gospels with the refrain from “O Filii et Filiae” and verses based on each gospel. I had already been using this form with the gospel of the Second Sunday of Easter every year, the story of the two appearances in the upper room, upon which the ancient text of “O Filii” is based, so it was not a great amount of work to adapt the other gospels to this form. I also paraphrased the appropriate verses of Psalm 118 to use as a gospel acclamation with these gospels. (Finally, about four years ago, I further adapted the Easter Sequence, Victimae Paschali Laudes, for use with the “O Filii” acclamation, and that recording appears on our most recent CD, Today. The Easter sequence, however, is not part of the Vigil liturgy, and so is not germane to this article.) The Easter Gospels music appears on the CD This Very Morning, and the fascicle published by GIA contains all four Easter gospels as well as the gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Easter.

Other pieces that emerged from this desire to shape an Easter Vigil that would involve children and families include Gary’s wonderful baptism acclamation “You/We Have Put on Christ,” for which I adapted verse texts from the RCIA “songs from the New Testament” section, and “A Litany of Saints,” both of which are on the This Very Morning CD. The latter was a brainchild of Terry and me as we were reflecting on the sorry state of church music at the cathedral in New Orleans several years ago. Sitting near the statue of the Woman at the Well at the Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, we thought that there ought to be a litany of the saints that reflected the joy and energy of the street version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” that is ubiquitous in the Vieux Carré. That kind of encouragement was about all it took to get me started on the idea, and we ended up recording our version of the litany for This Very Morning as well, with the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet parts improvised by musicians in New Orleans. What a fun night that was. I remember that in between takes in the studio I was writing the lyrics for the song I wrote for Aidan’s 8th grade graduation, “Fly Together,” on a couch in one of the waiting rooms.

OK, so that’s about all there is to tell about that. Nothing magic, just, as usual, trying to write for my own community and toward a specific (perceived) need, and being blessed with some creative moments that have helped to fulfill that need. Here is a list of those songs, and links to iTunes where you can hear samples, and download them to buy them if you are so inclined.