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Friday, April 12, 2013

Songstories 6 - Heart of a Shepherd (Agape for Breakfast)


I want to tell you a little bit about this Sunday's gospel before getting into "Heart of a Shepherd." Not saying
that you don't already know about this little piece of gospel glory, but if you haven't, well, it will help you hear the gospel for this Sunday, the third Sunday of Easter in year C, with "ears to hear," and a heart burning within you. At least, that's what happens to me.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
He then said to Simon Peter a second time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
Jesus said to him the third time,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time,
“Do you love me?” and he said to him,
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.”
He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.
And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Greek has (at least) four words for "love." Most of us know about at least three of them: eros, which we generally associate with sexual attraction and married love, philia, which is the love among family and friends, loyalty, (as in "Philadelphia", the city of brotherly love and "philosophy," the love of wisdom or knowledge), and agape, which is divine love, love without regard for return, pure love for the other. It is this final kind of love, agape, that St. John uses when he says, "God is love" (ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν). It is the word St. Paul uses in 1 Corinthians to talk about love in chapter 12. It is often translated as "charity" when used about agape in human interaction. The fourth Greek word, storge, is used for the love of a parent for children, love for a dependent. Some lists include a fifth word, mania, which is hardly love, but desire gone wild, or obsession. 

When a passage is translated from Greek into English, though, all we generally hear is "love," so the nuance of what the writer meant to say, or may have meant to say, can be lost on us. I think that comes into play in the gospel today.


The above dialogue from the long version of the gospel, a conversation between Jesus and Peter on shore of the lake after the resurrection, looks backward to the threefold denial by Peter of Jesus in the courtyard of the High Priest the night before Jesus’ execution by the Romans. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon bar-Jona (son of John), do you love me more than these?” Each time, Peter answers affirmatively, and Jesus charges him to love his flock by nurturing them. But what I missed for about fifty years of hearing this gospel in English translation of this passage is the subtle shift in the question of the Lord.


The first time, Jesus asks, “Simon bar-Jona, do you agapas me more than these?” He is asking Peter if he has thrown himself completely into the ring of holy fire, the love that gives itself completely for others. And Peter responds in an equivocal way: “Lord, philo you.” I love you like my own family.

The second time, it is the same, "Simon, agapas?" "Lord, philo." Peter is not answering the question. Or rather, he's not answering the question in the affirmative. What do we expect to hear the third time? Will Peter finally come around? Will Jesus just let it go?

Accustomed to happy endings, we might expect Peter to respond heroically to Jesus’ question in kind. But instead, John shows us the kenosis of the logos again, as at creation, as at the incarnation, as at the washing of the feet, as at the last breath on Calvary. It is Jesus who changes the question: Jesus says, Peter, do you philos me? Peter, responds, "Lord, you know it! Philo!” Jesus then makes what might be thought of as a prophecy “about the sort of death Peter would die,” that is, as a young man he goes where he wants, but as an older man, he’ll be led where he’d rather not go. But underneath that image of Peter being led in chains to his own exodus, it sounds to me an awful lot like Jesus is saying to him, “Today, you can only offer philia, and that is good enough for today. But things are going to change. Agape is going to grab you around the heart and take you where you can’t go today. I can wait for that.”

God can wait. That’s the way of agape: it is the faithful “remaining,” or “abiding” that empowers love in others by loving, that gives and gives and gives no matter what, if anything, is flowing from the other direction. It is the very first thing on Paul’s list of the qualities of agape in 1 Cor. 13: Agape is patient! The word in Greek means something like, “can endure the injuries of others for a really long time.” In the case of Christ, agape can endure the injuries of others past the gates of death and hell, and return with nothing but patience, light, and more agape.

So, to the story of "Heart of a Shepherd." My previous pastor at St. Anne's, Fr. Jack Dewes, is now the pastor emeritus, sort of the B16 of Barrington. He is a fine priest, clearly with good taste in music and liturgy: you judge the man by the company he keeps! He hired me in 1994 when my life was a mess, helped me relocate and settle in Illinois, and with my colleagues Courtney Murtaugh and Clem Aseron, introduced me to the little town that has been my home and my place of worship for almost twenty years now. Jack has been the heart and soul of the parish, he's the guy on everyone's party list, and over the years coordinated many insane events for the staff (murder mystery dinners, neighborhood scavenger hunts, &c) and was the impetus for annual parish block parties. Whatever his shortcomings might be, he had the koinonia thing down pat.


"Feed my sheep." Of course, frequently a beverage is required.
 Fr. Jack and Ms. Donohoo at his 65th birthday.
Jack celebrated forty years as a priest in 2005 and I wanted to write a song for his anniversary that would express my affection for him as well as be a symbol of what he has meant to St. Anne's and the other communities he has served. When we, under his leadership, built the new structure for the church that opened in 2000, the third or maybe fourth building to house the Barrington Catholic community in its 125 years of existence, we were careful to take the old and the new and blend them in the new building. We used parts of the previous church and reshaped them into a daily mass chapel, and incorporated windows, marble, and statues into the design. The new church is startling in its radical tradition, with antiphonal seating for the whole assembly, an immersion font near the doors, original statuary and stained glass, and an icon triptych behind the main altar. "Ever ancient, ever new," like the church itself, is the way we might describe our building. And I wanted the song I wrote to be like that.

So what I did was, I wrote a refrain with a simple melody for communion that honored the role of the
pastor (shepherd), but in a way that I felt specified Jack, a man who has the "heart of a shepherd." You will recognize now the lines of this text as coming from this Sunday's gospel.
If you love me, feed my lambs,
Be my heart, my voice, my hands.
If you love me, feed my sheep.
And for my part,
I give you the heart of a shepherd.
For the verses, of course, I used the melody for Psalm 23 written by the late Fr. Joseph Gelineau S.J., in the early 1960s, one of the first pieces of psalmody many of us learned in English after the Council, one which I sang as a schoolboy in Phoenix.

By coincidence, when I submitted this to GIA to ask whether it would be all right for me to use the Gelineau music with my refrain, the interregnum was in process as Pope John Paul II was in seriously failing health, and the election of a new pope was on the near horizon. GIA not only allowed me to use Fr. Gelineau's beloved music, but made the whole song available free via download during the interregnum in a very quick turnaround, for which I was most grateful.

So, that's the little story behind "Heart of a Shepherd," which can be found on our CD Today, which came out in 2006. You can see a bit of the sheet music by clicking here.

I hope you get to hear the "long version" of the gospel this Sunday, because it's all the more poignant to hear the piece I mentioned above after the story of the fishing expedition and breakfast on the shore of the lake, cooked by the risen Jesus himself. It is still very moving to me to think of this story, when Jesus once again puts aside his right to "justice" anything else more than what Peter is capable of giving, and waits with patient agape for his heart to catch up. So many people have treated me like that in life, and it is God-like and heroic, and seems so impossible to imitate. Maybe that's why the Gospel writer leaves us with Jesus's final words after the whole episode: "Follow me." God give me strength.

iTunes link for Heart of a Shepherd - Today

(Obvious note: I'm not a Greek scholar, nor a biblical scholar. I've read about this in several places, and am aware that there is not universal agreement among biblical scholars that the difference between agape and phileo is anything more than use of a synonym to the writer of John. I do note, however, that Jerome translated the words differently, using "diligere" for "agape" and "amare" for "phileo." Also, there is asymmetry in the usage, but asymmetry that seems to have a theological purpose. This appeals to me as a writer: it walks and quacks like a literary duck. However, it was a long time ago in a land and culture far, far away. As the Irish say, if it isn't true, it ought to be.)