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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

John Foley's best song that you never heard of

Looking toward this Sunday's gospel, I thought I'd share with you about a song I've used for well over twenty years that I'm pretty sure you haven't heard, even though its composer, John Foley, S.J., is one of the best-known liturgical songwriters of the last 40 years.

Toward the end of the NALR years, the St. Louis Jesuits produced a double album, à la Neither Silver Nor Gold, entitled The Steadfast Love, which was a mixed bag, as double albums tend to be, of well-written material and filler. For whatever reason, most of the songs in this collection never really caught the attention of the masses in the U.S. church. John Foley had a number of songs in this collection, including the title song and a moving setting of a text from the book of Lamentations called "A Song of Hope." It may be that their "user base" was largely the guitar-driven ensemble, and Foley had begun to branch out into more classical forms and instruments that were beyond the ability and interest of the many of us who were more accustomed to "One Bread, One Body" and "Come to the Water" than to the more angular harmonies that Foley was beginning to embrace.

But one song on that collection was a favorite of mine, and continues to be to this day. The title of it is, "The Christ of God." The text of the refrain is a praise text to Christ as the eschatological Lamb of God:
O You are the Christ of God, the Lamb of God,
Alpha and Omega, the Holy One!
You are the Lamb who is, who was, and who will be
Forever. Amen.
(c) 1986 John Foley, SJ
 
But what made this text work for me, with its almost foursquare anthemic tune, was the way it was set against two other musical ideas. The song begins and ends with a solo recitative on the question, "Who do you say I am?" And the verses, taking their cue from the Markan dialogue (Mk 8: 27ff, but also Mt. 16: 13ff), are also in recitative form, with beautifully constructed, almost operatic melodies, in which the Christ tells of his impending suffering, and urges the disciples to take up the cross as well. Each time, the assembly responds with the refrain, "O you are the Christ of God," and the song, when performed in its entirety, ends with the cantor singing the question again, "And who do you say I am?"

I think that our repertoires can always use a few more songs that really force the question about the paschal mystery, that keep the cross in front of our eyes, and that help us to ask ourselves what Christ means to us. "The Christ of God" is just such a song, and if you haven't given it a look, you might think about giving it an audition, with 21st century ears. You know, before it goes out of print.