But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's been a great joy for me this summer to play music for retreat masses some weekdays at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat Center in Barrington, a beautiful, quiet place where in fact my old friend Fr. Michael Sparough, S.J., hangs one of his many hats. Attending daily mass there is a soothing experience for me generally. The well-read, experienced, and compassionate priests who work there celebrate the liturgy and preach with a humble, good-natured simplicity that vectors well from my Sunday experience. Some weeks ago, I prepared the music and worship aids from notes I received from one of the priests there, and the office staff always has things ready to go in the morning.
Yesterday's mass was a memorial of the Queenship of Mary, a relatively recent (1950s) feast instituted by Pius XII on the octave of the Assumption. Now, I don't want to be a liturgy geek here, but a little background is required. In the weekday cycle of readings, the readings are in the book of Judges for the first reading, and Matthew for the gospel. The readings for the memorial are quite different: the familiar beginning of Isaiah 9 and the annunciation narrative. Let's face it: you can hardly get a greater contrast than that between Judges 11 and Isaiah 9. It's perfectly all right, in the case of a memorial, to use either set of readings. On days like today, in order to accommodate daily mass attendees, it's frequently a good idea to continue the sequential readings to keep the narrative flow intact.
But I assumed, when I was told that the house would celebrate the memorial, that they would use the readings of the memorial, that is, Isaiah 9 and the annunciation, and so I picked the music, including the responsorial psalm, which was selected to reflect back on the first reading as well as, often, look forward to the gospel. In this case, a very different first reading, and a very different gospel.
So what happened, you're wondering as I prattle on?
Well, the lector got up and beautifully read the story of Jephthah smiting the Ammonites, making a vow
And you can hope for a happy ending, you know, like the one in the story of Abraham and Isaac? Deus ex machina, or maybe Agnus ex machina, and a surrogate quadruped shows up in the last act to take the heat, as it were. But no. Jephthah keeps his vow.
Now, it's bad enough that this reading memorializes this atrocity, legendary or not, every two years in the mass, but this story doesn't end well even today. See, the psalm chosen to go with the reading tries (in vain, I would say) to spiritualize the reading by having us sing psalm 40, "Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will," as though to say, "Yeah, it's grisly as hell, but at least the guy knew how to keep a promise." But the psalm chosen for the memorial, the one I prepared with the cantor and the one in the worship aid, was a hallel psalm (113), and I had chosen Michael Joncas's setting of it from "On Eagle's Wings," with it's bold triple-alleluia refrain. So here's what happened:
- A narration of a filicide atrocity that left us all slack-jawed and, I hope, outraged.
- The closing dialogue that follows the horror: "The word of the Lord!" "Thanks be to God!"
- The responsorial song in a (somewhat corraled) Dorian mode 6/8 rhythm, "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" "You servants of the Lord, bless the Lord, blessed be his name forever."
I'm telling you, there has to be a better way to make a living.
What did I learn from this? Never, never, never take anything for granted. Never never never never NEVER!
The lovely Jesuit, Father Paul, who ended up having to preach today made a point, after his homily, of saying "Note that I didn't preach on the first reading."
But in fact, his entirely homily was on the theme of surprise. The motif was, "If someone asked you to describe your life in one word, what would it be?" Celebrating his 50th jubilee this year, he had in fact been asked that question for a Jesuit publication, and he told them, "Surprising." The gospel parable of the king's banquet was a springboard, and you can see that. Parables, all of them, if they're heard with the ears of Jesus's audience, are full of surprises, many of them unpleasant. Fr. Paul said that his life, and his life as a retreat leader, demonstrated that as often as not God is to be found in the surprises, in the bends in the road, the detours, the events that interrupt life as we had it planned or the way we expected it. As long as you forget about Jephthah's daughter burning on a funeral pyre, that works.
But the premise, that life is surprising, is pretty undeniable. You can't prettify that story from the book of Judges. It's there in all its wrenching irony, playing out like a Greek tragedy. But for Christ's sake, even Euripides found a way to save Iphigenia. Surely some inspired author might have found a goat or ram or a damn lhasa apso to step in and take the knife.
Really, Lord? Really?