over long periods and are part of the ritual itself in a different way from the songs, I won’t usually include those in the listing, though I may do so on occasion when there's a reason for it. Here’s what we’re singing Sunday, the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, when the gospel will be the parable, “Two people went up to the temple,” sometimes called The Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax-collector). Our hymnal is Gather 3rd Edition, which I supplement with a worship aid as needed.
Gathering: Canticle of the Turning
Resp. Psalm 34: Cry of the Poor
Prep Rite: To You Who Bow or Simple Gifts
Communion: Blest Are They
Sending Forth: We Are Called
In her book, Sing a New Song, on the liturgical use of psalms in the lectionary, Benedictine sister Irene Nowell laments the fact that the psalm is rarely used in preaching the Sunday lectionary, because the psalm may provide a “key to understanding the juxtaposition” of the first reading and the gospel. This is so clear to most of us who actually prepare the music for Sunday, but we rarely hear the psalm even mentioned in the homily. In this Sunday’s group of readings, the psalm does provide some insight. Over the last six weeks or so, since the last couple of Sundays in September, there have been a number of gospels that dealt with the poor in one way or another: Lazarus and the rich man, the widow and the corrupt judge, the ten lepers, serving God and mammon. “Poor” has come to mean, for us, and thanks to Matthew’s beatitudes, “poor in spirit,” so we often conveniently think of ourselves as poor, even though in every apparent way we’re pretty well off. I remember Tom Conry once telling me about why he disliked using John Foley’s setting of “The Cry of the Poor,” because he saw all of us well-off, if middle-class, white people singing it with tears in our eyes because the tune was so full of emotion, and the thought to himself, “What is wrong with this picture?” I can sympathize with that point of view, and it’s helped me distance myself from the self-deception that “poor in spirit” and “poor” mean the same thing. Anyway, today we have a gospel situation in which neither man is apparently poor, and yet we have Psalm 34, with the questionably inappropriate refrain “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” as the linchpin between the first reading and the gospel. What gives?
First of all, to start at the end, the parable of the tax-collector and the Pharisee, quintessential outsider and insider to the temple economy of status and grace, ends with one of Jesus’s trademark reversals, generally accepted as ipsissima verba: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This theme which runs through the gospel of Luke is announced by Mary in the Magnificat way back in the birth narrative of chapter one (Lk. 1: 52-53). God looks upon his lowly servant; he scatters the proud in their conceit, “he has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” Whenever this theme is iterated on Sunday, I try to use the Magnificat, generally either “Canticle of the Turning,” or “Holy Is Your Name,” though in Advent I love to use, when I have the forces, Mike Joncas’s beautiful “Mary’s Song,” his setting of the Oosterhuis paraphrase of the Magnificat. This Sunday, "Canticle" will be the opening song.
The communion and closing songs are two very familiar songs by David Haas that use scriptural passages or language that echo today's scripture and reinforce the message. The Beatitudes paraphrased in "Blest Are They" affirm blessedness (the gift of God's favor unachievable by human effort) in those who seem least likely to possess it: the poor in spirit (or, in Luke, just "the poor"), the lowly, those deprived of justice, those who mourn, the persecuted, and so on. "We Are Called" invites us as we depart to "live in the light" and to "act with justice" in the ways to which the gospel calls us today, not with retributive human justice, but the equalizing "distributive" justice of God's household.
Sometimes we use my setting of “Cry of the Poor” from Psalms for the Church Year, Volume 4, not for any other reason than that the verses are the ones appointed for this Sunday, rather than the verses of the Foley. Written for “Assemblybook” back in the late 1980s, the text is from my more rebellious period, layering other imagery from the bible story (Rahab in Joshua 2) upon the text of the psalm,
To the heart which is broken
(Yahweh) will soon appear,
God’s hand embrace the crushed and dry their tears.
She buys them back,
She hides the condemned,
She shall rescue them. (© 1991, GIA Publications, Inc.)
The song that we'll use at most of the masses for the preparation rite is a new song (well, a year old is still new, right?) of mine called "To You Who Bow." It's a text that acknowledges God as the one whose love is absolutely pure, whose single desire is to give self away, which we experience as creation, incarnation, and rescue, among many manifestations. Commissioned by my choir for my 60th birthday last year, it's part of a group of songs I'm trying to interest a publisher in. I chose it for this Sunday because it clearly (I think) sets apart divine economy from human. The core of the reversals announced by Jesus in the parables of the reign of God is that human barricades of status and worthiness are all completely artificial, and that in God's economy all are equals. God leads the way in that economy by "not clinging to godliness," and descending among us:
To you who bow,At other masses with cantor, we may use "Simple Gifts" as an alternate, which familiarly and simply says much the same thing.
To you who bend,
To you who do not cling to heaven
But unto us descend,
You who summon us as servants
And call your servants "friends,"
To you we lift our song,
Love ever new.
O God who bows, we sing our song to you. (© 2012, Rory Cooney. All rights resvd.)
That’s what I mean by “who’s in charge here,” as I put in the title of this blog entry. When the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the parable go to pray, the Pharisee assumes that the temple rules govern salvation, and that God will love him because he does what he's told, and keeps the law. Having marginalized so many others (like the tax collector), he thinks he is able to recognize his own beauty because he has defined what is beautiful. But God’s grace and mercy are not so easily tamed, as the parable is quick to point out, and the reversal the Jesus makes explicit in his aphorism demonstrates that God, and not the temple, and certainly not the Pharisee’s self-justifying conformity to precept, is the one who justifies. God is in charge. God invites us to come into the temple (or the nation, or the workplace, or the country club) and not exclude anyone. God’s word keeps us questioning why some are left in the shadows, why some don’t feel it’s possible to join us, The gospel warns us about self-congratulatory liturgy that lets us see ourselves as welcoming people even when we have our blinders on. The reversals of God's reign to which Jesus alerts us are not historical data about the first century CE. They are about this world, today.
It’s God’s empire, and it’s God’s temple. We have to discern as best we can when we need to cooperate with our structures of power and religion and when to resist them. We generally need to discern this together, in prayer, guided by all the tools we have at our ecclesial disposal. I suppose that I think, in general, that if it walks like violence and exclusion and talks like violence and exclusion then it’s probably not from God, whether it originates in the church or in the government. I know that we live in a sinful world, and sometimes we imagine that the best we can hope for is the lesser of two evils, but I hope when the time comes for me to decide, God will show me the third way. I suspect, however, that this will involve some form of the cross, which is why “the lesser of two evils” is such a popular choice.