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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Baptism of the Lord, and Psalm 29

Music for Baptism of the Lord at St. Anne (2014).

gathering:  I Have Loved You (Joncas)
Sprinkling Rite
Glory to God: Mass of St. Ann (Bolduc)
resp. psalm:  Psalm 29 "While the Storm Blows On"
prep rite:   Advent Herald (Wren/Cooney) or You Have Anointed Me (Dameans) or Wade in the Water (trad.)
communion:  Here I Am, Lord (Schutte)
sending forth:  I Send You Out (Angotti)

We haven't had rehearsal for three weeks, and tonight the choir is partying to say goodbye to longtime member Mike Hawkins, who winters in Arizona but will be living in Iowa now instead of nearby Hoffman Estates. Mike's ministry in music antedates mine at St. Anne, so he's been active for more than twenty years. So add another rehearsal week skipped, except for the minutes we'll take to go through the responsorial psalm for Sunday, one that I wrote about six years ago.

So this year I opted to choose music that linked the feast day with Jesus's awakening to his mission, though I have no idea what that might mean. I just believe that he wasn't pretending to be beginning something new in his life, wasn't pretending to be turning to something new as he underwent baptism in the Jordan. Whatever is true of Jesus's divinity, for his humanity to be real, it had to have been a process of discovery and acceptance, just like we have to go through.

I like to think that one beautiful thing about this feast is about the transformation of water. I believe it is the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann who speaks about the Eucharist as not only transforming bread into the real presence of Christ, as we believe. He speaks about how Eastern thought thinks of the transformation in fact makes bread at last into real food. That is, it has always been able to feed the human body and give the body sustenance. But as eucharist, it gives food and sustenance to the soul as well. I know that in a sense this sounds like dualism, but if we just reject dualism as a principle, we can see what he's getting at through the image: the bread, by divine presence, becomes capable of feeding the whole, infinite person. It's a breathtaking thought. Well, in a similar way, I was thinking about how the baptism of Jesus might transform water into a cleansing and regenerative substance for the entire human person by its physical contact with the Savior. Always capable of giving life and death, always capable of cleansing and refreshing the body, when transformed by divine presence water becomes itself finally, and is capable of cleansing and refreshing, destroying and giving life to the whole person. It's probably a stretch, even for me, but it is at least an expansive stretch. Creation in and of itself suffuses water, wheat, the whole cosmos, with divine presence, and aside from humanity, as far as we know, creation never disobeyed the creator. But the incarnation makes possible the reconciliation of the people with the cosmos as well as with the creator, so that other created things can be for us sinful humans what they truly are, what they were created to be.

Psalm 29 is a poem that sounds like it describes a thunderstorm going on while the temple is at worship: “The voice of God thunders above the waters, the God of glory thunders, and in the temple all say ‘Glory!’” Of course, it could just be a metaphor linking inside and outside, robust praise sounding like thunder remembered, I suppose. The psalm calls upon the spirit world to join the temple’s laud of the Holy One: “Heavenly beings, give the Lord glory due his name.” My setting of this psalm is dialogical: choir and assembly interact like this with the cantor:
Choir and all: Glory to God!
Cantor: Let heaven’s spirits say it.
Choir and all: Glory to God!
Cantor: The glory due his name.
Choir and all: Glory to God!
Cantor: Within the temple pray it: let the people praise you while the storm blows on.
Refrain:     With a voice above the thunder,
                    In the roaring of the sea,
                    Though the storm should shake temple,
                    God will bless his people with peace.
The other verses are similar in form, though the acclamatory words change to “the voice of God!” and “the Lord shall reign!” You can probably tell that I am trying to work with the storm-temple image axis and reinforce the scripture’s witness that, no matter how bad things are, God is with us. We need to keep focused in faith, keep our center, which will help us make better decisions in the face of the storms that rage outside of worship, both in the temple courtyard (the church) and in the surrounding world. It's worth noting that the psalm imitates the psalms of the (defeated) Canaanites, whose weather-god Baal is ridiculed by the psalm's call that all should worship YHWH as master of storm and temple.