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Thursday, January 23, 2014

SongStories 21: "Be Perfect", from Christ the Icon (2005)

Writing a song is one thing. Generally, you write a song because you have to. It's actually already there, in a way, by the time you realize you have to write it, and you just have to harvest it. It's true that work goes into its creation, of course, but the essential thing is finding the song. But liturgical song doesn't even really exist, I would say, until it's actually sung in the liturgy, in an assembly praying the prayer of the church. That's worth pursuing in another blog post, but I want to get on with this one first!

Songwriters who do a lot of concerts have the opportunity to have people hear, sing, even pray with their songs more than we who are generally homebodies working in a single community. With liturgical song there's the matter of being able to sing it, finding appropriate times to use it for congregational prayer, when the scriptural milieu and lived experience of people suggest that one song is more appropriate than another. A big part of this are the texts of the liturgy of the word at Sunday mass. The song I want to say a little bit about today is based on the Sermon on the Mount, and really the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which comes in Year A, on the 6-7th Sundays of Ordinary Time. So there's the rub: we don't get those Sundays very often. Here's why.

2014 is an "A" year in the lectionary, a year when we primarily read Matthew's gospel on Sunday. The way that the Sundays of Ordinary Time are laid out goes something like this: the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is also the "first Sunday of Ordinary Time," though it is rarely referred to in that way. It's just that the following Sunday is the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (OT), and folks tend to wonder if they missed mass the week before, or what happened to the first one. The Sundays of OT pass in "order" (hence, they are "ordinary") until Ash Wednesday, when the Lent and Easter seasons begin. Ordinary Time returns after Pentecost and the feasts of Trinity Sunday and the Body and Blood of the Lord.


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When the Ordinary Time Sundays return, usually in June, they start up not from the next numbered Sunday from where we left off, though. The rest of the year's Sundays of OT are counted backward from the end, that is, from the feast of Christ the King, which is the 34th or last Sunday in OT. There are, thus, thirty-four Sunday masses for Ordinary Time, but we (almost) never hear the readings for all of them, even though the number of Sundays every year is almost always the same (52 or 53). This year, for instance, we end with the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time on March 2, and take up again in July with the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time. This year, the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul also falls on a Sunday, where the 13th Sunday would have come in most years.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus in Matthew's narrative, the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 5-7. For the first time in many years, we actually get to hear almost all of this beloved discourse at Sunday mass over the span of four Sundays. Ironically, we do not hear the Beatitudes this year, the beginning of the discourse, because the feast of the Presentation of the Lord also falls on a Sunday. That gospel comes up every year on All Saints' Day, but this year that feast falls on a Saturday, so most people will not hear it. (No offense, but most people didn't hear it last year either, when it fell on a Friday.)

Rene Girard
For the last three lectionary cycles when Year A came up, we got no further than the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time. We have not had eight Sundays of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday since 1990, though through the 1990s there were 6 or 7.In the early 2000s, I was mesmerized by Catholic anthropologist and philosopher RenĂ© Girard and his theories about the origins of violence and religion. As I tried to explore more of his work, I came across the writing ofthe writing of James Alison, who has explored the implications of Girard's insight for Christian living in the twenty-first century and beyond. While challenging and dense, the work of these two giants was inspirational to me, making the whole of Christian life and liturgy make sense to me in ways I had not understood before. To use a phrase of Jesus that Girard glommed onto for one of his books, "things hidden since the foundation of the world," my world, at least, suddenly fell into place and became clearer.


These new insights, along with my rediscovery of Dominic Crossan's newer work, affected my writing as well, which had necessarily slowed down as more and more good music entered the liturgical music repertoire. Several songs on our 2005 collection Christ the Icon bear the imprint, for better or worse, of this inner movement in my heart, notably the title song, "Christ the Icon," "Let Us Go to the Altar of God," which was further catalyzed by my 2004 diagnosis and treatment for cancer, and "Be Perfect," which is the song I'm writing about today.

Girard and Alison see the problem of violence as a problem of escalating desire. We live in
James Alison
communities, from families to villages and churches to cities, nations, and planet. We learn to desire in community: we learn to want what other people want. We compete for our wants and needs at times. When people desire the same thing and it's only available (or seems to be only available) to one or some, things can escalate into violence. So in addition to imitating the desire of other people, we imitate their violent behavior as well. Girard goes on to postulate the origin of religion, particularly sacrifice, as a response to violence. Rather than letting violence upon one another run the everyday commerce among our race, religion substitutes a scapegoat for sacrifice, placing the anger, frustration, loss, and (apparent or not) scarcity of things on a person or thing, so that the violence of the community can be focused and released. Sometimes the scapegoat is driven out, sometimes killed and eaten, but in any case the expanding balloon of escalating violence is punctured until the next time. Girard's further contribution is to demonstrate Christ as God's answer to human violence, a scapegoat who is not just murdered and completely innocent, but uniquely the Son of God. This revelation exposes the mimetic violence, and therefore the mimetic desire, for what it is: a spiral into hell.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explicitly gives us the remedy for mimetic violence: imitate God, who lets the rain fall and sun shine on the good and bad alike. Give goodness to everyone. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Jesus not only reveals a new pathway for humanity here, but reveals God as God actually is, a God of agape and not a vengeful, jealous idol of our making, one who justifies our imitation of him in our violence and meting out of retributive "justice." "Be perfect," Jesus says, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Agape will transform our lives.

Don't you think this is an important part of the teaching of Jesus? And it is definitely under preached, but in a sense that is because this part of the Sermon on the Mount is so rarely heard on Sunday - in our case, it has been nearly a generation, twenty years, since it has been heard. Not so much for the next few cycles, as Years A of 7 OT Sundays are a little more frequent for the next decade, but it's been a while.

So today, I offer you a little clip of my song "Be Perfect," yes, with its off-putting name for self-help psychologists and manic overachievers. Perfection is not attainable, of course, but to choose to act in a way that imitates the life of the God who is revealed to us in Christ is possible, and saints we know and don't know have pointed the way for us. I would suggest to you and to me that we need "Be Perfect" in the repertoire of our hearts, at least, and maybe my little song can help keep it there! These are the lyrics. Have a wonderful day.

Be Perfect
lyrics by Rory Cooney
Copyright © 2005 World Library Publications, Chicago, IL.

Be perfect as God is perfect,
Who makes the rain to fall on good and bad as well,
Who makes the sun to shine
Alike on cruel and kind.
Love your enemies.
Be perfect. 
Come and follow me.

(Be salt and light) Forgive as you have been forgiven.
(Be salt and light) Leave the altar, make peace with all your foes.
(Be salt and light) Do good to those who seek to do you harm.
Be like God, and shine upon the world.

(Be salt and light) Do not resist the violent.
(Be salt and light) Do not seek revenge, but turn the other cheek.
(Be salt and light) Pass no judgment, and you will not be judged.
Be like God and shine upon the world.

(Be salt and light) Love God with all your mind and heart and strength.
(Be salt and light) Love your neighbor the way you love yourself.
(Be salt and light) Give joyfully to all who need your help.
Be like God and shine upon the world.

Be perfect as God is perfect,
Who makes the rain to fall on good and bad as well,
Who makes the sun to shine
Alike on cruel and kind.
Love your enemies.
Be perfect.
Love your enemies. Be perfect. 
Come and follow me.

Be Perfect: