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Friday, December 8, 2017

Participation as Sacrament, Part 2

Gary Daigle (right) and I at the Liturgical
Composers Forum in St. Louis, 2016
This short series of posts will be a recreation of the lecture I gave on November 23, 2017, at Kings College, University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, the annual Christ the King Lecture in the Veritas series. Rather than put it all in one post, I'll divide it up for easier reading. The title of the lecture as advertised was, "Participation: It's Kind of a Religion with Me."

I met Fr. John Gallen, the Jesuit liturgist who founded the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy, in the early 1980s. I finally began to understand under his guidance in Phoenix at the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Studies the relationship between liturgy and life in a way I hadn’t understood before. About the same time, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians and NALR both became part of my life, then the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, and the relationships between ecclesiology and music and liturgy came more to the fore, along with ways in which music serves liturgy and forms community as it invites people into participation.

On one institute early in my career with the North American Forum, Gary Daigle and I were music and liturgy leaders on an institute in Orange County, CA. We were trying to organize a procession for a penitential rite on Ash Wednesday, and wanted immediate music, something people could sing with little or no rehearsal. We settled on a litany for form, and thought of using a motif from Parce Domine. ("Three Blind Mice" works if you don’t know Parce Domine.)

Cantors begin by intoning the response, which is a prayer in itself. Once people get the form of the litany, they can act on their own. In later years, Gary added accompaniment and choral parts to offer more options. If you’ll look in your booklet at song # 2, we’ll sing a little bit of this.


So here you have the songwriters trying to construct a form that works for non-singers as well as singers. You have trained singers leading the song of the assembly, inviting responses, and choir adding their particular gifts to the mix as well. The music suggests the old as well as something new, using a plainsong melody already associated with Lent, but accommodated to an English text. The form and the classic motif invite participation, and the experience of the piece building in momentum as people join in the music may be sacramental.

I’d like to sing with you another song of mine that uses the form of the litany, but adds a refrain.  What I was trying to do with this song, called “Christ the Icon,” was create a musical experience to help us begin to understand what St Paul (or the author of the letter) is talking about in Colossians when he says that Jesus “is the image (or eikon) of the invisible God.”

One of the images that we haven’t shaken of the reign of God, at least in the United States, is the image of God as an emperor, a conquering general, a judge, all of that medieval imagery that the Jews picked up from their Middle Eastern neighbors and conquerors, emulated in their own kingdom and then in dreams of restoration, all of which came crashing down with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70, only to be miraculously resurrected in Christianity when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Holy Roman empire.
We started imagining God to be like Constantine and then Charlemagne. No matter how many times we heard Jesus say that his domain “was not like the kingdoms of this world," the only word we actually heard was “kingdom.” I think language failed Jesus. We want a king and a kingdom, winners and losers, we want to beat the bad guys and take their stuff because it belongs to us, who are the good guys. But Jesus, healer, itinerant teacher, companion, speaker of truth to power, all of that, tells us, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” So then we have to deal with his death for capital crimes against the state. How is that like a king, like a god?

"Christ the Icon" simply has us tell the story of Jesus through the invocations of a cantor or cantors, to which we respond, “the image of the unseen God.” The choir overlays, as the song progresses, the word “eleison”, and adds harmony to the refrain. Continue to pay attention to the dynamic here: it is the whole church's song, led by a cantor or cantors, supported and maybe embellished by a choir of trained singers and even other trained musicians, string and woodwind and piano and guitar players, even other instruments. Everyone participates in an act of faith and remembering to help the whole body incorporate or internalize the "image of the unseen God," Jesus Christ, the human face of the Father's mercy. But ultimately, the song is in service not only of the liturgy but of the mission of the church in the world, that is, a mission of service, not of rule, of invitation, not force, persuasion, not threat or spiritual blackmail. The act of singing the song together, each taking a ministerial role based on one's gifts, but everyone doing their part, is a rehearsal of the church's role in the neighborhood and the world, everyone at work for the sake of the reign of God in a variety of gifts suited to the needs of actual people.

No wonder Austin Fleming reminded us all those years ago: "Be faithful in the work you do, because through it, the Lord saves his people."


So here you have a scriptural truth: the crucified Jesus, utterly alive, revealing God, whose spirit is the life of the church, the crucified one is the image of the invisible God. We just keep singing that together, over and over again, as an act of non-conformity to a culture that wants to be competitive, wants to honor winners and dispose of losers, wants to look as much and act as much like the emperor-god as possible, painting our enemies as god’s enemies and destroy them. As a singing church, as the spirit-led voice of resistance, we just say no. And we do it the way the church does everything: first, as a body, but as a body with an array of gifts given for the service of all.

To follow up on this theme, I want to reiterate that what we sing, that is, the words we sing in our songs on those occasions when we sing scripture-inspired songs rather than strictly liturgical texts, is also in function of participation. Those of us who write texts for singing try to do so in a way that takes into account artistic principles of familiarity and surprise. I mean  familiarity in the sense that we sing what we believe, in familiar and resonant phrases drawn from scripture and the liturgy. Yet at the same time we depend on the variety of inspiration and creativity to awaken us to what we believe in ways that we weren’t expecting, both affirming our belief and challenging us to take it more seriously, perhaps, than we had before. I’d like to sing with you a hymn I wrote a few years ago called “To You Who Bow,” which I dedicated to my choir. Those of you in music ministry know the number of hours a parish choir puts in preparing for worship over the course of a year, or a pastorate, or a lifetime. It’s a tremendous amount of labor, and it’s a labor of love, and it’s all on behalf of the whole church present in a particular assembly, and oriented toward their actuosa participatio, that is, the role of the choir is to invite the church to use its voice, to inspire, edify, and come to deeper participation in God’s project both in the Eucharist and in the other 167 hours of the week.

Let's sing it: "To You Who Bow."



 Next: Part 3—Participation in Music as Sacrament of Participation in Life