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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Participation as Sacrament, Part 3 (Conclusion)

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."

The final example of how singing is sacramental in its invitation to participate will take us back to “Come All You People” and songs like it that have become part of our worship from many cultures - “Pescador de Hombres,” “Siyahamba,” some of the beautiful melodies that have come into the repertoire from China, Japan, Vietnam, the work of people like Camaldoli abbot Cyprian Consiglio who has worked with ashrams of Benedictines in India adapting the psalms to ancient ragas, rhythms, forms, and tunes of India, Franciscan Rufino Zaragoza with Vietnamese Music, and Ricky Manalo, whom you’ve recently met. Of course another source of this comes to the people of the United States from the spiritual traditions of African-American slaves, songs of deliverance and freedom, which was the original meaning of the religious word “redemption.” These songs have endured to this day. We’re familiar of course with adaptations like “We Shall Overcome,” “Kumbaya,” “Over My Head I Hear Music in the Air,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Even “When the Saints Go Marching In” is a Christian song, probably not from the spiritual tradition, but ransomed, nonetheless, from it’s absorption into secular culture when it is reclaimed for All Saints day and times like that. The immediacy of folk music and spirituals, its repetitive melodic and lyric motifs that make it memorable, along with a fairly simple vocabulary layered with metaphors and allusions, particularly suit it to congregational singing by people of all ages. ValLimar Jansen and Tom Kendzia, Kim Harris and Reggie Harris, and many others have been demonstrating this for us for years, and keeping those songs in our collective memory and repertoire.

I’ve set a number of traditional tunes from various cultures to new lyrics, from European Christmas songs to “Shenandoah” for these kinds of reasons, but one that has worked great for me is “Mary Don’t You Weep.” At times like the Easter Vigil, I want the music to feel spontaneous and accessible even without a hymnal or printed worship aid. So I turned to the spiritual tradition, this song like many coming down in many versions. I’ve spliced two versions of the melody together for this, but you’ll pick it up quickly.


I’ve been trying to give a few examples from my own life about how music is what we in the church would call sacramental. You might say that liturgical singing is a means to a means to an end. Participation in music is a means toward a more authentic participation in worship as a whole. But participation in worship, and this is critically important, is a means toward a more authentic “full, conscious, and active participation” in the life of the church as it goes about announcing the gospel to the world and its alternative economy and style of rule to what is the violent, rivalrous, winner-takes-all business-as-usual of civilization. Both the church and her worship are the work of and gift of a specific God, a God whose rule is based on service of others, whose very nature is self-emptying, creative love, whose ethic is “do unto others as you would have them do to you,” and in whose communitarian image the human race is created.

The goal of liturgical worship, while it may occasionally be ecstatic, taking us outside of ourselves into the mystic realm of community, is not to make us feel good, but to empower us, make us remember, fill us with gratitude, nourish us with the truth and the presence of God and one another, and send us on mission. Get us out to change our neighborhood, commerce, the justice system, the bad choices of history, and better choices for the future on behalf of those who are without political or economic clout. Different churches, denominations, in different demographics, will find different ways of living out that vocation. At St. Anne in Barrington, where I’ve had the privilege of serving for the past nearly 24 years, we have a community that has built a church in Congo, a mission in Uganda, helps support two parishes in Chicago including a large food pantry and a shelter for homeless women and children, and has founded and continues to staff almost exclusively with hundreds of volunteers a resale shop for clothes and furniture that raises a million dollars a year for charitable grants.

The thing is, in order for all of this to come together, we have to opt in. We can't be satisfied to let everyone else do it. We can't let the experts do it, and just imagine that's the way it is supposed to be. In the reign of God, everyone is important. Everyone is in. Baptism doesn't make us beloved children of God. It somehow makes us aware of being beloved children of God. We're children of God by creation, we're loved from the moment God thought of us. So as we get busy as baptized Christians in the leitos ergos, the liturgy, the public work of the church, everything depends on full, conscious, and active participation. By everybody. There's no question about whether God is present to the work: Christ is present wherever his body is gathered to worship the Father. Everyone is needed. The world is needy, and the Spirit has given the church gifts to serve those needs. Everyone is needed, everyone has gifts. Those gifts serve the needs of all. All of those things are true, in that order.

The music of the liturgy, always inviting the church to full, conscious, and active participation, both reflects the life of the church and forms it. It reflects the life of the church by being the work of everyone, and yet that work is accomplished through the gifts given to community members who respond by using those gifts of singing, song-leading, cantors, choir members, instrumentalists, librarians, songwriters, poets, composers, all to serve the community and to worship God with what John Witvliet has called “cruciform beauty,” beauty that remembers that isn’t ultimately judged by aesthetic standards but by gospel standards: welcome, accessibility, participation, other-centeredness, because it worships a god who is not gluttonous for praise but one who bows down to empower our song, who fills us with the gifts we need to save each other and the world. The invisible reality that is the light within the whole sacramental economy of the church is that God, saving the world from its bad choices, invites us to participate in that saving work by doing what Jesus did: telling the truth, healing, and exposing exclusivity and prejudice of all kinds, living in solidarity with those endangered by the self-appointed guardians of grace as well as the emperors, judges, generals, and satraps who usurp the name of God. A saying of Desmond Tutu about the participatory nature of salvation goes back, at least in spirit, to St. Augustine. “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”

Perhaps that is why, in our darkest times, there is a sense that there is light among us. Perhaps for those who believe, the light is not at the end of the tunnel, but the light is actually in the darkness of the tunnel. Wherever we experience darkness, that is where God is, because God goes to the place where rescue is required. Let that be our practice too. “Participation…it’s kind of a religion with me.” Let our participation be a habit with us, in song, in worship, in life, because the life of God is participation. Singing together in the darkness, we will discover one among us whom we do not know. We will even discover that the world, seemingly so wrapped in night,  is about to turn.