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Monday, December 30, 2013

Pocket "Change": How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I wrote a book. Go figure.

In the second week of May, Mary Carol Kendzia contacted me and told me she had a project in mind. I was having an ongoing conversation with her about writing a book, perhaps based on ideas in this blog, and we had some off-and-on discussion about it. In her email, she said that the publisher she worked for, Franciscan Media, needed a Lent book for 2014. She described it as a page-a-day book, with reflections on the Lenten readings. Apparently, another writer was supposed to have done it, but had to back out at the last minute. By "last-minute," I mean that they needed the finished manuscript for the book by the July 1.

But I didn't find that too daunting, since all my work with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate over the years had largely been about the dynamics of Lent, both from the aspects of baptism and reconciliation. And the fact that the book was short was really more of a challenge than having it be long. As you've noticed by this blog, I can be fairly long-winded. As a matter fact, if you only know me as a songwriter, you probably know that it's hard for me to stop after three verses. So after two or three weeks of contract discussions, negotiations, questions and answers, and planning, we had a contract and I started writing.

In order to accomplish the writing of the book in such a short period of time, I used the rest of my vacation time, and spent four days a week at home writing, and three days at the church doing my usual work, during the month of June. Each day of Lent and the Triduum gets about 400- 500 words, which comes out to about 2 to 3 double spaced paragraphs, a single typewritten page. They counted the scriptural citations in the word count, which I thought was parsimonious for someone of my verbal amplitude. My first draft was well on its way to 20,000 words, so I had a little editing to do. I had started many of the days out with a brief song quotation or quotation from an artist or public figure, most of which had to go into the dustbin of history a little sooner than the rest of the book.

The whole process went much more smoothly than I had even imagined it would. I enjoyed the writing process, and Terry, an English teacher and a very fine editor herself, helped me clean up the manuscript. Unlike my music publishers, we argued about virtually nothing before the manuscript was accepted for publication. I asked some colleagues of mine around the country to read the manuscript and give some comments to the publisher for blurbs. Thanks to Diana Macalintal, Fr. Paul Turner, and Paul Ford for their work in that regard.

So what can I tell you about the content? Well, it's based on the premise that the Lenten lectionary is sort of a "crash course" in Christianity for the elect, that is, the catechumens who are preparing for baptism at Easter time. But the RCIA teaches us that the season of Lent is prepared for all of us, the baptized and the unbaptized, as we prepare to either make or renew our baptismal promises at the vigil of Easter. So what I did in the book was look at each day of Lent from Ash Wednesday through the Triduum to Easter itself and look through the lens of the baptismal promises, to see what the readings of the day might have to say to us about them. The proclamation of Jesus was "turn away from sin, and believe in the good news." The baptismal promises are to reject sin and believe in God, not just a generic god, but the God whom Jesus proclaimed. To turn to the God of Jesus, we need to turn away from what we're already following. Identifying those false gods in the twenty-first century, and coming to know the God of Jesus today as well, is the task we take up during Lent. Then we need the courage and grace to change our hearts.

Obviously, I hope a lot of people read this little book. And it is little book—fits in your hand, pocket, purse, just over a hundred pages to read over the forty (or so) days of the Lenten season. Holding it in my hand and looking through it, I couldn't help but think that it seemed like I was writing so much, and it's such a little book! But that's good for the you, the reader, because in order to do the task I was given, I had to be disciplined to fold as much meaning as I could into a few words a day. Most of all, I hope it helps the ones who do to get in touch with our baptismal promises again, with how important they are, how they are a political statement as well as a statement of faith. I feel so privileged to have been asked even to write this book. And I'm looking forward to the reaction it will get from my friends and colleagues and strangers around the country. 

At least, I think I'm looking forward to it. I suppose that remains to be seen. It's my first book. And I suppose the reaction to it will pretty much determine whether there's a second one! 

What I think would be awesome is a podcast, possibly down the road, that would include the readings, the commentary, and maybe some music. I guess we'll have to see whether the text itself is something people are interested in reading. There's a link below to the book's page at Of course, it can be ordered directly through Liguori Publications. Order a few hundred copies for your church: only 360 shopping days till Christmas! There is a price break for buying in quantity, too, so ask about that. 

Better buy just one, and see if you think it's worth sharing. Maybe some "light" is better kept under a basket? 

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Dream Family?

Right away we get a twist on the traditional Christmas story that we think we know, as Matthew introduces Egypt into the story. No mention of going into Egypt in Luke - you’d think he’d have mentioned it if he knew about it,  or if Mary was dictating it or something. No, in Matthew, the happy couple lives in Bethlehem - the Magi visit them at their house, not in a stable. It’s not until Joseph returns from Egypt, in Matthew’s narrative, that they settle in Galilee in Nazareth, because Herod’s son, one of the tetrarchs among whom Herod’s kingdom was divided upon his death, was as bad as his father and was tetrarch of Judea.

Another dream in this Sunday’s gospel, too. I like to think of dreams as the deserved fruit of resting, a kind of gentle escape where I can fly, play basketball, or impress Halle Berry with my witty banter. Joseph, on the other hand, gets hugely important news that he has to act on upon waking: your fiancèe is pregnant; take them to Egypt; go back to Israel from Egypt. If I were Joseph, I’d work until I was comatose. Sort of like those Halloween movies or whatever they are - it’s better not to fall asleep.

Well, this feast of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus offers us an annual time to consider what a family is and what makes a family, or anything, holy. And we all know what that is. Not anything that we do, or think, or say, or pray, but only that God is with us. “You alone are the Holy One, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father.” Maybe that is the liturgical definition of what a holy family is: the blessed trinity. It apparently has nothing to do with who was born to whom, since born-ness is not an attribute of God. What makes the holy family holy is its surrender to that mystery, to allowing God to run its daily operation, and, of course, having Jesus as its focus and mission. As Psalm 128 says, the responsorial for this weekend, “Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.”

Strange, isn’t it, that 35 years ago after Paul VI’s Comme le prévoit we had to get accustomed to hearing the word “happy” translate the Greek macarios in the beatitudes and elsewhere in Scripture. We had in our ears “blessed,” and now we were expected to hear the word “happy.” “Fortunate” is another word often used to translate macarios. The word suggests that a person’s place in life is a source of beneficence and contentment. It may be true that “happy” is too strong a word, or has migrated from the interior to the exterior, and seems to suggest an external glee rather than inner peace. Whatever the linguistic case, with the new translations engendered by John Paul II’s 2000 Liturgiam Authenticam and its insistence on formal translation rather than dynamic equivalency, we are back to “blessed.” This word does bring God-as-source back into the picture, that whether we are happy or content or fortunate or macarios, it is God’s work that makes it so. It is also macarios that “happy” and “blessed” (often) have the same number of syllables and identical accents, so that “blessed” can, when needed, be reintroduced into musical settings that have the word “happy” in them. I’m not quite that AR yet about liturgical law. It’s more like a guideline. ☺

Music for this Sunday at St. Anne:
gathering:  God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

kyrie/sprnkling: “Angels”

glory to god: Christmas Glory

resp. psalm:  Psalm 128 Psalm for Weddings (octavo, OCP)

prep rite:  What Child Is This (or Carol of the Stranger)
fraction:  Living Stones

communion:  It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
sending forth:  Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Of course, we’re just keeping the Christmas juggernaut rolling through this week and next. Often on this feast, we have used “Faithful Family,” a song from my second collection, Do Not Fear to Hope. Later re-recorded for Change Our Hearts, its refrain is loosely based upon Eph. 5:1 and surrounding texts, with verses paraphrasing the ancient liturgical hymn Ubi Caritas. Psalm 128 is from the same collection, later re-recorded on Cries of the Spirit, Volume 2. It is a setting I wrote for use at weddings. The verses have duet parts for mixed voices, which I thought was a nice touch for a wedding psalm, and the musical riffs between refrain and verse might suggest to the ear of pop culture the music of “Sunrise, Sunset.”

"Carol of the Stranger" is a song that we recorded first on Stony Landscapes, and then Terry redid the song on On Christmas Day in the Morning. For me, writing this song was about expressing the what's behind the tradition in the Church that marriage is a "school of love." There's a lot underneath that image, isn't there? But part of it is that everyone is a stranger to us, really. Every other person is genuinely other. We know ourselves, in a sense, so poorly that we're strangers to ourselves, and other people actually reveal who we are to us whether we like it or not. A newborn baby is the ultimate surprise, even with all the planning and waiting. One day, we are two, or one, suddenly, we're three, or two (or four, or five, or...) So the child Jesus is a stranger in the Holy Family, and has to be welcomed and attended to, served, ministered to, just like every child does in every family. The song expands that metaphor to many relationships—a new love or friend whose presence gives us hope, and makes us realize that "if two might learn giving/ Then all might be one." It also reflects on the welcoming of new people into the Christian community, welcoming the "God of mystery / Disguised on our streets" in the faces and lives of the poor and really everyone we meet. In the end, the song just welcomes the child to the cold night watch of humanity waiting to "welcome the morn."

Carol of the Stranger (GIA link has an audio preview, as does the iTunes link below)
music and lyrics by Rory Cooney

Welcome, tiny stranger, O child of desire,
Your mother has made you a bed by the fire.
Your father, amazed with relief and surprise,
Sees firelight reflect like a cross in your eyes.

Welcome, lovely stranger, whose touch has released
My soul to its quest like the star in the east.
If love be a journey to death, we've begun.
If two might learn giving, then all might be one.

Welcome, God of mystery, disguised on our streets,
Dispensing your blessing through strangers we meet
As Abram and Sara your bounty reveal:
A skyful of children for shade and a meal.

Welcome to the strangers to Christ and the church,
Who hear a new call, and begin a new search,
Whose presence reminds us that God still will free
By blood on the doorpost and path through the sea.

Welcome, tiny stranger, to hunger and frost,
To armored invaders, to paradise lost.
Come join the vigil for which you were born,
Keep watch through the darkness, and welcome the morn.
Welcome, welcome, welcome. 

© 1993 GIA Publications, All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

SongStories 20: New Families (2005, World Library, from "Christ the Icon")

Ahead of Sunday's feast, I thought I briefly share a song about family that I've used on Holy Family for a few years. I didn't have room in our seasonal worship aid this year, so, with rehearsal time crunches anyway, I didn't add it into the mix, but I thought it was appropriate to share the text and my thoughts about it during this season.

“New Families” is a song from Christ the Icon. The text is by Rev. Ruth Duck, a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, attached to Northwestern University. What I loved about her text is that is expands our view of what “family” means, way beyond the customary view of mom and pop and 2.5 children, as lovely as that may be, to various units that embody the creative flow of divine love, people who “with courage make your way” through the world, enfolded by God’s great love. She moves
from one group to another, widening the circle, until we begin to understand, at last, that it is not human generation that makes a holy family, but divine creation. Those who live alone, single parents, foster homes, people committed to the work of reconciliation and unity among nations and peoples, all of these are identified beautifully as family in Dr. Duck’s text. We are family not so much because of who our mother and father or spouse is, but because we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, the son of God, and therefore children of one Father/Mother, brothers and sisters to one another. Here is Dr. Duck’s (copyrighted) text, which I set in “New Families.”

To you and your turtle doves, whoever they may be, merry 2nd day of Christmas!

New Families (WLP page link has audio preview, as does iTunes link)
(Text by Ruth Duck, © 1992 GIA Publications)

This is a song for all who live alone, 

Forming webs of friendship, 

A fam'ly of their own: 

May you weave creative patterns, with courage make your way, 

And may God’s strong love enfold you 

As you greet each dawning day.

his is a song for all who carry on, 

Raising sons and daughters, a partner newly gone. 

May you weave creative patterns, with courage make your way, 

And may God’s strong love enfold you 

As you greet each dawning day.

This is a song for homes of many kinds, 

Offering love's shelter with open hearts and minds. 

May you weave creative patterns, with courage make your way, 

And may God’s strong love enfold you 

As you greet each dawning day.

This is a song for all who labor long, 

Building on this planet a home where all belong. 

May you weave creative patterns, with courage make your way, 

And may God’s strong love enfold you 

As you greet each dawning day.

And may God's strong love enfold you 

As you greet each dawning day.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 - Noel!

Friends in Christ, Rejoice!

Friend in Christ, rejoice! Hope and healing bring!
Angels all around us, “Peace on earth!” they sing. 
“Noel!” sing the angels, “Noel!” be our song,
For this baby small and weak is born to stand against the strong.
Noel, noel, noel! Sing the news with awe!
Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw.

Friends, approach the manger, leave aside your fear.
Immigrant and exile, all are welcome here.
“Noel!” sing the shepherds cast aside no more,
For the child for whom we had no room has opened every door.
Noel, noel, noel! Sing the news with awe!
Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw.

Friends beyond the circle, friends from east and west,
Led by star to light, here finally take your rest.
“Noel!” sing the Magi, “Noel!” sing the wise,
For the vision’s fire, your heart’s desire, is right before your eyes!
Noel, noel, noel! Sing the news with awe!
Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw.

Noel, noel, noel! Noel sing alway, 
For the God we thought so distant sighs and startles in the hay.
Noel, noel, noel! Sing the news with awe!
Like no god we had imagined is the baby in the straw.

Text by Rory Cooney
© 2011 Rory Cooney

…from our family to yours, and the whole human family. 
May the grace and good will of the season keep us connected to one another, 
and aware of one another’s desire for peace, security, and happiness, 
while awakening us to the same desires felt by all people everywhere. 
We hope for a new year of cooperation and universal prosperity. 
Let us live “God-with-us” by our love and service of one another, especially those most in need.

A very merry Christmas and joyful New Year to all.

Rory Cooney, Terry Donohoo, and Desi Cooney
Christmas 2013

"Light and Life to All He Brings"

All things came to be through him,

and without him nothing came to be.

What came to be through him was life,

and this life was the light of the human race;

the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

Every year it’s a minor struggle at the parish over whether to read the familiar Christmas gospel of Luke 2, prescribed for the midnight mass on Christmas eve, or the prologue to John’s gospel, the hymn to the Logos, which is the proper gospel for Christmas masses during the day. There are actually a total of four different gospels used for the Christmas feast, the other two being the Matthew genealogy and annunciation to Joseph (used at the vigil mass on the 24th) and the continuation of Luke 2 of the Christmas gospel, the visitation of the shepherds, in the mass at dawn. Taken with the midnight and John gospels, this pretty much covers everything that the NT has to say about the birth of the Messiah. It isn’t much, but it’s more than just angels and shepherds. As The First Christmas, the little book by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg reminds us from the outset, we assume we know a lot about the birth of Jesus, but in fact, what is in the scripture we have synthesized into a single story, while the actual texts are quite different from one another in their detail. We would do well to go back and look at the Matthew and Luke stories again, and see them with new eyes, hear them with new ears.

Some of what we think we know is just guessing: like the “we three kings” thing. Not only are they not kings (Matthew calls them magi, or court astrologers), but there’s no mention of there being three of them, just that there are three gifts. Next time someone asks you whether music or homilies are more important, tell him the “we three kings” story.
But back to the yearly struggle - some priests always want to read Luke 2, the nativity story we all think we know so well, for every mass on Christmas. I’d like a little more variety, not just because I have to be at all the different masses, but because if we hear the other stories more we’ll get a better filled-out vision of what the incarnation means. If I want to hear Luke 2 more than at the midnight mass, I can always watch A Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD, and hear Linus recite it, lights dimmed and everything.

Listening to the prologue to John, some words really strike me, and help me to hear about the meaning of the incarnation and get me ready to hear more of John during Lent and Easter this year. It was the verses that I quoted above, with that italicized line especially catching my ear: “What came to be through him was life.” John’s prologue starts with words that harken back to the creation story: “In the beginning...”, in Greek, genesis. The Word was in the beginning, and all things came to be, received life, through the word. The book of Genesis, though, describes life coming to be for the first time, springing from the breath of God hovering above roiling chaos. John is describing a new creation, and therefore, I think, a new kind of life, or wants us to think of life differently somehow. But what does he mean by life?

That, I think, is what the rest of John’s gospel is about, and he sets the stage for it in his prologue (or in Crossan’s happy word, “overture”). What John means by “life” is the life of God, made visible by the Logos in Jesus Christ, and “handed over” to the world from the cross and in the resurrection. The life of God is, for the author of the fourth gospel, agape, or what Paul had earlier called kenosis. The life of God is the complete emptying-out of the self on behalf of the other. For John, God’s way of living is to create, to pour self out so that the world might have life. The Logos, the word of God that creates what it says, is the visible manifestation of that holy mystery. The Logos “became flesh, and pitched his tent here among us.” In all the rest of John’s gospel, through the book of signs, and culminating in the passion narrative and the resurrection, Jesus through the evangelist is trying to get us to understand what life is. It is solidarity with friends, and not letting the wine run dry (Cana), it’s seeing that there is bread enough for the hungry (John 6), not letting the Sabbath interfere with an opportunity for healing (John 9), and not letting death pretend to be the result of kenosis, not letting death masquerade as God’s will for people (John 11).

The mutual self-gift or “living in love” that is the life of God is the theme of the Last Supper discourse, and Jesus is careful and explicit about that living in love and mutuality between him and Abba as being between him and the disciples as well, and among them. Agape is never exhausted, but only grows with the sharing of it. He gives yet another sign of divine life at the Supper when he washes the feet of his disciples and tells them “as I have done, so you must do.” And from the cross, finally, he bows his head, voluntarily handing over his life to the One who is life itself, and “hands over the spirit” as well to the church to continue his work and “do even greater things.” “Receive the holy spirit,” he says on the morning of the resurrection, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, you have the life of God in you now. Don’t be afraid of death. Don’t be afraid of anything. By giving yourselves away in love, you are becoming more and more alive.

I don’t think my mind and heart would have necessarily be drawn to these things if I only hear Luke 2 for all four Christmas masses. I do love the Luke narrative, but there is so much more, and the three gospel prologues are interdependent and mutually corrective for us when we hear them together. (Mark has no prologue aside from his first sentence: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Another genesis, and he starts with John the Baptist roaring in the desert wilderness, with Jesus, his cousin and contemporary, fully grown and, presumably, listening in the background.)

It is at the intersection of Matthew’s Messiah, “Emmanuel, that is, God-with-us”, and this God of the fourth gospel whose very nature is self-emptying and revealed in the Logos, that this year’s Sundays will be experienced. The wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures, the reflection of Sts. Peter and Paul in the epistles, and in Acts, will bring other insight for our reflection. Who knows where it will lead us? On this winter morning, three days after solstice, I’m aware of a lot of darkness in my life and in the life of the world. We’re already tired of darkness, and its wearying, debilitating effects. I’m looking for the light of the world, light to shine in the darkness, light that the darkness cannot overcome. One of the places I really want to hear about it is in my church. I hope for me, and for you, wherever you are gathering to pray, that we find light both inside and outside of those walls.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Advent Year A on one page

Here are links to my four posts on the movements of Advent in Year A of the lectionary, as I see them
this year.

Advent 101: Waiting
Advent 102: Preparing
Advent 103: Rejoicing with a followup here
Advent 104: Solidarity

The four Sundays were treated with their music on these pages:

First Sunday
Second Sunday and 2016 "Second Thoughts" here
Third Sunday (none)
Fourth Sunday with more on St. Joseph as a just man and father here.

And here are links to some of my Advent songs in the "Songstories" series.

Thy Kingdom Come
Walk in the Reign
Sing We Maranatha
The Wilderness Awaits You

That's for quick reference and archiving purposes. Thank you for reading.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent 104: Solidarity

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel
which means “God is with us.”

The four weeks of Advent, while they have clear similarities from year to year occasioned by their tradition and connection to Christmas, also have some distinct features that exhibit themselves year to year in the distinct biblical readings of the lectionary. I've tried to capture the spirit of the four weeks of Advent in year A, which is to say, suggest some of the many dynamics of this wonderful season, in four words, a word each week suggested by that Sunday: waiting, preparing, and rejoicing for the first three weeks. Hard to find a single word for what I wanted to say for Advent 4, especially because I was using a gerund (an "-ing" verb-noun) for each week, and there really isn't one for what I want to say. As close as I can think of is "being-with-you", which is sort of cheating-by-hyphenation. So I settled on "solidarity," and now you know how I would define solidarity in Advent: being-with-you. Emmanuel.

Year A of the lectionary features the first gospel, called the gospel of St. Matthew, which has a particular theology that arises out of the faith of the community it emerged from, the stories it knew from the evangelists and apostles who formed it and perhaps even knew Jesus, and the needs of that community that the compiler(s) of the gospel saw and addressed as they wrote it down, maybe sixty years after the death of Jesus. Among those many needs was certainly the growing awareness that the return of the Lord in the parousia was not as imminent as they, and possibly Jesus himself, had first believed. But from beginning to end, the author of the first gospel reassures the community that whether or not there was to be a physical return of the Lord in the lifetime of believers, he was there among them just as surely and just as really as if he had appeared on a cloud or in their rooms. The question, then, was the same question the apostles would have asked at the empty tomb: Where is he? Matthew answers that question in all kinds of ways that boil down to this: when you get together and be the community that I have taught you to be, full of the Holy Spirit, I am with you. When you are ekklesia, people called out to be together, to be church, I am with you. Emmanuel.

In Sunday's first reading, the timid king Ahaz, king of Judah, was threatened by the king of the northern kingdom of Israel and his ally in Aram. God, of course, had promised that he would preserve the line of the David kings through all dangers and enemies, but Ahaz thought that Assyria might be a more suitable ally in these dangerous political times. Isaiah reminded Ahaz of God's promise, and offered, on God's behalf, to give a sign of God's intention to keep his promises. Ahaz demurs, however, with something along the lines of, "Oh heavens, I would never ask God to prove himself. I've contacted Tiglath-Pileser. I'm good." Isaiah responds that God will give a sign anyway, that a young woman will bear a son and call him "Emmanuel," God-with-us. 

In the gospel, we encounter Joseph, troubled by the pregnancy of his betrothed, dreaming a course of action that interrupts his waking plans. An angel (i.e., a messenger, or a message, like a gospel [evangel] only the news isn't necessarily good!) appears in the dream to say, "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife. There's more to this than meets the eye, and God is involved." The appeal is to Joseph's sense of justice, his religious instinct that things should be as God wants them. As difficult as the leap may have been, he takes it because of God's presence to the event. The child's name will be Yehoshua, God is salvation. I shall be with you is God's message, and the just Joseph takes his pregnant betrothed into his home.

Paul, facing the dangerous trip to Jerusalem, writes to the Roman church and encourages them to keep the faith without succumbing either to the conviction that salvation can come through obedience to the Law (a temptation which might arise from the Jewish origins of some Roman Christians) nor to the exaggerated, irresponsible freedom that might be the backlash temptation from its Gentile contingent. Paul's instinct is to unite disparate approaches and theologies in faith in Christ, whose life and death is an image of God who sent him. Division of the body of Christ is unthinkable to Paul, and he deals with the reality of it by preaching the permanent, irretractible, divinely imbedded love of Christ that manifests itself in mutual love within the community and its care for the poor and evangelical outreach to the world. He longs to come to Rome himself and intends to do so, after bringing the alms of the Greek churches back to Jerusalem where there is so much suffering. He will, in fact, only make it back to Rome in chains, and will die there. But his desire for solidarity with the church there produced the timeless letter of which we hear the beginning this Sunday, and which has shaped the faith of Christians for two millennia with a vision that is closer to Christ than the gospels.

What does all that "Emmanuel" business mean to us? Soldiers from the late Roman Empire through the Wehrmacht in World War II have used the words "Dominus nobiscum" or "Gott mit uns" in many languages, using the name of Emmanuel to bring Caesar's "peace" to the world at the end of blade or bullet or bomb.  Is our Emmanuel simply allowing the warmth of the season to wash over us again, reminding us like an advertisement that "God so loved the world that he sent his only son"? Well, it's hard for me to believe that's all it is. This is my sixty-first Christmas. I know how the story ends. I have an inkling what it means that God is with us, and how that solidarity of God translates into real life, how it requires abandoning heaven, how it sees through the posturing of kings and priests, how it sees the essential unity of all people, even the most unlovable, even the enemy. I think I know now that "Emmanuel" isn't just to warm me up in my house while I drink cocoa and watch White ChristmasEmmanuel is the gospel, it is a way of life that gathers together with others who have also begun to see that "God-with-us" makes an "us," not a "me." Just as I've heard about shepherds, angels, Herod, and the Magi sixty-one times, I've heard about betrayal, trial, the lash, and the cross and the spear. And sixty-one times I've heard about the the empty tomb, and I've heard the words, "Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent me, so I send you." Emmanuel isn't history. Emmanuel is an autobiography being written by God's hand in my own DNA. While I hear "Do not be afraid, I shall be with you," I am gently invited to speak those words to my neighbor, to let my neighbor know Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In 1989, the year I wrote "Walk in the Reign," I was reminded of Emmanuel by the story of Nelson Mandela, and we have been reminded of that story again this fall, nearly twenty-five years later. I was reminded of the resistance of Europeans to the tyranny of ideas and force in the fall of the Berlin wall and the Solidarity movement in Poland. I was reminded of Emmanuel by the pictures of the students resisting the violent regime of China in the iconic photograph of a solitary student standing in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square.

At the end of 2013, I am reminded of 1989 again recently when Rocco Palma at the blog posted a brief tribute to Sr. Thea Bowman, who gave an unforgettable talk to the U.S. Catholic bishops at their annual meeting that year. Sr. Thea, her body weakened by advanced cancer in her bones, sat in a wheelchair and passionately, lovingly preached the gospel to the preachers, teaching them what it means to be in solidarity from the perspective of a black Catholic woman from Mississippi. I was so grateful to be reminded of Sr. Thea, and her speech seems like a good way to end this Advent story for 2013, which is to say, it's a good way to begin a new year of grace.

Sr. Thea Bowman, Speech to US Catholic Bishops, 1989

At the end of her talk, Sr. Thea begins singing "We Shall Overcome" and encouraged the bishops to join her song. She encouraged them to "walk together in a new way toward that land of promise, and to celebrate who we are and whose we are."
If we as church walk together...Don't let nobody separate you, you know, put the lay folk over here and the clergy over here, put the bishops in one room and the clergy in the other room, put the women over here and the men over here...the family got to stay together. We know that if we do stay together, if we stand to gather in Jesus' name, we'll be who we say we are: truly Catholic, and we shall overcome.  Overcome the loneliness, the poverty, the alienation."
She told them to move together, and taught them to hold hands, crossing their arms across their chest. "You got to move together to do that,” she says.
In the old days, you had to tighten up so that when the bullets would come, so that when the tear gas would come, when the dogs would come, when the horses would come, when the tanks would come, brothers and sisters would not be separated from one another. And you remember what they did the clergy and bishops in those old days, where they put them? Right up in front. To lead the people in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the church who suffer in South Africa, who suffer in Poland, in Ireland, in Guatemala, all over this world. We shall live in love.
In the spirit of Sr. Thea, and I hope in the spirit of the gospel, in the spirit of our baptism into Christ, in the spirit of this season of the incarnation, this "Easter in wintertime," I offer you this litany of Emmanuel to launch you into the fourth weekend of Advent. As God is with us, let us be with each other in waiting, preparing, rejoicing, and solidarity.

They shall call his name "Emmanuel," a name that means "God with us."
I shall be with you always.

Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
I shall be with you always.

Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.
I shall be with you always.

Whenever you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.
I shall be with you always.

As the Father sent me, so I send you.
I shall be with you always.

All of you who are hungry or thirsty,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

All of you who are homeless or in exile,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

All of you who are sick, or in prison, or grieving,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

All of you who suffer because of war and violence,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

All of you without a voice in the halls of government,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Close as tomorrow the sun shall appear.
Freedom is coming, and healing is near,
And I shall be with you, in laughter and pain,
To stand in the wind, and walk in the reign.
Bethlehem, you think you're so small
That God doesn't notice your children at all?

The streets of Soweto, the docks at Gdansk,
Tienanmen Square, the slums of the Bronx,
When we stand together to stand against hell,
The name of this people is Emmanuel. 
The morning of madness, Manhattan in flame,
In Gaza and Kabul the cry is the same:
"Has God turned against us, his people reviled?"
The same sign is given: a woman with child,
A woman with child.

Close as tomorrow the sun shall appear.
Freedom is coming, and healing is near,
And I shall be with you, in laughter and pain,
To stand in the wind, and walk in the reign.
Walk In the Reign - Safety Harbor © 1989 GIA Publications.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Advent 4A - All in a dream, all in a dream

Call to Worship: He Will Come (Bell, GIA) Gathering: Canticle of the Turning
Psalm 24 (alt ref – Let the Lord enter) Cooney - OCP
prep rite:  Lo How a Rose
communion:  Walk in the Reign
sending forth:  O Come, O Come Emmanuel

There’s a lot of dreaming going on in the Bible, isn’t there? My daughter Claire is a big believer in dreams. She used to write them all down in notebooks (maybe she still does!), even when she woke up in the middle of night, at least to remember them to write them down later. Her song lyrics in our collaborated collection Keep Awake are full of dream imagery; one of the songs is even titled “Jerusalem of Dreams.” Claire used to think she could manipulate her dreams, tell them how to come out, even figure out what to dream about. I wish I had had this gift growing up; I would have spent much more quality nocturnal time with Katherine Ross and Olivia Hussey, and less with the likes of Dracula and brain-eating secants and cosines. I suspect, though, that dreams might be more revealing when we don’t manipulate them, when we let them talk to us, rather than talking to them. I suppose that, either way, it’s a conversation with the subconscious. My current megalomaniacal morphean manifestation is the recurrence of conversations with celebrities in my dreams. I’ve had conversations with entertainers like Prince and Sting, but more memorable ones, driving in limousines through Washington D.C., with both Bush 39 and 41, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton. Amazingly, in my dreams I found the Republicans to be friendly, articulate, and affable. Prince was funny, describing to me a song he was writing about being abused by a priest as a child. He wasn’t even bitter about it, he just wanted to sing his song.

This morning's first reading (Wednesday of 3rd week of Advent) was about a heavenly visitor in an annunciation to the unnamed mother of Samson in the Book of Judges, and the gospel was the annunciation to Elizabeth. Sunday we hear the annunciation to Joseph, again in the context of a dream. There are other famous dreamers and dreams in the bible. My favorites include the dream of Jacob when he wrestles with the angel (Gen 32) and again when he sees the ladder and builds the shrine at Bethel (Gen 38). The dreams of Pharaoh and the oneiromancy of Joseph that he parlayed into a dream job in Memphis. Isaiah’s dream of the court of Adonai, with winged seraphim melting into a lake of fire. But my absolute favorite is Peter’s dream in the house of Cornelius in Acts, with the floating picnic and God telling him to eat anything he wants, and not to argue with Him because He was God and knew what was clean and unclean. Dreams abound, and they teem with meaning.

One song I've used in years past on this 4th weekend of Advent in year A is the relatively ancient “Cherry Tree Carol,” an English Christmas song that might be as much as seven hundred years old. Even though at the height of the folk revolution it was recorded by the likes of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary, I never knew of it until I came across it in the Marty Haugen collection Night of Silence that GIA published about 20 years ago. My children’s choir had done “Power in the Children” from that group of songs, and we had borrowed a nice little ritornello from “What Child Is This” for our arrangement as well. The choir enjoyed singing “Child of Our Dreams,” too, for a few years, so I was paging through it to see if there were any other ditties we might use. I have to say, who wouldn’t pause, however briefly, when running across a Christmas text like this:
When Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,

He married Virgin Mary, the queen of Galilee,

He married Virgin Mary, the queen of Galilee.

And one day as they went walking, all in the garden green

There were berries and cherries as thick as may be seen

There were berries and cherries as thick as may be seen

Then Mary said to Joseph, so meek and so mild,

“Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child,

Joseph, gather me some cherries for I am with child.”
The Joseph flew in anger, in anger flew he,

“Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee,

Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee.”

Then up spoke baby Jesus, from within Mary’s womb,

“Bow down, ye tallest tree, that my mother might have some.

Bow down, ye tallest tree, that my mother might have some.”

So bent down the tallest tree to touch Mary’s hand

Said she, “Oh look now, Joseph, I have cherries by command.”

Said she, “Oh look now, Joseph, I have cherries by command.”

This simple reshaping of the gospel is so full of really identifiable human feelings that it caught my attention immediately. Paired with a simple folk melody, it’s really irresistible. Of course, you do have a little problem with a small group of folks who will not be able to suspend their disbelief for a few moments to imagine a great saint like Joseph, foster-father of the messiah, having a moment of anger when discovering his betrothed was preggers. In other versions of the song, Joseph asks the trees to bow down, or “Joseph was a young man,” or a voice from heaven tells the trees to bow down. So goes the oral tradition, especially over seven centuries and two continents. There is also some background for the story in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in the apocrypha, chapter 24, during the flight into Egypt, when a weary Mary needs food at an oasis, and the baby Jesus commands the date palms to bow and give her fruit.

In order to allay any fears about the orthodoxy of the text, I added a couple of verses at the end of my own, though one of them is based on material in other versions, in which Joseph repents of his anger:
Then came to him an angel while Joseph did dream,

Saying, "Put away your anger, All is not as it may seem."

Saying, "Put away your anger, All is not as it may seem."
Then Joseph said to Mary, “O what have I done?

For the angel came to tell me you are bearing God's Son.

For the angel came to tell me you are bearing God's Son.

Thus, the oral tradition of the Christmas narrative continues. Talk to you again soon.

Got any cool dreams you want to share? Except Claire...give us the Reader’s Digest version of a dream - there are bandwidth issues. ☺

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Albums 14 - On Christmas Day in the Morning (1998, GIA)

Terry wanted to make a Christmas album. GIA was happy with the idea as long as they got some
printable music arrangements out of the deal, and thus was born On Christmas Day in the Morning. We were still pretty new to the Chicago area as we recorded this CD, but the recording gave us the opportunity to meet some new musicians and gave Gary and Terry the opportunity to experiment a little more in Irish styles.

Terry remembers the beginnings of the idea: it all started with "The napkin: after talking with Rory and Gary about the idea of doing a solo collection and deciding on a Christmas themed one, I waited many months for an opening in our schedules to put the project plan into action. One night when we were all in Estes Park, Rory volunteered to stay in our little cabin with Desi while Gary and I went into town, sat in a café and came up with a song list. Gary wrote the titles on a napkin, which I kept as a souvenir and as motivation to keep going."

She continues, "This was a traveling show, really. We started in Mark’s studio (in Barrington); I remember Desi was about three years old. He and I flew to Louisiana to mix the recording in a studio in New Orleans. Gary and his family had moved there, and mixing in NOLA made more sense. Desi had to stay with the Daigles at their home in Gonzales while I went to the studio. He was Art Daigle’s best friend all day. We recorded the ending of "O Holy Night" over again on the morning I was leaving to fly back to Chicago. Desi cooperated by falling asleep on a couch in the studio and we did the ending in one take."

Terry knew from the outset that there were two pieces she wanted to do on the recording: the Wexford Carol and "Some Children See Him." I started to work on an arrangement for the Wexford Carol, a chord structure for the piece for which instruments and vocal harmonies could be written. But it became clear pretty quickly that I was overthinking this beautiful, ancient Irish song, and Terry's and Gary's better instincts opted for a sparser, more resonant accompaniment suggestive of the monastic origins of the tune. I've been a big fan of the Alfred Burt carols since being a high school chorister in the late 1960s, and out of those many beautiful and seasonally evocative carols, each one of which started life as a Burt family Christmas card, Terry chose the one with the clearest social conscience, "Some Children See Him." With a few notes and strokes of the pen, the lyricist and composer sketched out a global vision of Christmas, crowned with the simple payoff line, "'Tis love that's born tonight."

Here are a few more thoughts about the cuts on this recording. If you don't already have a favorite Christmas album, give On Christmas Day in the Morning a listen. There's a good chance you'll have one by the first or second track. Count your blessings: somewhere in Barrington there is a hard disk and probably a digital tape backup of the great Brendan McKinney playing a full set of highland pipes on one of these songs. The hair-raising honking of the instrument shattered nerves and the relative quiet in that underground studio, but its expatriate complaints never made it onto the recording. That is proof of grace enough for me.

Track List, with further comments.

On Christmas Day in the Morning, Theresa Donohoo (GIA, 1998)

The First Noël (arr. Daigle)
Gary's arrangement of this English carol moves its musical heart from Cornwall to Cork, as it dances along with a lilt and the services of the great Chicago Irish musicians, John Williams, piper Patrick Broaders, and fiddler Katherine Keane. In my opinion, this arrangement is so delightful it just jumps out of the speakers, and becomes a carol in what may be the original sense, a carula, a circle dance.
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow (trad., arr. Rory Cooney (GIA), and Gary Daigle)
Terry writes, "I remember the slow and intuitive process of deciding on arrangements with Gary. Rory famously hates the studio in general, and there were a few tense moments when he bristled at our re-interpreting some of his arrangements. In fact, while we were working on “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” including changing the key and adding a fiddle part, he walked out. Fortunately for all of us, he eventually accepted the new arrangement and it is one of my favorites on the recording." Rory responds: In my defense, I have no defense. As usual, they were right, I was wrong, and being a jerk to boot. However, until I revisited this, I had managed to block this out of my increasingly selective memory. Note to self: just make stuff up from now on, do not seek interviews with artists.
Some Children See Him (Burt/Hutson)
Carol of the Stranger (Rory Cooney, GIA)
I wrote about this song in my album post about Stony Landscapes, when we had first recorded it. You can read about it by clicking here.
I Saw Three Ships (trad., arr. Rory Cooney, GIA)
I did this arrangement with Terry leading an ATB choir, accompanied only by flute, cello, and bodhran. It starts off with this weird little hornpipe in two that just inserted itself into my arrangement saying, "Hey, we can get to 6/8, no problem." A couple of modulations and stop in Disneyland later, the piece is over, and I get the distinct feeling I've been listening to sailors. The choir and instrumentalists on the recording did a fantastic job of realizing this arrangement probably for the only time in history, with Terry's vocal part sparkling over the top of the whole thing. The most satisfying arrangement I've ever done. 
O Holy Night (Adophe Adam, arr. Gary Daigle)
In the Stillness of the Night (Balhoff, Daigle, Ducote, GIA)
The Dameans included this beautiful song in their Advent-Christmas collection Light in the Darkness. Terry's performance of it expands its emotional range, brilliantly incarnating the contrast between the silent darkness of the birth of the messiah with the explosive light of its meaning. As always, Gary's talent as a songwriter and interpreter of text with melody and harmony is in evidence as he moves the lines and images from a simple exposition through a complex but harmonically lush and warm contrasting section, and back to the simplicity of the original verses. This song is a wonder both to hear and to perform, and I only wish it were more familiar in the repertoire.
Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day (trad., arr. Rory Cooney, GIA)
The Wexford Carol (trad., arr. Gary Daigle and Rory Cooney)
I Wonder As I Wander (John Jacob Niles, arr. Daigle)
Wonder-Wander began life as song that was thought to be an Appalachian folk song "discovered" by Niles in his research, but as it turned out it was outed as an original composition by him that was flavored by regional dialect he derived from his research. He seems to have heard and recorded a young woman singing a piece of a song in North Carolina, and then composed the song around his recollection and notes on the event. It sounded so genuine that performers made recordings of it as though it were a folk song. Niles had to press lawsuits in order to collect royalties for his work. 
Advent Herald (text by Brian Wren, music by Rory Cooney, GIA)
Brian Wren's masterful text "Welcome the wild one" is so beautifully conceived a picture of the Baptizer's dangerous ministry at the Jordan that I find myself sometimes choked up by its empathetic vision both of the radical call to the kingdom and the way the message is received by Jesus (?) in his baptism. I say (?) because Jesus is never named. One gets the idea that the "young one" in the lyric might be Jesus, especially because the final stanza calls the baptized one "God's love-child" and with an initial "welcome" bids "let salvation begin." But Jesus wasn't, by my calendar, a "young one" as he came to the wilderness "seeking the spirit that beckoned through John," he was John's age. One could suspend disbelief, or believe in the myth, I suppose, but it's just as easy to imagine that the child in the water is any believer, and the invitation that salvation begin be a word of hope about any of our lives. I don't really care, it's a wonderful text! My special joy about this is that a former editor at GIA told me that, after my setting was published, Brian Wren received a copy of the song, and wrote back to GIA to express his delight that the setting capture his text so well. For reasons for which I'd rather not know the full explanation, the editor's comment was, "Pigs have flown."
Silent Night (trad., arr. Gary Daigle)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Joseph as "primary catechist" of the Word

A few years ago on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a homilist at St Anne offered a keen insight on today's gospel, probably more eisegetic than exegetic, but there was an echo of truth in it, and it struck me strongly enough that I wrote it down. The insight was that in that gospel, in which the just Joseph, keeper of Torah, discovers the pregnancy of his betrothed Miryam and sets aside the prescriptions of the law out of love, we have a picture of the man from whom Jesus learned how to interpret the law. In Jesus’s later dealing with the law, we see him take similar positions. There is a lot in all of that, and I’d like to try to explore it a little bit.

The homilist’s tack reminded me of the preaching and teaching of the late Fr. Lucien Deiss, C. Ss. P., a theologian, scripture scholar, and peritus at the Second Vatican Council. Deiss was also a fine musician and missionary, his music was everywhere for the first couple of decades after Vatican II, and I had the great honor of working with him on a number of recordings made by him for North American Liturgy Resources in Phoenix through the 1980s and 1990s. Fr. Deiss wrote a book in 1994 called Joseph, Mary, Jesus, in which he investigated some of this insight. He very often spoke of his devotion to Mary, and imagined that in the household, Mary might have used some of the aphorisms and phrases that we have come to know as having come from Jesus. He might have “picked them up at home,” as we say. “As my mother used to say,” or “as grandma used to say” are ways we will preface an axiom or pithy saying. Deiss’s suggestion was that some of what we know of Jesus might actually have originated with Mary or Joseph, and he picked it up at home. Deiss would have been the first to say that this is purely conjecture; he was completely humble about thinking this way. But in your own experience, doesn’t it make perfect sense? My grandfather used to call any old acquaintance “pal o’ my cradle days,” and the music of that phrase is with me even today, and I use it sometime. “Cripes Christmas” is another one, this one I got from my mother. I say that all that time. Of course, I’d like to think that it wasn’t profanity or mild oaths ("vipers' brood!" "white-washed tombs!" Raca!) which Jesus picked up from Joseph, but as long as it wasn’t sinful, what’s the harm? ☺ The point is just that we pick things up from home; Jesus was from a home, and it’s reasonable to imagine that he picked things up there, maybe even some of his best lines with the ring of the folk aphorism to them. I’m thinking of things like, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last,” or “many are called, few are chosen.” You can just hear someone’s grandma saying those things commenting on the way the world is; in this case, maybe it was Jesus’s own parents who used those phrases, or passed them on to him. 

About 20 years ago, a friend of mine and I wrote a one-act musical about the annunciation which included a bit of the courtship of Joseph and Mary. In this musical piece, called Song of Mary, we used that conceit several times in the dialogue and in songs, in which words which the audience already would associate with Jesus’s preaching would have been part of the banter and conversation of his parents-to-be. I know that I did this with Mary, and now I wish I had done it with Joseph as well, because this homily made me think that, yes, here in the actions of Jesus’s (foster) father, we see love ameliorating the law. The law called for the stoning of a betrothed woman discovered to be pregnant before living with her husband; Joseph, before even being visited by an angel, being just, that is, like God, decides to divorce her quietly, thus being able to live with himself (keeping Torah) and showing mercy to his betrothed. What happens after the angel’s visitation and the annunciation to Joseph is part of the gospel, and what we hear in Sunday's liturgy.

As a tekton, or a tradesman, a carpenter, in the Galilean countryside, Joseph would probably have done work not only for his kinspeople and other townsfolk, but also worked on larger jobs, barracks and machines for the Roman occupying force, or commercial buildings and furnishings for some of the busier towns nearby. He would have known enough Greek to speak to other non-Jewish contractors and artisans, and possibly have gleaned some of their folk wisdom as well. Though a “just man,” and by that, the scripture means to indicate that he kept the Torah and followed the law prescribed for pious Jewish men, he may have come to realize something about how non-Jews and Jews were much alike in ways that mattered. Being in Galilee and away from Jerusalem and the cultic center of Judaism, a generosity of spirit about other people from other lands might have been something that was part of his milieu. As the father of Jesus, this open-hearted attitude toward outsiders could have helped shape Jesus’s openness as well.
In our General Directory for Catechesis, we Catholics make the astonishingly simple but barely comprehended statement that parents are the primary catechists of their children. Apples, we believe, do not fall far from trees. No matter what they hear at church, from priests, sisters, catechists, anyone, children are going to learn their faith, or not learn it, by what they observe their parents doing. How parents live, what they say, how they treat other people, how much a part of their outward lives God is, this is how children learn first about God. Other catechesis will help them draw out meaning, articulate inner truths, and get the “facts” about believing from the centuries of tradition from which we draw, but it is in the daily life and relationship of Mom and Dad that children learn their faith. How can we believe it is any other way than that with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus? There came a time, clearly, when Mary became the disciple, later in Jesus’s life. But early on, the eternal Word listened to his parents and started to hear in their exchanges and see in the patterns of the daily living the echoes of the Torah, and the will of the living God. 

One Sunday a year, at least, it is good to hear about Joseph, the just man, and to imagine that he, too, was a profound influence on his little boy who became the Christ of our faith. Joseph’s attentiveness to Miryam/Mary in the precarious need of her pregnancy, his respect for the Torah, and possibly even his tolerance of and respect for the traditions of his diverse neighbors, all might have shaped the faith of the Messiah, laying a foundation for some of the hallmarks of our tradition. Perhaps because of Joseph the Just, Jesus's "abba", a blind man was cured on that sabbath, a centurion's boy and a Canaanite woman's daughter were healed, an adulterous woman was saved from stoning, and, two thousand years later, we know the answer to the question, “And who is my neighbor?”

Friday, December 13, 2013

What did you go out to see? - strategies of grace

Recently I wrote about a third movement of Advent that is taken up in the liturgy of the third (Gaudete) Sunday, the movement of rejoicing. As I wondered about who is actually supposed to be rejoicing, and about what, I tried to keep coming back to the question Jesus poses to the emissaries of John the Baptizer, who want to know if he is "the one who is to come." The reason I did that was that we find what we are looking for based upon our expectations. Sometimes, finding what we're looking for is a matter of changing focus, like those weird patterned pictures made by Magic Eye, that looked like busy wallpaper or fractal designs until your eyes focus on a spot beyond the plane and you see a flock of geese or a lion or in this case, a bunny, clear as day. You don't even need to be told what the image is to look for it: you just refocus, and you can tell someone else what you see. Sometimes you have a preconception that prevents you from finding what you're looking for, like picking out a child in a crowd who is the offspring of two people you just met. You're looking for a child who has mom's eyes, or dad's nose, but the child turns out to be adopted, perhaps of another race even, with no family resemblance at all.

Looking for the presence of God is like that. People looking for a messiah who reflects a god of war, or revenge, or judgment will find someone who fits their expectations. That was part of the problem with John's apocalyptic vision, and with the apocalyptic vision of many in Israel in the last two centuries especially before the birth of Jesus, and for a few decades (or a couple of millennia?) following. Instead of reproving the questioners, or dismissing the question, Jesus reverences the seeker in them, knowing they are attracted by his reputation, his words and actions. So he just says, "Tell John what you have seen and heard." In other words, trust your senses. You've witnessed healing, joy, and liberation. Is that what you are looking for? Jesus invites them into his own journey, to take part in his peaceful "revolution" on behalf of the empire of God.
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Jesus asks the crowd about their vision. Your instincts, he seems to be saying, were right. You didn't go out to look at reeds, or expecting to see a prince or a priest. You went out because you expected to see a prophet, someone whose word stood up against kings and priests. Jesus honors the imprisoned John even as he tries to move him, through his (John's) disciples, from his expectation of violence to a different expectation. God, Jesus is implying, isn't like the people who are in charge now. Don't wish for more of that: violence brings nothing but misery.

How would we report back to the seeker about our encounter with Jesus? What have we seen? Where do we look to find the emergence of the empire of God in our own world, our own lives? Sometimes, as I said above, we need to refocus, sometimes we will be surprised anyway, like when the child we're looking for turns out to be adopted.

I call these appearances of the kingdom or empire of God "strategies of grace," a phrase I took from the late Fr. Jim Dunning. They are movements within the systems of the world that arise to do the work of God who heals, liberates, and brings joy. They push back against the forces of civilization that thrive on violence, threats, exploitation, and fear. And like the "adopted child," they aren't all explicitly offshoots of the church or believers, though we have every reason to believe that they take their energy from the heart of God.

We see movements like this in our parishes and neighborhoods. Local and regional food pantries sponsored by parishes, resale shops like St. Anne's "House of Hope," groups of doctors and dentists who travel at their own expense to health care deserts in inner cities and even foreign countries to provide free clinics, my friends who have spent years of their lives serving in the Peace Corps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, all of that kind of work falls into the category of strategies of grace, that is, organized systems of social improvement. Others are even more institutionalized and globalized, for better or worse. I would include groups like

  • Medicins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders)
  • Catholic Relief Services
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commissions
  • The Innocence Project
  • Kiva, and other micro loan organizations
  • International Red Cross
  • The United Nations
  • Pax Christi International
  • my friend Tim Schmaltz's "Protecting Arizona's Families Coalition" and similar groups
  • my friend Tom O'Hern's "Family Hope Charity" in Korogocho, Kenya
Well, you get the idea. Generally speaking, the people served by these folks and folks like them are the ones with something to "rejoice" about, because the strategies of these groups cut across the grain of power and economy in order to bring empowerment, healing, hope, and liberation to the underserved. 

What "strategies of grace" do you see in the world? If someone is looking for signs of a benevolent, peaceful God who suffuses this troubled planet with hope and possibility of safety, where would you look? If disciples of violence asked you, "Is your God worth following, or should we look elsewhere?" what would you say? I think I could say, "Let me tell you about my friends, and some of these folks who go to church with me." Not that all of them feel the same way about God that I do, naturally, but it's because of them, and how they act, that I can keep going. 
Are you the one, or should we look for another?
What did you go out into the wilderness to see?
Those questions should keep us busy for another week or so, don't you think? Maybe if we align ourselves together, shift our vision a little, look for the unexpected, we too can give someone who needs it something to rejoice about.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dream Girl

Happy birthday to my only and precious daughter Claire, or as she is known in literature by her Narnian handle, C. S. E. Cooney.

She and her mother occupy the garret apartment, a third-story walkup, in a lovely old house in downtown Westerly, RI. The rooms are cozily appointed as befits their bohemian temperaments, and they go about their days with a radiant joy and tender care for each other.

Claire lived with us for a couple of years while attending community college, then lived in Chicago while finishing her degree at Columbia and starting a career as a writer and bookstore manager. She and I wrote a number of songs together over the years, most of them in a collection entitled Keep Awake that was published by World Library Publications in 2000, and a wedding song whose text her adaptation of a text from Song of Songs, published with GIA.

Claire is prodigious writer, poet, novelist, blogger, and editor. She is blogmistress of the online Black Gate Magazine, and has published a number of poems, stories, and a novella, with her very own author page at Here's a good example of her work, a poem called "The Last Crone on the Moon," published in Goblin Fruit magazine, and read by the artist herself. Her novella, Jack o' the Hills, is available at Amazon.

The thing is, what she writes and what she does isn't what Claire is all about. You will never meet anyone with more joie de vivre, more infectious delight, than she, someone who does what her heart leads her to, and shares every ounce of her energy and compassion with anyone who needs or wants it. That she and her mother share an apartment in a little corner of the Ocean State should set off radiation detectors in China.

The bedroom where Claire used to sleep in our previous home in Barrington became the guest bedroom when she left for college, and Gary Daigle used to stay with us when he'd come up from Louisiana or Phoenix before he lived here. In the morning he'd rise bedraggled but somehow starry-eyed as he made his way down for coffee, and would be amazed that he had had such uncharacteristically vivid dreams. See, it was the bed where Claire had slept, the bed of dreams. The strange other worlds she frequents in sleep left their familiars in her environs, and he was the beneficiary. All of us are their beneficiaries when she writes of the crooked things we fear to encounter. In her hands, that extraterrestrial, or subterranean, or undead beauty of dreams reminds us of worlds within, and helps us see our "real" lives with brighter colors.

Happy birthday, my dear Claire. Whatever the numerological auspices are for this natal day, I hope the reality of the coming year exceeds your wildest expectations. Daddy loves you! xo

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent 103: Rejoicing

The word "rejoice" has come up a lot in the Catholic news this last week or two, from two significant events. First, the release of Pope Francis's first apostolic exhortation,  "Evangelii Gaudium," (The Joy of the Gospel) and the anniversary of the promulgation in 1965 of Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), Vatican II's Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Many churches have already begun to sing the centuries-old Advent anthem "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" with its refrain, "Rejoice, rejoice! (Gaude, gaude) Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel." There's a whole lotta gaude goin' on these days, and I'm guessing that there are a lot of folks out there going, "Huh? Where?"
What did you go out into the desert to see?
"Gaudete" (Rejoice) Sunday gets its name from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon (Introit) of the day, taken from the letter to the Philippians, "Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete." Rejoice in the Lord always: I say it again, rejoice. And there is a lot of rejoicing going on in the texts of Sunday's scriptures. Isaiah 35 uses words like "exult," "rejoice," "singing," "joy," "gladness," and all in the context of deliverance from exile. The psalm, Psalm 146, is a hallel, a psalm that is framed with the alleluia, something worth remembering as some of us sing cantillated versions probably a little less than ebullient.

The pace of rejoicing slows a little with the second reading from James, as though the liturgy is hearing from the hearts still broken in the assembly, all crying out at one, "Why? What's to rejoice about? Why 'alleluia'? Why am I so unhappy? What about my job loss, that death in my family, my lost love affair? What about all that?" James puts the coming of the Lord into a different context: the waiting of a farmer for the germination of the seed planted with such hard labor. There is a sense that some payoff is imminent and inevitable, but one can't see it yet. Be patient, James says, like that farmer.

Then the verse of the gospel acclamation is taken from Third Isaiah, the jubilee exhortation quoted in Luke 4, and preached by Jesus in his "inaugural sermon" in the synagogue at Nazareth.
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor."
Hearing that text sets us up to hear the words of the gospel, when the imprisoned John sends emissaries to find out from Jesus whether he might be the One. There isn't much joy in the gospel at first glance: John may in fact be wondering, from what he knows of his kinsman and his reputation, if his release from Herod's jail might be forthcoming in some act of the Messiah, overthrowing Rome and the temple and starting to set things right in the world. But Jesus is not John, and has a different kind of expectation about God. It may be, and I think this is at the heart of the scriptures today, that Jesus has a different God, which leads him to expect God's appearance in different ways. See, if John thinks that there battle is ahead, and that God is going to fight it and win it, he has already given Herod and Caesar the power they need to continue to rule. But Jesus has a different insight: the reign of God is already here, but it's not what John, or a lot of other people, including his disciples, have been expecting. Something else is happening.
What did you go out into the desert to see?
The vision of Jesus, foreshadowed for us in the verse from Isaiah 61 that preceded the gospel, is that the gospel of the empire of God is going to be good news for the poor. But more subtly than that, the God whose empire is arriving will not, in fact, be the apocalyptic harvester "burning the chaff in unquenchable fire," nor will his messiah baptize with fire, except with a fire of ardor for service, a fire that consumes the self in creative sacrifice, self-gift. John wants to know if Jesus is the one who is going to lay the ax to the root of the tree. Jesus wants to bring him along into the empire of God and tells John's disciples to report back "what you hear and see,
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
He's asking John what he is about to ask his own listeners: What were you looking for? Our vision of who God is and what we expect of God's reign will shape our expectations. We'll look for a messiah who brings that God. We'll look for signs in our world, in our own lives, that indicate that God is showing up. Jesus says, these are the signs of the real God: Healing. Restoration. Amazing changes of life. Reversal of fortune for the least fortunate of all. If we are looking for something else, we're not looking for God at all. Not even if we're a Christian, a bishop, a televangelist, or John the Baptizer.
What did you go out into the desert to see?
At the same time, there is a tragic, or at least oxymoronic kind of poverty in us who believe in the gospel of prosperity, who believe that God is going to make everything all right for us, who think we can be happy while other people are suffering. And so the gospel is genuinely good news for everyone who comes to realize, in the midst of ownership and acquisition and desire, that nothing satisfies for long, and who respond to God's word by turning around and making a change in the way we do things. This realization is central to the message of Jesus, who calls us to "turn way from sin," that is, from the gods and habits that turn us inward and away from one another, and "believe in the good news" of a God who wants us to act like the family that we are, that we are created to be. Before that move, we need to do a basic inventory of our interior life, but in the context of membership in the human family: are we happy? Has everything we've acquired, wanted, and stored up against the inevitable future where death lingers satisfied us, or just made us want more? And all that stuff, so much more than we need, how much of it could have made other lives a little bit better?

Jesus invites us to see differently. Much as on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday) we hear the gospel of the Man Born Blind, and how everything depends on what we're looking for, and how we can be full-sighted, 20-10 visionaries and still be blind, Gaudete Sunday in the middle of Advent asks us what we're looking for, so that we don't get too far along in this season before we realign our desire with the reign of this particular God of Jesus and remember what it means to rejoice. The psalm really leads us into it in the liturgy Sunday. Why rejoice? Why alleluia? Well,
The LORD God keeps faith forever,
  • secures justice for the oppressed,
  • gives food to the hungry.
  • sets captives free.
  • gives sight to the blind;
  • raises up those who were bowed down.
  • loves the just;
  • protects strangers.
  • The fatherless and the widow he sustains 
  • the way of the wicked he thwarts.
Is that the God we're looking for? It is if we are oppressed, hungry, captive, blind, bowed down, just, a stranger, fatherless or widowed. The arrival of that God, and the messiah of that God, and the people of that God, is pure joy. Equally true is that God rejoices in doing that work, and those who participate with God in that work also participate in that incarnate joy. How else can St. Paul, in that opening song, give us the exhortation to "Rejoice in the Lord always"? So I think Advent rejoicing comes down to that question that Jesus poses twice in the gospel:
What did you go out into the desert to see?
If our desire can shift from making ourselves happy to bringing happiness to those who are most estranged from happiness, we can come to know the God of the psalm, the God of Isaiah, and the God of Jesus. Even if healing and reconciliation seem to be delayed or even suppressed by the intransigence and inertia of those who go out into the desert to see someone dressed in imperial colors, we can find the joy of the farmer who awaits the yield of soil. Something wonderful is coming. Wait for it, you who labor, and rejoice.