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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Horse and chariot: where the rubber hits the Way

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:
I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.
In our online group of merry music ministers and liturgy geeks, we once had a discussion about how to characterize Easter joy. Is it best expressed by the ancient modal beauty of chant, or boisterous hymnody, trumpets and timpani, what? How do we “do” Easter music best? Most of us, I think, do some combination of various styles and timbres to express Easter. As some pointed out, the gospels are respectfully silent about what actually happened that morning. “Historical Jesus” scholars like Borg and Crossan point out that the truth of the resurrection is not dependent upon a historicity that might have been recordable, had there been videotape in the 1st century c.e. What we know, from the tradition of the witnesses, is that those who first went to the tomb on the morning of the day following the Sabbath found that the tomb of Jesus was empty. Others, at different times and in different groups, reported experiencing the Risen Lord in different ways, but a frequent element in all these stories is that Jesus is so changed as to be unrecognizable until the moment when something happens that is unique to him, a habit of his community. He breaks bread: we’ve seen that. He says my name, “Mary!”. We’ve heard that. He’s cooking breakfast on the seashore for weary fisherman: we’ve done all this before. In all of this, there’s no real element of triumphalism, trumpets blaring, military-style fanfares of victory. But, for one reason or another, that’s where most of us find ourselves when executing our Easter music.

I've been thinking about this. Part of the Triduum's insight into the paschal mystery is that in the entire three days, taken all at once (if that were possible), is a glimpse into the heart of the mystery. It is simultaneously death and resurrection, abandonment and intimacy. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter (and Pentecost) happen all at once, in kairos, God’s time. How they unfold in our time is always different, but for God, they may be all the same. Somehow, self-abasement (kenosis) is the very nature of the divine glory. That is, it seems to me, glory is not so much "laid aside" as exhibited in kenosis. God is love.

Where we get messed up, Easter-wise, is in our pharaonic view of God, which comes from revelation too, at least in the sense that this God who promises to wreak havoc on the enemies of his people is the God of much of scripture, including the Christian one. The gospel view, not as imperial and spangled as the other, is of a different kind of God. Yet we imagine "God’s glory" to be something like that of Pharaoh or Caesar, and thus we tend to celebrate the glory of the resurrection the way we celebrate civic glory. If we could have the Blue Angels, we probably would.

I'm getting hard-pressed to nuance the Exodus reading, when I sing it during the Easter vigil, in a way that allows for the light of Christ to shine on it. Does God really want us to get overjoyed about "horse and rider thrown into the sea", or might there be a different way that allows for our purification and enlightenment, freedom for both slave and master, without the violence? There is also the whole experience of freedom-as-desert — the Exodus opened up history for the Jews, yes, but only after and in the midst of "forty years in the desert". This was after, not before, the Red Sea! That’s some freedom!

Finally, I think that the meaning of the resurrection has to be grounded in this world. Otherwise there is little to keep oppressor from oppressing, and the oppressed from suffering in silence as the will of God. It’s far too easy for us just to imagine that the meaning of the resurrection is life after death, to reward the good and punish the bad. It doesn’t, ultimately, change anything in this world which, from its creation, is supposed to be good. Jesus suggested by his life, work, and word a new Way for us. He proposed an alternative empire to the empires of this world, and for his trouble, he was executed. But God’s final word is that he was not left in the grave. God raised him, validating his life, work, and word, and showing imperial power to be the lie. So now, what we do about that?

Once, the Vincentians were closing a venerable institution in Perryville, MO as their college, and asked me to write an Easter song as part of the celebration. It never appeared in a hymnal after Glory and Praise Comprehensive, but at least I think I was dealing with this aspect of the paschal mystery, presence and absence, back in the olden days, over twenty-five years ago:

We have not seen you, but we love you.
We have not seen you, but we believe you.
We have not seen you, but hope in you
For we have met you in our day,
We have met you on the way.

1. In the garden of despair,
Bowed by grief too great to bear,
Love is gone, and we've nothing left to give.
Then we hear you speak our name,
Ashen hearts burst into flame,
For your tomb is empty, and you live.

2. When our doubting drives us home
And we think we walk alone,
As we speak of the cross, a third appears.
When we offer hearth and bed,
Then the stranger breaks our bread,
And our eyes are opened. You are here.

3. Day to day we see you plead
From the eyes of those in need.
Human pain spreads before us like a sea.
And we hunger for the day
When at last we hear you say,
"What you did for these, you did for me." (© 1987 NALR, assigned to Rory Cooney)

Moses, by Marc Chagall
These are just a few thoughts on Easter joy, and the ambivalence I have felt at the vigil about the “horse and chariot” excitement. That’s what the liturgy says, and it’s reinforced in the psalm after Exodus, so I’m with it for now. I kept looking for a way somehow to say, “Yeah, but...”, and then say how Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and that if God expects us to do that, then God must be very good at it, and the story must have a "different ending" than all those people lying dead on the seashore. 

At Vigil of 2011, I had an idea, and presented it to my pastor. I thought, Well, the liturgy allows for a brief introduction to the reading. Why not say something about how God is on everybody's side, and there's no need to avoid the Easter Vigil if you happen to be Egyptian? He told me to do it myself. So I thought about it for a while, and wrote this short little preface, which I chant in the silence before the Exodus Reading:
Throughout the book of Genesis
The lesson's to be learned
That things begun in goodness
Can suddenly be turned.
Thus pharaohs mourn their babies,
And Israel takes slaves.
Whoever walks in darkness,
God is in that night to save,
To lift oppressor and oppressed,
And raise them from their graves.
A reading from the book of Exodus...
I don't know if it makes any difference or not. And as I think about the Passion narrative, the "story" for us Christians, it does indeed have a "different ending." “Put away your sword.” Those are pretty much the first words on the way of the cross, the way that leads to resurrection.


  1. A 'gentle' paradigm shift toward the Exodus reading and something I contemplate each year as we sing through your wonderful rendering of this scripture passage. Love your 'preface' and will suggest using it in the future.

  2. I am glad I was at the Vigil in 2011 to hear you sing this. You sang it differently than I'd ever heard it before, and there was as much heartbreak as triumph in it.