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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Not that I'm superstitious or anything, but happy anniversary, St. Anne's!

April 30, 2000, was the Second Sunday of Easter. On that day, Cardinal George came to Barrington, and our new church, the third (or fourth?) one to serve the Barrington Catholic community in it's 125-
Main entrance, Easter 2002
year history, was dedicated. So today is our anniversary. Our 13th anniversary. What do you get for the 13th anniversary? A chain saw and hockey mask?

The Wikipedia article on the parish is fascinating - and take a look at this picture. That's the original church from the first decade of the 20th century. The house on the right, next to it, is the house Terry and I lived in from 1996 until 2009, though it was added onto over the years. Where the church is in this picture is now the main parish parking lot.

Ambo, altar, and triptych along the center axis of the new
church, taken from the baptismal font and main doors.
The church that was in place when I arrived in 1994 had been the parish church since 1950. Seating about 400 people, it had a small Möller pipe organ in a choir loft, lovely resonance, and no air conditioning. Most of the community (about 60% on a regular Sunday, more during the summer) met to worship in the gym across the street, which had the attraction of a/c. Courtney and Clem, with others, had worked over the years to create a good worship ambience in the gym, setting the seating up antiphonally in the monastic style along a central axis bounded by the altar at one end and the ambo at the other, with a baptismal font in the center. This seating arrangement took hold of the parish's self-image, and became the arrangement when the design for the new church was planned.

Daily mass chapel, winter, 2009. Probably Memorial
Day weekend.
Another big influence on the design was the desire of the pastor and the parish to have a blend of "the old and the new" in the architecture of the building. Stone, glass, and statuary from the old church and the convent, torn down to create green space for the project, was used throughout the new building and in the reconstruction of the old church into a 180-seat daily mass chapel. This beautiful room at the north end of the church complex houses the tabernacle and reconciliation room, and is where daily mass is held, along with some weddings and most funerals. Musically, it is a dream to play in, stone walls and high ceiling providing recording-class reverb and encouraging participation by its warm enclosure.

All new artwork included this stunning
icon triptych behind the main altar
Back to the dedication day: we tried to do things right, really. My colleagues in our liturgy office, Courtney Murtaugh and Clem Aseron, along sacristan Georgene Farman and our worship commission, prepared and sent in the script and program to spec weeks in advance, and with no comment or argument, went forward with printing the program. We had added a few personalized touches. One was a few acclamations sprinkled through the dedication prayer. I remember that one, because Cardinal George made a point of coming to me 15 minutes before the ball dropped and saying we couldn't do that, it was illegal. He was unphased by my carefully worded whining and deferential wailing that his staff had had the entire script verbatim for two months with no problems communicated to us. I don't remember. We came to an understanding of some kind, one that involved threats of thumbscrews and the catherine wheel, and the Swiss Guard playing the drum solo from "In a Gadda da Vida" on  my head with axe handles.

Baptistery, cruciform  immersion font (covered),
paschal candle and mobile as seen from the mezzanine level
Nevertheless, everything was so cool that our enthusiasm was undampened even by his eminence's apparent lack of joy over either the interior design or the fact that the tabernacle was in a separate (attached) building. His predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of happy memory, had given his blessing on the plan before he succumbed in such an untimely way to pancreatic cancer, and away we went with the construction, to the tune of (cough) million dollars. We're still not quite completely paid off on the loans. The last $900,000 seems to be the hardest. But consider this: that is not even 10% of the cost of the building. Closer, in fact, to 5%.

I'm still so proud of our parish and the house we built for the church under the guidance of our pastor-now-emeritus Jack Dewes, liturgical consultant John Buscemi, and Ruck-Pate architects of Barrington (with other collaborating architects, artists, donors, &c). So awesome to have been part of the building of such a great community and its house. Happy anniversary, friends. (Music from the dedication is below the picture.)
The real church of Barrington, of course, isn't (just) the building,
but the body of Christ that gathers there.
This was the music we sang at our dedication. It was a glorious Easter celebration. We had the choirs, with brass, strings, woodwinds, guitar, bass, and percuss-o-mundo. Some iTunes links are available in the playlist below, others have sound clips at the publishers' sites, as specified on each line.

Road to Jerusalem (Psalm 122) Rory Cooney (OCP song link)
Jesus Christ Is Risen Today

Introductory Rites
Lead Us to the Water Tom Kendzia (OCP song link)
Sprinkling Rite and Glory to God Gary Daigle (GIA song link)

Liturgy of the Word

Psalm 118: This Is the Day J. Michael Joncas
Easter Alleluia arr. Rory Cooney
Easter Sequence  (Plainsong, arr. Rory Cooney)
Choral Response to Homily: Dedication PRayer from Mass (Leonard Bernstein)

Dedication Rites

Litany of the Saints John Becker (OCP song link)
Dedication Prayer with Acclamations (not with acclamations)
Anointing of Altar: Psalm 84 "How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place" J. Michael Joncas (OCP song link)
Incensations: Psalm 150 Jan Vermulst
Lighting of Altar and Sconce Candles: Christ Be Our Light B. Farrell, arr. rc

Liturgy of the Eucharist

Preparation of Gifts: Alleluia Round William Boyce
Eucharistic Acclamations: Mass of Creation
Fraction Rite and Communion: May We Be One Gary Daigle and Rory Cooney (GIA song link)
Sending Forth: On Holy Ground Donna Peña

Monday, April 29, 2013

Two little words

"Dominus vobiscum"
"Verbum Domini"
"Evangelium Domini"
"Mysterium fidei"
"Corpus Christi"
"Sanguis Christi"

Each of those little two-word phrases is part of the Order of Mass in Latin, each has been rendered in English in slightly longer phrases, respectively:

"The Lord be with you"
The word of the Lord"
"The gospel of the Lord"
"The Mystery of Faith"
"The body of Christ"
"The blood of Christ"

Each is an element of dialogue, each calls forth a response from those to whom it is directed. None of the phrases has a verb. This is not unusual in Latin; in the absence of a verb, one generally assumes a form of "esse" (to be) or "fieri" (to become). So we carefully add the verb "be" to "The Lord be with you," because it's ambiguous, but still allows conversation. "Be" is a subjunctive usage in English. It can mean "may the Lord be with you", or it can be a sort of softened imperative (as in a blessing, because not even a priest can tell God what to do!), or it can just mean "is", which is kind of an archaic usage, but we're in very traditional territory here.

Each of these little two-word phrases is a kind of invitation into dialogue. Yes, literally, in the sense that we respond to them, but because they happen in liturgy, they are an invitation into a dialogue of life. The phrases, with readings, gestures, sacramental signs, and people, float around in the space and invite us into the grand mystery of Christ, dead and risen, gone, and present.

Think about the times that the dialogue "Dominus vobiscum/Et cum spiritu tuo" is exchanged at mass. There is one at the beginning of mass (sometimes a longer exchange is used, like, "Grace and peace of God our with you," but these are all options), one before the gospel, one at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, another version of it (Pax vobiscum) right before the kiss of peace and communion, and one last one at the beginning of the dismissal rite. What does that mean?

The liturgy is reminding us that God is present—with us, yes—but in us. In us as assembly. In us gathered as we begin. In us as we hear the gospel proclaimed, alive in the Word and alive in us. In us as we say again the great prayer of thanksgiving to God, asking for the transforming power of the Spirit in our lives and in our world. In us as we offer shalom, the shalom of the Messiah, to one another, and share the food and drink that make us one. In us as we are sent into the world to live the mission of the Messiah. In short, in us as Christ, brothers and sisters of the Beloved Son, who have been given in baptism the Christic identity by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We keep forgetting who we are, so we have to remind each other over and over again. "Dominus vobiscum," the priest says, "the Lord be with you as you gather, listen, give thanks, share, are sent." "Et cum spiritu tuo," we respond, "you too," we say, "you, who are our community person, marked with the spirit as ours in your ordination."

Are you beginning to see why it's so important that we not mess around with the words? "The Lord be with each and every one of you." That's a riff. "Vobiscum" means "you, all of you". the sense is of many-as-one, not many-as-individuals. We get to the latter by the former. Furthermore, it's just bad form to change ritual dialogue. It's saying, "It's OK for me to improvise my part, but you should just say what you're supposed to say." My experience is that it gets weirder and weirder until you wonder whether it's even possible to respond. "A selection from the gospel of Jesus Christ, written to us from Matthew." Huh? No it wasn't. But I digress.

As we come to those acclamatory dialogues before and after the readings and at the offering of the Eucharist, again, we are asked to respond to the mystery of faith. "The word of the Lord," we hear, and we're specifically not told, "This is the word of the Lord." Why? Because the latter is too narrow and descriptive. "This" reading is not "the word of the Lord" in the liturgical sense: God's word is living and active. God's word is Jesus Christ, alive in this room, alive in the saying and living of these words, and we are invited to renew our baptismal calling to be the Word of the Lord as we respond. "The body of Christ", "the blood of Christ," we are offered at communion. It's specifically not "This is the body..." or "this is the blood," again, because it's too narrow a focus to think that the liturgy is talking simply about the transformed bread and wine. The mystery into which we are invited is to be the body and blood of Christ, to participate in the Paschal Mystery, day in and day out, as we were made in our baptism.

Mysterium fidei in a revised translation of the Eucharistic prayer lost the pronouns and verbs ("Let us proclaim...")  and was stripped down to a similar acclamatory invitation: "The mystery of faith!" proclaimed over the Eucharistic meal, as the Holy Spirit is called over the offering. The dying and rising of Jesus, made present in the sacred meal shared among the baptized, is the mystery of faith which we sing. I get enthusiastic about that.

Being invited to awaken to the wonder of who we are, the sons and daughters of God: presence, word, gospel peace, body, blood, mystery of faith. This is who we have been made by baptism: Christ! This is the calling we have received. I try to remind myself about that as I say those responses, hard as it is not to be distracted by the well-meaning improvisations of some presiders and the still-new awkward formality of "and with your spirit." The wonder of the mystery ought to be overwhelming. and invite me to surrender more completely. The Easter season, through the feast days at the beginning of summer Ordinary Time (Pentecost, Trinity, and the Body and Blood of the Lord) relentlessly invites us to believe that the risen Christ is with us, and to carry his shalom to the world. But every Sunday's liturgy reinforces that reality with two little words that we hear over and over in our own language, a little Easter and a little Pentecost, telling us that we belong to Christ and to one another, and inviting us into a way of life that will make the love of Christ clear to all. Deo gratias!

Two little words. Let's hear it for the economy of liturgical grace.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mystagogy for dummies (like me) - Easter 5 - That's the story of, that's the glory of love

The wonderful Father Michael Sparough, S.J., lives and works right down the street from St. Anne's at the Bellarmine Retreat Center in Barrington, and occasionally helps out at my parish. We had him last evening for mass, and were treated to a lovely homily on love, embracing all kinds of stuff from C. S. Lewis to Mother Teresa, a real breath of fresh air. This has nothing to do with my post for today, except that it got me listening to the gospel more intensely, just because of the way he proclaimed it. As always, it's something in the moment, in the lived experience of the liturgy, that makes a day different, and gives us a new window of insight into scripture and the Christian life. And,
in this case, into "what it means to rise from the dead."

One thing Michael brought out in the gospel that really did speak to me was that first phrase: Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. The "now" in that sentence is the moment that Judas leaves the room where the "last supper" has taken place. John has only mentioned the supper obliquely, opting instead to call attention to what Jesus did after the supper, that is, he got up from table, and washed the feet of his disciples. It seems to me that "now" harkens back to this action and to the musical overture to John's gospel, the hymn of the Logos, describing the descent of the Word from heaven to "pitch his tent among us." "Now" is the moment of kenosis, when the events of the death of the Lord are set into motion by the departure of Judas. This the moment when both Christ and God are glorified.

Why? Because glory is how scripture describes the visible or sensible manifestation of God's presence. And God, as the New Testament makes clear, is agape, is love. The glory of God is kenosis, is the emptying out of the divine self in love for the other. It becomes clear in the hour of betrayal. And it will be clear to the world, Jesus says, if the disciples will do as he has done, and wash each others' feet. Or, as he puts it more clearly in the gospel today, if they love one another. 

Self-emptying love among human beings is the glory of God. It's as impossibly simple as that. As Luke put it in his "overture" to the gospel story, the glory of God in high heaven is peace among people on earth. This shalom is not achievable except as a manifestation of who God is, that is, as self-emptying love that does not assert its rights, even to life, but surrenders everything for the good of the other.

So, for today at least, in my hearing of the gospel, the glory of God is our love for one another. Glory is agape, and that love is kenosis, the way we serve one another, "pour ourselves out" as God does in Christ and Christ does for us. That is no more achievable for us than not dying is achievable for us. How is it possible to love with agape? How is it possible to rise from the dead? It is only possible through surrender to God's love in us. 

Put as directly as I can say it, to rise from the dead is to have love for one another, to imitate Christ by washing each others' feet, to live and die for the life of the world. I don't know what it means for the future, but I know that that love creates, sustains, and saves the world. My world. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

From Babel to Pentecost: The Covenant Journey

How many times have churchmice like me heard, on Sundays and at funerals, the words from the book of Revelation in today’s second reading: 
I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,

coming down out of heaven from God,

prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. 

He will dwell with them and they will be his people

and God himself will always be with them as their God.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes,

and there shall be no more death or mourning,
wailing or pain,
 for the old order has passed away.”
 As Easter progresses toward Pentecost, Acts chronicles Sunday by Sunday the spread of the Church across the Mediterranean and, by extension, to the whole world and universe. Even the cozy vision of the church as a domestic branch of Judaism that is presented at the beginning of Acts begins to give way to a wider audience throughout Greece, Asia Minor, and the whole Roman Empire. It caught my ear, that little text from Revelation that I highlighted above: “God’s dwelling is with the human race. They will be his people, and God himself will always be with them as their God.” 

This is a huge development in the understanding of the covenant, the relationship between God and people that is at the heart of the scriptures. From the time of the
Exodus, and told back into the story of Abraham, there has been one covenant between God and the human race, and it was with a specific tribe, the Hebrews. Establishing the covenant with Abram/Abraham in Genesis 17, God promises to make him the father of a great nation: I will maintain my covenant with you and your descendants after you throughout the ages as an everlasting pact, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you the land in which you are now staying, the whole land of Canaan, as a permanent possession; and I will be their God. (Gen 17: 7-8) At Sinai the covenant is reiterated and the people of Israel become people of the Torah, who are to walk in the law of God: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. (Ex. 19: 4-6) 

The covenant is kept alive in the prophetic tradition, when exile has stripped Israel of the temple and the ark, God renews the covenant and through the prophets assures Israel that the covenant does not need the ark or the temple to endure, because it is written within them: The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they broke my covenant and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:31-34) I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ez. 26: 26-28) 

This is what is so wonderful about the passage from Revelation that we hear this weekend: the development of the understanding of God’s merciful covenant has spread to include not only the Jews but all of the world, so that as the curtain closes on the Christian scriptures (what we sometimes call the New Testament, another word for “covenant”), it is not only Israel that is taken into covenant with God, but the whole human race, and the terms of intimacy once reserved for the chosen of Israel are now applied to the entire planet. In Genesis, the last of the great stories about the origin of sin, the building of the tower of Babel, is different from the ones that precede it. In each of those previous stories (Adam and Eve’s sin, the murder of Abel by Cain, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Noah and the flood), punishment for the sin described is softened by some kind of gift from God. God makes garments for Adam and Eve, marks Cain against aggressors, saves Lot and his family from the destruction of their city, and tells Noah how to build an ark to survive the flood. But in the story of Babel, there is no clear narrative of abatement. That is, of course, unless you include the rest of the Genesis narrative as it opens up into the story of Abraham and the covenant with Israel as God’s restorative and merciful response to the hubris of Babel. (For a wonderful, brief theological treatment of “election,” being chosen by God for the mission of Christ as symbolized in the rites of initiation, see Rita Ferrone’s little book, The Rite of Election, available from the Forum Essays series of Liturgical Training Publications.)

For Christians, there is a direct line from Babel to Pentecost, as we can see from the series of readings that are proclaimed at the Vigil of Pentecost, readings which begin with the story of Babel. Pentecost, the sending of the Spirit of God into the Church to continue the divine mission of healing and reconciliation that was made human in Christ, reverses the scattering of peoples described in Genesis after God confuses their languages at Babel. In the Pentecost narrative, the confusion of national tongues is reversed and people of diverse origin are able to understand the proclamation of the Apostles who have been visited by “tongues of fire.” Finally, the “whole human race” has been opened to the covenant action of God through the paschal mystery of Christ. The name of God’s intimacy with humanity is Jesus Christ. It is Christ who is God written upon the heart of us, who is God’s dwelling with the human race. By the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church, the world begins to bear the likeness of the one who fills the universe in all its parts. God is faithful to us, and to the extent that we keep the covenant by living in agape and giving ourselves for the life of the world as God does in Christ, we live the covenant that is alive in us through our baptism. It’s no longer enough to be parochial, national, or even ecclesial in our vision. The ekklesia is the “whole human race,” the nation is the New Jerusalem, and the family is the community of all people, nations, and worlds who are children of one Father, and sisters and brothers of Christ. The old order has passed away. 

The Lamb on the throne makes all things new. The Spirit, renewing the face of the earth, is the Breath of Genesis, the Wind that moved over the chaos, the Spirit of creation. As once the chaos gave way to cosmos when the logos of God was irrevocably uttered, we can pray over the chaos again today, waiting for darkness to be again shattered: Let there be light! May all humanity, the whole human race, see it together.

Friday, April 26, 2013

First Communion - exorcising my inner Pelagian

....and embracing my inner Lutheran? I don't know, it's so confusing. But I'll get back to that in a minute.

One of the funniest chapters of Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt (Scribner, 1996) is the scene in which he describes his first communion. Now, since everyone on earth has read it and probably remembers the scene, I'm going to reproduce it here for no earthly reason than I know that it will make you laugh, and jayzus knows we need a good laugh before first communion masses this week.

First, McCourt has the awful thing happen that we all had nightmares about as second graders in the days of nuns before Vatican II: the dry host sticks to the roof of the mouth, and fear and fasting lock it there, and no amount of peridontal and lingual antics can dislodge it. And God help ye if ye chew the Lord's body...
It stuck.

I had God glued to the roof of my mouth. I could hear the master's voice, Don't let that host touch your teeth for if you bite God in two you'll roast in hell for eternity. I tried to get God down with my tongue but the priest hissed at me, Stop that clucking and get back to your seat. God was good. He melted and I swallowed Him and now, at last, I was a member of the True Church, an official sinner. 
Then after breakfast, the poor Frankie has a little problem with the digestion, and his grandmother's worst nightmare ensues:
The food churned in my stomach. I gagged. I ran to her backyard and threw it all up. Out she came.

Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in me backyard. What am I goin' to do? I'll take him to the Jesuits for they know the sins of the Pope himself.

She dragged me through the streets of Limerick. She told the neighbors and passing strangers about God in her backyard. She pushed me into the confession box.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's a day since my last confession.

A day? And what sins have you committed in a day, my child?

I overslept. I nearly missed my First Communion. My grandmother said I have standing up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair. I threw up my First Communion breakfast. Now Grandma says she has God in her backyard and what should she do.

The priest is like the First Confession priest. He has the heavy breathing and the choking sounds.

Ah ... ah ... tell your grandmother to wash God away with a little water and for your penance say one Hail Mary and one Our Father. Say a prayer for me and God bless you, my child.

Grandma and Mam were waiting close to the confession box. Grandma said, Were you telling jokes to that priest in the confession box? If 'tis a thing I ever find out you were telling jokes to Jesuits I'll tear the bloody kidneys outa you. Now what did he say about God in my backyard?

He said wash Him away with a little water, Grandma.

Holy water or ordinary water?

He didn't say, Grandma.

Well, go back and ask him.

But, Grandma ...

She pushed me back into the confessional.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it's a minute since my last confession.

A minute! Are you the boy that was just here?

I am, Father.

What is it now?

My grandma says, Holy water or ordinary water?

Ordinary water, and tell your grandmother not to be bothering me again.

I told her, Ordinary water, Grandma, and he said don't be bothering him again.

Don't be bothering him again. That bloody ignorant bogtrotter.
OK, curmudgeon alert. Now that we've had a laugh together (the part that kills me is that his grandmother sends him back into the confessional, and he says, "it's a minute since my last confession" - Hee hee) I have to confess: I have an ongoing love-hate relationship with first communion. Lovely children, of course. Lovely parents, of course. Lovely everybody. But we seem to be so lost in our cultural narcissism, our worship of our children, our loss of all sense of proportion in our liturgy, and our mistrust of transcendence and ritual, that the celebration has become an emotional and psychological free-for-all, an affirmation of "specialness" and individuality. Connection to the tradition, to the greater story, to the death and resurrection of Christ, and to a church that celebrates the Eucharist constantly, all over the planet, and has done so pretty much for twenty centuries is gone, exchanged for clericalistic niceties and "precious moments." Worship bartered for a photo op.

When my generation were children, there was no such thing as a church full of non-church-goers for first communion. It just didn't happen: Catholics were just barely out of the ghetto, numerous but still mistrusted generally, and sticking together culturally. A great number of the people attending First Communions, as often happens on days like Christmas and Easter, seem to have no idea what the shape or form of the liturgical gathering is, what their role in it is supposed to be. And these are the adults. How on earth can we imagine that the children are going to understand their role?

I'm willing to cut slack on all the bride-of-Christ dresses and mini-tuxes the kids are wearing these days. I mean, everybody always got dressed up for first communion. But there wasn't much in the church, during the liturgy, that was specifically geared to us. The celebration wasn't about making the Eucharist special for us, it was about making us special for the Eucharist. It was we who were being initiated into a new way of being Catholic. The church was there, the mystery was there, we were brought into it. There were parties and celebrations, yes, but it wasn't about how "special" we all  were. It was about how special God is, who Jesus is, and how wonderful the Eucharist is.

It's not really fair, of course, to compare then with now...I wouldn't trade the church today for the church of the late 50s and early 60s in a thousand years. And we've done some things well, associating first communion with Easter time, for instance, adding the renewal of baptismal promises and the sprinkling rite. But there's something upside-down with the way we do First Communion. Over the years, I've seen occasions when each priest had to give the sign of peace to every child...what message is that sending? So often the cutesie, Linkletteresque dialogue homilies, why the conversation with every child and every family coming up to communion? Isn't it enough to receive the body and blood of Christ? Is that somehow improved by hearing how nice you look, or some other banality? Wouldn't it be better to help them connect to the wider story of the Christian journey of their families, their ancestors, Mother Teresa, Pope John XXIII, Oscar Romero, Francis, Claire, Dominic, Joan, Thérèse of Lisieux, all the heroes of the faith? Wouldn't their self-esteem be better served by showing them that they are part of something eternal and transcendent, and that none of it depends on their status, their clothes, or who they know, only that God has chosen them to be part of this people whose mission is to change the world? 

That's it, I think. It's something about being part of something bigger than themselves. It's not equating doing good with obeying your parents, which I have heard unequivocally in First Communion homilies. Who knows what's happening in their homes, what things they're being asked to do by parents and other adults? No, their goodness doesn't depend on what they do. It depends on being created by the God who created everything from muons to black holes, who culled and shaped the infinitely delicate lines of DNA down the millenia to bring them to this moment, and who has chosen an eternity of undisclosed abundance for them and for us together. Maybe we need to build on kids' natural egalitarianism and sense of fairness, helping anchor that in their religious consciousness, and naming equality and "having enough" as God's will for everybody. That is what Jesus taught and lived, and that is the gospel, the good news. But it has to sound like good news, because it is more important than what they can hear on TV and Disney/Pixar, even more important than the really good stuff they hear in reruns from Fred Rogers, peace be upon him, and God rest his soul.

Well, we do our best. We sing with joy and energy about the reign of God, about God's universal invitation, about the "children of God" and the family resemblance in God's family. I'm afraid it all gets lost in the mishmash of esteem-building exercises and psychobabble. In the end, all I can really do is release it into the hands of God, since this conversion business and Church and grace are God's business anyway, and not mine. Without letting us off the hook here, first communion is barely more about being "prepared" than infant baptism is. At their core, sacraments are about God's action, not ours. So yes, I need to exorcise my inner Pelagian, but it would go a long way toward that if we pared down the ritual to something that more resembled...well, the ritual.

Send out your Spirit, Lord, and renew the face of the earth. Seems like you have a lot of work to do, urban-renewal wise, in this land, this church, and certainly in me. But what do I know? I'm just a bloody ignorant bogtrotter meself.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Albums (5) — "Safety Harbor" (1989)

Our happy trio, almost a quarter century ago,
on the Big Island, looking like the locals. Not.
That is I, looking very groovy, on the left.
This is the one where we talk about the "right of first refusal" clause in contracts, and how to get out of it. Safety Harbor marked a major move for us, from one publisher to another. It was music mostly written in the amazing year of 1989, with the Berlin Wall coming down, the showdown in Tienanmen Square, and the negotiation of the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid. It was also the year of successful heart surgery for our friend and mentor, John Gallen, S.J.

Since I've done "SongStories" posts on "Jerusalem, My Destiny" and "Safety Harbor," I will just reference those posts when I am talking about the individual songs on this collection. Psalms 137 and 139 were also covered in an earlier post about musician Bill Foster who was the first to record them on his Resource Publications record, "If I Forget You, Jerusalem." Look for the "sidebar" located, unpredictably, at the end of the story.

I had gotten involved with North American Liturgy Resources (NALR) in Phoenix in 1980 as I mentioned in another post, when I met Paul Quinlan and then Tom Kendzia. I was the choir director at the cathedral parish, Ss. Simon and Jude, which had no music director at the time. I was also co-directing the diocesan chorale, which is why NALR came to me for their 10th anniversary Festival of Sacred Music, to direct a choir for John Michael Talbot's "The Lord's Supper." As things moved along, I made my first recordings with NALR between 1984 and 1987. I would make two more in the early 90s, Cries of the Spirit, Volumes 1 and 2, psalm collections of material previously published in Assemblybook and in the Glory and Praise series. 

But in 1989, in spite of the friendly relationship we had with individuals in the company, our relationship with the company had begun to fray over the issue of royalty payments. Whatever the case actually was, we felt that we had been underpaid and too-slowly paid for our sales, and had had enough. We decided it was time to investigate other publishers.

Easier said than done, though, because at the time we were under contract with NALR, which, when taking on a new project, would insert a right-of-first-refusal clause into the contract. This boiled down to a commitment that, during the two years following the signing of the deal, NALR had the exclusive right to publish any new work. If NALR wanted it, they would publish it under their terms. If they refused it, then one could take it to another publisher. There was no point in trying to fight this clause. We had signed the contract, and we were definitely too poor to hire a lawyer to help us escape. So we decided to wait it out for the two year period.

As chance would have it, in November of 1989 when the two years was up, the three of us happened to be in Hawaii (see exciting photo above) as presenters and guests of BILAC, the Big Island Liturgical Arts Conference, at the time held in the Hawaiian homelands outside of Hilo. I remember sitting together and calling Michael Cymbala from there, and telling him that we had a collection of music ready to record that we felt was very solid, and Michael being most gracious and saying he was looking forward to working with us. It was as easy as that. We were about to make our first recording with GIA.

In moving from one publisher to another, virtually nothing changed in the way we made the record. We still used Vintage Recorders, on 11th Street and Camelback in central Phoenix, and the recording was engineered by Mary Carol Kendzia's talented sister, Paula Wolak. Many of the choir members and players were the same we had used before, though now I had friends from St. Jerome singing along with Gary's colleagues from the Casa. The great Steve Fitch played percussion along with the late Bob Warren. Fred Forney anchored the horn section again, with his friend and colleague, the late Tom Miles. The second violinist was the redoubtable Eugene Lombardi, for many years the concertmaster of the Phoenix Symphony and head of the Arizona State University music department. Tim and Julie Smith, who led the music ministry at St. Timothy's in Mesa so inimitably for so long both sang on the recording. I've already sung the praise of so many others, but feel the need to mention again Beth Lederman, who played piano for all the tracks.

The Songs: Organization - Loosely speaking, we divided the songs into and Advent side and a Lent side, though there were some songs that were clearly general, like the title song. 
Gary Palmatier's original artwork that graced the cover.

1. Canticle of the Turning has become one of my most popular songs ever, and I'm so grateful to everyone. It has been arranged by the great John Ferguson and the great Hal Hopson, and appears in both Lutheran and Mennonite hymnals. Honestly, you just never know. No sense saying more about this song, as it's a clear candidate for a "SongStories" post like #8 and #9 below, but thank you to everyone who has tried it out, downloaded it, made a YouTube video, or covered it on a church recording. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
2. Carol of the Word was one of three collaborations on this recording between Gary Daigle and me. It's an Advent processional that uses imagery from each of the four Sundays in its four stanzas. Gary's fresh melody crackles along, paired with Bob Warren's sidestick pattern reminiscent of Sting and the Police, and Tony Malaby's soprano sax line ties the pieces together perfectly. I love the restless energy of this piece, which to me embodies the Advent spirit, waiting, longing, hoping.
3. Psalm 63: My Soul Is Longing. In the days before music software (for my next album, I put the scores into Mark of the Unicorn's Professional Performer and Composer) all of these scores were written out by hand, and I remember having these huge pads of manuscript paper, probably 14" x 20", a yellowing-orange color, and it was on this paper I started writing this setting of Psalm 63, using the NAB translation. Musically set for piano, cello, and oboe, I wanted to do what I had seen composers do in the days of the Composers' Forum for Catholic Worship, that is, set each verse musically in a way that expressed its text, rather than stacking verses with the same melody or cantillation. For the cantor, I imagine this psalm is a lot of fun, spanning an octave and a half and both major and minor tonalities. And of course, Terry's interpretation on the recording is beautiful.
4. Sing We Maranatha is a little Advent carol that I love, playing with the theological paradox of praying "Maranatha (Come, Lord!)" to the Lord who is, in fact, all around us, even within us! The verses enumerate ways in which the Lord is near, "here in robin, there in trout,/Every choice, and every doubt..." and the refrain is a prayer for sight: "Let us see you where you are,/Breath of lovers, Seed of star,/ Source and heart of everything!/ Sing we 'Maranatha'!" In the madrigal-like setting, the word "sing" in the chorus is anticipated before the bar, giving the whole song a sense of exultation. I love to pull this one out every couple of years.
5. Say the Word is a duet for alto and tenor, taking the "roles" of Mary and Gabriel in the annunciation story. I wrote about this in my post about the recording Mystery because it is from the same mini-musical, Song of Mary, that "To My Surprise" is from. In my "translation" of Mary's "fiat" - "What must I do? Say the word!" I was going for a little play on the idiom that means "I'll do anything" and a deeper sense, of which she might be unaware, that in the incarnation God will indeed "say the Word" that will bring about salvation. 
6. Psalm 139: Wings of Dawn At the bottom of the post "If I Forget You" (linked by the song title) I wrote some of the origins of both this and #13, written in the summer of 1973.
7. Walk in the Reign is one of our favorite songs to sing in concert and at liturgy. The year this song was written, when several of these songs were written, was a heady year for humanity. The Advent words of Isaiah seemed fresher than ever, as "close as tomorrow," and again, the first three verses of this song, and the bridge ("Bethlehem!...") were meant to call to mind imagery from each of the four Sundays. The fourth verse, "The schools of Soweto, the docks at Gdansk...", was meant to bring it all even more into the present. And by present, I just mean our lifetime, our era! I've updated the last verse occasionally, but I think that the original text carries as much meaning today as it did when I wrote it. But whatever the events, "when we stand together to stand against hell,/ The name of this people is Emmanuel." We, I, don't always measure up to that name and vocation. We sometimes rush to judgment about what "hell" is. But I think that's the risk God took with the incarnation, and as long as we are aware and keep discerning together, acting humbly, peacefully, without violence, we'll be all right.
8. Safety Harbor (link to "SongStories" post)
9. Jerusalem, My Destiny (link to "SongStories post)
10. Psalm 30: I Will Praise You, with #11 below are the other two collaborations with Gary Daigle that appear on this album. In both cases, Gary wrote the music and I wrote the words (on Psalm 116, I think I also wrote the melody of verse three, and I did the orchestration). We approach the songs differently, and I do not remember whether he started with melodies and asked me to set verses, or if he just asked me for a metric paraphrase and set it to music. On this song, what I do remember is sitting by the piano at St. Jerome in Phoenix while we were working out the three-part arrangement for our trio of the vocals. Terry and Gary are natural musicians, they hear intervals, chords, and what should go where right away. Me, I'm an idiot. I need someone to write it down, and then when I can see the music, I can sing it. This is not from being a trained musician. It's from not being talented in that way natural musicians are. I hate that about both of them. KIDDING.

11. Psalm 116: I Will Walk in the Presence of God
12. Psalm 8: How Glorious Is Your Name is a pretty standard psalm setting using the NAB text of the psalm, except that it employs two cantors on the verses, sometimes singing alone, sometimes in harmony. We still use this psalm a few times a year at weddings, and this year (year C of the lectionary) it is the psalm for Trinity Sunday. Orchestration is string quartet, keyboard, and flute. 
13. Psalm 137: If I Forget You (see note at #6)

Hits - "Canticle" and "Jerusalem, My Destiny" have both been tremendously successful for me over the years. In spite of this, neither has found its way into the anthologies of OCP or World Library, a fact that just makes me shake my head. In addition to those, Walk in the Reign, Psalm 116, and Psalm 8 all made it into the first and/or second edition of Gather Comprehensive, but none are in the current incarnation. Still, I am most grateful for all those, of many faiths, who have been able to pray using those songs for almost twenty-five years. What a privilege for me to have been an instrument of that. No, I don't get it, but I give thanks. 

Misses - "Sing We Maranatha" and "Carol of the Word" are the two songs that I wish had had a better hearing, or had fallen on the ears and hearts of music directors better! I think there's a lot of good in them that might yet be mined, and certainly some homily fodder. That's already in the Advent liturgy, of course, but a song can be a bridge between the newspaper and the bible, don't you think? 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

4 Down - literally, "single numbers" (Jap.) - six letters....

I most reluctantly admit to having an addictive personality, and suspect I'm mildly OCD. So...I'm human, sue me.

Enneads within enneads, I love them. The heady perfection of the logic of numbers. The contemplative solitude of zen sleuthing. 

The affair started, like so many romances, on an airplane trip. Needing a break from things theological and musical, iPod low on power, done with book, now what? American Way magazine beckons, with its Mensa puzzles - enh, kinda lightweight. AW crossword too easy. Sudoku, eh? I’ve heard about these, yes. You need to fill each 9-square-box with the numbers 1 to 9, with 9 boxes in the square, each row vertically and horizontally also needs to have the numbers 1 to 9. How hard can THAT be?

At first (in my case, this is a couple of months, not days), one makes too many stupid mistakes by rushing thru the puzzle, missing numbers, hasty copying errors, no coherent strategy for success. One reads various online hints for successful solvage, with ideas galore that are really things you’re already doing only reduced to intersecting lines.

For me, the challenge reduces to this: however few numbers might appear in the grid as the starter set, there is only one solution. Every number is inevitable. Every step you take has to be methodical, and the outcome is a foregone conclusion. True, a false move can lead you to suddenly finding two 8’s in the same row, causing you to curse quietly under your breath, inverting your pencil to employ the rubber antimatter on the opposite end. True, enough 9’s and 4’s in the same 9-square section cause me to curse like a priest on a golf course, and storm out of the house for Staples, where I buy a 3-pack of industrial-sized über-erasers, which with hardly an effort can turn half-an-hour’s digital scrawling in the enigmatic matrix into a tabula rasa of new possibilities.

And in an immersion into an Einsteinian wonderland of timespace discontinuity, a trip into the sudoku zone makes time pass like a dream - the distance from opening the book to finishing a puzzle is the blink of a bloodshot eye, or two of them. Nothing makes an airline flight, or terrible homily, pass more quickly that this mystical mosaic of nines, my favorite collection of which was edited by none other than America’s prime enigmatologist, Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzles. (Shortz himself is a piece of work: I recommend to anyone who enjoys puzzling of this sort the movie Wordplay, a documentary about Shortz, the NYT puzzle, and the people who create and solve them. Footnote: Will Shortz wrote his own doctoral program at Indiana
Will Shortz, three months younger,
and three million times cleverer than I.
University in enigmatology, and as far as I know, he's still the only person in the world with such a degree. What a wonderful, freakin' weirdo!)

Nowadays, my cryptophilic ritual is threefold. I have a book of NYT crosswords near the breakfast nook. Since I'm eating breakfast by myself while Des and Terry are getting ready for school, I breakfast with the matutinal trinity: Kashi, coffee, and Will Shortz. I knock off about about half of a Sunday puzzle while I sit there. Then I put it away until the next morning. After dinner, I sit down with my iPad. The crazy Malaysians or Latvians or whoever they are that created the website put a new puzzle up at 6pm Central time all year round. They score them 1, 2, or 3 points, with 3 being the hardest puzzles. No storing the "possibles" in the squares on this site—you have to do it in your head. I have over 3,000 points. Keep your crystal meth. The nines already have me. 

Then, at 9pm, the next day's NYT crossword puzzle (the iPad app version managed by Magmic) goes live for the central time zone. It's a race against the clock now, and against the hundreds of other addicts who have been waiting for this moment too. There is no thrill quite like finishing a puzzle among the first ten, and let me tell you, it has happened for me very rarely. 

I’ve worked my way up to the insanely hard Sudokus in the iPad app, so the slow speed of solving doesn't deflate my fragile ego, since they require a level of logic inaccessible to no lights lesser than Leibniz or Kant. Speed is not the prize. It's the flash of insight, moment of ecstasy celebrating that the logic synapses are still firing upstairs.

Look in your local paper, sharpen up a number 2 (check for adequate eraser length) and get busy. I’ll see you next week at Cryptomaniacs Anonymous. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

SongStories 7 - New Jerusalem (2005)

OK, if you are keeping track, this is actually the eighth post in this series, but I have two "2" entries, because apparently counting isn't my strong suit. We'll think of them as 2a and 2b.

Songs start in all kinds of different ways. Sometimes you're just minding your own business and an idea pops into your head (for me, "Servant Song" came like this). Sometimes you're working on planning music, and getting frustrated because there doesn't seem to be a good fit for a Sunday, and you think, "Well, I could write something." Or you get that idea after the Sunday passes, and a homily or something in the liturgy strikes you ("Come to Us" came like this.) Sometimes people want you to write a song for them ("Live the Promise" and the entire "Keep Awake" album, among many others) and sometimes a collaborator gives you a melody and won't leave you alone for months, even years, until you write a text ("Covenant Hymn.") Sometimes the idea comes from a book, or even a footnote in a book, like "I Am for You" began from a footnote in the Jerusalem Bible. Sometimes, it comes from a conversation, like our "A Litany of Saints," or, in today's case, "New Jerusalem."

Terry, Gary Daigle and I were driving up to Milwaukee or somewhere in southern Wisconsin a few years ago when we got to talking about the movie Shenandoah, which was probably something Terry brought up, since she's the old movie buff and I haven't seen it. This led to a conversation about the song, and how beautiful the melody is in its various incarnations. I had borrowed the melody of "Star of the County Down" for "Canticle of the Turning" a decade earlier, and that was generally a good match between the new text and the tune. Of course, the tune had already been "baptized" in the hymn melody called KINGSFOLD, but "Canticle" used the melody full-on, including the refrain, and assumes an accompaniment that is folk-like and suited to the tune's Irish roots. Other American, Irish, and British tunes have also been used by composers, like David Haas's use of "Wild Mountain Thyme" and "Mairi's Wedding," copious versions of "The Water Is Wide," known as O WALY WALY in hymn circles, and Liam Lawton's recent revisiting of the bold melody MO GHILE MEAR. This is not even to begin to enumerate the dozens of contributions by the prolific John Bell of folk adaptations, not just from the British Isles, but from around the world. Before him, there was the work of Rev. Willard Jabusch of Chicago, who adapted folk tunes of Spain and Israel (among others) along with a body of original works in the early decades of the reform.

As we spoke about "Shenandoah," it occurred to me that it would be a good candidate for adaptation as well. Though the exact origins of the song are lost in American antiquity, "Shenandoah" seems to be a work song, in call-and-response form. The best guesses imagine it originated with riverboats and barges on interior waterways. Carl Sandburg, an historian and collector of folk songs, said that the original word was "Shanadore," and referred to a tribal chief, but that the name eventually evolved into the name of the river. Others postulate a ribald origin of the words, and who knows? Everybody could be right in one way or another, since the song goes back to a time when music was purely the domain of popular culture and oral tradition.

In its most familiar modern form, though, the words and music of "Shenandoah" evoke a nostalgia for the pristine beauty of river and forest, the (imagined) simpler life of those times, and also the eternal sense of longing and the ache for distant loved ones. Even without the words, the tune itself is evocative, with the "rolling river" in the background, and the sense of being "bound away" from home and family on a journey of indeterminate length and outcome.

It struck me that this sense of longing for home and journey were part of the Christian myth surrounding the "New Jerusalem," and the cluster of emotions that surround the death of a Christian, the hope and the sorrow so interwoven in the paschal mystery, might be well carried by this venerable tune. The book of Revelation, used throughout the Easter season and so often proclaimed at Christian funerals, proclaims a vision of a time when every tear will be wiped away, and a place that is so beautiful that longing for the past will be forgotten. Once it dawned on me that "O Shenandoah" and "Jerusalem" share the same number of syllables and word accents, I set to work adapting Revelation 20-21 to the tune I remembered.

In making "New Jerusalem" a congregational piece, I wanted to keep the "call-and-response" form that is implied by the original text. The responses I chose were, "Come ye down in light and beauty," a reference to the vision of John that the new Jerusalem was a gift from heaven to earth, and then "And death shall be no more in the new Jerusalem." Actually, I think I originally had, "And death shall be no more in God's holy city." Kelly Dobbs-Mickus, then one of the editors at GIA, suggested the change at the end of the line that seems so obvious to me now! Not only does it reinforce the central image of the song, it fits the tune better. It takes a musical village, I guess!

I hope you'll give "New Jerusalem" a listen. We gave it a simple choral setting (SAB) with flute and violin parts (link is to GIA's page for the song on their site) for a "roots music" feel. For me, it expresses some of the complicated truth of the paschal mystery that the book of Revelation articulates in its arcane and symbolic way. We will be singing this at some of the masses the next two weekends at St. Anne's. At the first communion masses, we omit the second reading from Revelation, but at the regular masses the song will work well.

iTunes link:
New Jerusalem - Today

Monday, April 22, 2013

Mystagogy for Dummies (like me) - Easter 4

“My sheep hear my voice;I know them, and they follow me." (Jn 10:27)
Following up, again, on my question for the season. After listening to the gospel and the rest of the readings, psalm, and homily on Sunday, I'm trying to reflect briefly on this question - 

What does it mean "to rise from the dead"?

In the reading from Acts yesterday, we heard a bit about one of the journeys of Paul and Barnabas. They have been preaching in the towns to the Jews and their Gentile sympathizers, called here "worshippers" but elsewhere "God-fearers." Their preaching hits a snag when the local Jewish establishment fights back. The preaching to the "Gentiles" (the word is derived from the Latin word for "nations," gentes, translating the Hebrew goyyim and the Greek ethne) falls happily upon the ears of the non-Jewish "God-fearers," who support the Jewish community but are unwilling to be assimilated through cultic initiation and circumcision. Paul and the diaspora Jews were wooing the same clients, and though Paul had made inroads, in this case at least, people of influence stirred up "a persecution" against Paul and Barnabas, and they moved on.

In the second reading that continues Revelation, those who suffered the Great Tribulation, probably a reference to martyrs of the Roman persecutions under emperors from Nero to Trajan or Hadrian, are seen gleaming in the New Jerusalem, where they will never suffer again. The "Lamb will shepherd them," leading them to streams of life-giving water, wiping away every tear. 

The brief gospel offers a couple of images of the Good Shepherd, the one quoted above, and the promise of eternal life. Further, the gospel speaks of the intimacy between Jesus and the Father, invoked on behalf of the "sheep," reinforcing their safety in the care of the Good Shepherd. The sheep belong to the Father. No one has the power or strength to remove them.

So, what does it mean to rise from the dead?

I ask myself, first, what does it mean to be dead? In these readings, it's clear from the second reading that there's a literal, foundational meaning. There is a meaninglessness to loss of life, especially when the good die at the hands of brutal and "godless" persons; or, let's say, people who worship different gods. This is not a dead issue in the twenty-first century. There is plenty of religious slaughter in the world today, though it seems to me a lot of it is political slaughter or ideological slaughter that wraps itself in religious language. It doesn't matter. Innocent people die. Murderers and ideologues live. With the death of innocents, something of us dies too, something that wants to believe in the triumph of good, that good is stronger than evil all the time, that God protects good people from harm. Violence, the self-perpetuating force that both "civilizes" the world (for the strong) and destabilizes it (from the disenfranchised side) in a cycle of blood and terror, is ongoing death. To rise from the dead, we need to stop that cycle.

To be unable to change is to be dead. As early as the ancient Greeks (Heraclitus), life has been associated with change. No less a light than Cardinal Newman observed that "to live is to change, to be perfect is to have changed often." I'm not sure whether his eminence would have applied this to divine life, which has been tenaciously defended as "unchanging," but I like the idea that for created life, anyway, life is change, because it fits with the data. I think that when we tend to settle into all kinds of patterns of unchanging behavior, and when it begins to affect our interactions with others negatively, so that we resist change, we start to die in a way. This is spinning through folks in the second reading. I don't blame them, I'm the same way. It's still a mortal issue.

How can I tell when to change, and when to hold fast? I think that Christ who is life, who is perfect life, whether in perfect stasis or fluidity, wants us to know. "My sheep hear my voice," says the Lord. In the chaos and rancor of life, when we listen for the voice that says "Do not be afraid, put away your sword, love one another, love your neighbor, especially your enemy, as yourself," we hear the voice of the shepherd. There are a lot of other voices out there, but none of them is the same. The voice of the shepherd leads out of violence and non-life to "peaceful streams of life-giving water." And generally speaking, the voice is not coming from "beyond," but from right beside us somehow. We discern it together. All of us, together, know the voice of the shepherd. 

Being sixty isn't an excuse for stasis, but it's not a free-for-all, either. My place, it seems to me, is to listen for the voice of the shepherd, and listen from inside my community, for the give-and-take of discernment to lead us out of the mundane and mortal quest for revenge and participation in the culture of violence, and to move together toward peace for everyone. And as a leader in the community of sorts, I also need to echo and channel the shepherd's exhortation to peace and tranquility. I need to be willing to go outside the sheepfold and bring back the lost, if I am called to do that, and defend the weak and vulnerable with my wits and strength. 

The Shepherd and the Lamb matter. The Shepherd and the Father are one. And by the grace of God, we are made one with the Lamb by the bath and the meal of the Spirit. It was life that changed Paul, life that inspired and gave courage to the multitude who shed their blood and who were washed clean in the Lamb's blood. I want that life, the life that says "Do not be afraid, put away your sword, love one another, love your neighbor, especially your enemy, as yourself." It looks to me as though the life that speaks those words is what it means to rise from the dead. The voice that speaks those words is the voice of the shepherd. 
You have spread your banquet before me
In the unbroken sight of my foes

While my head is anointed with kindness

And the cup of my life overflows.

God alone may lead my spirit

Far away from want and fear.

For the Lord is my true shepherd

And I know the Lord is near. 
(Tom Conry, "Psalm 23," © 1994 Team Publications, published by OCP)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rehabbing Shepherds, Subverting "God"?

This past December, in preparing for the music we sing before Christmas midnight mass, I was doing a little research on shepherds in first century Israel. We seemed to have a shepherd thing running through the pre-service music I had chosen, and rather than have it just be a happy accident, in the context of sort of "celebrating" this Lucan contribution to the Christmas myth, I thought maybe I'd weave the songs together with a loose narrative to explore the question, "Why shepherds in the overture to this gospel?"

I never actually wrote the narrative, but when this Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter came up with its gospel and psalmic imagery that "we are...the sheep of the flock," I went back through the research to think about it all again. Of course, I don't have the chops to come to any really satisfying conclusions, but I am left with a couple of questions. Is the purpose of the shepherd imagery to rehab the image of shepherd who may have gotten a bum deal, like tax collectors and prostitutes and other collateral damage of the Roman occupation, the ritually impure collaborators? Might Jesus's sense of fairness, remembered and recorded by the gospel writers in the wake of the death and resurrection of the Lord, have made him want to lift up the image of these folks? And the other question is, if the shepherd is the shady character he's made out to be in (some of) the extra-biblical literature of the day, would the teaching Christ in his oblique, parabolic way have been offering a way to subvert an idolatrous image of God, moving God out of the throne room and into the field, away from the seraphim and into the midst of sheep? Doesn't it make you wonder?

There are good shepherds and bad shepherds in Israel's scripture and tradition. Certainly some of the heroes of Israel were shepherds. Patriarchs like Abraham and Isaac, prophets like Moses and Hosea, even kings like David were shepherds. God is referred to in Isaiah and the psalms as the Shepherd of Israel, and the true shepherd of Israel pronounces woe upon the shepherds who delude, cheat, and mislead the people, among the often-colluding ruling political, economic, and priestly classes of the land. All of that imagery is the canvas upon which the evangelists paint their portraits of Jesus. Those heart-sealed images are the tonality and rhythm out of which the song of the gospels rises, and when we hear gospel notes of the "shepherd," we're meant to hear the echoes of those foundational stories, much in the way a song or poem today might quote an image or a melody from before, or the way a title of a novel or movie ("Inherit the Wind," "Sins of the Fathers") is meant to evoke a semiotic field from biblical or other literature. In any event, Israel is the "flock of the Lord," and those who shepherd the flock do so in the name of the Holy One, and are admonished to lead the people of God with the same protective care as the true Shepherd. Woe to those who do otherwise.

Joachim Jeremias, the celebrated German biblical scholar of the last century, reported various non-biblical references that shed light on the esteem (or lack of it) in which shepherds were held at the time of Jesus. "Jeremias describes a shepherd's life: 'The dryness of the ground made it necessary for the flocks of sheep and cattle to move about during the rainless summer and to stay for months at a time in isolated areas, far from the owner's home. Hence, herding sheep was an independent and responsible job; indeed, in view of the threat of wild beasts and robbers, it could even be dangerous. Sometimes the owner himself (Luke 15:6; John 10:12) or his sons did the job. But usually it was done by hired shepherds, who only too often did not justify the confidence reposed in them (John 10:12-13).'"
In the First Century, it seems, shepherds -- specifically, hireling shepherds -- had a rather unsavory reputation. Jeremias cites Rabbinic sources to the effect that "most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people's land and pilfered the produce of the land." Because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock. Consequently, the pious were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property. Shepherds were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses. A midrash on Psalm 23:2 reads, "There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd." Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria (25 BC - 45 AD), wrote about looking after sheep and goats, "Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious."
In contrast to rabbinical contempt for shepherds, however, Jesus distinguishes between the good shepherd and the hireling (John 10:11-13). He tells a parable of the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep in the fold while searching the hills to find the missing one (Luke 15:3-7). Perhaps this is because Jesus, who has fellowship with the despised and sinners, knows and appreciates them as people. There is no suggestion that the shepherds to whom the angels appeared were not devout men, though they were from a despised class.
Christ the Good Shepherd Church,
Spring, TX
Dominic Crossan compares the introduction of shepherds into Luke's infancy narrative with the introduction of the Magi (magicians) in Matthew. Luke passes no unkind judgment on the shepherds visited by the angels, as if to say, "Who knows? These guys are as pious as anyone else. Look at the ones to whom this first good news is revealed." In both Matthew and Luke, of course, the surprises aren't over, and the gospel comes to people in all walks of life, and to many who were thought to be unworthy. In Luke and in Matthew, tax collectors and foreigners and women are entrusted with the gospel message. The motif of offering this "new covenant" to those who are outsiders to the keepers of the first covenant runs through the Pauline letters and through the Christian scriptures. To us who are the hundredth generation of beneficiaries, it doesn't seem like such a wonder or scandal. To the first hearers, it must have been astonishing. Crossan writes, "Shepherds are not the nice little guys we often think they were. Shepherds in the ancient world were tough guys who protected their sheep from wolves and thieves. They had weapons; they could take care of themselves. Shepherds were considered dangerous outsiders, and they knew whether the system was just or unjust. So then the angel comes to them and announces that the birth of the Messiah, the just king expected by Israel, and he gives Jesus some fancy titles—Lord, savior, and bringer of peace. Those titles belong to Caesar Augustus, the bringer of peace being the core title upon which the others depended." The shepherds, unallied with the temple economy and, in fact, barred from it, are called to make the first judgment about who the real "savior" is: the emperor in Rome, or a baby sleeping in a feeding trough. They make their judgment, and the story begins.

God-as-shepherd and Messiah-as-shepherd texts might just have their origins in either or both of those efforts, then. Maybe the instinct of the gospel was to rehab the image of all outsiders, tax collectors, prostitutes, non-Jews, so that the Way of Christ might be known as a place of equality where all have equal standing. Or maybe it grew out of the instinct to subvert the idea that God was just Caesar in an invisible Rome, waging cosmic war with Octavian and Tiberius, Hadrian, Zeus, and Mars. In any case, it's good news, a theological win-win. God is among us as one who serves, maybe a "tough guy," but one whose wits and creative love are put to the service of the safety of the flock. When necessary, the shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Meanwhile, it's good to know, for us outsiders, killers, untrustworthy stewards, whores, and compromisers, that we're good enough to be told there's good news in the village. "Look where the animals are eating," the choir is singing. Then, something about God being made glorious in heaven by peace among the good people of earth, even us smelly shepherds.