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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The privilege of our calling

Desi and Julia, classmates, at first communion. This year,
graduating from high school.
It's the time of year for celebrations, lots of them.

Now, celebration is a secular term for ritual. The term suggests a canon of repeated actions, symbols, gestures, colors, clothing, music, and so on that accompany an event that is meaningful in the life of a family, community, or society. For instance, a birthday is an important event in a family. While there is a wide variety of ways to celebrate a birthday, very often it includes a gathering of friends and family, candles, a cake, and singing the song "Happy birthday." There may be other events involved: games, an outing, party hats, but most of the "essentials'' remain the same.

A celebration or ritual points in different directions. On the one hand, it remembers. It represents something that has gone on, and continues to go on, in the life of those celebrating. In the case of a birthday, it is an end of a year of life. A twelfth birthday marks the end of a person's twelfth year. An engagement ring represents all that went before it in the life of the couple, meeting, dating, movies, restaurants. On the other hand, a ritual looks forward to the future. The birthday energizes everyone, affirming a person's value to the family or community, moving us all into another year. The engagement ring moves a couple into a new stage of their relationship that propels them toward the wedding and beyond.

Both of these dynamics, expressing what has been and intensifying it, propelling us forward, are rooted firmly in our actions in the present. The birthday cake, somehow, is transformed when we gather around it. It's not "just cake" any more, it represents something about us, about the person celebrated, and the people gathered around that person. As I suggested in "Real Presence" last week, a missing relative who eats a piece of that cake later will share in more than carbohydrates; s/he will be a part of a day in a lifetime of days.

All of this comes up for me because we're celebrating first communions, weddings, graduations, confirmation over and over during the next few weeks. Today I met with a young woman to plan music for her wedding. She was part of peer ministry when she graduated from Barrington High School ten years ago. Her sister sang in the Sunday evening choir. Last year I played music at the wedding of a former children's choir member who is now a doctor, for Pete's sake. Kids for whose first communions I have played and sung are graduating from high school and college these days: I've been doing this job at St. Anne's for over 19 years. We forge bonds in music that we don't even realize. My daughter Claire sang in the children's choir at St. Jerome, seven or eight years later she wrote songs with me that other people use in their worship.

Playing with my son in a park one day, probably 12-13 years ago, I was approached by a young woman who was doing the same with her daughter. She told me that her young daughter made them go to the Easter vigil every year, because they had gone once to support a friend in the RCIA, and her daughter never forgot the story of the Exodus being sung by everyone together, and now she won't miss it. I got a letter from a parishioner who is a first-year snowbird in Arizona, who hasn't missed a St Anne Easter Vigil in over 40 years, and it was an hilarious account of her and her husband's missing the parish, their RCIA ministry, and the celebration of the Vigil. Our Easter Vigil this year was studded with teenagers who are a part of the life of the parish, who come back year after year because they are drawn in by the rituals, by the liturgy, that make us who we are.

As I get older, the celebrations seem to get closer together. The weddings, graduations, first communions, baptisms, everything seems to cluster. Is it just that my circle of acquaintances is growing? Or is the world changing for me, being transformed into a universe with Christ at its center, to which every other person is connected, and I with them, to each other?

I look at the congregation Sunday after Sunday, and I see there these families into whose lives mine has been woven by threads of song. The men and women whose parents, spouses, and children I have helped to bury, the young parents for whose weddings I've played and sung, the children who have so suddenly exchanged first communion dresses and suits for wedding dresses and tuxedos. And then there's just the nearly imperceptible movement that happens between us week after week when we gather to hear God's word and share the bread of life and cup of salvation, a movement that brings us out of the shadows of our individualism into the light of community. Once we were no people at all, now we are God's people.

All of this happened to me, why? Well, because God chose me for it. Because my parents baptized me and people showed me what it meant to be a Christian. Because I learned to play the piano from the books my sister left there after her lessons, and the guitar from my grandpa who bought instrument after instrument for the joy of making music though rhythm just escaped him. Because someone showed me that a birthday cake is more than carbohydrates.

This can be a frustrating calling. The mysterious alchemy of rite is a frontier where humans really ought to fear to tread. Study of liturgy and work in the field can easily degenerate into cynical frustration about what actually happens in church on Sunday. To break a thing down, especially a mystery of this divine and human magnitude, into its component parts for better understanding is a risky business. As Gandalf said about the palantir, "He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." But genuine study relies upon grace to restore the wholeness within. Moments of grace, the first communion of this Kidchoir member, the wedding of that teenchoir member, the funeral of this choir member or that old friend or parish benefactor, these moments repair what is broken. They look back over a lifetime of grace poured out on these friends and strangers and me, sweep over us all in a present flood, and carry us into a future formed more perfectly in Christ. And sometimes, the march of this motley crowd seems to move to the cadence of a song that I am playing, and its tune leaves an echo where we play, work, commute, study, and greet one another.

So you can maybe see what I mean about this being a great vocation. In allowing me to do what I love, God finds a way to save me from myself, from my cynicism. I know I can't be "worthy" of this calling, but I can keep trying to do the best that I can, and look for ways to cope with my ongoing frustration with our leadership. As awe-full as it seems, I think that in some way the future may depend on it.

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