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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent 101: Waiting

Does anyone else wonder about “waiting” during Advent? Waiting for what, the second coming of Christ? Good luck with that. Waiting for Christmas? Waiting for peace? Waiting for an intervention by God in the dysfunctional mess we glory in at worship?

Thinking about this over the years, and I've lived a lot of Advents now, even just counting my advents-as-liturgist, I think that we are using the word "wait" in Advent the way we use it in words like “waiter” and “ladies-in-waiting.”
In a really good restaurant (and let’s face it, the messianic banquet must be the best of all), the waiters aren’t killing time, flirting, looking at their watches, or trying to catch a few minutes of the Bears game on the bar TV. They’re not pacing, waiting for their shift to be over. And they’re sure not catching 40 winks in the corner. They’re busy. They’re working. They’re serving people, doing what they can to make their patrons’ experience a pleasant one. The waiting is in end in itself. In a sense, no one is waiting for anything—except perhaps for the opportunity to be of service.

I think about this with regard to Advent. Sunday, as in all three years of the lectionary cycle, the gospel is from one of the eschatological discourses in the synoptics, which are generally thought of as being about the distress in Jerusalem and throughout Israel stemming from violent the Roman suppression of the Jewish rebellion in 70 CE. But even the earlier preaching of Paul and the apostles, often cited in the Advent scriptures, expresses an anticipation that the Lord is going to return soon, perhaps, as is recorded in some of the gospels, before some of that very generation passed away. But the apostolic instruction was never to stop our daily activities and start praying more—it was just, “keep awake.” Stay aware of the inner reality of things. Be a waiter at the messianic banquet—keep an eye out for opportunities to serve—a glass of water here, a meal there, a friendly remark there.

Living in that time between the promise and the fulfilment, that is Advent. And, in a sense, that is all of time as we know it, chronos. We read various accounts of messianic expectation in Israel right up to the present. There would come a time, promised as early as the book of Exodus, when God would be with Israel as himself. The prophets pointed the way to that day, crafting a vision of a dominion where bear and calf, lion and lamb graze together in vegetarian delight, where the desert is lush and green, where the blind see and the lame walk. They shaped that vision in their darkest hour, their hope based on their experience of who God had been for them in covenant throughout their history. Among Jews, some have seen their entire people, in covenant and solidarity, as God’s moshiach, God’s anointed, today.

For many of us, there was a fulfillment of that expectation in Jesus, but even that promise is not completely present yet.  We ourselves, through the life of the Holy Spirit received in baptism, take part in the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. It is through our being part of Christ and giving ourselves, caring for the world, that the dominion of God is unfolding. But we do find ourselves between the promise and the event, between what has been described as the “already” and the “not yet.” Those who had heard Jesus or the apostles promise the quick return of the Son of Man to set things right in the world had to deal with that reality back in the first century. Twenty centuries later, maybe we’re a bit more lethargic than they were, and need Advent every year to help us remember to “keep awake.” We still dream of beating the instruments of war into the tools of agriculture, we still dream of a world without borders and violence, where all people stream together to God’s house. We still dream of a world without hunger and disease. But in the meantime, we live with war. We live with barbed wire, terrorism, starvation, AIDS, and genocide. We take part, actively or passively, in the marginalization of people with beliefs, life styles, or any number of human variables that differ from our own. "Keep awake" to that, Advent says. Turn away from that tree. The ax is already laid at its root. 
I wrote some invocations for a prayer service a few years ago, about living in this “threshold” time, between God’s promise and the fulfillment. We know that the fulfillment is coming; Jesus, in fact, invites to believe that the fulfillment is simply as close as grasping it and starting to live in that reality and not in this one, choosing a different empire and its God who rules by agape, by self-emptying love. I thought I’d end these thoughts about Advent and time with those invocations, in case they help your Advent prayer.

Between the tears and pain and your promise of comfort, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Between those dying of thirst and your promise of streams in the desert, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel. 
Between those dying of hunger and your promise of a banquet of rich food for all, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel. 
Between the gunshots and bombs and your promise of peace forever, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel. 
Between terror and mistrust and your promise of a world without fear, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Between the grief and loss and your promise that death will be no more, we cry to you:
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Between our borders and divisions and your promise that all will be one in you, we cry to you.
O come, O come, Emmanuel..

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. Catch me waiting.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Year A - Advent 1 - Let us walk in the light of the Lord

Swords into plowshares
Advent is that place between the Isaian dream of beating swords into ploughshares and training for war no more and the place in which we find ourselves today—still—on the brink of self-annihilation. The thing is, Isaiah and his countrymen lived on the same brink. Though the beautiful words of the prophet sound like they were written in the penthouse of the Jerusalem Hilton, they are born out of a matrix of war, siege, slaughter, and exile. The words of the prophet represent a great hope that has never died, a hope that is based on God’s action on behalf of people in the past, projected onto a future that is always just a moment away. Jesus called that moment “the empire of God.”

This week at St. Anne’s in the music, we’re doing the following:
Gathering: Christ Be Our Light (Farrell)
Psalm 122: The Road to Jerusalem (OCP)
Preparation Rite: Save the People (words by Ebenezer Elliott, music by me)
Communion: Your Light Will Come, Jerusalem (Hurd)
Recessional: The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns

Most of these songs I’ve treated before. The gathering and communion songs particularly pick up on the motif of light in the readings today, and the recessional picks up on the sense that Advent is somehow about waiting for the arrival of Christ at the end of time. This seems to be a favorite topic of homilists, and I can understand that, but the repercussions of what that means need to impact the present, or as St. Paul puts it in the second reading:
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;

the night is advanced, the day is at hand.

Let us then throw off the works of darkness

and put on the armor of light;

let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day...

Two correctives at least need to be applied to common eschatological thinking. First, the empire of God is now. It's hard to get old ideas out of our head, but when we hear "kingdom of heaven," we can not think of "heaven" as a place far off in time and space any more than we can think of "kingdom" as a place of power and gold. The preaching of Jesus continually says the the reign of God (better, right? than "kingdom of heaven") is among you, or "at hand." Second, the coming of God is not so easily detected as one might imagine, since one could argue that humanity largely missed it the first time, there’s no reason to think we won’t miss it again. Our ideas about who God is, what God must be like and must be doing, so prejudice our vision that we fail to inform our vision with the very clues and indications Jesus gave us. "I am with you always." "Whenever you did this to one of my least ones, you did it for me."

Christ continues to be present to us now: he doesn’t really have to come again, because there is a sense in which he didn’t leave us. As Emmanuel, God-among-us, he continues to be present in the Spirit-led Church in its prayer (Mt 18:20), in its missionary activity (Mt. 28:19-20), and in the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, and naked of the poor (Mt. 25:35-40). As I said above, Advent helps us to linger in hope between the promise of God’s complete presence and the manifestation of God’s absence in human sin, sickness, war, and death.

At the preparation of gifts this weekend, we are using the song "Save the People," with a melody that I wrote. Ebenezer Elliott wrote this hymn in the mid-19th century, and it still rings true today. Called "The People's Anthem" at the time, it was appropriated (without attribution) by Stephen Schwartz in the score of 1971's Godspell. On my 1985 collection Do Not Fear to Hope, I modernized his poem a little bit, and set it to a new melody for congregation and SATB, though it didn't make much of a stir!

When will you save the people?
O God of mercy, hear!
Your children die of hunger,
Their parents live in fear.
Flowers of your heart, O God, are they.
Let them not pass like weeds away,
Their heritage a sunless day.

Shall crime bring crime forever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it your will, O Maker,
That we should toil for wrong?
No! say your mountains.
No! say your skies.
Our clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard instead of sighs.

When will you save the people,
O God of mercy? When?
When time is done your day will come,
But must we wait til then?
God save the people
For yours they are,
Your children as your angels fair.
Save them from bondage and despair.

When will you save the people?
Let mercy not be dead.
Your people cry for mercy,
Your children cry for bread.
Flowers of your heart,
O God, are they.
Let them not pass like weeds away,
Their heritage a sunless day.

Whatever happens, Lord Jesus, maranatha! But open our eyes so we don’t miss you. And catch us waiting on your poor ones, towel on our forearm, looking to wash their feet. More about waiting tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving playlist

Some ear candy while you recover from all those sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts! Or while you're cooking them. Or anytime you're, you know. Feelin' it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christ the King, and "What can I do about it?"

Well, to wrap up the liturgical year, I'd just like to take a quick look back at Sunday, and back over the Luke year, and see what difference it makes, if any.

First of all, I can't imagine how we could get through the day without someone pointing out the irony in the scriptures between the anointing of David as king of Israel after the death of Saul. The passage we heard Sunday was sanitized of all the blood spilt by David and his army on the way to the throne, and further sanitized of that spilt in the rout of the Philistines as his forces retake Jerusalem, so all we actually hear about is the decision of the generals to anoint David king, this after the incident years before at Jesse's house when the prophet Samuel anointed him. This is not to make less of David's kingship; only to say that David is one of the "kings of this world" to which the reign of Jesus is not to be compared. David won his kingship with the sword; the Messiah-King renounces the sword. The only blood spilt by the Messiah is his own.

Second, Paul tells the church at Colossae that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, that is, when we see Jesus we see who God is. As I am fond of saying, we generally go in the other direction. We look at powerful humans, generally rich rulers like emperors and kings, and we form our image of God as the apotheosis of that idea: the most powerful, or all-power (omnipotent) and richest in the universe, and then imagine Jesus in the image of that God. But that is exactly backward. Jesus, humble, servant, obedient, dead and risen, is the image of the invisible God. We don't get our idea about power from kings and their riches and lay it upon Jesus. Rather, we get our model for power from Jesus. Poder es servir, as Bob Hurd's lovely song "Pan de Vida" puts it. Or in Jesus's own words, "Whoever want to be the greatest among you must be the servant of the rest."

Finally the gospel shows Jesus, "the king of the Jews," reigning from a Roman cross. He is crucified between two other criminals, identified in Mark as insurrectionists, men who strove against the Pax Romana. Pilate had offered to release a prisoner in honor of Passover; the (small?) partisan crowd instead chose a different, violent insurrectionist for release. But there was no mistaking the crime Jesus committed. He had made the case for a different empire, a different god, not only different from Tiberius and the Roman civil gods who would succeed him, but different from the God worshipped by the guardians of the temple and its economy of divine favor. Jesus was, in fact, a revolutionary. A peaceful one, to be sure, one without a taste for power in any sense of government. But in the eyes of Rome and the Temple, he was a dangerous man, a blasphemer against two gods, and a threat to the revenue stream that greased the wheels of religion and empire. That's how the story of God reaches its climax on the last day of the liturgical year.

In our stories, though, we prefer to see the the Ring of Power thrown into Mount Doom, and orc and goblin armies disintegrating. We like to see the Death Star vaporized, and its denizens with it, and peace restored to the universe. We like to watch Seal Team Six, balletically maneuvering in hostile country with billion-dollar stealth weaponry, put some leaden justice through the eye of a murderous enemy. What this story gives us instead are a few words from a psalm, death by capital punishment, and the memory of an empty tomb.

375 murders and counting in Chicago in 2013. Thousands killed, injured, or homeless in Tacloban and the surrounding area in the Philippines. A church in chaos and a political and economic system that creates more and more poverty even as it is managed by people who profess varying avatars of Christianity. The good news is a whisper. The bad news is a typhoon.

What can I do about it?

I can choose to "turn around and believe in the gospel." That is, turn away from the empty promises of violence and competition and believe in God's empire of peace and solidarity. Turn away from "save yourself and us" and accept being a human being, true to my call to believe (i.e., live and love, act) in them reign of God. Even in the silence of God, even in the apparent victory of Caesar, keep loving, don't be violent, listen for signs of hope. Be God where God is needed; be Christ.

I can choose solidarity with other human beings, especially those with little or no recourse to the channels of power owned or seized by forces hostile to the God of Jesus. This year we've heard that God wants a family back together (Luke 15), people who eat together and rejoice in the act of reconciliation. We've heard that Abba's love empowers a fearless love that can overcome prejudice and past mistakes (the meal at Simon's house and Zacchaeus). We've heard that wealth and self-satisfaction can blind us to the severity of human need and pain that is right before our eyes, to the great peril of our future (Lazarus and the rich man.) We heard way back in his first homily at the synagogue in Nazareth that the good news of the jubilee, freedom from debt and slavery and landlessness is for everybody, not just the good guys (or bad guys). We met Jesus on Christmas in a manger, a feeding trough, and in Luke's gospel eating is often where we find him in conversation with others, and meals have often been at the center of his stories. Mary's song of reversal, the Magnificat, is echoed in the words of Jesus several times in the Sunday gospels: the last shall be first, and the first last. Looking at the messiah on the cross, and hearing the word of the letter to the Colossians, this seems to be as true of God as of people. The cross is the visible signature of God on the "preferential option for the poor."

How this gets spelled out in everyday life in America and elsewhere is up to us, but the message is already imprinted on us from baptism, when we were branded with the sign of the cross. To choose Christ, we have to un-choose a lot of other things. I'd like to be part of that. I'm looking for people who want to sing about that, act on that, make a difference, or at least fail at the right thing. It was never going to be easy, Sunday seemed to say. Maybe my takeaway from Sunday is, even if it's at the last minute, with my Constantinian breath leaving my body, that I see that everything I have done is dust and ashes, it won't be too late to look at the one who is dying with me and say, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your reign." I may have served the wrong empire too long, but I wanted to be with you all the time.

Meanwhile, Advent starts in a few days, and guess what? It doesn't go back to the beginning. It seems to pick me up right here. Light in the darkness. Decisions to be made now. The good and the bad—all of it—is coming to an end. Maybe the end is the beginning, or the possibility of one. That's a good thought, Lord. Advent. Bring it on. Bring it into us all, into me.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Favorite Thanksgiving movies, and a scene from yet another

It’s a short list:

5. Pieces of April (2003) with Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, and Oliver Platt. Also an unforgettable snotty appearance by a repressed anti-Jack version of Sean Hayes. Getting Thanksgiving dinner cooked provides the narrative framework as April, newly independent and living in a New York tenement building, invites her family to dinner with her boyfriend. He disappears on a mission unknown to her for the day, and, her stove not working, she begins appealing to her neighbors for oven time to cook her bird. Meanwhile, the drama in the car carrying her kvetching and sickly mother, her perfect sister, her senile grandmother, and her long-suffering father adds another layer of tension to the narrative as it gets closer to April’s house and the uncooked dinner, upon the success of which hangs April’s hope for redemption in her parents’ eyes and her self-confidence and self-esteem in her newly adult world. The best scenes are with her neighbors as she begs and bargains with them for cooking time.

4. Home for the Holidays (1995) directed by Jodie Foster, this film features an amazing cast of
Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Durning, Anne Bancroft, Clare Danes, and Geraldine Chaplin. Families who gather on Thanksgiving to catch up and reconnect will appreciate the breadth of the diversity of this family’s dysfunction, which includes a gay son (Downey) and his new friend (Dylan McDermott), a tippling spinster aunt who carries a torch for her sister’s husband, and a barely tolerated brother-in-law. Somehow it all works, and you just can’t help liking everybody because they’re so human, and because you happen to know most of them, and some of them are you. (The word has been that Robert Downey Jr. was having trouble filming this movie because of his drug addiction, and that may be true, but in spite of that he really shines. This is a great cast, though, and from top to bottom they are pulling together a really good movie.)

3. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) One of two great Woody Allen flicks on this list, this one features the radiant Mia Farrow as Hannah, with sisters Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey, Hershey’s hubby Max von Sydow and cummings-quoting secret lover Michael Caine, along with the Woodman himself. In a way, Thanksgiving, and the sense of family values that the day is about, is the star of the show. As with Passover in the gospel of St. John, the passage of time is marked between celebrations of this feast. In the first Thankgiving, lives are spinning out of control. By the one at the end of the movie, the three sisters are snugly settled into cozy marriages, with minimal collateral damage.

2. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) also directed by Allen, in this one he plays the title character, a
big-hearted, lovable loser of a talent agent who tries to place acts like a one-legged tap dancer and piano-playing canaries. Mia Farrow is in this one, too, chewing up scenery as Tina Vitale, a New Jersey blonde a little too close to the mob, who is having an affair with Lou Canova, a has-been Italian Dean Martin rip-off singer played by Nick Apollo Forte. This ingenious movie is played as a story within a story, as a group of stand-up comedians finishes a meal at a New York deli, and as they recount war stories, one of them tells “the best Danny Rose story of them all.” Best scene: getting lost in the meadowlands, maybe, or the scene where Woody and Mia are being shot at by a mob guy in the warehouse where the Macy’s balloons are stored, resulting in a shouting match with helium-enhanced voices. No, the best scene is the second-to-last one, in Danny’s apartment, with his motley crew of clients, on Thanksgiving, with him passing out the turkey TV dinners (“The cranberries are dry.”)

1. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) is probably everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving movie, with Steve Martin and John Candy in great form, trying to get home for Thanksgiving from New York to Chicago with a blizzard settling over the Midwest. My favorite scene (OK, there are too many really, but to pick one) is between Steve Martin, who has just walked across the tarmac at the airport and snow covered embankments back to the car rental counter, and rental car agent Edie McClurg. No matter how many times I watch it, I need oxygen after she tells him, following his long list of expletives about her company’s service, “You’re f*cked.” Cameo by Kevin Bacon as a cab-stealing commuter, Ben Stein, and Michael McKean. But this movie is really all Martin and Candy, and how sweet it is.

But the greatest scene of all? From Addams Family Values, of course. Enjoy.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Kyrie eleison - Son of David and King of the Jews

I think that if you ask 100 Catholics to translate the Greek phrase kyrie eleison into English, 99 or so
would say, "Lord, have mercy." And then, if you asked the same group to translate "Lord, have mercy" into English, you would get more diverse answers, but most of them would be variations on, "Lord, forgive us." This includes many members of the clergy and religious education teachers, who, when left to their own liturgical devices to compose a penitential rite for a prayer service or for Eucharist, will make one that goes something like this:
Lord Jesus, for all the things we've done that we shouldn't have done, Lord, have mercy
Christ Jesus, for all the things we haven't done we should have done, Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, for anything not covered by the above, Lord, have mercy.
This probably happens for a lot of reasons. First, for some reason, Catholics tend to equate "confession" with "confession of sin," rather than its more profound (and original, etymological) meaning which is "confession of God's mercy and forgiveness." There has been some bad liturgical modeling through the years, no doubt, which proves that bad liturgy can damage faith. We can't blame that on the Missale Romanum, though,  or the previous Sacramentary, the official texts of the Mass, because in the twenty or so examples of penitential litanies given there for the introductory rites of the mass, none of them is anything like the above. They are acclamations of praise: "Lord Jesus, you were sent to heal the contrite"; "Christ Jesus, you are son of God and son of Mary." Finally, guilt plays well with Catholics. It's much easier to navel-gaze and "aw, shucks" the divine Lover, to feel unworthy to walk fully in our baptismal identity, than it is to accept the mission of the Holy Spirit to live in the freedom of God's children.

Kyrie eleison is a phrase that comes to us from Roman civil religion, one that they probably appropriated from the older and more established Greek practices. It was an acclamation hurled to the emperor, or to a returning general, who was parading through the center of the city with the spoils of war. It was a way of saying, "Look, your grace, while you and your men have been out raiding Carthage and Alexandria, we've been back here paying double taxes and sending you our best crops, working our sorry Italian butts off. Here you are, back from the front, with gold and emeralds and Nubian slavegirls and some other treasures we've never even seen before. Remember who was feeding you! Slide some of that lucre to us! Throw some silver coins over here! Share the spoils of your victory! You got it, we ain't got it! Give us some!"

There's a little glimpse of this dynamic in the gospels in the story of the blind man Bartimaeus. If you recall, Jesus and the apostles are walking down the road (think of the emperor here.) From the side of the road, you have the blind beggar Bartimaeus shouting, "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!" (Mk. 10:46; the Greek verb here is eleison - I looked it up!) What's going on here? First, the blind man calls out to Jesus as the Messiah-King, the "Son of David." He is committing treason and blasphemy all at once as far as anyone who might hear him is concerned, but he is showing that he expects that Jesus has something to give him that he does not have. Jesus asks him, "What do you want from me?" And he tells him, "I want to see." In other words, this is something that you, the Messiah-healer-king, can give me. His faith is rewarded, and he is given his sight. The parallelism with the use in civil religion as I outlined it above is complete.

There's nothing in the request for forgiveness at all! It's just a way of saying, you have a power that I don't have. You are kyrios, the Lord, the one who is in control of my world. In the context of the introductory rites, this is exactly the dynamic that we are reaching for, an attempt to wake each other up to the reality in the room: God is God, we aren't, and even though we don't always like it that way, that's the cosmos we live in. In gathering for liturgy, we need to become aware that we gather as the body of Christ, that every one of us is a member of it. We sing to take the part to which we've been invited in the great cosmic symphony that Christ has created in the Paschal Mystery as a love song to the Father. That mystery itself is an image of who the Father is, and their very life, the Holy Spirit, is the breath that gives life to us as members of Christ's body and enables our gathering. In the kyrie eleison we pray that Christ be the ruler of this world, where we are living today, that he take control of the evil influences that threaten us, and strengthen his claim on us through the building up of our strengths and gifts.

It's important to remember, though, what kind of kyrios Jesus is, and which God it is who is in control of the world. For that matter, what "control" means in the empire of God. "Lord"-ness in this empire is characterized by diversity-unity, solidarity, mutual service of gifts ordered to need. "Lord"-ness in this empire is agape that reveals itself as kenosis, love that is seen as self-emptying on behalf of others, creative, nurturing, life-giving. It has nothing—nothing—in common with the empires of earth or its lords. The gospel of this Sunday's feast finds its prince of peace, in fact, crucified between two other revolutionaries on Calvary. One of them recognizes that the savagery of arms leads to more savagery, and the dying Savior promises that his day will end in light. I can't help but believe that the other one was surprised by light and peace as well.

Faith then leads us to sing that great cruciform refrain of the angels over the fields of Bethlehem: Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. The glory of God in God's domain is peace among the citizens of earth who believe. Here, at the end of the year of grace, the story begins again.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

No king but Caesar

The feast of Christ the King exposes our preoccupation with leadership and power for what it is. What the scripture proposes is the empire of God; what we choose, over and over again, is Caesar. Or Pharaoh. God offers freedom, we want borders. God offers a human brotherhood and sisterhood of equals, we want class, caste, and competition. God offers healing, we want quarantine. God offers love, we want sacrifice.

As I have suggested before, in some ways, it seems to me that language itself is at war with God’s way. That stands to reason, if, as some have posited, civilization has been, for all its apparent advantages for the many, a violent protection racket, organized and maintained by violence either threatened or enforced. So, when we say “Christ the King,” we tend to hear “king” to mean all the things we associate with kings: armies, gold, power, absolute authority, and so on. What we don’t hear is what scripture says about Christ, that he emptied himself, became a servant, a healer, a host at table, a teacher of wisdom. What we have in Christ is a redefinition from scratch of what authority and power are, a redefinition of God that is abstracted from the brutal empiricism of human history. Caesar’s empire is attested to by the crucifixions, the scorched earth, the killing fields, napalm and Nagasaki of human history. The empire of God is a new thing, announced by Jesus in the tradition of Israel’s jubilee and the witness of the prophets: freedom from debt, mercy and not sacrifice, just living as visible sign of the covenant rather than bloodlines or circumcision, redistribution of land so that all share equally in stewarding the divine gift of earth. The words “king” and “kingdom” themselves set up connotative false trails for us; we follow them blindly until the gospel itself has disappeared and we have arrayed the crucified seditionist in the robes of the one who put him to death, and put him on the same judgment seat, holding the same scepter.

When you hear this:
"He saved others, let him save himself 
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God."

...does it strike you how much that sounds like one of the temptations to which Satan subjected Jesus in the desert? There, in that other hour of trial, Jesus remembers whose he is, and throws back in Satan’s face that he was wrong about what it means to be chosen. For Jesus, being chosen didn’t mean to be special and protected by God from harm, but to be chosen precisely as a human being, vulnerable, subject to death, no advantage over anybody else. And hearing the word “criminals” used to describe the ones with whom Jesus was crucified reminded me that scholarship tells us that crucifixion was reserved by the Roman for crimes against the state. In Mark, the word is translated “bandits,” which Crossan says “is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters,’ depending upon one’s point of view...Crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority. Ordinary criminals were not crucified. Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels against Rome.” (The Last Week, page 147) As if to put an exclamation point on the death of this pretender, we also have Pilate’s inscription in three languages, so no one would miss the punch line: “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.” Being “Christ the King” was no joke to Caesar. Still isn’t.

Most places probably won't hear about any of that Sunday, nor about the papacy’s mistrust of “modernism” (empiricism’s rise over faith as the source of truth) and democracy being one of the forces behind the foundation of the feast in 1925. "We live in a political world," goes the Bob Dylan song, and the forces of nationalism have, if anything, grown stronger. Christ the King could be a corrective, but the feast is more likely to be invoked with pious rhetoric that is markedly apolitical.

A few years ago, we heard the priest say, from the pulpit, “Jesus was the only founder of a religious movement ever who had no political agenda." It seems to me that when you live in a culture where the king controls the priesthood, and the kings (or tetrarchs, as the case may be) are controlled by a dominating foreign power, what you have, when you talk “religion” of any kind, is a political issue. When the emperor is god, religion is a political issue. You may not be a Republican or a Democrat, but you’ve got politics in spades. Well, when profit is god, faith is politics. When the flag, or weapons, or sports is god, faith is politics. Most of us will get along all right, like the Sanhedrin, the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadduccees of the gospel, or like the Romans.

But the one who endures,  the one who wears and redefines the name "king," he's the one hanging with the other criminals—seditionists—on the hill. I want to be like that one. He looks like hell; bestial human cowardice, brutality, and treachery have done their worst. But he, not Tiberius, or Herod, or even Caiaphas the high priest, is the image of the invisible God.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A November diversion - a rash from "The Dash"

I am truly going to burn.

Father Britto Berchmans, now a pastor himself in Park Ridge, was both a blessing to our community and a good friend to me for the years he served at St. Anne. He is a true servus Dei servorum, a servant of God’s servants, someone who genuinely bears the yoke of being an alter Christus. And he’s a stranger in a strange land, no less. Born in India near Madras to a large Catholic family, he became a Salesian priest, got a master’s degree in physics, and taught in the seminary for a while. Then he came to the USA and got a doctorate in communications from Marquette and U of I, and went to teach at the Salesian seminary in Rome for three years. But after this relatively short academic career, he decided that God was calling him to live his life as a priest in parish ministry. The parish he landed in was St. Anne’s, and Britto Berchmans, whose very name introduced me to two Jesuit saints whose names had not previously crossed my neural pathways, was part of the scenery for six years here in Barrington. We were, and are, the better for his joyful presence.

The only complaint I’ve ever had about the man (and that is saying something) is his infatuation with, and I know no other way to say this, a certain piece of religious doggerel. You know what I mean: the kind of stuff you read in Hallmark cards and forwarded emails that has sunset backgrounds and whose spiritual relevance is like offering an orange-flavored Bayer children’s aspirin to a man with an ax in his head. This poem was his spiritual Achilles heel, but it is I, Hector-like, whose literary corpse is dragged around the walls of poetry.

I'm speaking of a little ditty called “The Dash,” by Linda Ellis, © 1996. If you follow that link, you’ll get the idea of everything I’ve said above. All right, everybody loves it except me, and she has made a career out of that poem. Fine. I'm not jealous. These things are pretty harmless taken in small doses, but as I said, having done scads of funerals with Fr. Britto over the years, I became a barely-controlled lunatic, a Chief Inspector Dreyfuss to his Clouseau, or a character in a painting by Edvard Munch. I can still hear the cadence of his voice as he winds his homily down toward its inevitable hermeneutic Waterloo, that moment when his words of comfort end with the repeated horror comparable to that Cubs “video highlight” when Bartman interferes with the foul ball and gives the lousy Marlins the only chance they’d need to get into the World Series instead of us. I hear his voice head in that direction, I break into a cold sweat, and become another person: the mean-spirited cretin who is writing this blog entry.

Here is my sequel to “The Dash.” I make no apologies to its creator. This thing came out of your laboratory, Dr. Frankenstein. It must be destroyed.
The Dash, the Sequel

There was a man who stood to speak
At the funerals of friends,
Some were just parishioners,
But always at the end

He'd add a couple fables,
Unborn twins and the like,
Or words in Irish abbeys,
Or some dreck by Hank van Dyke,

But one piece of lore was constant,
Causing me my teeth to gnash:
A piece of kitschy misbegot-
Ten drivel called "The Dash."

Edgar Allan Poe on opium,
Bells clanging in his head,
Has nought on me, while wishing
To trade places with the dead,

As I dream that Halle Berry,
Twirling razors, comes to slash
Both my wrists, my throat, and eardrums
So I can not hear "the dash"

Or perhaps a one-way ticket
From the bell-tower to the street,
Or something slow, like poison!
I could force myself to eat

Something growing in my compost,
or some rancid corned-beef hash?
Or stuff my ears with cherry bombs.
Don't make me hear "The Dash."

I have read the works of Edmund Lear,
Enjoyed some Ogden Nash.
Even Gertrude Stein is rosier
Than Britto's awful Dash.

Even now my gorge is rising,
Each obsequies's a rash,
Every day he has his doggerel,
Just kill me—it's The Dash.

O take your cruel flagellum,
Give my woeful skin the lash,
Pour vinegar and turpentine
Into each bleeding gash,

Or Thelma-and-Louise-like
Off a desert cliff I'd crash
At three hundred miles an hour,
Just don't make me hear "The Dash."

That "poem" that gives me scabies,
Makes mind snap and bowels to loose,
Like Robert Frost, with rabies,
Channels Drs. Phil and Seuss.

O Catholic folk of Park Ridge,
Fork over lots of cash,
Perhaps a bribe will silence
Him enamored of The Dash?

O Zombie-Poe, arise now,
From the shadows of Lenore,
Let the raven eat that verbiage.
Let me hear it Nevermore.

If Bradbury had known the
Epic damage it has done,
The Dash might have prevented
Fahrenheit 451. 

So stuff my ears with candle wax,
With ice picks pierce my drums,
For I see him at the ambo:
Something vapid this way comes.

Love you, Fr. Britto. I feel a lot better now. Carry on. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Monetizing religious music - deconstructing the oxymoron

Part of the ongoing discussion in Catholic publishing houses and between them and artists
is whether the money required to create, produce, and market recordings of songs written for Mass can have a wider market than the members of the small ensembles around the country and the world who need to learn them for mass. It's part of a larger issue, which is how writers and musicians get reimbursed for their work in the electronic world, where information passes freely among millions of people and often with no money changing hands, at least, not into the accounts of those who create the music.

From the beginning, whether it was with Tom Kendzia, or Gary Daigle and Terry, or whomever, our idea was that the music we were writing ought to be recorded as well as we could manage. Yes, we wanted our peers in music ministry to be able to learn the song by hearing its tempo, color, and, for that matter, notes in a somewhat definitive way, so that adaptations could be based on some normative reality. But beyond that, there was a sense among us that having recordings available of the music would enable people who only heard it in church to connect with it for the other 167 hours of the week when it touched them, people like our families, and people who attended our concerts and workshops but don't necessarily work as liturgical musicians. We wanted to create music on vinyl, then tape, then CDs, then just in electrons, that people might hear in different media and say to themselves, "I want to sing that on Sunday," or "I want to learn how to sing that," or "I want to have that in my car as I drive to work."

Here's a little example. Shannon Cerneka, another Catholic composer I know, wrote this to me recently on Facebook: 
I guess I haven't told you (this), but my family saw you (and Gary and Theresa, I'm sure) play a concert somewhere in IL when I was 9 or 10. I don't remember much about the concert, but we bought a "Do Not Fear to Hope" tape there. That was one of only 5 cassette tapes we ever had in the car. We wore that tape out. I knew every word, and probably still do. It was my first ever exposure to contemporary Christian music. In case you were curious, the other tapes were Neil Diamond's "Classics: the Early Years", Paul Simon's "Graceland" Jim Croce's "Greatest Hits", and Ann Murray's "Greatest Hits".
Now, this is just one story, and I know there are a lot more, people with whom I have worked and ministered over thirty years who write me in their last days to ask for music to listen to as they make their final passage. People who wore out their cassettes and want CDs now, only to find that the recording has gone out of print, or morphed into another form. And I think of my own story, how I heard music on the radio as a child and then a young man and thought, "I'd like to learn how to play that," and I did. And how, in the infancy of Catholic liturgical music after Vatican II, we heard music like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and even some folk and popular music and thought, "Wow, this speaks to me a lot more directly about Christ and the spiritual life than a lot of what I've been singing in church," and we, for better or worse, sort of took things into our own hands.

Catholic publishing houses never saw themselves primarily as recording companies. They are in the business of selling printed music and hymnals. Recordings were generally an expensive means to a much more lucrative end, almost like "loss leaders" in the retail business. Some touring artists would be able to have a recording break even or make a little money, but it was getting a song or two to sell in the thousands or tens of thousands that would allow the publisher to make a good profit; even better to collect dozens of such songs in a hymnal or missalette that might propel such a publications into the millions of purchases. For us who toured less, who held jobs in parishes or schools and were not as often on the road as full-time performing artists, the chance of breaking even on a recording was slim, unless the recording held the kind of gem(s) that might sell enough copies to make up for the investment in the recording.

Enter the electronic age, in which the value of a recorded song plummeted even further. While the potential audience of a song published to iTunes or Amazon or similar distribution centers is exponentially higher in theory, in practice, the audience is size is the same, and the value of the recording is reduced dramatically, from a sale of around $17 retail per CD to $10 per album, with the distributor taking a significant cut before the publisher sees a profit. The artist who once received $1.70 per CD in royalty now receives less than a dollar. Unlike before, it is possible now only to buy a single song, so the sale on a recording might just be a dollar or two. This is great news for the consumer. It's a good thing. But it militates against the creation of good recordings of our genre of music because the money isn't there to remunerate the publisher's investment, certainly not in the short haul. So the publishers are opting more and more not to do recordings except for the live generic recordings made to accompany octavo packets a few times a year. 

Above, in this post, I've included a music video made by Mark Karney of one of my songs. Mark is a local video producer and friend and parishioner. How could his work contribute to the distribution of these songs? What can we do to make it possible for more people to hear the music we are writing, people who don't subscribe to octavo packets, or go to NPM or other conventions, people who just want to hear spiritual music? Is there a market like that any more, or has liturgy and liturgical song become so compartmentalized in our lives that we might not even want to hear it in our cars and homes and iPhones and iPods? 

These are real world questions for me and my colleagues, and I'm telling you (again, since I said it in other ways in previous posts) that the questions and answers aren't easy. I'm still trying to sell my songs to publishers who actually want them, but don't want to record them. I'm not sure I want to part with them that badly. I'm considering self-publishing the music, and crowd-sourcing or personally funding a recording that we can sell. The bad part of this, aside from the personal cost to us, is that it cuts us out of the hymnal-missalette market, which is where more significant royalties can be made for the songwriter as well as the publisher.

Monetizing the creation of spiritual music, music for prayer, might seem creepy to people, I don't know. But Jesus himself said, among many other things, that the laborer is worth his pay. None of us is looking to retire off royalties from church music, but it would be good to see some financial return for our efforts that also makes the music available to market beyond the liturgical musicians themselves. 

Do you have any ideas? I don't feel that bad not knowing where to turn. My doctor talks to me all the time about how she didn't go to medical school to learn to be a business, she went to learn to be a doctor. The business aspect of medicine was, in a sense, forced upon her, with all the paperwork for insurance and other interests a necessary part of independence in  her field, not to mention the running of a practice on her own. Being an artist, at least when I was coming up, did not include learning entrepreneurial skills, raising venture capital, and executing marketing strategies. I just wanted to write songs, and sing them, and, in some blessed, magical moment, maybe sell a few.

Still, hearing affirmations like the one I posted from my Facebook friend above make me feel my life has been worth living. I have a house to live in, food to eat, and enough to share with other people, and that really is enough. I have something to sing about, and I keep singing and writing as best I can. The answer to this question might not change that for me, but what about for the younger songwriters coming up?

Will they have to be troubadours in order to have their songs be heard? Or are there other gifts among members of the church that might be able to make recordings for the wider world a reality?

So many questions. And then there's the biggest one: who is going to do the preaching and catechesis to enable people to fall in love with Christ, and Abba, their Spirit and the church, to give them something to sing about as they go about renewing the face of the earth?
"Do Not Fear to Hope," music and lyrics by Rory Cooney, © ℗ 1986, 2000, by OCP, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland OR 97213-3638. All rights reserved. 800-548-8749.
"Christ the Icon," music and lyrics by Rory Cooney, © ℗ 2005 World Library Publications, 3708 River Rd, Ste. 400, Franklin Park, IL 60131-2158. 800-566-6150.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Only the young die good

On occasion, we've all had one of those funerals, like that of a high school student who dies tragically and suddenly. At one such service a while back, our church, which seats about 1300 people, was about 90% full. Big family, lots and lots of friends from the two high schools the young man had attended. When everyone is in such an emotional tailspin from the impact of such a loss, I tend to brace for all the worst in funeral practices, but none of that happened. Well, maybe the (almost) understandable reaction that, if the ministers and rememberers just say enough words, or the right words, which always seem to elude us, the dead will come back to us, or the tragedy will be imbued with meaning and light. So words get multiplied, really, at a time when silence before the profound mystery of death and resurrection, really, the paschal mystery, the mystery of God, would be the wiser, more pastoral choice. We can’t help it I guess. We like the world we have, we’re comfortable with it, and a body blow like this takes our breath away, then leaves us chattering away searching for some meaning.

No need to go into details about the boy’s death. There is so much we don’t know that to say anything would be conjecture. He was angry, there may have been drugs involved somehow, and in an instant he was dead at 16, all that promise, laughter, and hope snuffed out in the blink of an eye. And the story is repeated all too often. I'm sure you're already relating it to one in your own circle.

All I wanted to say about this is that, when you stop to think about your own life, and I stop to think about mine, why are we here, and this child is gone? Ever get so blindingly angry so that you went out and acted in ways you regretted later, but lived to tell about it? Ever experiment with drugs, and then leave them in the past, without leaving a wake of devastation behind you? Ever drink too much and drive home, too far, and somehow make it into your bed without damaging life or property, your own or someone else’s? Ever broken the law to take a stupid risk that could have ruined lives, but someone came out on the other side unscathed? Being in the church biz, I’ve seen stuff like this happen way too often, kids dying doing some of the very things that people I know, and I myself, have done, but here we are, and they did not survive the day. What are we to make of this?

Excess is one of the things youth is made of. The wild chemistry of hormones, the illusion of immortality, the brinksmanship of anarchy while parental and societal limits are tested and come to terms with, the elation of love and the debilitating darkness of despair, and the covenant bonds of friendships forged in experiencing those realities with other persons, these years are a rollercoaster ride whose lessons are the momentum carries us into adulthood. Most of us, while dancing on the edge of the chasm, find our way together back to the village. Is it caution, or cowardice, or a benevolent God, or just luck that enables the survival of the many?

If it is a benevolent God who keeps us safe, it is also a benevolent God who catches those who fall into the chasm, and that’s where the difficulty lies for me. But I can’t see beyond the edge of that void. I just know that, over and over, I don’t deserve to be here any more than this child or any of the dozens of other kids I’ve known who were taken too soon, leaving gaping wounds of grief in the lives of parents, siblings, and friends.

When something like this happens, I’m inevitably taken back to the autumn after I graduated from high school. I was on novitiate on a mountaintop in Santa Barbara. About a hundred guys my age from four different “minor” seminaries, seminary high schools, came together for a year of prayer and discernment before continuing on to college seminary. Our home was on a mountaintop at the end of the winding Las Canoas road. One or two days a week we split up to do different kinds of work in the surrounding area, to teach religion (CCD) to children, help out at nursing homes and hospitals, and work in a thrift store. One September afternoon, on the way back from the thrift store, a van carrying four of us lost control and hit a tree, and two of the guys in the van were killed. Two out of a hundred. One was Jerry Volak, a Van Nuys kid with whom I’d gone to high school (again, the total enrollment being about a hundred guys) for four years. The other was Tom Cormack, whom I’d just met a month or so before, from the seminary in Lemont, Illinois. Tom was a good looking kid who had an older brother, Jim, in the major seminary, and Jim went on to be Vincentian priest. I wouldn’t have known Tom well except that everything in the seminary went in vocational order, that is, by years in the seminary and then alphabetically. Since we were all the same in seniority just out of high school, we lived in alphabetical order, and “Cooney” and “Cormack” were back to back, so we sat next to each other in chapel, at table, and in everything else that defaulted to that order. Now, there was just an empty place there. Guys I had known for years pretty much cried for a week. I’d never experienced anything like this wholesale grief, the place adrift in loss. After all these years, almost forty, I still dream about Jerry and Tom once in a while, and they still are just as I remember them.

All of that is just to say that I feel a connection with these kids, and as hard as it was for me, who had spent my life to that point steeped in the rituals of a faith that ardently defended a loving God and life after death, it must be exponentially more difficult for kids today, surrounded by a much more nihilistic culture, to make peace with a tragedy of these dimensions. I’m glad to be a part of a faith tradition that can weep and yet approach the grave with one who has both called forth from it and been called forth from it. I think that we who believe in a God whose eternal and creative life is self-emptying, or, as far as we know it, death, have a strength in which we can stand, however silently, with others, before this great mystery.

A couple of hundred years BCE, when Israel’s sages and poets were trying to make sense out of the loss of life among the best and brightest of Israel when the Seleucid empire was ruthlessly devastating the nation, the words of the Book of Wisdom were written that were read at this young man's funeral. It struck me, to twist the aphorism that Billy Joel made unforgettable in his song, that it has been ever so, that “only the young die good”:
But the just man, though he die early, shall be at rest. 

For the age that is honorable comes 

not with the passing of time, 

nor can it be measured in terms of years. Rather, 

understanding is the hoary crown for men, 

and an unsullied life, the attainment of old age. 

He who pleased God was loved; 

he who lived among sinners was transported--snatched away, 

lest wickedness pervert his mind or deceit beguile his soul; 

for the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right 

and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind. 

Having become perfect in a short while, 

he reached the fullness of a long career; 

for his soul was pleasing to the LORD, 

therefore he sped him out of the midst of wickedness.

But the people saw and did not understand, 

nor did they take this into account.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Not a stone will be left on stone (C33O)

Maybe the reason I’ve always been so scared of the end of the world, aside from these images from the gospel that were burned into my mind courtesy of the two-color drawings in the old St. Joseph missal, is that even as a little middle-class white boy from Phoenix I felt I had a lot to lose. I’d been compared in my classrooms with the pagan babies in Africa and the godless communist children in Russia, China, and Cuba, and I had it pretty good. If the end of the world came, or of my world, anyway, courtesy of the business end of a Soviet nuclear warhead, I had a lot to lose. Maybe heaven would be better, but I couldn’t count on it, according to the sisters and priests. Someone upstairs was watching everything I did and was taking notes. Before I had lost my virginity I was worried both about having committed adultery and catching venereal disease. You wanna talk about fear and trembling?

So I wonder whether people who have nothing to lose might in fact be happy when news of the apocalypse starts to spread. Is there a sense in which universal destruction might be good news for the poor? Something drives the historical dialectic that leads to revolution. There must be a point at which immanent death is preferable to life in the status quo. That’s not, I think, a place where I would want to live for very long.

At any rate, in 66 CE the Jews in Caesarea and then Jerusalem rose up and threw the Romans out, and it took the Romans three or four years to reconquer Jerusalem and then another three to destroy the holdouts in Masada. That’s seven or eight years of really bad news. During that time, the Romans offered sacrifice to the emperor in Herod’s temple, the “abomination of desolation,” the sacrilege that had not happened since Antiochus Epiphanes two centuries before. In the siege of Jerusalem and the aftermath, as many as a million Jews were killed. It was against this background that the first gospel was written, and that gospel became part of the source material that became the gospel of St. Luke, with its ominous warnings in this weekend’s liturgy about the end of things.

gathering: Soon and Very Soon or Road to Jerusalem
resp. psalm 98 – The Lord Comes to Rule (vv4,5,6)
communion: How Can I Keep from Singing
sending forth: Thy Kingdom Come

“Soon and Very Soon” (YouTube) is a song by Andrae Crouch that has become omnipresent in Catholic hymnals for the last couple of decades or so. In the live version referred to above, there’s a little 4-bar “Hallelujah” and a C section that don’t appear in the version that we have, but the song works fine without them. We may not believe that the cosmos is about to collapse in on itself for a few billion years, but the collapse of civilization on Gaia might be a little closer than that unless we clean up the place and put our guns down, and for each of us individually, “seeing the king” is just a breath away. So, do not send to know for whom the bell tolls and all that. Clap your hands and sing.

But at St. Anne's at most of the masses, we'll sing "Road to Jerusalem," the setting of Psalm 122 that I wrote about a few days ago. It's a scriptural text that the church associates with these last Sundays of the year. In fact, it is the responsorial psalm next week, on the Solemnity of Christ the King. The journey is always to Jerusalem, the city of destiny, where the reign of God and the world of Caesar almost visibly compete for the human heart. It gets us off on the right foot today, helping us remember that the fearsome imagery of the day of the Lord and the coming of the Son of Man are, in fact, good news.

Psalm 98 is a setting I wrote originally as the Christmas (Mass during the Day and seasonal) psalm back in the mid-80s, and it was first recorded on Do Not Fear to Hope. Over the years, I kept adding to it, verses and refrains, and we re-recorded it for Cries of the Spirit, Volume 2. On an email group with other pastoral musicians, I was whining about this psalm recently, wondering why, when it is so versatile with the different verses and refrains that it never caught on, especially because the text is a Grail text, and therefore it’s actually a church-legal setting. It’s a mystery to me. All I can figure out is that the cantor part is moderately demanding. Unlike the popular version of Psalm 98 by Haugen and Haas, this version is through-composed, with each verse having different music that I wrote just for that text. The range demanded of the cantor is about an octave and a half (B to F#) at worst, if a cantor has to sing both the lowest and highest notes (which aren’t in the same verse).

I wrote somewhat extensively recently on Trumpet in the Morning. I think it works today because the jubilee outlined in Leviticus for the chosen people rests on the same faith and hope that the coming of the Human Being (the "Son of Man") does in the apocalyptic literature of the last centuries BCE. The earth belongs to God. God is just and good, and if other gods appear to have the day in the cosmic battle for supremacy, then God is not finished, and will have the last word, and will not just restore but glorify God's own. God's final word on this is Jesus Christ, our jubilee, whose return (whatever that may mean) will bring justice to the earth.

Hope and perseverance are the virtues that ring strong through the liturgy of the word today, and just about no other hymn sings hope and perseverance better than “How Can I Keep from Singing,” which seems to me be an almost perfect faith-response to the gospel this Sunday. Even though there are half a dozen or so verses, the refrain “No storm can shake my inmost calm...” keeps coming back, hopefully in so infectious away that even the stoniest heart will be turned skyward. If we need to, we’ll follow it up with a verse or two of New Jerusalem, about which I wrote last week.

The closing song is “Thy Kingdom Come,” another song I wrote in the early 1980s that was on my first LP, You Alone, and was subsequently in Assemblybook, Glory and Praise Comprehensive Edition, and Gather Comprehensive. It’s less ubiquitous now, but we did record it again with some of the arranging improvements we’d made on it in the ensuing decade when we made Change Our Hearts in 1994. I remember just getting the idea for the song, thinking about the phrase “thy kingdom come” as sort of an encapsulation of the Gospel, both of the prayer of Jesus and his message, “the empire of God is at hand.” So I reached back to the beginning, and I think that first verse just came to me all at once, and I still like it:

O you who taught the mud to dream

O Lord, thy kingdom come.

And made the world with life to teem,

O Lord, thy kingdom come.

Did spin like tops the stars in space

O Lord, thy kingdom come.

And guide their paths with an ageless grace.

O Lord, thy kingdom come.

Now, I suspect that the idea of the melody of those verses bears at least a passing resemblance to the contour and feel of a Stephen Foster song called “Some Folks” and/or the first few notes of “I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’”, but if one is going to steal, one might as well steal from the best. I don’t think there’s any My Sweet Lord/He’s So Fine controversy in the similarity. It’s more a shading than identity, that’s for sure. Other verses refer to Isaiah 55, the Arthurian legend, and God knows what else. I think I might have been more daring with lyrics when I knew less. But who isn’t? You’re more likely to pet the nice big kitty until someone tells you it’s a mountain lion.

Why “ground zero” on this page? Well, who knows what’s coming, and where it’s coming from? That’s part of what these days are all about, or do we think Jesus is speaking about someone else when he issues his warning:
While some people were speaking about

how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings,

Jesus said, "All that you see here--
the days will come when there will not be left

a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down."

But he also tells us not to go running off here (behind our border fences) or there (off to a war of shock and awe) because someone is out there hollering about “evildoers” and using the name of Christ to justify the violence. Just, “do not be terrified.” Death, as Christ has shown us, is not the final word, and the forces of life are already present within the world, ready to rise like the sun of justice with healing light. If not even that (desert) storm can shake our inmost calm, how can we keep from singing?

2019 update:
Gathering Song: Find Us Ready (Booth), or The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns
Psalm 98 (Cooney, OCP)
Preparation Rite: Hold On to Love (Manibusan)
Communion: Do Not Fear to Hope (Cooney)
Recessional: Soon and Very Soon (Crouch)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Are you not aware?

There was a flap in the archdiocese of Chicago a few years ago wherein Cardinal George wouldn't allow a member of a family to give a eulogy during the funeral mass. The press of course made a big deal about this, as though it were another case of clergy abuse, but the Cardinal was merely articulating liturgical law. The Order of Christian Funerals, published and promulgated in 1987, states that "a brief homily should be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy." OCF does, however, allow for "words of remembrance" after communion, also characterized as brief, and which should be focused on the ways in which God's love and mercy were shown to the world through the life of the deceased.

At this time of year, it strikes me even more forcefully that we, the Church, have something to say at the time of the death of one of our own, and that God has something to say to us, and it's more than whether this was a nice guy, or whether she liked to quilt, or how much they partied. The Church, in our funeral liturgy, is celebrating one overarching reality: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have a story to tell. It's a story in which each of us is deeply invested. And yet, when it comes to funeral homilies, my experience has been that it is rarely proclaimed, but rather that the homilies tend to be a melange of kitschy Hallmark-style sympathies, anecdotes of the deceased's life gleaned from family members, and highly personal fables about the enduring presence of the deceased when we "give them back to God."

St. Paul, in the letter to the Romans read every year on the Vigil of Easter, has a very different take on it:
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his,
we shall also be united with him in the resurrection…
If, then, we have died with Christ,
we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus.
In other words, the Christian has already died on the day of her baptism. From that day on, death had no more power over her. The Christian died in the water with Christ, and rose to a new life, a new identity, living no longer as self, but as Christ. From that moment, the Christian walked as a sacrament of the invisible God. The homilist ought to look for the kind of evidence in a person's life that would make this proclamation visible. More importantly, this proclamation ought to be directed at changing the life of every person in the hearing of his voice. Death is the one thing that we're all afraid of. Death is the one idol we can't shake, the one against whom we hedge our bets, storing up this, hoarding that, spending our money, the sacrament of our time and living, shoring up our defenses against its ravages. Yet, for all that, death has no power over us. "Christ has conquered. Glory fills you. Sound the trumpet of salvation."

Even so, it is true that baptism happens to us, generally, at a very early age, and it takes a lifetime for us to be conformed, slowly, invisibly at times, to the image of Christ, and it's an image to which we are never perfectly sculpted. God's invitation in baptism to reimagine and recreate the world as God's empire, as a place of peace and equality, is not coerced. We aren't pushed into collaboration with God's effort, just invited, over and over again, invisibly. So it seems to me that part of the church's evangelical effort is to keep that proclamation alive, to look for the signs of it in our common life in our micro and macro communities, and hold us together in hope as we try to allow ourselves to be shaped by God's paradigm, Christ Jesus, crucified and risen.

Sometimes I wonder if we as a Church have lost our faith, that in fact we don't believe in a resurrection, in a new life that happens now, and that we just do the best we can to stumble through this life until we can just go to sleep forever. It seems like the world could genuinely be changed if it witnessed people who lived for each other because they were unconcerned about losing themselves, about preserving their ephemeral identity, because they knew they were part of Christ, a new reality anointed by God's Spirit to radiate the divine life in the world.

We don't know what happens after death. I, for one, don't care. What my faith is, is that God saved Jesus Christ from death, and that like all my brothers and sisters in faith I was baptized into that death, and that I can die no more. What that means is yet to be revealed. I don't always live like that faith is in my bones, I know. But it does change my reality here and now, it changes the way I see this world. It changes the way I use my life, my time, my money, my vote, advocacy.

In these November days of remembering, particularly on this cold, funeral-bound Tuesday, tossed in a spiritual cloud that hopes with the Maccabbees for a resurrection to a joyful physical life that is at least as wonderful as this one, that mourns with the thousands whose homes and hopes were flattened by the typhoon in the South Pacific, and that listens to the Savior's message to be unafraid in the face of the savagery of all this death, I can't help but be caught up in these sobering but ultimately joyful thoughts. I would like the words of remembrance at my funeral to sound like the witness of godparents at the rite of election. "Once in a while," let someone say, necessarily with brevity, "he got out of God's way, and there was light that shone through his life. Once in a while, I could see better in that light." And there would be something concrete and honest to illustrate that outrageous claim. And in that minute, some unseen hand will roll a stone back from the tomb just a centimeter, and the axis of the world will shift a little. I wish the same for you. Do not be afraid.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Albums 13 - "This Very Morning" - (1998, GIA)

In 1998, at Mark Karney's Norwest Sound Studios in Barrington, we started working on our first recording in the Chicago area. Norwest is right in the heart of the village of Barrington, which is very cool: it is in the basement of a wonderful Starbucks, and it's just a block from the Metra commuter rail, making it easy access for gigsters coming from the city. It's also occasionally a pain in the arse: it's in the basement of a Starbucks (think of late-night recording—is there another kind?—with chairs and tables squeaking across the floor above, even with lots of soundproofing) and its less than a block from the Metra commuter rail (three dozen trains a day on the Northwest line). What tips the balance in its favor is that Mark owns the place, Gary knows the recording equipment so well, and there are a number of worthy eateries within walking distance. At the time of this recording in 1998, and through all the records we have made since, Terry and I lived, and I worked, just two blocks away. There is something to be said for small-town life in the Midwest. (I purchased a Ford Focus new in 2003, and today, in 2013, it has barely 60,000 miles on it.)

What had begun to collect and what we thought would be the heart of a good new collection was music for Holy Week and Triduum. My work with the North American Forum, as well as our work at our jobs in Phoenix, had us working to create music for more "family friendly" Triduum celebrations, as I wrote about in a previous blog post. We also had the millennium-themed "Trumpet in the Morning," a spring-flavored graduation song that fit the general mood of the album, and an Easter-Pentecost anthem I had written for a friend's anniversary of ordination that would provide the title song for the collection. GIA was interested in a new collection, so we got to work.

I've written more extensively on a number of these songs, so there are links to those songs with their "song stories" if you missed them. On a couple of them I have added some reminiscences about the recording process.

Tracklist and comments

1. Trumpet in the Morning
2. Quiet Strength
I wrote "Quiet Strength" for my daughter Claire's eighth grade graduation mass as St. Jerome School in 1994. I had previously done the same for Joel ("Building a City") and would do so again for Aidan ("Fly Together"). The song title was actually the class theme for their respective year. This little ballad just expresses hope in the peaceful growth of things moving toward maturity, and asks for God's favor on the process of waiting in silence and breaking free. These three songs taken together especially are very special to me, trying to express both the hopeful optimism of a proud parent and the faith that believes that God guides the path to the future by inviting us to go there together, in whatever messy peace we can compromise.

3. Palm Sunday Processional
One big difference between the midwest and the southwest is the weather in winter and early spring. Most of the time, we wouldn't dream of having a Palm Sunday procession outdoors in northern Illinois, but it was not unusual in Phoenix at all. When we thought about doing this, it always seemed difficult to manage a form and style of music that was amicable to walking with minimal accompaniment, and not dependent on a worship aid that would both be distracting from the procession and probably a deterrent to participation, since people wouldn't probably look at it anyway. My thought one year was to write this chant-like litany with a refrain that had a sort of walking rhythm to it and lots of repetition.

The bonus was being able to add instruments to the processional music as the congregation enters the church so that there is a natural crescendo of both depth and excitement to the music as we gather. This simple little litany has proven very successful over the years, and has been in the last two editions (2nd and 3rd) of GIA's Gather Hymnal, and appears in Worship 4th edition as well.

4. Lenten Gospel Acclamation
A simple setting of the last dispensations "Glory to you, Word of God" acclamation, with a Lenten verse and one for Triduum. It can be done a cappella, with ensemble instruments or organ, and has instrumental parts for Holy Thursday use.

5. Precious Blood
A couple of years previous to this, Terry recorded a collection with Pamela Warrick-Smith and Donna Peña entitled One Heart. You may have noticed that I left a hole at "12" for that album, in case I can get Terry to write a little bit about her memories of recording it. See, I can't, because we recorded it in Minneapolis, where Donna lives. Pamela, a wonderful chanteuse from New York, had spearheaded the effort to make this recording, and she and Donna did most of the writing and arranging for it. I was singularly blessed to contribute "Precious Blood" to the effort because of Terry's participation. On the One Heart collection, Pam had sung the song. Terry sings it here. More information at the link to the "SongStories" page.

6. Fraction Rite and "Tableprayer"
Gary's generous nature as a musician and collaborator may well be learned behavior from his years as a member of the Dameans. Their song "Tableprayer" is a beautiful litanic song that praises God for the gift of the eucharist in a series of invocations to which the assembly responds with the words, "How wondrous are your gifts to us." It appeared on their fine collection Morning to Night in 1985. For our collection, Gary wrote a Fraction Rite (Lamb of God) to segue into the communion song, for which I wrote additional invocations or tropes. The Dameans allowed me to add some more verses to their lovely text in order to make it more useful for longer communion processions. "Tableprayer" (the Dameans original version) appeared in the first edition of Gather Comprehensive in 1994, and in RitualSong.

7. Concertato on "I Am the Bread of Life"
No one needs any introduction to Sr. Suzanne Toolan's wonderful communion song, whose origin dates back to the late 1960s. As I mentioned in a recent post, she nearly threw it away, but it was rescued by a young postulant who heard her singing it. It has been part of my liturgical spirituality since then, and I was honored that she allowed me to share my arrangement on this collection. It is always in the top five of my most popular downloads on iTunes, not because of my arrangement, but because people love the song.

8. Psalm 31: I Place My Life
We had recording this psalm on Psalms for the Church Year, Volume 4, when we were in Phoenix, with the great baritone Mike Wieser cantoring. (Spellcheck wants to make that participle "cantering," but in fact he was standing still as he sang.) For this recording, we wanted to have Terry sing it, bringing it another rich layer of meaning and emotion. Annually the responsorial psalm for Good Friday, many people look forward to the 3pm service at St. Anne's when she leads the singing of this psalm in the liturgy of the word and leads us on the psalmist's journey from desolation to hope.

9. Genesis Reading for the Great Vigil
Nothing much to say about this, except that I hear so much, from so many places, that people enjoy participating in the proclamation of the Genesis (and Exodus) readings through my setting, and that I love the CEV translation of "be fruitful and multiply," to wit, "Have a lot of children!"

There was a moment of near disaster (and, consequently, murder) in the studio when huge sections of this piece, largely necessarily improvised, were erased during mixing after the choir had recorded them. Gary was able to re-record some sections of the narration and incidental music, and fly in other refrains from other tracks. Necessity is the mother of improvisation, but it can be a real mother. If you follow me.

10. Psalm 118 (Easter Alleluia) for the Great Vigil, with Easter Gospel according to John
11. A Litany of Saints
Terry and I (mis)conceived of this litany that blends the invocations to the saints with the refrain of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" while staying at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans with Gary one year at the Hofinger conference. A little shaken by the staid and solemn liturgy at the cathedral we had just briefly witnessed as we walked in the Vieux Carré on a Sunday morning, we wondered why this city that played such an important role in American music didn't have a more American sounding liturgy in its cathedral, and began thinking about how it might be reimagined. One of the ideas we threw around was a litany of the saints based on "Marchin'", and this is what happened.

The local instruments you hear on the refrain were recorded later by Gary in New Orleans. What a coup. So grateful for the opportunities we've had over the years to do this sort of thing.

12. You Have Put on Christ
Gary and I collaborated on this little baptismal acclamation, though my contribution was simply adapting the scriptural acclamations in the RCIA to Gary's music. Easy to sing and perform, simple and joyful, I think it fits the definition of "acclamation" to a tee, and is further adaptable as a sprinkling rite by changing "You" to "we" in the refrain.

13. This Very Morning
I worked with Fr. Stan Szcapa in the North American Forum's institutes on reconciliation, first called "Re-Membering Church" and then "Becoming Reconciling Communities." Stan asked me if I would write a song for the 25th anniversary of his ordination, which was going to take place on or near Pentecost in 1996. The link in the title above will take you to a Pentecost post where I shared the text of the song as a prayer. I still think it's about as good a lyric as I'm capable of, with multiple scriptural images wrapped around the single theme of Pentecost as a moment happening now.

This Very Morning - product page at GIA website

Hits and misses. I've been very happy with the reception of the music on this collection. Two songs (three, if you include Table Prayer) have been anthologized in hymnals, several others are popular in choral music and in reprints. I cannot explain why the song "This Very Morning" didn't work for anybody else. It must just be sign of my interior disorientation: the closer I get to the best I can do, the further away from general acceptance. Just God's way of smiting me, and sparing me from the worst ravages of my own ego. It makes me very grateful for my choir, who humor me, and continually offer me the support and affirmation that gives me the courage to go on. That is how it's supposed to work, it seems to me, at least on this very morning.