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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Real presence: I am with you always (Ascension)

I am with you always.

"Christ of the Breadlines," urban mural by Gary Palmatier.
Sunday's gospel, the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew used both on Trinity Sunday B and on Ascension year A, ends with that promise. "I shall be with you always, even to the end of the age." It strikes me that that verse is a good lead-in to the upcoming feast (June 22) of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, formerly called by its Latin name, Corpus Christi. (Since an American nuclear submarine now unrepentingly bears that name, it's a phrase that I won't mind forgetting.) What kind of light might the feast of the Ascension shine on the Eucharist itself, and even on the approaching feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord?

It makes sense that the communities among which the gospels arose, and apparently in a more specific way the community that gave birth to the gospel of St. Matthew, were concerned about that promise. Now that Christ was risen and ascended, where was he? When could he be expected to return? The first generation of witnesses had virtually disappeared, Jerusalem was in ruins, Christians were a diaspora around the Mediterranean basin. What kind of hope was being summoned? How might we know the "real presence" of the Lord?

The gospels were presumably written "backwards," that is, having known and told the experience of the Lord's death and resurrection, the gospel writers then added stories from other sources to create their "good news". Luke and Matthew added midrashic infancy narratives that contain themes and motifs that appear throughout their gospels, Matthew taking some that showed the Messiah's development out of the Jewish tradition as well as his epiphany to all the nations (e.g., in the Magi), Luke interpolating the role of the Holy Spirit and the community of strangers and outcasts around the manger that would later populate the community of Jesus. It is in the Matthaean infancy narrative, too, that Jesus is called by the name "Emmanuel," a Messianic name that refers to Isaiah 9, and means "God-who-is-with-us." With the closing words of the Gospel, "I am with you always," this allusion forms an inclusio that gives a certain flavor to the whole gospel, and gets us looking for just what it might mean that "God is with us" in other passages.

I'm not a scripture scholar, but a couple of passages in Matthew jump right off the pages in that context. One is in the discourse on the community, in chapter 18. It is there that, in describing the way the community of disciples should act together (it is only in Matthew that the word "church" is used to describe the community), Jesus tells the community that it has the authority to bind and loose, and that God will hear the prayer of the church when it agrees to pray together. It is in this context that Jesus tells the group, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." So here, in the heart of the discourse on the community, is one clue: when we are together in dialogue, prayer, and forgiveness, and together is the crucial word here, Jesus is God-with-us.

The other citation is in chapter 25, of course, the great parable about the final judgment. In a series of parables that concern how Christians should be prepared for the parousia and therefore how life should be lived, we hear that the righteous and wicked alike are surprised to discover, at the end of life, that their activity or inactivity on behalf of the least of Christ's brothers or sisters was done on behalf of him. In other words, while we went about doing our business, day after day, for better or worse, interacting or ignoring the poor, thirsty, hungry, naked, and imprisoned, we were meeting (or ignoring) Christ himself:
Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'
Perhaps most startling of all, but very much in the spirit of Matthew 25, is Matthew 10, part of the missionary discourse. Sending his disciples to do his work of announcing the arrival of God's reign, showing signs to support their proclamation by healing, raising the dead, exorcising. Telling them not to be afraid, he assures them of the Spirit's presence in their time of trial, and that people of peace will indeed receive them and give them shelter. In his final exhortation, Jesus tells the apostles: "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me." Here, for a third time, we get a glimpse into the meaning of God-with-us: in those who preach the gospel. Those who bear the gospel to others bear the Word of God, and in that Word is the reality both of Christ and of the Father.

Christians who gather around the table of the Eucharist believe that in their gathering to remember the Lord's supper he is truly present. The Eucharist has become a kind of litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy: how real is the real presence? Certain people jump through hoops to demonstrate how real it is. But here, in the gospel of Matthew, we have Jesus's own words describing how God is with us, how he is present to us in every age: in our gathering to pray, in helping the poor, and in the ministers of the word, we encounter the Lord in our daily lives. That is real presence. We'll leave the beauty of the Eucharistic presence for another meditation. For today, let this be enough: that Christ is with us always in community, in the service of those in need, and in those who bear the gospel to us. Let's try to be attentive to that real presence, Emmanuel, God-with-us until the end of the age.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

111110(bin) 222(base 5)

Bob Hope
John F. Kennedy 
Annette Bening
Danny Elfman
Patrick Henry
G. K. Chesterton

Yes, those are other people born on May 29. I've always been proud to have been born on the very day that Jack Kennedy turned 35, the age he needed to be to be elected president, though it wouldn't happen for another eight years. I was obsessed with Patrick Henry as a child, and memorized his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech by the time I was in the fifth grade. I suspect I was less enamored of his political leanings at the time than that I was born on his 216th birthday. All things being equal, looking at that cast of characters across the top of the page, I feel a certain kinship with each of them, particularly Annette Bening, as we share uncommonly good looks, though if she felt about herself the way I feel about her, she'd never get out of bed. Hubba hubba.

In case you're wondering, it's been an interesting year, just like yours. But a few really high spots, like writing my first book, Change Our Hearts, and all the good buzz I got from that among my friends and colleagues around the country. One son married (Aidan, to MaLinda Zimmerman), and another (Desi) started his career in college at Nebraska, and another (Declan) got his license as a massage therapist after finishing school in Phoenix. And the process of getting music published, songs I've written over the last several years, began in earnest last summer, and is now starting to get underway with recordings and printed music. It's been a long time—nine years, actually, since that has happened, and as difficult as the process has been, it's good that it's underway. I'm really looking forward to NPM this summer, working with the amazing Paul Inwood on a weeklong composers' track, dialoguing and workshopping with other songwriters who want to get better at their craft. And I'm completely humbled and honored by the NPM's "Pastoral Musician of the Year" award — at least, they have been threatening me with it. 
Terry has to work today, being a high school teacher with grades to record and then attend the baccalaureate mass tonight, but she got up early and made us all a great breakfast of fruit salad, spinach and asparagus quiche, and baked french toast about which I can only say: pass the leftovers. Greater love than this... And she got us tickets to go see Avenue Q at the Mercury, so that is going to be a blast.
And I live in a beautiful house in a little town where I can run around without people laughing at me (until I get home), and I work in a place where I have friends and colleagues who support me through the difficult times. 
Thanks to everyone who has extended birthday wishes to me on Facebook or through any other medium. It's very sweet to be remembered by so many, most of whom are willing to hide their true feelings for one day a year. KIDDING! And thanks to everyone who drops by and reads my blog on occasion. It's a form of spiritual accountability that you read what I write, and most of you know me, so you can call bull$hit on me when I say one thing and do another. God knows i need that.
That's all I want to say today, that. Just "thank you" for the gift of life, for sharing faith, music, and love across the miles through the gracious cooperation of obedient if wildly uncontainable photons and electrons. 
I suppose you feel the same way I do about "the deal" that life is, and it's nowhere expressed better than by the "poet laureate of Iowa," Greg Brown, in his musical rumination on idealism, longing, and beauty, "Rexroth's Daughter":

she used to come & see me but she was always there & gone
even the very longest love does not last very long
she'd stand there in my doorway smoothing out her dress
& say "this life is a thump-ripe melon--so sweet and such a mess"
...what is real but compassion as we move from birth to death
i am looking for rexroth's daughter & I'm running out of breath
spring will come back i know it will & it will do its best
so useful so endangered like a lion or a breast
i think about my children when i look at any child's face
& pray that we will find a way to get with all this amazing grace
it's so cold out there tonight so stormy i can hardly see
& i'm looking for rexroth's daughter & i guess i always will be

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Q: Why are you staring at the sky?

 A: It beats working. 

I wrote down a few things that strike me in the scriptures from the feast of the Ascension. I guess most of them center around the gospel version of what happened to take Jesus away, but there were some from the Acts version. In the third gospel, the disciples are usually more dependable than the quibblers and miscreants described in Mark. But they are uncharacteristically tentative in the passage from Acts. First, at the end, they make the same "mistake" they consistently make in the whole gospel, that is, they seem to mistake the importance and meaning of Jesus even at the end, asking him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After everything else, the three days in Jerusalem, the women witnesses to the empty tomb, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the breakfast on the lake shore, it still seems to be about power. Here, at the end, there doesn’t seem to be much more understanding among them than there was at the beginning. That’s understandable. Jesus offers them service as the image of the invisible God; they opt for power, glory, rule, a kingdom like this world, because it’s the only paradigm they know. 

Matthew says “they worshipped, but they doubted.” Doubted what? Or was it not any kind of judgment by Matthew, just a statement of fact? I guess I worship, and I doubt. Why shouldn’t the disciples? Yet if it was all so obvious, if there really were a physically present, but changed, Jesus for them to experience, then what is to doubt? If there were a taking-up from the mountaintop, angels speaking, a man disappearing from sight into clouds, if someone walked through walls, appeared when the doors were locked, walked and talked and ate with nail prints in his side and a lance hole in his side, what is there to doubt? There must be something else going on here, unless they were just doubting what the future might hold for them. 

The context implies otherwise, though: “they worshipped, but they doubted.” What if it wasn’t all so obvious? What if “forty days” just means, “after enough time had passed,” and Christ’s going to God and the sending of the Holy Spirit, both of which are events that clearly central to Luke's story, were events about which there was no real vocabulary, and so these stories are constructed to help us get at the meaning of Jesus’s departure and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church? What if that’s what the angel meant when s/he said, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” If the going was not seen with the eyes but with the heart, if the return is not so much in the body but with an awareness of Christ’s presence without a body, then maybe the return has happened, is happening, already, in the poor, the sacraments, and in the church. 

This is a lot more like modern faith (except among those for whom “faith” is the same as “fact,” people with whom I will just need to disagree.) We believe, we act in our hearts on what we love and cling to with hope, and yet we doubt, because our empirically-trained post-Enlightenment minds have seen the holes in the story and deconstructed all the romance out of the gospel, which is good. Again, paraphrasing Dostoevsky via Dorothy Day, “Love (agape) in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” As is God, as is Jesus, it seems to me. 

Another beautiful insight from Ascension comes via Augustine, quoted in an email on a list to which I belong. St. Augustine writes, 
“So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body. Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.” 
Because of the body of Christ, then, we have ascended with Christ into God in some sense already, because the body is one, and cannot be separated. This is much more understandable if we don’t try to imagine heaven as a geographical place but as the dominion of God who is love, not as a kingdom, but as an eternal action and creating journey of self-gift. We can, we do, have glimpses of that glory, we share in it when we kiss, make love, embrace a child, give someone food or drink, work for a good cause, worship God with others, anything that takes us out of ourselves and into the Other. Maybe this is our “ascension,” to be “raised up” out of ourselves, and into the greater matrix of the Other, of others, of all that is beyond us. This is the etymological origin of "ecstasy" — ek-stasis, "standing outside" of the self.

That’s it, I guess. Happy spring. Give someone a kiss, but really mean it, and see if you don’t feel like you have one foot already in heaven. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Stinky flowers

"Poppies! Poppies will make!"
My friend Alan Hommerding often uses a particular phrase to alert his readers that there's a quality about what he's about to write that applies painfully to himself and he knows it. His phrase is, "Sound of glass house shattering," or some variation on that. We tend to be bothered, and respond to, bad behavior in other people because it reminds us of how we ourselves act. We see the negative side of our personalities in the light of their behavior. So I'm going to start of with his warning: "Sound of glass house shattering." I feel like I need to say something about the quality of the conversation, particularly among Christians about the state of the Christianity and the church, knowing full well that i have been as guilty as anyone in this area at different times in my life. I'm trying to do better now, but my frustration is always just under the surface. So here we go.

Here's something that bothers me a lot: good people, friends of mine who ought to be allies of one another in the work of making a better world, using abusive language, name-calling, projecting dark motivation, and making judgments of hypocrisy and damnation on other Christians who (in their estimation) do un-Christian things. It feels like we've taken a page out of American political discourse, complete with red-faced bluster, blue language, and purple prose, and applied it within a community that, for all its differences, is supposed to be bound by a commandment to "love one another the way that I have loved you," and to "love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you." Worse, we've come to see some of our own family in Christ as the enemy.

This is not to say that there aren't real divisions in the church, that real injustices aren't visited upon real people in the name of theology and morality, upon the very people who are most vulnerable to attack, already ostracized (like LGBT people) or marginalized (like the divorced and remarried) or outside the power structure (like the sisters represented by the LCWR). It's just that the way we are supposed to treat one another, speak about each other, is supposed to be governed by the law of charity and not by the kind of innuendo and character assassination one ordinarily associates with Bill Maher and Ann Coulter than with Christ.

The thing is, screeds and vituperation are never going to help. People can be rude, arrogant, stupid, brusque, full of themselves, puffed up, and frail in all kinds of annoying ways, and we (I) tend to recognize it in others because we (I) recognize it in ourselves. I cringe inside when I think of the things I've said to people arrogantly as though I were someone with some kind of corner on the truth market, like I were some kind of prophet of the Most High and they were all ignorant Pharisees blocking the work of the kingdom. I've ripped fellow musicians new ones for their perceived arrogance about the superiority of their playing, or their style of music, or for their disdain for the Second Vatican Council, or full, conscious, active participation, yada yada yada.

Let me tell you, I think all that is important, I really do. I think that a lot of Christians are dead wrong about a lot of things. you know what I'm going to say? I keep reminding myself that being right isn't the big thing: loving is. If God could put aside godliness to become like us, then being right doesn't mean s**t, if you take my meaning. This Church, this ekklesia, this community of the called-out, better learn to love each other, better learn to be a big tent, or we're just blowing hot boring air. And even the pagans do that, and do it better than we do.
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

Mao Tse-Tung reportedly said, "let a thousand flowers bloom," referring to many ideas coming to China in the Cultural Revolution, but we know he didn't mean it. Christ does. "Whoever is not against us is with us,"  says the gospel. (It says the opposite, too, but using the rule of least restrictive, more scandalous, interpretation, I think this one is the accurate rendering.) The Holy Spirit gives to the church a multitude of gifts for a multitude of needs. People who lash out at the church in their internet rants — righteously, rightfully, or even irresponsibly — have gifts somebody needs; who knows, maybe even someone tonight needed to hear his message. No matter how I feel about their rudeness, or crankiness, or just recalcitrance to the community, they are flowers in the Lord's garden, just like I am. And there are all kinds of flowers, and I'm allergic to some of them. Some of them smell great, and some are stinky flowers. Doesn't matter. God's garden, plenty good room.

"Jesus saw the crowd, and felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd." Pope Francis, amusingly and somewhat vexingly, recently told priests to be "shepherds living with the smell of the sheep." Maybe this is a case of using the priestly caste's language to reach them, but it still creates a false and meaningless division between shepherds and sheep. Jesus is the one shepherd; pushing that metaphor too far creates more problems for modern people than it solves. But Jesus felt compassion for us, loved the smell of the metaphoric sheep; loved the stinky flowers. He felt compassion for them. He acted like God, even though he was human like you and me. He let his love pour like rain and sunlight on the just and the unjust, like his heavenly Father. This is how I have to learn to be. This is the thing: test the prophet by her or his love. When all is said and done, is the prophet a reclusive, recalcitrant loner, fixed on the urgency of his/her own message and whether people accept his/her truth, or does s/he say and do what s/he has to do because s/he loves the people of God? Because you can't say you love God and hate people. Can't do it.

One of my theological heroes, James Alison, is working on this. He has a new set of books and videos available that have caused enough of a stir in this country (he's an English priest, former Dominican, who lives in Brazil now) that there is an article about him in the current issue of the Jesuit weekly America. The book and movement are called Jesus: The Forgiving Victim, and it's a rethinking of the Christian story from the ground up as a way of breaking the cycle of violence and retribution in the world, a new way of imagining who God is, and how grace works in us. A gay man himself, Alison has looked to the tradition of the Church, scripture and theology, to discover a way to peace and reconciliation that God reveals to us in Christ in a church that wants to distance itself from the gay experience of human love. Needless to say, it involves the cross, but it is inspired by the experience of the resurrection as an outcome. Calling upon René Girard's intuition about mimetic desire, he suggests that the cycle of greed and violence can only be broken by true compassion – feeling-with the other, even if the other is an enemy. What we need to strive for is God-like mercy of the heart, self-giving that is neither imitates the hatred nor the praise of other people, but is purely mercy-for-its-own-sake, that is, divine in origin. 

So I beg you, spread the word. Let's stop with excoriating those who who disagree with us, who aren't the kind of Christians we expect them to be, the kind we perceive ourselves to be. Who Christ is, what Christ means, is a very fragile thing, and people of immense good will (and yes, some others) disagree about that. But what eventually will invite people to consensus is probably not apologetics but mercy. The "clanging cymbals" of those who say, "my Christianity is good, yours is terrible" will win over the hearts neither of the insiders with whom we differ nor the outside seeker looking for direction. What will bring people to Christ is the inviting, wide-open, joyful love that is the gift of the Spirit for those who truly live in Christ. I pray for that. Venomous diatribes, name-calling, cynicism, are not the qualities of a home to which I would want to be invited. 

Yes, glass house shattering. Let's build something new.

Paul Simon has a song that I think of when I hear people blustering away at the church or other Christians, and when I start to rue my own lack of love and patience with people with whom I disagree. The song is called "Tenderness," and it belongs to all our prophets, true and false. I leave you with it, and ask you to pray for me that I can be worthy of the calling I've received. Nothing special, either, you have the same calling if you're reading this. Make us people of the big tent, people who rain mercy on the just and unjust. People who can see the beauty of stinky flowers.

What can I do

What can I do

Much of what you say is true

I know you see through me

But there's no tenderness

Beneath your honesty

Oh, right and wrong

Right and wrong

Ooh, never helped us get along

You say you care for me

But there's no tenderness

Beneath your honesty.

© 1973 Words and Music by Paul Simon

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Hey, Lars - Juno these flicks?

Last night at dinner Terry was telling me about the waning days of the school year, and the inroom celebrations  that are part of the rituals of closure marking the week before finals and graduation. Honestly, I don't recall the exact connection between this particular movie and what they were discussing in the classroom, but she put in the movie Lars and the Real Girl for the kids, provoking by the end of class a parting of the Red Sea of personality types: those who are able to surrender to the world of fictional truth, and those who are not. I'm sure it's a tender and, to some extent, revealing moment.

Yesterday being Thursday, I was looking for some "throwback" material to post on Facebook, and saw some stuff I'd written back in 2008 about movies we had seen that year that were Oscar contenders. The two that stood out for me (and I'm sort of a movie weird-o in the flicks I like, and at the same time fairly omnivorous in what I'm willing to watch), were Lars and the Real Girl and Juno.   After having this random conversation at the table, I thought, what the heck—it's my blog, after all—I'd put my thoughts out there. Here we go...

"Pretty much everyone had seen Juno by the time Terry and I got around to seeing it, we may in fact have been the last people on the planet to have seen it, but as someone said (maybe Claire, my daughter the writer), the script was sparkling, and raised teenspeak to the level of art. The writing on both of these movies was Oscar-nominated, and Juno won the award. Some have faulted Juno as too facile a moral tale, with its handling of teen pregnancy, abortion, and surrogate motherhood, but the movie presents multivalent emotions and complex motivations among its several lead characters, and never manipulates us or takes us down any expected path. In fact, one of the outstanding things about these two movies and the picture Once, which I will mention below, is their originality. We are so conditioned to expect characters to act as though they are poster children for some particular political point-of-view that these three films burst out of the pack by surprising us with their simple humanity.

"Lars and the Real Girl is essentially about what it means to be “real,” and as a tale of community and humanity at its best, this movie really took the cake for me this year. It would be worth watching by church groups and families just for the sake of the discussions that might ensue about what really matters in families and communities. I wrote on one of my internet news groups after seeing it that it was the first time I had heard the phrase “what would Jesus do?” in my life when I didn’t want to barf, because it came out as both true and funny at the same time, as though the answer were, “Who knows?,” only all the other options seemed to fall away, even though they seemed “saner” and more grounded in reality. The performances across the board in this movie are gratifying, of course both Ryan Gosling as Lars and his sister-in-law Emily Mortimer are wonderful, but the supporting performances by both Paul Schneider as his brother, Kelli Garner as the co-worker with her eye on Lars, and neighbor Nancy Beatty as Mrs. Gruner bring both ambivalence and naked humanity to life in this Minnesota town, as though Lake Wobegon were meeting Le Roi des Coeurs. All of this is largely because of the compassionate script by Nancy Oliver, who wrote several episodes of HBO’s quirky but engaging soap Six Feet Under. If you don’t see any of the big splashy movies from last year, do not miss Lars and the Real Girl, nor Juno, nor Once.

"Once is the last movie I want to say something about. Aside from the strange weave with reality that its story portrays (the two main characters are both a musical and romantic team), the script again takes us places we’re not accustomed to being taken in motion pictures, and nothing that happens in this little movie is predictable. Not that much happens. But in this character study of an Irish street musician and a Czech flower seller and domestic worker, as they work out their relationship around music, we’re constantly surprised by their restraint and truth to themselves and mutual respect. The music wasn’t always my cup of tea, but there’s originality and immediacy to it, and the energy of their art is infectious and is woven well into the narrative. Maybe I’m just so happily refreshed by not being led around by the emotional nose by a movie, manipulated into feeling this or that, that I want to shout from the rooftops about these three little movies that it’s actually possible to make a thoughtful, moral movie without spending millions of dollars. It seems possible at least to be entertained and edified by words and drama without the distraction of special effects and bloodletting, as cathartic as they may be in this day and age. There’s no catharsis like truth and compassion, and these three movies have that in abundance. My advice to you is, don’t miss them."

Well, that's what I thought in 2008, anyway. Of the three, Lars is the only one I have watched again since then, so maybe it's time to keep my eyes open for a rerun on cable. I feel sure, after Terry's description of her own joy at seeing it again, that I won't be disappointed.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Albums 17 - Christ the Icon (WLP, 2005)

Deum hominesque cano. (Apologies to Vergil)

Christ the Icon is a collection of songs that I wrote or arranged over a period of about three years, between 2002 and 2005.  What I’d like to offer in what follows is a bit of insight on my thought processes as they came into being. I don’t want to suggest that the songs need explanation. Was it Mae West who warned, “If you have to explain it, it’s not much of a kiss”? I can’t track down definitively who made that crack, but artists including Picasso and Louis Armstrong have warned against “explaining” art. Just as knowing more about a new friend’s life can deepen our appreciation of her more, so the experience of singing or hearing one of these songs might be somewhat enriched if you know a bit more about its origin, and what kind of thoughts and events catalyzed its existence. At least, that is my hope in writing this blog post, as it has been for the previous fifteen. (NB: note that album 16, which is actually Terry's Family Resemblance, has been postponed for now until I (hope to) convince her to do a guest blog post about it. She chose the songs for the recording, she's a very fine writer, and you could use a break from my voice, I'm sure!)

I’d like to talk about my experience of the song “Christ the Icon” first, because some of what I write about the other songs will make more sense when you see the theology which I am embracing that underlies this song. It seems to me that as human beings we are obsessed with power. This is generally because someone else has it, and we want it, or we have it, and we don’t want anyone else to have it. When we come to think of God and interpret the biblical story in light of our obsession, we think of God as “omnipotent,” and by that omnipotence we imagine the kind of power that we would like to wield: both irresistible force and immovable object, able to do anything we want to anyone we want, full and absolute control over the universe in all its parts.

The trouble with this, of course, is the problem of evil. If God is so great, critics of Christianity can rightly claim, why do so many bad things happen to so many good people? With so much evil, disease, and violence in the world, why doesn’t the omnipotent God do something about it?

The other problem is the Christian story itself. Even though the confluence of Christianity and empire lasted from Charlemagne to the Enlightenment, and arguably survives vestigially in the papacy, there is no evidence within the biblical tradition in the story of Jesus of Nazareth that such a confluence was warranted. Rather, as David Power has pointed out, when Christians say “Jesus is Lord,” we don’t mean that Jesus is like the lords of earth. Our kerygma is that lordship is defined by who Jesus is. That is a world of difference. The kingdom of Jesus “is not like those of this world.”

Furthermore, by the claims that the evangelists and apostles make about Jesus the Lord, we are invited to rethink who God is, what God is like, and just what “power” means. In the letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes or quotes the astonishing hymn that begins, “He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God.” That is to say, to look upon Jesus, dead and risen, is to see who God is. The One who loved so much that he “did not deem equality with God something to grasp onto,” this one who emptied himself, giving himself up to death on a cross, this is the image of the invisible God. It draws us back to the Jesus of the gospels who assures the disciple that “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

I think there’s enough material in those insights to last a lifetime. Contemplating that ought to reshape our definitions of power and transform our relationships. For someone like me, formed by the Church of the catechism and trained for a while in the seminary crucible of Catholic apologetics, it is a revelation. If God can give up god-ness to be with people, to stumble along and pass out the fragility of one’s own life so that others may have life and have it more abundantly, then why on earth do I have to hold on to “being right” in some theological or political battlefield? If even god-ness isn’t worth grasping, apologetics is just silly. It is precisely why “love covers over a multitude of sins,” because what matters is the extent to which we are like God, to which we abandon the right to be ourselves and to preserve our own lives for the sake of being for other people. Where Paul uses the language of kenosis and icon, John’s simple formula says the same thing in three words: God is love.

So, what I wrote in “Christ the Icon” is simply the verse from Colossians 1 to which I referred above, as part of a refrain that anchors the entire text in the paschal mystery:
Christ is the image of the unseen God,
Our life, our peace, and our lasting.
Praise and thanksgiving to the Crucified,
Who endures while the mighty are passing.
The verses of “Christ the Icon” are sung by a cantor, and invite the singers to reflect on the gospel in the light of that insight from St. Paul. At the end of each half-verse, we repeat the words, “the image of the unseen God,” and the choir provides a texture of musical prayer by singing “Eleison” (have mercy!) through the verses as they recall image after image from the story of the Messiah. My hope is that, as we sing the song together through the communion procession, or during the veneration of the cross, or whenever the song might be used, the story of Jesus, the eleison’s, and the refrain that draws us back to the insight of St. Paul will help reform our values to the values of the gospel.

“Be Perfect” is a song I wrote from the intersection of the parish travails of a good friend and colleague of mine and my reading of the French-American anthropologist Réné Girard. Part of Girard’s thesis about the origin of societies and religion in violence, a thesis generally termed “mimetic desire,” is that we don’t want things in themselves, but we want them because others have them. We learn to desire from others, and want what others have because they have them. Girard’s theory, while complex and necessarily oversimplified here, is that this desire escalates into violence unless a “scapegoating mechanism” is triggered, and the violence within society can be focused on a single person or group and thus released. Girard, a Catholic, sees the Paschal Mystery as the way out of the cycle of escalating violence and scapegoating by revealing our violence for what it is, an assault upon an innocent victim. Scapegoating only works by associating God with the accusers, by making a demon of the one cast away. But in the Christian story, Jesus is revealed in the resurrection to be both innocent and the Son of God. The false religion of sacrifice is revealed for the murderous thing it is. By refocusing our desire after the desire of Jesus, to be like the Father who loves unconditionally and “makes the rain fall and sun shine upon the just and the unjust,” we can be part of the emergence of the reign of God.

The passage upon which the refrain is based, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, is almost invariably watered down by homilists afraid to imagine that it might be possible to act as Jesus does, and imitate the perfect love of God.

There is a certain sense in which the admonition to “be perfect” has been understood in a semi-Pelagian way, that is, that we need to keep practicing our spiritual exercises until we get them right, and arrive at some state of sinlessness reserved for the true spiritual Olympian athlete. This sort of thinking denies both the perfection of divine love, which loves us right in the midst of our sinfulness, and the divine initiative, by which we mean that grace precedes and enables the response of repentance. But there’s something even more important here: to be perfect means to be like God, to make being-like-God the object of our desire of our loving imitation. And this is not being like just any God, but being like the God of Jesus, who “makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.”  To keep Jesus’s admonition before us to “be perfect” is to resolve not to forget the admonition to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. It keeps the church honest, and helps us to recall that it’s not enough to “be nice” and to love each other in our families and communities of intention. The gospel call is to love everyone with the divine love, the love that puts the good of the other first, even if, especially if, the other is our enemy. This seemed to be particularly cogent as our nation began to prepare to go to war again in late 2002 and we were hearing the community discourse in Matthew that harkened back to the Sermon on the Mount. More immediately, as I briefly indicated above, a good friend of mine had experienced tremendous alienation, betrayal, and vilification in a parish job experience, and through that ordeal, never lashed out or retaliated against those who were doing the persecuting. I was moved and amazed by the restraint and love that this person was able to show in the situation.

You can hear a little of Girard again at the beginning of “Let Us Go to the Altar of God,” when the words of Psalm 42 are invoked, “Who will fight my fight when the mob surrounds?” The song goes on to describe the altar of God as both a sanctuary and a gathering place for those who want to answer the call to “gather with friend and with foe” around the table of Jesus. Christians are not immune to any of the doubts, troubles, or afflictions that anyone else suffers, but the hope offered by solidarity, by gathering around the altar-table at the summons of the gospel, is the good news that we have experienced and can offer to others. The lyric of the song points directly to political upheaval:
When the winds of war through the land increase,
When they call your children my enemies,
Where will I draw strength to proclaim your peace?
I will go to the altar of God…
I tried to connect with both my personal apprehension about a cancer diagnosis I had received, and my exasperating spiritual bankruptcy in the lyric as well, knowing that I am not alone either in sickness nor in sin, appealing to images from Psalm 23.
Who will find a way? Who can rescue me,
Caught between the Pharaoh and hungry sea?
Though I’m sick and broken, alone, unfree,
I will go to the altar of God… And if I should stray from all I hold dear,
And I’m left alone in my shame and fear,
Where will sun shine warm, streams of hope run clear?
I will go to the altar of God.
Again I nod to Girard’s celebration of the cross as hope for the end of violence in the fourth stanza, in which the Crucified “breathes his spirit out” upon the killing fields of the world, summoning all the persecuted and desaparecidos to the holy mountain on which there is no death or injury.

“You Have Built Your House” was commissioned by a parish in Naperville, Illinois, for the dedication of their house of worship. Strangely, my own parish of St. Anne had built a new church only three years or so earlier, and though it had been a priority for me, I did not, could not, come up with a new piece of music for our own dedication. But I had thought long and hard about what such a piece ought to include, and when the folks at Holy Spirit asked me to write something for them, and my inquiries revealed a community there similar to ours, with similar musical forces, I was energized to make a new attempt.

The lectionary texts for the dedication of a church are so rich! There is a nice cluster of images that works something like this: Jesus Christ is the meeting place of heaven and earth, the temple of the new covenant. The temple of the new covenant is a Christ. Christ has, through the Spirit given to us in baptism, called us to be living stones in the temple. Just as Israel discovered after the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem that the permanent abode of the Most High was not in a building but in a people, so the People of God of the New Covenant are the lovely dwelling place of God. God has built our house for us, not the other way around. This is the key image for me: it sets the relationships right among us, and puts our efforts at “building a church” in perspective. “You Have Built Your House” describes that reality, and offers a kind of corrective to our hubris and a celebration of the truth of God’s diverse people on mission together, “streaming in” to remember who they are and be fed for their continuing journey.

"Every Generation Calls You Blessed" was commissioned by the community of St. Mary's in Port Washington, WI, for the 150th anniversary of their parish, dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption. Originally, what I wanted to do was a triptych of pieces, beginning with this one. The other two were an arrangement for the same group of choir and instruments of a mid-20th century plainsong hymn called "Mary and Christ," a litany that takes the form of fulfillment, as in,
Mary the Dawn,
Christ the Perfect Day.
Mary the Gate,
Christ the heavenly way....
I knew this song from my childhood, but as it turned out, after I had the song completely arranged, I came to discover that it was not anonymous at all but had been written and published around 1950. One website says the following:
"Mary the Dawn" was first published in 1949 under the pen name 'Paul Cross', believed to be a pseudonym for Fr. Justin Mulcahy, C.P. (1894-1981). A Passionist Priest from the St. Paul of the Cross Province, he studied at the Pius X School of Liturgical Music in New York and eventually earned a degree in Church Music from the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, Vatican. The haunting melody of Mary the Dawn is an adaptation of Gregorian Mode IV. In some hymnals, the text is attributed to 'Anonymous', while others show the author as Paul Cross.
At any rate, rather than trying to track down a pseudonym, I just gave up on trying to get it included with "Every Generation." I may try again, now that I see that the original version was recorded by Richard Proulx's Cathedral Singers for GIA. The third piece in the triptych was a canon on the text "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Again, as it turned out, the whole thing just got to be too much like work, and I bagged part three as well. Mercy. Such a quitter!

I wrote a set of verses for St. Mary's entirely based around the feast of the Assumption. Reading through some of the apocrypha about the Assumption, by the way, is a very groovy experience, particularly the story as recounted in the Dormition of the Mother of God by pseudo-John, complete with the Virgin being taken up on a couch, and an angry Hebrew trying to hold her back and having a seraphim cut his arms off, leaving them dangling from the couch. You can't make this stuff up. But it also doesn't belong in a hymn, right? The editors at WLP (rightly) decided that it would be a more useful song if the verses were about a cross-section of Marian mysteries, so I provided another set of verses of general use.

The call-and-response form of "Every Generation," with refrain, makes it an easy song to use for communion or at any other procession. The melody is dynamic if somewhat serpentine, but I think within reach of most assemblies without much rehearsal. Please give it a try! And while you're at it, perhaps investigate the setting of Psalm 45, the responsorial for the Assumption feast day.

Christ the Icon also includes a setting of Fr. Peter Scagnelli's translation of the "Pentecost Sequence," which is set to a chant-like melody reminiscent of Bill Withers' classic "When She's Gone," hence the melody's name, QUANDO ITA. Very fun to sing, and I think it fits the spirit of the day, as it were. There is setting of French noel Il Est Né which I did for my choir a few years back. Such a charming little melody, and all I did really was set it for SAB choir with a cello and flute accompaniment and ritornello. We recorded the verses as equal-voice duets. Je l'aime beaucoup! And don't miss "Let the Children Come to Me," which I wrote as a song for the sending of children to Children's Liturgy of the Word in the parish, but it has plenty of verses to make it useful for First Communion and certainly on Sundays when that passage in the synoptics is part of the liturgy. (The links in the above paragraph go to the pages at World Library for each song, where you can hear a clip of the recording.)

I need to especially acknowledge the amazing cover art on this recording. My brother-in-law, Gary Palmatier, created this mural on the exterior wall of the Ammon Hennacy House of Hospitality in Los Angeles while he was doing alternative service during Vietnam as a conscientious objector. Although the structure had to be demolished and rebuilt after an earthquake, photos of the mural survive. In the picture on the album cover, you can make out the individual bricks in the lighter-colored sections. Gary painted into the shadows of the crucified Jesus the faces of the homeless and hungry people who visited the food kitchen every day. It is an amazing icon of the meaning of Christ, and the continuing presence of the Crucified among the poor and those who serve them.

Christ is at the heart of these songs, Christ who is mediator Dei, both the image of the unseen God and as the image of a humanity called to “be perfect” and built into a living house of praise and thanksgiving. As a songwriter in the Church, I can only hope that by putting them at your service through the ministry of this publisher, they will help you and your community find ways of expressing the resonance between life in the modern world and the abundant life that the Spirit offers through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thank you for trusting all of us songwriters and other artists in the church who have staked our lives on the hope that this might be possible.

As I wrote this article, I've been listening again to Christ the Icon, and I have to say that Gary and crew did an excellent job recording these songs for World Library, the listening experience itself is a joy. So consider a visit to iTunes, or to WLP to purchase the CD, and thanks for reading.

Track list: 
(songs that have their own "SongStories" post, with Soundcloud clips, are linked to those posts here.)

Be Perfect
Christ the Icon
Let the Children Come to Me
Il Est Né
New Families
Pentecost Sequence
Every Generation Calls You Blessed
Psalm 45 for Assumption
Let Us Go the Altar of God
Mass of St. Aidan
Lamb of God (Living Stones)
You Have Built Your House

(Note: Mass of St. Aidan was revised in view of the 2010 Roman Missal, and has been re-released as an octavo and CD.)

(Parts of this article appeared in AIM magazine, and is used with permission from World Library Publications.)

Christ the Icon page at World Library Publications.

Christ the Icon on iTunes, and the revised "Mass of St. Aidan"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Songstories 32: "You Have Built Your House" (WLP, 2005, from "Christ the Icon")

In the first decade of my tenure at St. Anne's in Barrington, the community, under the leadership of former pastor Fr. Jack Dewes, undertook the difficult task of building a new church, the third one, in fact, to house the Barrington community since the parish was founded in 1884. Like every human enterprise, it was a project that engendered both enthusiasm and resistance; like every human religious symbol, it was rife with controversy and frequently polemics. In the end, though, we had a beautiful new space and a reinvigorated if battle-weary community.

What we didn't have, though, was a song.

Fr. Jack had used a favorite slogan of his as a rallying cry for all the parish meetings and fund-raising that became kind of a parish motto, "This people is the house of God." It might have been the added maelstrom of activity surrounding the building process layered on top of all my regular work, but I couldn't get inspired to create a "theme song" for the new church. We also lived, literally, across the street from the construction site, we were often busy with other aspects of careers and managing a blended family and the challenges of deficit budgeting in the house, so I don't blame myself much! I didn't write much of anything new in those years preceding the millennium.

Then in late 2002 or early 2003 I was approached by Connie Wilson, the former music director at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Naperville, another large parish about twenty-five miles south of Barrington, with a request that I write something for their church as they were going to be consecrating a new house of worship in October of 2003. She asked me if I could write something for their dedication liturgy. Holy Spirit has a vital music ministry, with organ and piano in the new worship space, and she expected to have a small orchestra to accompany her good-sized choir for the event.

I suspect that what happened was that all the "overflow of powerful emotion" that had built up in the years of being part of the process of building St. Anne's was, in Wordworth's words, "recollected in time of tranquility" as I set to writing a song for the dedication of Holy Spirit without the pressures of my own community's struggles and expectations. I was able to gather up all the insight and inspiration I had been given through the process of being part of a church-building process, and give it away in a song for another community, or better, for all the communities, including my own.

The primary insight was the clear one from the Hebrew scriptures, in the story of David (2 Sam. 7), who want to build a temple for God in his own time. God says to David (I'm paraphrasing here), "You are going to build me a house? Look around you. Did I ever ask you for a house? Who is building whom? It is I who am building you a house." When Solomon gets around to building the temple, in his prayer of dedication (1 Kings 8) he acknowledges the hubris of his project, though he built the temple anyway, and a nice palace for himself as well. Still, we have this: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (v.27)"

Of course, much of the Bible is a matter of coming to the realization that the house of God is not a temple but a people who "worship in spirit and truth" (Jn 4:23, for Christians). In Revelation, too, we finally come to hear explicitly that "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. (Rev. 21:3)" In today's (Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A) second reading, we have Peter's wonderful song (1 Pet. 2:4-9) about the church that has inspired so many hymns and songs through the years, including at least three of mine, and Fr. Deiss's once ubiquitous "Priestly People":
Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
and, like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
For it says in Scripture:
Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion,
a cornerstone, chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame.
Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith:
The stone that the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone, and
A stone that will make people stumble,
and a rock that will make them fall.
They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.
You are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own,
so that you may announce the praises” of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
It was out of this matrix of images that I eventually wrote the text and music for "You Have Built Your House," and I tried to make the imagery inclusive, reflective of the hard ironies and sometimes painful realities that are part of church life, while seeing in them the will of God for a diverse and inclusive community of "banker and debtor, prisoner and judge" sitting side by side at worship. The refrain acknowledges that it is God who builds the house, not we, and becomes a prayer that we can become a house for the God who is one with the poor and forgotten:
You have built your house of living stones:
Nothing of our hands can hold you.
Who can build your house but you alone? Who can hold you?
Build us into a house of prayer,
A house of peace, a house of care,
Inn and hospice, fortress, banquet hall,
Home for all.

The verses of the song explore some some aspect of the liturgical action: gathering, word, table, and mission, in terms of being the house of God together. A final coda that lifts the final refrain upward a minor third identifies the temple and the assembly with the reality of God-with-us:
How awesome is this temple, the people where you dwell,
Where earth unites with heaven, Emmanuel!
One last thing for now: one take on the creation myths of ancient civilizations is that many of them begin with the gods building their own temples. Some modern scripture scholars have identified the creation myths in Genesis as being of this genre, so that on the six days of creation God is building a temple for himself, climaxing in the creation of people, and creating Sabbath for people. This is a complex reality, where one can see the political shadow of rejected slavery in the Sabbath myth, and one can also see the hand of the temple cult writing itself into the myth as though to say, "God created you for us. Bring on the offerings!" The only point I wanted to make here is that, from the origins of Scripture, it is God who builds the house of worship, and not people, even in myth!

Here is a wonderful article about Genesis 1, leading to the author's wonderful assertion that "(t)he first six days are really about God building a house. The seventh day, it becomes a home." God builds a temple for self in the cosmos, puts us there, and gives us Sabbath to contemplate the joyful wonder of it all.

Here is another article, which further explores the language of the creation myth in Genesis in a way that uncovers a theology that human beings were created for worship: Homo liturgicus. Fascinating!

Clearly I wasn't cut out to be in marketing, because if I were, this article would have better been written weeks ago, with a note to remind everyone that it would have been a good choice for yesterday's (Easter 5 A) liturgy, since the reading from 1 Peter 2 was heard in the liturgy of the word. But the song celebrates God and God's creation of church for service, and really, it's appropriate pretty much year around, especially as a communion song or a festive processional. Consider this an invitation from a lousy marketer to give it a try!

You Have Built Your House page at World Library Publications

You Have Built Your House - Christ the Icon iTunes link

Monday, May 19, 2014

Guest post: Rita Ferrone on the current state of initiation

Rita Ferrone (photo from the Inst. of Sacred Music
Congregations Project website
Rita Ferrone is a woman of passion with an intellect and a voice to be reckoned with. I have had the pleasure, pleasure that was frequently also tempered by fear and trembling, perhaps like the beatific vision, of working with her on several institutes on Christian Initiation through the many years that we both served as team members with the North American Forum on the Catechumenate.

It has been about a year since the news hit us that Forum was about to close its doors. In a recent open email to friends in the ministry, Rita opened her heart and her formidable mind to us in an evaluation of the present state of initiation ministry in the United States. She paints a troubling, if not discouraging, picture of the situation, asking all of us to take an active role in pushing the agenda of initiation with integrity in the U.S. church. 

Rita's bio on the PrayTell blog site simply reads, "Rita Ferrone is a writer and speaker about issues of liturgy, catechesis, and church renewal. She lives in Mount Vernon, New York." She also has an M.Div. from Yale Divinity (1983). From her bio on the Yale site, there's this:
...Her writings have had wide influence on North American Catholics as well. Her most recent book is Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium, in the series Rediscovering Vatican II. 
Ferrone also co-authored the 18-volume series, Foundations in Faith, a series of resources aimed at developing parish ministers in the vision and praxis of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Her book On the Rite of Election was an important contribution to Catholic liturgical celebration.
Rita rocks. But before my introduction to her gets longer than her own words, here, with her blessing, are her thoughts on the status quo of initiation ministry, and what needs to be done.


Dear friends in initiation ministry,
Please forgive the group email. I wanted to reach out to a number of you at the same time, and this seemed to be the best way to do it. We’ve worked together through the North American Forum, and have shared some wonderful growth and challenges over many years of engagement with the RCIA, which is why I wanted to talk to you.

I’m writing because it seems to me we are at a kind of crisis/opportunity moment. On the one hand, we have been seeing some of the best advertisement for the Catholic Church in our lifetime – in the person of Pope Francis. His witness has captured public attention, impressed the skeptics and opened many hearts by focusing on mercy. What an opportunity to draw new followers to Christ! At the same time we are facing a retranslation of the ritual text that could remove half the book and most of the people who currently take part in the process (the baptized candidates), depending on how strictly the new National Statutes are written.

It’s not all about the pope or the book, however. I don’t know about you, but I am seeing a lot of initiation processes at the parish level that have gone stale, or are held captive by a single person with a narrow vision, or have simply closed down. In one story I heard recently, a parish now sends their people to “Tuesday night lectures” in the deanery, in place of a formerly-thriving RCIA process. In another, the DRE told me with a sigh, a newly-ordained priest took over and wants to “teach the catechumens” all by himself. They have been fleeing. In a third, the Robert Barron videos have become the backbone of the program (I use that term advisedly). In yet another, it’s all about “converting” the Protestants as the RCIA director proudly announces “I’m a Home Sweet Rome Catholic!” Paschal journey? Not so much.

I recently studied the trajectory and the numbers are grim. Between the year 2000, when Journey to the Fullness of Life was published, and 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available, adult baptisms in the US fell by 49 percent. (41% of that drop was between 2005 and 2010) That’s in absolute numbers. Taken as a proportion of the total Catholic population, which has grown during this time, it’s an even steeper decline. I wrote about this in Commonweal. I’d invite you to read the article and make a comment if you wish. This link takes you behind the paywall directly to the article, no login required.

Why did this dramatic fall-off of catechumens happen? Is it all the abuse crisis, or something more complicated than that? What is the situation in your own parish or diocese? Frankly, I think that the “Francis effect” is not going to matter much if what transpires at the local parish is repulsive. It haunts me that we used to be able to do this – not perfectly, to be sure, but we did it -- and now no longer, or perhaps I should say “at half the rate.” Why aren’t all the cylinders firing?

One of my concerns right now is that if the revisions of the ritual text are deep enough, it will push many parishes that are marginally committed to RCIA over the edge into abandoning it. They will either cease to have a catechumenate or water it down to nothing. Someone wrote to me after reading the Commonweal article, to say that he had a bad experience with the RCIA, and when taxed with the story of the repellent experience, the pastor said “Why did you even go? I would have baptized you anyway.” That’s where we are. Hopeful endeavors, like TeamRCIA, are working. But the big picture is worrisome.

When the bishops sit down to ask Rome for adaptations, or to approve new texts, or to write a new set of National Statutes, I would like to think that they will do everything in their power to strengthen Christian initiation. But I don’t know that. What I do know is this: a good outcome is more likely if we advance a conversation among pastors and liturgists and catechists that makes a case for “what works” and distinguishes it from “what doesn’t work.” The Conference of Bishops was very different in 1988 than it is today. But even then, it was the people working at the grassroots who made the difference.

I don’t want to wax sentimental about Forum, but I feel the absence of that organization. I honestly think that RCIA has been on the back burner in many or most dioceses for some time. It needs some more conversation, and loving attention, especially now. Thanks for listening and for continuing the conversation within your own circles, wherever they might be.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Tradition" and "tradition" in the first communion liturgy

Portrait of the author as a young Catholic
I looked at a recent copy of Worship the other day that was on the topic of First Communion, and realized that I had written something about this topic a few years ago, albeit much less studied and dispassionate. Last year I posted one article about first communion here, which addressed my nagging concerns about understanding and faith, and I stand by that. But in this later article from 2008, I was looking at the paradigm of first communion itself, and thought I'd update it a little bit, take out all the snide stuff that won't matter in a few years, and see if there's anything worth considering. I will also add the issue and author of the piece in Worship so you can follow up for more erudite thoughts on the subject.

The idea is that we focus on the children so much, and, by extension, mom and dad, that God gets lost in the ritual, at least the paschal God, the culturally resistant Jesus.Trying to put my finger on exactly what the problem is, though, is more difficult. In practice, it’s not the dressing up, not really. In general, people underdress for mass, so it’s good to see kids actually put on something other than shorts, a commercial t-shirt, and flippies for mass. Parents too, for that matter. Is it the Q&A “homilies” with the kids, looking for the quick laugh, the “Art Linkletter” moment? All the self-congratulatory applause? (There’s a kind of applause that says, “Thanks be to God,” like you hear at an anniversary mass, or when an unjustly embattled bishop or priest enters a supportive assembly; this is the kind that just says, “Aren’t they cute? Aren’t we great?” I mean, in my opinion, which is the only one I have.)

It strikes me that one of the problems (and one of the answers) might be that there is no prescribed ritual for first communion for born Catholics, not in this country, anyway. In some cultures and in the Eastern part of the Church, the initiation sacraments are received together, even when they are administered to children, so first communion is received by an infant after being baptized and confirmed in the same liturgy. But in our country, for example, there is just the legality of having children receive the sacrament “at the age of reason,” which is considered to be at the age of 6 or 7, so the sacrament is received in the second grade. Beyond this there is absolutely no guidance for how first communion is to be celebrated.

Or is there?

First, let me suggest a couple of bad paradigms. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: marriage. The obvious thing here is the tradition get-up for kids at first communion, with expensive clothes that suggest little brides and grooms coming to the altar. Besides the bizarreness of the very idea, there’s the whole a priori problem with the general Catholic perception of the sacramentality of marriage underlying this, that marriage is primarily for and about the couple. This is obvious in the whole “it’s our special day” cult of weddings. Weddings, like all sacraments, are primarily actions of God in Christ. They are about something God is doing, and to which we, as human beings called into relationship with God, are called to respond. So, until we can fix what the general Catholic thinking is about the nature of marriage as a sacrament, it’s better not to make it a template for what first communion is.

Second, there’s the paradigm of graduation, again with the special clothes, the processions, the sense that something is ending, rather than that something is beginning. In the parish, we've even had the DRE and school principal come out and give a testimony about how well the children have been prepared, and their names are all called like a roll, and they all stand. Yes, just like graduation. Of course, every sacrament by its nature sits at a threshold, a cusp of experience, expressing what has gone before it in poetry, music, movement and prayer, and then propelling us into a future changed by the moment. Graduation is a gradus, a step forward on an understood journey; it is a commencement, a beginning of something. But the sense in the Church can be (and this is pronouncedly worse at the confirmation liturgy) that we’re finally done with a bunch of classes, and this celebration, its parties and gifts, are the carrot on the end of the stick. Again, the focus is on the receiver, not the giver, so anything that smacks of graduation in the first communion liturgy ought to be rooted out too. The less we ever think, as Christians, that we’ve arrived anywhere, the better off we’ll be, the less prone to judging others, the more interdependent we’ll be in the journey of faith.

So what paradigm could we look to in forming a celebration for first communion that makes sense, that doesn’t focus on the recipient so much as it does on the divine Giver, and the grace poured out upon the entire community in the celebration of the day? You probably know, if you know me at all, that my suggestion will be the RCIA. I think I’m on solid ground here; the General Directory for Catechesis says, at paragraph 59,
“The model for all catechesis is the baptismal catechumenate when, by specific formation, an adult converted to belief is brought to explicit profession of baptismal faith during the Paschal Vigil. This catechumenal formation should inspire the other forms of catechesis in both their objectives and in their dynamism.” 
While this general rule applies specifically to catechesis, it refers to the RCIA, which is a rite. So the question becomes, what does the RCIA say about the way that new Catholics receive first eucharist? Well, it doesn’t really say anything special. It mentions that it is appropriate that the neophytes might present the gifts at the Easter Vigil. It says nothing, however, about receiving the Eucharist specifically from a priest, for instance, nor that the reception of the Eucharist is a time for kindly words or group hugs. The way we come to the Eucharist, first time and every time, is as a body, as part of the Eucharistic community. All this other rigmarole is just fluff; it has nothing to do with the sacrament, and it has everything to do with America’s love affair with all things cute, making first communion into an Anne Geddes photo op.

(The truth in advertising act requires that I admit that, at the Easter vigil in the parish, the neophytes and newly confirmed receive first at the table. This arises from the same impetus as first communion, I think, and is misguided, or at least poorly imagined. Whereas I can understand welcoming the new Catholics to the table first, I don’t understand the need to make it so different in kind from the experience of the rest of the community, you know, why it needs to hold back the extraordinary ministers from performing their role simultaneously. I know there is some disagreement about this among Catholics, too. But now you know the whole story.)

At the very least, the rule of primum non obfuscare should apply: first, do no harm. What is being communicated about the roles in the Eucharistic celebration when the whole community’s coming to the table is held up so that each first communicant and her family receives only from the priest? What does this have to do with the theology of the sacrament as we have it?

I don’t have any problem with the kids being in the opening procession, bringing up the gifts, or “dressing up,” as long as parents make clear that it’s for some reason other than family vanity. I don’t have any problem with families making a big deal out of first communion in the home with a big dinner and party for extended family and friends, or for the parish to have a reception after each celebration of the sacrament; that’s what’s supposed to happen. It’s just these strange additions to the sacramental celebration itself that are so wearying to me. Somebody ought to tell priests to remember their own first communion, that it’s not about their Art-Linkletter banter with the kids, because none of us remembers a moment like that from first communion. We need to focus on the essentials and do them well: participation in the liturgy by everyone, preparation of the kids and parents to do the responses and songs; how to use a hymnal or worship aid; how the Eucharist is just 1/168 of a week, less than 1%, and what we should be doing the other 99.4%
A 1958 first communion class from St. Fidgeta's

For about ten years at St. Anne, we thought it was important to try to have first communions as part of the Sunday celebrations, but it was too radical a concept in the ghetto Catholic mentality of Chicago to do that 100%, so we kept the option for a special Saturday afternoon celebration and also offered the opportunity to celebrate on Sunday. The trouble (for me) is that the restructuring lacked the courage to break with certain aspects of the (small t) tradition, and so certain “cutesy” aspects described above were retained for two Sundays at all the parish masses. So I guess you could say that we were doing the wrong thing for the right reason, which must be the second-greatest treason in Eliot’s demonography. Thus, somehow, liturgically speaking, more wrongs make a right, and the end justifies the means. Hello, grooviness; goodbye, integrity. (Note: now, in 2014, we're back to all-on-Saturday first communions, with three kids on a Sunday morning for one reason or another, about 2%.)

Sigh. I just get the feeling that we’re not really getting it, that we’re just all trying to make each other feel good about our compromises with life and the liturgy, and we really don’t want to take up the challenge of preparing the liturgy to energize adults, and commission them to form the children. It’s easier, though, to have children jump through hoops and “graduate” to first communion and dress up and receive their unleavened diploma. I know it’s not God’s last chance with anybody. I’m one of the few people who even gives a dang, which is an indication that I’m probably way off base. But there’s something deeply unsettling about this thing to me, and it’s not just that Mass takes an extra ten or fifteen minutes for all the sideshows. I’ve been to very long liturgies that seemed right to me. This doesn’t seem right at all.

But, I don’t have to suffer through it any more, for reasons that aren't worth enumerating here. Nothing will change, but I’ll keep singing the same old boring song, to wit, “The liturgy changes us; we don’t change the liturgy." How did it get to be the Sisyphan work of a layperson to try to advocate for the integrity of the liturgy against the insouciance of the clergy? Even more weirdly, how did I become the conservative factor in the equation, when all my life until arriving in this parish I was considered something of a liberal?

It is a kind of time warp: from the perspective of 1970s liturgy, I suppose the 21st century does seem conservative. This might be God’s idea of a joke, and if so, I think she needs a new writer.

A couple of interesting perspectives, one from Ireland, a social justice priest Fr. McVerry who wants to push the age of first communion higher, and one from the PrayTell blog.