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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Psalm 22 and God's Passion

It’s the question of rescue that keeps coming up for us since the Shoah. If God can deliver us from the suffering that is in the world, why doesn’t God do it? One might expect that, in keeping the promises made to Abraham, Moses, and David for the Chosen People, God would at least deliver them. In the context of the preaching of Jesus in the Christian scriptures, one might expect that God would deliver everyone from suffering, since the distinguishing ethical message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is that we should “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Surely if this radically anti-intuitive behavior is expected of people, then God must lead the way?

But what if God is “changing”? What if Jesus' baptism in the Jordan was, in point of story if not fact, a baptism of repentance, and God is changing the terms of the covenant and his image for the future? What if God is no longer going to be a god of war, with mighty hand and outstretched arm, delivering people from the powers of earth and other gods, but is going to be God of Life, winning the victory over death, a victory whose spoils will spread through the land of the living as people hear the gospel that death itself has been defeated and is no more to be feared?

These are the questions and insights of Jack Miles’ book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. They are both challenging and comforting. They bring up new questions as they begin to lay others to rest. The book certainly puts the question about the value of suffering front and center for us. It alleges, in a sense, that the crucifixion is the anti-exodus, that rather than delivering Jesus (and by extension, all Jews) from enemies by an act of power, God reveals that Jesus in fact has no enemies, and allows himself to be killed by the oppressing authority to show that he goes before his people, all people, in eschewing retribution and violence. God validates Jesus’ extraordinary preaching and living by raising him from the dead, the “first of many brothers and sisters.” The death and resurrection of Jesus are a witness to his enemies, as well as to his friends, that there’s a new sheriff in town, and the sheriff’s judgment upon everyone is mercy.

The words of Jesus on the cross in Mark, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” are from Psalm 22, which we sing every year on Passion/Palm Sunday. They articulate the cry of the suffering servant, of the ones whom God has promised to be-with in covenant, and who are on the verge of death. Seen as an isolated verse, the first verse, in fact, of the psalm proper, it seems to be a statement of despair and alienation from God. But when we look at the whole psalm, which we might well imagine was in the mind of the crucified Jesus, we get a different picture. It is a picture of someone who has a complaint against God, yes, for a betrayal of the covenant. It is a picture of someone who says, “Listen to my enemies, Lord, if you won’t listen to me. They may kill me, but look at what they’re saying about you. If you let me die, then they’ll be right: their god or their gods or their might and righteousness is mightier and stronger than yours. If you’re not a greater god than they, why didn’t you tell me before now? Are you some kind of liar?”

But the psalm only begins this way. As it makes its way through the list of grievances and agonies imposed on the singer, it moves through memory…
Yet you drew me forth from the womb, made me safe at my mother's breast. Upon you I was thrust from the womb; since birth you are my God...

to prayer, to hope, to assurance, and ultimately to renewed covenant and gratitude for safety.

You who fear the LORD, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor; show reverence, all descendants of Israel! For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, Did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out. I will offer praise in the great assembly; my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him. The poor will eat their fill; those who seek the LORD will offer praise. 

The way that Psalm 22 is sung in Catholic churches, or the way it is presented in the lectionary, both clarifies this and obfuscates it. It clarifies by using sections of the psalm from several of these movements of the heart; it obfuscates the psalms development of thought by having the assembly come back to the first line of the psalm, “why have you abandoned me?” The setting I wrote about ten years ago tries to get around the problem of the development of the thought by making the “responsorial” part of the psalm the repetition of a revelatory line in each stanza by the assembly, rather than going back to the beginning verse. In the fourth “movement,” the assembly sings an ostinato phrase, “You who fear the Lord, praise him,” while the cantor sings the vow of praise of thanksgiving over the assembly’s song.

I don’t really have a major problem with the lectionary layout, either. Certainly at any given moment, on any given Sunday or any day for that matter, members of every assembly, and certainly members of the extended body of Christ scattered in space and time, are in the throes of abandonment. And there is a sense I have, right or wrong, that the paschal mystery, the mystery of death and life in God, is not “solved” after life, that it’s not at all about getting through trouble and finding rescue after death, but that the paschal presence of the Lord is available and most active right in the midst of death itself, however that manifests itself to us. The call to “be not afraid” is not a way of saying “hang in there, there’s a new world after you die,” but that there is life in dying itself, and that God knows this, and has gone through it before us. In fact, what I want to believe is that this is just what John means when he says that “God is love,” and what Paul means by the kenosis of God. The very nature of divine life is love, and that love is self-emptying to the point of death, but it is nevertheless life, even though that seems invisible, even impossible, to us because of our fear of it.

Maybe this is the passion of God, which became (becomes) the passion of Christ, this self-emptying agape into which we are born again by water and the Holy Spirit. Maybe it is made most clearly manifest in that moment of apparent abandonment, when the comforts of other empires are stripped away, and life is as clear as a dream of water. If this grain-of-wheat love is what made the universe, then it is a discipline I ought to keep trying to learn. The message of Holy Week and Easter is that it is learned on the road to Jerusalem, through the gates of imperial judgment, and ultimately, and only, on the way of the cross.

Here’s the music we’re doing at St. Anne on Sunday:

Gathering: Psalm 122 - The Road to Jerusalem (Cooney-NALR/OCP, Palm Sunday verses)
Psalm 22 for Passion Sunday music by Rory Cooney
Gospel Response: We Remember (Haugen- GIA)

Preparation Rite: Faithful Cross (Kendzia, OCP)

Communion: Jerusalem, My Destiny (Cooney, GIA)

Recessional: Glory in the Cross (Schutte, OCP)

"He relied on the LORD;
let him deliver him,

let him rescue him, 
if he loves him."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

God and Death and James Alison (A5L)

Raising of Lazarus, 3c painting, catacombs
This Lent a few of us in the parish have begun delving into James Alison's latest effort, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, and while Lent didn't give us time to do more than scratch the surface of his thesis, grappling with just the first quarter of his book has provided me at least with fresh insights and a renewed desire to interiorize and integrate his compassionate theological view into my spiritual life.

This third scrutiny and the Lazarus gospel have always been, and continue to be, the most challenging for me, because it's difficult for me to see death as sin, as something for which we need to be forgiven. In other words, the previous stories describe, in using personal metaphors, social patterns of sin that need our attention and God's intervention. In the case of the Samaritan woman, the issue is rivalry between ethnic, national, or religious groups that alienate us from each other and cause animosity and violence. In the case of the man born blind, it seems to be rivalry between the mediators of religious affiliation (and therefore of divine favor) and the creative and liberating desire of the non-rivalrous God whose love, forgiveness, and kindness transcend the mediation of religion and its boundaries. But with Lazarus, all we know is that he is dead. Neither he, nor anyone else for that matter, really deserves to die. There's no human agent here, apparently. Lazarus isn't conspired against or killed. He just gets mortally ill and dies. Where's the sin in that? It's a story that has repeated itself, or will repeat itself, for every person who was ever born. Why does he need to be fixed?

My approach to this gospel has been about the defeat of death, the mastery of death, that Jesus manifests in this story just a week or so before his own arrest and death by capital punishment. In John's sign-soaked gospel, richly metaphoric and bestowing on the "historical" Jesus in his narrative the identity and history-controlling nature of the logos of God "by whom all things were made (Jn. 1:1-3)," Jesus in the previous chapter claims that "the Father and I are one," mobilizing his enemies against his blasphemy, and then says that, being the "good shepherd," "my sheep hear my voice...and they follow me." Here, one of his own, his friend Lazarus, follows him right out of the tomb and back into life.

The many "I AM" statements in John, which clearly are pointers toward a metaphorical understanding of who Jesus is (bread, shepherd, living water, light of the world, resurrection and life, etc.), might also be a way of connecting him to the I AM of Moses's encounter with God in the burning bush. This is where Alison comes in for me, because he leads us to see that encounter as a Hebrew reimagining of the identity of God as someone not beyond-and-above but transcendent and near, intensely interested in the plight of the enslaved and broken-hearted. Alison sees that moment, which he goes to great lengths to put into perspective as having emerged relatively late in Israel's development, in post-exilic times, possibly as late as the 3rd century BCE. He makes an analogy of its "meaning," if that word can be used of the sacred name YHWH, to the reimagining of the messianic story implied in Jesus's recasting of the "law and prophets" in the crux of the Emmaus narrative. In other words, as Jesus gives Clopas and his companion their own narrative of meaning and history back to them by a new interpretation "on the road," so this name-that-is-not-a-name reframes the Deuteronomic ritual, moral, and prescriptive religion of Judaism into one of divine agency on behalf of those who need liberation. Rather than a God who demands human adherence to laws and rituals to "make holy," YHWH is the protagonist of the human narrative, calling "Moses the meek" to lay aside his worries and just jump into the world-making protagonism of this utterly-beyond God who is right here burning in this un-burning bush.

Of course, that is a profound oversimplification of an idea about the biblical narrative that is complicated by two and a half millennia of oral and written redaction, but that I AM does pop up an awful lot in John's gospel, including that one by the man born blind last week which I referenced in the post called "John 9:9 and the co-creation of light." And again in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night of his arrest, it will appear in Jesus's mouth and its very pronunciation will stun and level the (unlikely literal and literally hyperbolic) 600 men in a Roman cohort and the rest of the band Judas had brought along (Jn 18:5-6).

I AM the resurrection and the life. Alison wants us to grasp that God is not in rivalry with death at all, that God is utter and complete creativity and life. God does not use death or fear to induce us to follow him or provoke our worship. Instead, God's story to us has been to say, "Don't be afraid. There's a lot of terrible stuff going on, you know it, I know it, and a lot of it is getting ascribed to me. But that's not at all who I AM. And to show you, here's my plan: I'm going to into that place, that place that you fear and hide from, the place of death, and 'occupy' that place for you, so that you can see I am with you, on your side, and not trying to scare you or blackmail you into some kind of extortionist worship. I want to show you, by going into death ahead of you, that I AM life, so that you can 'relax into being' the people you were meant to be, generous, giving your lives away so that everyone can have enough." We're given Jesus so that we can become divine, so that we can let go of our fear of death and our rivalrous stampede to assuage our pain and fear by paying death its tribute on the backs of the poor and the earth itself. We're given Jesus, "I AM the way, the truth, and the life," to be assured that giving ourselves away, like wheat planted in the earth or bread broken and shared, multiplies life rather than ends it.

So the Lazarus narrative, I think, gets us ready for Jesus's own empty tomb story, with its various scriptural witnesses but whose ultimately un-beheld nature requires us to make our own decision about who God is, about whom we follow, and whether we'll be satisfied with laws, morals, and rituals to mediate God, or whether we will swim in the infinite ocean of life that is YHWH, like fish swimming in the pre-endangered oceans of earth. That latter path will be liberation-for, however, liberation-for the gentle reign of God whose fire doesn't burn the bush, and whose chosen will neither snuff the smoldering candle nor break a bent reed while going about the work of the "victory of justice."

Well, these thoughts, like this life of mine, are a work in progress. I'm not sure if any of that is coherent, but I wanted to at least try to articulate where I am this year on the way. We're getting close to the end of Lent, and we have baptismal promises to renew. For me, this comes under the rubric of, "Do you believe in God?" I want the God who is the ocean of love, and who wants me, with my fear of water, my buoyancy issues, and marginal swimming ability, to jump into the deep end.

Here are some things I've written previously on the Fifth Sunday of Lent and the third scrutiny:

The Last Taboo
I Will Open Your Graves, and Have You Rise from Them
Do You Believe This?

This is the music we're using at St. Anne's this Sunday, when folks will be away in droves enjoying vacations in the sun, perhaps seeing the Cubs and White Sox in their spring glory in the southwest.

Entrance: I the Lord by Tom Kendzia (OCP)
Psalm 130 With the Lord by J. Michael Joncas (OCP)
Mass of St. Aidan Gospel Acclamation (WLP)
Gospel response: Awake, O Sleeper by Marty Haugen (GIA)
Litany for the Scrutinies (Rory Cooney, GIA)
Preparation Rite: Mary, Don't You Weep (spiritual, text and arrgt. Cooney from Seeger & Springsteen)
My original take on the "Mary, Don't You Weep" song is that the "Mary" in it is Mary of Magdala, on Easter morning. There's no definitive text I can find, and so Mary might just be any human being who is in mourning, held in hope by the memory of the Exodus and other scriptural dreams. Some versions of the song have the refrain continue "...tell Martha your sister don't mourn," and others are about a woman named Mary with a baby whose husband has gone to war, unrelated to any biblical story. So when I was thinking about the Lazarus gospel and that weeping Mary, I thought it was fair to work up some verses for the song that reframed it for use on Lent 5. I also wrote verses for Easter and for the last Sundays of the year.
Communion: I Am the Bread of Life (S. Suzanne Toolan, SM, GIA)
Recessional: Jerusalem, My Destiny (verse 5) (Rory Cooney, GIA)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Light, Love, and Responsibility - Sunday with NPH

No, not Neil Patrick Harris. "Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos."

Our parish almsgiving project this year was tied to Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos ("Our little brothers and sisters"), a project that began 60 years ago based on the vision of Fr. William Wasson. A newly assigned associate in a parish in Cuernavaca, México, Fr. Wasson intervened with a court to dismiss charges against an orphan boy who stole from the church's collection box to buy food. He petitioned the court for custody of the child, and not only got custody of the boy, but continued to received other orphans as a ward of the court. Ten years later, beginning in Arizona, charities were incorporated in the USA and elsewhere to support the NPH project, which later became affiliated with one another. In addition to the house in Mexico, there are now NPH houses in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru. (Source)

I discovered that I have my own strange ties to the people involved with NPH as well. A former associate pastor of St. Anne, Fr. Jim Hurlbert, left his pastorate about 5 years ago at St. Alphonsus Liguori in the city of Chicago, and, with the blessing of the cardinal, went to NPH Guatemala as a spiritual guide with a vision to build a chapel for the pequeños there, which he has done with donations from friends and colleagues in the States. And an Arizona family, Trisha and Jim Hoyt, whom I've known especially through Trisha's catechetical work around the country (Jim is a deacon), has at least two children who are intimately involved with NPH, and their daughter Melissa is the special events officer for NPH in the midwest, with an office in Chicago. A video that her brother Chris made about his work with NPH is shown below.

The preacher at all the masses was Fr. Ron Hicks, a young priest who had worked with NPH after college and then for several years as a priest. Ron is now, thanks be to God, the new Vicar General for the Archdiocese of Chicago. In his homily, he challenged us to be light for a world full of darkness by our continued support of NPH. He told stories, and had Alexis, one of the young men who was visiting with the NPH group, tell a bit of his story so we had some idea of who the kids are who are in the NPH project. Alexis told us that he was born sickly, and that his mother was extremely poor. At the age of two, she abandoned him, and when he came to NPH he was malnourished and sick. The boy who stood before us had obviously recovered completely, had just finished high school, and was giving back a year of service to NPH by teaching physical education and being a "big brother" to younger boys in the dormitory.

What struck me was that these were not ordinary orphanages at all: these kids were not going to have foster homes. NPH creates communities. Those who work there give the children who come to them unconditional love, food, education, and an environment for growth. They teach the children the responsibilities that come from love; particularly, they expect that, after graduation, the children will give a year of service back to NPH in some capacity for which they have a gift. Fr. Ron said that many people ask him if children leave without doing so, if, after graduation, they just walk away. He said that in 25 years of association with NPH, he has not heard of that happening in any of the homes.

A Guatemalan cultural group in Chicago gave NPH the use of their beautiful twin marimba set, and the kids sang songs during mass, danced, and performed at a fiesta for the parish on Saturday evening. During mass they sang some of their own liturgical songs ("Vamos al altar," and a Marian song called "Es Maria la paloma blanca") accompanied by marimba and drums, as well as the more familiar "De Colores" and an arrangement with Spanish text of the Sebastian Temple Prayer of St. Francis, "Hazme un instrumento de tu paz."

The kids stayed with host families in the parish for two weeks while they visited churches and schools in Chicagoland, and the parishioners I spoke to had a great time with them in those visits.

As you might suspect, there was a time when the "old Rory" would have had una vaca about this irruption into the Lenten liturgy on a scrutiny Sunday, performing at mass, etc. etc. But being older has some benefits, and one of them is clearer vision (I hope) about what liturgy is for, who belongs, and (thank you, James Alison) who the real protagonist is. Maybe that vision, in fact, was created in this blind man by the same fingers that made mud paste on the Sabbath by the pool of Siloam, who gave the light of creation to one who was born blind. I may have earned that blindness through education, and clung to it tenaciously for some years, but I would like to say some day that "now I can see," and that my sight was restored, as we proclaimed in the gospel and in the scrutiny, by the one who is light of the world.

More about NPH
Make a donation? Click here.
Learn how to sponsor a child? Click here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Songstories 42 - Two litanies for the scrutinies (and lament)

Scrutiny at St. Peter's, Fallbrook CA (from web)
Since we're in the middle of our celebration of the three scrutinies this Lent, I thought I'd write about a couple of attempts to write music for them.

In my previous job, in the early 1990s, we were looking for a better way to sing the scrutiny prayers than the "tired" intercessory formula that usually redounded to a form of the general intercessions, making them indistinguishable both in content and form, and consequently in execution, from those prayers. When trying to think about crafting a litany for the scrutinies it struck me that American blues music seemed like a genre to explore. The melody of "Litany of Deliverance" is pentatonic and sounds familiar, like chant or folk music. The harmonic structure of the music, though, is familiar in a  different way, and from a different environment.

The texts of the scrutiny litany embody the two-fold purpose of the rite, that is, to uncover and heal whatever holds the back from completely embracing the gospel and the cross in their life, and also to reveal and strengthen in them the gifts they have been given to build up the body of Christ in the world. Both parts, "purification and enlightenment," as it were, are integral to the rite. So the invocations have both kinds of petitions - "From fear and isolation, deliver us, O God," on the one hand, and on the other, "Bring vision to our blindness/Teach us to see as you see - deliver us, O God." In the final analysis, the issue for this litany might be that response, "Deliver us, O God," in that it might not let the "enlightenment" petitions shine as much as they should. Still, when it's possible to do this litany with the energy and conviction that it is possible to evoke with a good cantor and musicians animating an assembly, "Litany of Deliverance" works pretty well.

After a few more years of experience and learning in my parishes and with Forum, I took a different tack and came up with another idea. My second attempt at this tried to address that problem (the response) and the accompaniment issue, because, let's face it, not every ensemble can pull off that blues thing so well, and without it, "Litany of Deliverance" might not have enough oomph to lift it above any other tedious chant. So in the next incarnation of a scrutiny litany, I made the invocations more robust, with a chant melody that was adaptable to different line lengths and rhythms, and added some different possibilities of prayer forms so that churches and their RCIA and music directors could fashion their own invocations. These included invocations in these forms:

  • "Deliver them from anger and hatred...Deliver them from the idolatry of power..."
  • "In a world unsafe for the stranger...In a world unsafe for peacemakers..."
  • "Strengthen them in compassion and love...Strengthen them in devotion and solidarity..."

These invocations allow the community to pray against sin whether it is a weakness in the individual or systemic in society and civilization, while being very explicit about the virtues and activities in which these elect are asking to be strengthened. While I provide a couple dozen invocations, the form is friendly to others being added without much need to fuss with rhythm and meter.

The other assembly-friendly function of the newer litany is that the responses are always cued by the cantor, who sings the response before the assembly, and then twice leads the assembly into a new key a minor third higher with an easy sung figure. This allows the litany to build in intensity as the pitch rises throughout the performance. I got this idea from Leonard Bernstein's Mass, where the rising melody of a simple chant appears in "Secret Songs," sung by a boy soprano (and others) in the last movement of the piece.

I also opted to use a chanted "Kyrie eleison" as a response in this, because once we understand what is implied in those words we see that it is an appropriate response to "Deliver them from..." and "Strengthen them in..." petitions, because the thrust of its meaning is the confession of Christ as Lord of the universe, and thus able to answer both prayers in perfectly gentle strength. I wrote about this at length in a post on those words, so if you would like to read more about "Kyrie eleison," you can find that blog post here.

That's what I have to say about this installment of SongStories, about these two litanies published in 1991 and 2006. Thanks for reading.

Litany of Deliverance (from Stony Landscapes)
Litany for the Scrutinies (from Today)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Rejoice! The Second Scrutiny! (A4L)

I haven't thought of something about Sunday that I haven’t already said, though I still may before the week is up. Still, I like to put up a list of the music we’re doing week by week, so here we go. This weekend is characterized by images of light and darkness, vision and blindness, and the limits of human sight versus the wide scope of divine “vision.” For the record, I have pretty substantial blog posts about these readings from previous years (these are clickable links to the posts):

I mean, that seems like a lot to have written about the same readings, so I’m cutting myself some slack for not having a startling new insight for this year.

Even so, it's not like I don't expect to have my eyes opened this Sunday, because this Sunday at St. Anne we are delighted to have a group from Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos de Guatemala coming to the parish to lead most of the music at the masses. NPH is a wonderful organization with orphanages throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, supporting 3,300 children in nine countries, and another 1800 with scholarships, meals, and health care. This group visiting the Midwest is made up of mostly older (teen) children who bring their musical talent to schools and parishes to spread the word about NPH and return the love that they have experienced in their homeland. Please click on the link above, and see more about the work of NPH in the hemisphere, and consider making them a part of your Lenten almsgiving.

This is some of the music we’re singing this Sunday, with some links to the iTunes versions if they exist:

Gathering: Be Thou My Vision This is the arrangement I did about 25 years ago, the title song for our CD Vision. It often works out that this Sunday falls around St. Patrick’s day, so the Irish flavor of the hymn does a kind of double cultural duty in these parts, where there’s a strong Irish influence in the church. The references to the high tower and the high king of heaven evoke memories of Ireland and its history while we sing the song, even as I have mixed feelings about the images of monarchy and the military that pervade the song. Sigh.

Psalm 23: My Shepherd Is the Lord (Gelineau-GIA)
Gospel Response: Open My Eyes (Manibusan, OCP)
Scrutiny: Litany for the Scrutinies (Today, GIA) and Psalm 116: I Will Walk in the Presence of God. The Litany for the Scrutinies I recorded and published with GIA in 2006 had been in use in my parish and others and on Forum institutes for years, both in adapted scrutinies and also as part of liturgies of lamentation. By adapting the language to the dynamics of purification (“deliver them from...”) and enlightenment (“strengthen them in...”), the litany became really appropriate for the scrutiny and, as chant, accessible to virtually any parish.

Communion: Christ, Be Our Light (Farrell)

Following the example of the Lord himself, sometimes this blog needs a day to go off by itself and rest for a while. Happy Wednesday to all! And rejoice - Lent is half over.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Christ at Jacob's Well and Emmaus

He Qi "Road to Emmaus"
I hope this will be short. I think, over the two-plus years that I've written in this blog I've spilled a lot of electrons on the subject of the Samaritan woman story, but guess what? Something struck me Sunday when I was listening to the gospel again (and again and again.) Maybe I'm not the first person to notice it, but it was the first time that I noticed it: the parallels between the story in John 4 of Jesus and the Samaritan woman and Luke's account of the Emmaus road.

This may simply be the result of having spent some time trying to interiorize the exegesis the James Alison has done on the Emmaus story in his book and Christianity course, The Forgiving Victim. Thus, it may be that what is similar is my hearing the Samaritan woman story (which you already know is political and ethnic, rather than personal) and Alison's reading of the Emmaus story, which is important in his exposition of scripture, that is, that we Christians need to interpret scripture through the key of the victim Jesus, much as the Jews interpreted Torah through the key of the "meek" Moses.  In any case, the political interpretation (in the light of Acts 8) is not necessary to see these parallelisms, but it helps. For what it's worth, after those disclaimers, this is the parallelism I saw:

John 4
Luke 24
Location: Samaria, outside the boundaries of Judea. Jesus and disciples “on the road.”
Location: On the way home, leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus. (Jesus and) disciples “on the road.”
Danger from sectarian violence.
Danger from relationship to the crucified one, an “enemy of Caesar.”
Jesus starts the conversation. “Give me a drink.”
Jesus starts the conversation. “What are you talking (having such a heated discussion)  about?”
Her unfulfilled hopes. “Give me this water, sir, so I don’t have to keep coming back here.”
Their unfulfilled hopes. “We had hoped that he would be the one to set Israel free!”
Jesus takes the woman’s story, and reinterprets it for her. “He told me everything I’ve ever done.”
Jesus takes the story Clopas and friend tell, and reinterprets it for them. “Jesus then explained everything written about himself in the Scriptures, beginning with the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets.”
Apostles bring food. Jesus refuses it. “I’ve already eaten something better.”
Apostles offer food. Jesus disappears.
Woman runs to the village, “Come and see!”
Clopas and his companion return to Jerusalem to tell the disciples their story. They exchange appearance stories. “We have seen the Lord!”
Villagers (Samaria?) come to faith. “This is truly the Savior of the word.”
Apostles come to faith.  “…They knew he was the Lord when he broke the bread.” (CEV)

What might account for these similarities? Well, certainly the fact that both narratives are post-resurrection accounts of the meaning of Jesus in the context of "gospels." These books were not written while Jesus was alive, but half a century or more after his death, and after the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem, and at a time when the imminence of the return of Jesus was starting to be doubted, at least by those who thought it was imminent. Some aspects of the meaning of Jesus's proclamation of the reign of God and how that reign was visible in his life could certainly have emerged similarly in different communities and times.

Alison wants us to see that seeing the events of "Holy Week" through Jesus eyes gives us the correct way to interpret all of scripture, i.e., the Law and the prophets. Jesus is able to take the very texts that had led the disciples to imagine a new world order before it had crumbled at the death of Jesus and help them to see that indeed the new order was already here but they had misunderstood it before. The key to understanding, somehow, is the breaking of the bread, with all of the nuances that would have come with that after their having spent a couple of years doing that with him two or three times a day. God is not a participant in the power-broking and death-dealing kingdom of Caesar, is not in rivalry with other gods, but reveals in Jesus that life is gently triumphant, and that agape and mutual service is a way out of the destructive, self-made hell that hatred and rivalry have made of civilization.

If I apply Alison's hermeneutic to the Samaritan woman story, a similar story of resurrection life for the world emerges. The separation between enemies (e.g., Samaritan and Jew) disappears. The weariness of life, symbolized by the 6 husbands, is transformed by the meeting of number 7 at the well into a joyful proclamation of freedom, total immersion of the thirsty heart in living water. The meaning of life is discovered as alienation is transformed into apostleship and connection. God is not a participant in our religious and ethnic rivalry, the infighting of our race, but loves us anyway and always, inviting us to live together in a new kingdom or empire, the household of abba, a place and time of mutual respect and loving-kindness.

This is just the seed of an idea, if there is an idea there at all. But I'm grateful for my exposure to Alison and his insights about the Emmaus story, which for one Sunday at least, helped me to see the Samaritan woman story in a new light, maybe the light of the world.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Revisiting the Lord's Prayer

Continuing my personal perspective on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving as they appear in the scriptural texts of the first week of Lent, I want to move on to how it is that Jesus instructs his disciples to pray. After the exhortation from the Sermon on the Mount about praying in private on Ash Wednesday, and Jesus's long desert retreat described so tersely on the first Sunday of Lent in the gospel of Mark, the next time prayer explicitly appears is in the liturgy of Tuesday in the first week of Lent. The gospel is set off by the famous passage from Isaiah 55, which in the context of today's scriptures seems to be saying, in God's words, "My word goes out and does what I say it will do. You might try doing the same thing!" Of course, that takes Isaiah out of context, but the liturgy routinely does that. And then the psalm uses some verses from Psalm 34 to make the case that God hears the cries of the poor, of those who cry out to him with broken hearts. This all prepares us to hear another passage from the Sermon on the Mount, this one about not multiplying words, and then Jesus's exhortation to pray this way:

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy Kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

The Lord's prayer is so familiar to us that its meaning is easily lost in that familiarity, and so I'm grateful for footnotes in bibles and books that lend chapters to the words and verses from a time, language, and culture so utterly unfamiliar to us. Taking the time to hear the Lord's prayer anew, and spend a little effort peeling away at the layers of familiarity and looking under the words can give us a new appreciation for the text.

A few weeks ago, Terry and I spent a day at a local church experiencing a day-long seminar with the renowned pastor and inspirational evangelist Brian McLaren. He began the day with what I felt was a unique prayer. He led us through the Lord's prayer, chanted on a single note, rising in pitch up the scale from do to sol diatonically and then back to do. He invited us to add harmony as we did the a cappella chanting. As the group warmed to what was happening, the prayer got more expansive, deep and beautiful, as we sang it, and then repeated it, and sang it again at the end of the session.

Brian spent some time exegetizing the petitions of the prayer in a simple but meaningful way. Most of this would not have been news to anyone who has done some bible study, and perhaps some was necessarily simplified, because there aren't any simple ways to translate, or understand what has been translated, in the lines we most often say as "lead us not into temptation" and "deliver us from evil." The meaning of "trespasses" is debated too, and the prayer means different things depending on how you translate the words, of course. But if we come at it from the perspective of Jesus's listeners and first disciples, Jewish peasants living in a conquered nation in a faith tradition mediated by a privileged temple cult, we can get a handle on at least one possible consistent meaning that emerges from the text. This was Brian's paraphrased translation:

Our Father, 
above us and all around us,
May your unspeakable Name be revered.
Here to earth, may your kingdom come.
Here on earth, may your will be done as it is in heaven.
Give us today our bread for today.
And forgive us our wrongs as we forgive those who wrong us.
Lead us away from the time of trial.
But liberate us from the evil.
For the kingdom is yours and yours alone,
And the power is yours and yours alone,
And the glory is yours and yours alone.

This may give us a good jumping-off point to talk about the meanings of the individual lines.

John Dominic Crossan, in his highly readable and (by me) recommended little book on the Our Father entitled The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer, tells us a couple of things about the first lines. First of all, it's the very way that God is addressed that should arrest our attention. Naming God in some way will always imply a relationship, but by calling God "Our Father" we name a relationship not just with God but with everyone who prays the prayer. Crossan goes to some length about the use of "Father," and, understanding that we hear gender bias in the word, prefers to spend some time demonstrating from historical documents that what is behind the name "Father" is not gender but the role of the father in the household of Mediterranean peasants, that is, to be the keeper of the household, the one who sees that it is justly run. By doing so, he opens up the possibility, indeed, he documents the reality, of women contemporary to Jesus and the early church who did the same, owned property, oversaw the commerce of the family, and so on. By concentrating on this aspect of the meaning of "father," we are able to see the intention of thus naming God: God is head of a household, and what God wants is the mutual care and harmony among the children. The oft-repeated folk wisdom that abba, the word behind the Greek word for father, was unique to Jesus is not really true; Abba was a word frequently used in first and second century Judaism by rabbis to speak of God.

"In heaven" is literally "in the heavens," that is, metaphorically, "who dwells beyond us, yet we are present to one another." The next phrase McLaren translates to mean "may all (people) hallow your name," though many see the passive voice in the phrase to be a circumlocution in which it is God who is the agent; that is, "make your name blessed by all." As for me, I'm not certain at all whether it is the unknowable or "unspeakable" name of God that is to be "hallowed," but rather the name "our Father," which, for this God, is unique and requires a response on earth as in heaven. Crossan's book cited above puts it this way: "It simply means that heaven is in great shape – earth is where the problems are." But "hallowed by thy name" may also wonderfully refer to the liberating name of God that was spoken to Moses, unknowable, but active in the world on behalf of slaves and the beaten-down; active, however, with in a different kind of "kingdom," one that builds upon the justice that arises from the love that brothers and sisters of "our Father" show to one another. The prayer reflects Jesus, the prophet of the reign of God: this world matters, the world belongs to God, and God is going to make it right with our collaboration with distributive justice.

"Give us this day our daily bread" - the word "daily" here is an unusual word that can have the meaning of "every day," but, especially in the context of this prayer and its expectation of eschatological fulfillment now, may also mean "tomorrow's." In other words (again remember the audience of Mediterranean peasants, most of whom live in a subsistence economy), "give us today tomorrow's bread," or "take away the worry and stress we feel about feeding ourselves and our children beyond this meal. I think this translation is more cogent, don't you?

"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." The word for "trespass" here is the same as the word for "debt." Indeed, some English translations of the Lord's prayer have translated the phrase with the word as "debt" as long as we can remember. In the context described already, in a social environment where one of the greatest fears was debt that led to servitude, a prayer for jubilee release from debt (nodding again to the Exodus and the Torah) seems to me a genuinely reasonable alternative way to understand the phrase. However the phrase is translated, it harkens back to the foundational image of God as householder in which we are all children of the family, and asks for us to be released from debts "as we release the debts of those indebted to us." In fact, another reading of the phrase is, "Forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we have forgiven those indebted to us." This, while earnestly hoped for, may be even harder to say out loud!

"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." This phrase is perhaps the most difficult to parse. It may be seen eschatologically, for late first century Christians, to refer to the "great tribulation" mentioned in apocalyptic literature. In other words, it prays "Don't bring us to the choice between you and death, to a choice beyond our strength, but keep us away from every kind of destructive force." Crossan goes a step further, and sees it as a prayer to be delivered from a decision that Jesus himself had to make: Do not bring us to the place where we might be tempted to use violence to against others; deliver us from that perilous choice of betraying our choice for peace and justice by doing violence to those who disagree. While I tend to agree with Crossan, I think both ways of seeing the final phrase of the Lord's prayer open up the meaning beyond the rather domesticated meaning of "temptation" we often imagine.

On a website called "", I discovered this meditative prayer based on some of Crossan's insights, and while it doesn't lend itself to public prayer very well, maybe you will find it useful to contemplate:

God, I’m suddenly seeing our world in new ways! We’ve somehow made this world, Your Household, into such an unjust place! I’m only waking up to this, today, and it’s making me turn back to prayer. 
It’s because I’m losing my home. What a devastating shock! I never imagined this could happen! Now, I’m suddenly so painfully aware that, in your world, every family should have a safe shelter. I never saw it this clearly before, but you’re the God who created a world in which every family should be able to have a safe home somewhere. 
I’m not asking for special favors. I don’t even want that big old house back. I don’t know what we were thinking when we bought such a huge place, anyway. I can survive even the loss of that home. I can move in with others. Millions of people are doing it around the world. Maybe billions. 
I’m seeing our world in new ways, God. And, now, my prayer is getting down to the real heart of the matter: I need to feed my family today. I’m a hard worker. But I’m suddenly aware that not everyone in this world can even hope to get enough to survive another day. We all need to feed our families today, God. 
And, tomorrow? I need to hope that tomorrow it’s possible to survive this crushing debt that my family faces. There are probably millions like me, praying this same way today. Maybe billions are praying this: Food for today, freedom from crushing debt tomorrow.
I’m seeing our world in new ways, God. I understand the anger so many are feeling. I understand the temptation to turn these prayers for justice into something dangerous—into violence, even into war to protect what we think belongs to us. Don’t let me go there, God. Don’t let me contribute to the violence even in small ways. 
I’m seeing the world in new ways, God. It’s Your Household. In Your Household, I don’t need more than others. I just need enough for myself and my family. We can’t do all this alone. But, because you are the head of this great Household, we know that there is enough—if we pray together in Your Spirit and we summon Your Household to be what it should be. 
I’m seeing our world in new ways, God. And I’m praying in new ways, too.
(© 2010

So, after all that, I'm including this link to a short slideshow I created as a prayer for a presentation I gave. It is my paraphrase of the prayer after Crossan, McLaren, and other readings. At the presentation, I used the idea that Brian McLaren had to which I referred at the beginning of this blog post, and had our intrepid little band of Catholics change it up and down the five-note scale twice. No one ventured into harmony, though maybe next week we might try it. For this video, I just used a clip from Terry's interpretation of "The Deer's Cry," which is available on her GIA recording, Family Resemblance.  

Have a joyful Lent, everyone!