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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

SongStories 46: Turn Around (GIA, 2015)

In the late winter of 2012, a year before I started writing my little Lenten book Change Our Hearts: Daily Meditations for Lent, I was asked by Jack Jezreel's wonderful JustFaith Ministries to write a song for a new parish program called "Good News People." They wanted a liturgical component, a song that might be able to cross over from the home-based sessions on Catholic social teaching and the Sunday assembly. The call came in in early February, they were looking for the song by the end of May. Most importantly, it was subject to collaboration, because JustFaith obviously has its own vocabulary and richly deserved reputation, and the "feel" of the song was important as a part of the dynamic of the whole program. I was delighted, thrilled, in fact, to have been asked to do this, because we have had Jack Jezreel to our parish and his presentation has stuck with me for the nearly 20 years it has been since that evening. I have often used his image about the difference between justice and charity which I first heard that night. In that story, he tells of a farmer who works a plot of land next to a river. One day, he begins to see bodies floating down the river. Charity, he said, is pulling the bodies from the river and burying them in a humane and appropriate way. Justice is going upriver to find out why people are dying.

So by the end of May I was able to finish a draft of the song. I was working on another commission at the time, a song for my friend Bill Fraher at Old St. Patrick's church in Chicago, the song which became "Acts of God," about which I've written before. When I sent them my first "draft," and sang the song myself, just accompanying myself on guitar, and sent it via email, they seemed delighted with the tune, but had reservations with the text. I, of course, being more than a little too self- assured about my text-writing ability, was horrified that I had missed the mark for people with whom I felt a kinship in our approach to faith. But they were unsettled by some of my language, which they felt was divisive and harsh. The original version of the lyric was this:
1. The spirit of God is upon me like flame.
I rose from the water, and love spoke my name.
And now every child in the household of God
Is sister and brother to me. 
Come, friends, be beacons of light,
Speak truth to the nations deceived by the night
Til all have enough, and there's none left to fight.

Turn around, and believe in the gospel.
2. For hearts that are broken, a message of cheer,
For prisoners of debt there is amnesty here,
And freedom for captives, good news to the poor.
The day cannot wait any more. (refrain) 
3. The lame lead the journey, the sightless shall see,
The choir of the voiceless sing God's jubilee,
The vile ancient spell of the mighty and strong
God breaks with a word to a maid. (refrain refrain)
I have all the email correspondence between us as an archive, which I'm glad I saved, as it helps me grow a little bit as a writer and a believer. There's a Girardian insight at play here: rivalry is the instinct that sets up the scapegoat mechanism. When we blame someone or someones for whatever we consider to be the "wrong," there's a counter-reaction in the other the closes the possibility of reconciliation and change. While I know this intellectually, it's more difficult to act on it, especially since we who care about change and justice tend to take the prophetic tradition seriously, and that tradition is, biblically speaking, divisive! The Jesus tradition is mixed on it, possibly because of redaction of his actual sayings (ipsissima verba, as scholars call them) by scribes who lived decades after his death and who had axes to grind with some Jews, or Pharisees, or who wanted to prove to Rome that Christians weren't their enemies.

So the board at JustFaith said they were uncomfortable with my using words like "deceived, vile, fight, and the notion of pitting one group over or against another. We are looking for a song where those singing it see themselves as good news people, they are bringing about hope and light and positive transformation of injustice..." I confess that I was flummoxed at the time, but with a little prayer-space and a recollection of a long-ago conversation with Fr. Richard Fragomeni on this very subject (Richard had introduced me to Rene Girard, and was quick to identify behaviors like bishop-bashing, priest-bashing, and other "bashings" as diabolical in the root sense of "dividing," and thus not helpful in an overall strategy of agape. It seems obvious, I know, but just try not doing it!)

After licking my wounds a bit, I changed the text thus. You'll notice that the first and second verses are nearly unchanged, but the refrain and final stanza are transformed:
1. The spirit of God is upon me like flame.
I rose from the water, and love spoke my name.
And now every child in the household of God
Is sister and brother to me. 
Refrain: Come, friends, be beacons of light,
Do not be afraid of the powers of the night.
And let Jesus' words in our living resound:
"Turn around and believe in the gospel." 
2. For hearts that are broken, a message of cheer,
For prisoners of debt there is amnesty here,
And freedom for captives, good news to the poor.
The day cannot wait any more. (refrain) 
3. The lame lead the journey, the sightless shall see,
The choir of the voiceless sing God's jubilee,
The favor of God, like the sun and the rain,
Will bless every person the same.
It was almost there, but I missed the triple rhyme in the refrain. Further, JustFaith was hoping that the words "announce the good news" might appear in the refrain, since the program was called "Good News People" and it would "brand" the song with the program. Eventually, I let go of the "light/night" rhyme, and went with a different scenario, ending up with the text that we recorded:

Come, friends, with voice glad and clear
Announce the good news for all people to hear,
The good news of Christ: God's reign has come near:
Turn around and believe in the gospel.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned my Change Our Hearts: Daily Meditations for Lent Lenten book, which I wrote about a year later (a blog article is here). The reason for this is that there is a tie-in in the theological and liturgical milieu of the song and the book. In the book, as you may know, what I attempt to do is use the Lenten daily lectionary as a window through which to see our preparation to make or renew our baptismal promises at Easter, based on an insight about the Lenten lectionary that is was meant to be exactly that, a sort of "crash course" in Christianity for the elect. I came to see a three-layer connection that goes something like this:

Baptismal promises: (A) "Do you reject sin?" (B) "Do you believe in God?"
Period of Lent in the RCIA: (A) Purification - (B) Enlightenment
Preaching of Jesus: (A) "Repent" (i.e., metanoia, "turn around") and  (B) "believe the good news"

The "turn around" aspect of metanoia is so strong, in fact, that in the baptismal rites of the early church, the elect, naked and surrounded by deacons and deaconesses, were told by the bishop to face the west (darkness) in the night vigil of their baptism and make the rejection of sin, and then literally "turn around" and face the east, and make the profession of faith in God, before being plunged into the baptismal waters by the bishop. The preaching of Jesus, I believe, was something like this (and I know you've heard me say this before): "So, you've got an emperor, who is the 'Prince of Peace' and god. All those taxes, the Roman legions, the blood, the crucifixions, the beatings—how is that working out for you? There's another emperor and another kingdom. It's already here. The "kingdom" of my Abba, which is not like the kingdoms of this world. All you need to do is start acting like who you are, children of God, brothers and sisters of one another. Treat each other with love. Act like a family. Just turn around, choose the "other" emperor, my Abba, who promises you peace through justice, not violence. Turn around, and believe this good news!"

So that's the origin, the story of this new song. I hope you like it, find it a useful addition to songs that proclaim the dominion of God. You'll note in the octavo that, in addition to the verses recorded, there are three more verses for Advent and the last Sundays of the church years. Let me know how it goes!

Go to GIA's website and audition (or order) "Turn Around."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Healing diabolical envy (B13O)

Philosopher, anthropologist, and theologian René Girard teaches that what the human race needed to be saved from is the inevitability of the downward spiral into self-destructive violence that is engendered by “mimetic desire,” the habit that we have of wanting what the other person has so intensely that, ultimately, we’re willing to kill for it. It doesn’t matter whether the object of desire is a person, or honor, or something, we tend to want what the other has, and that is hard-wired in us. As beings, we learn by mimesis, or the imitation of what we see as good in others, or beneficial to them or us. I guess you could say, we ape. That’s how hard-wired this habit is.

And what makes this peculiarly dangerous is that it escalates as people form societies and then civilizations. As the object of desire increases in desirability and value from a bauble to a wife to a herd to a field to the riches of a nation or an oil field, the potential for violence escalates as well. Girard postulates that in order to preserve itself, society relies on religion for an escape mechanism, and that that mechanism is, par excellence, the scapegoat. Religion substitutes a symbol for the real object of violence, the hatred and disaffection of the community is vented upon the scapegoat, which is driven out or sacrificed in order to keep the peace. The scapegoat might be a real goat in primitive societies, or in more developed ones, say, Jews. Or immigrants, blacks, Christians, Muslims. Doesn't matter.

Ultimately, though, since the real problem never gets addressed, the cycle perpetuates itself. Desire builds into frustration and anger until the cycle of sacrifice is required again. The guardians of civilization, generals and priests, never have to worry about job security.

In the Judaeo-Christian version of this myth, present to us from the very appearance of the man and the woman in book of Genesis, God, who is the embodiment of life and the opposite of desire, personally intervenes to unmask the pretense of substitution sacrifice and the scapegoat mechanism. Jesus becomes the scapegoat; the sins of gluttonous powerlust of Rome and the frustrated dreams of Israel combine to murder the itinerant rabbi who challenged the purity codes and the ultimate authority and divinity of the emperor. But God exposed the lie. God raised Jesus from the dead, sabotaging the scapegoat mechanism, and revealing the victim to be the innocent one, while the murderous violence that took his life was revealed for what is is. Thus, to find the object of mimesis, human beings need to begin to look to the victim rather than to the strong man.
 As James Alison puts it, the dead man finally gets to tell the tale, and the tale is something like, "You've got God all wrong. Let me show you what you've been missing."

“Through the envy of the devil (diabolical envy) sin entered the world.” It was envy itself, envy that is the opposite of God, the opposite of agape, that caused the rule of death. Agape seeks to give itself away, while envy seeks to acquire. Agape seeks the ultimate good of the other for the benefit of the other; envy seeks the good from the other for the benefit of self. So what is the cure for diabolical envy?

St. Paul alludes to it in the second reading from today: “Though he was rich, he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In other words, through the generosity of God, through the kenosis of divine love, envy is overturned. By giving away rather than desiring, we begin to take part in the love that created the universe. We begin to live the life of God. It is a matter of simply turning around. The Holy Spirit makes this possible; there is only one God. Paul goes on to encourage the charitable giving of the Corinthians as a way of preserving the kind of equality that is the reign of God, God’s vision for the universe. Not that there will ever be a kind of economic stasis, but that everyone is aware of the imbalances, and that those with much give some to those with little so that there can be a kind of equality. Interestingly, Paul quotes from the section of the book of Exodus that describes how God distributed the manna in the desert. People who went out and collected too much found that they only had what they needed; those who didn’t collect enough discovered that they had more than they thought. In the divine economy, all the children are treated as equals; the divine Father-Mother expects the same behavior from the children.

I wrote yesterday about the two healings in the gospel. I'm sure that at many celebrations this weekend the priest or deacon will use the short version, giving only half of the story. I think that the healing of an older woman with a 12-year-old hemorrhage and the resuscitation of a 12-year-old girl must have something to with the healing of women in general of the prejudice and subjugation they had and have experienced in many societies where they have been perceived as the “weaker” gender. This is not to say that we followers of Jesus haven’t done much harm, and ignored some gospel movement toward gender equality. But this kind of healing seems to be the point of this story, which is an inclusio, that is, a story within a story, so that they shine light on each other. 

What strikes me as I read the gospel again this year is that Jesus "felt power go out" from him. What does that mean? The hemorraghic woman touched his tunic, the gospel says, and power went out from him. To me, it meant that the direction life travels is outward. Diabolical envy wants everything for itself. “The open palm of Desire,” Paul Simon wrote, “wants everything.” But life, and God is life (by analogy) in perfection, is outward bound. The flow of life is outward, and it did not even depend on Jesus’s conscious bestowal of it: the woman sought life, sought healing, and believed she knew the source. She touched the spring of life, and power went out from him. 

“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, who makes the sun shine and the rain fall on good and bad alike.” If we turn the mimetic power of human behavior inside out, and begin to imitate the behavior of one who gives, rather than indulging our baser urge to possess, grasp, and hoard, we would begin to see the healing promised by the gospel and the visionaries of the reign of God. Power will go out from us, healing young and old alike, restoring the paradise that once existed before men and women envied the knowledge of good and evil, and wanted to be like gods.

GATHERING:   A Place at the Table (Lori True) The choice of this song probably makes sense if you follow the logic of the inclusio of the story of the hemorraghic woman within the story of Jairus's daughter. In stories of healing, the essential thing is dispelling the illusion of isolation in the afflicted one, or if it's not an illusion, healing that. The loving work of making a place at the table for people with all kinds of disconnections is the ministry of all of us. Lori's song lifts us joyfully to a place where we can all see our need for healing, and offer it with compassion to each other.
RESP. PSALM 30 I Will Praise You, Lord (Gary Daigle)
PREP RITE:   We Cannot Measure How You Heal (John Bell) Gary Daigle did a lovely 3-part vocal arrangement of this song when he was with us for a few years at St. Anne. Bell's sensitive and prayerful text is a favorite of mine, particularly that heart-rending last couplet which prays that the Holy Spirit will heal "body, mind, and soul / To disentangle peace from pain, / And make your broken people whole."
COMMUNION:   You Are Mine (David Haas)
SENDING FORTH:   Blest Be the Lord (Dan Schutte)
ALTERNATE: Healer of Our Every Ill (Marty Haugen)

…By the envy of the devil, death entered the world… (Wis. 2:24)

(T)hough he was rich, for your sake he became poor, 
so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Talitha koumi — healing and equality 2 (B13O)

The story of the woman with the hemorrhage uses the literary device of an inclusio, that is, the entire story falls within the context of another story, that of the daughter of Jairus. This convinces us that the stories are to be considered together as having a single purpose, or upholding the same truth. 

What are the details? The little girl is the daughter of Jairus, an official of the synagogue (at Capernaum?). So we are talking about someone of some status in the hinterlands of Galilee, someone who is "in" in the Jewish hierarchy, which is at once political and religious. We know nothing more about the man than that he came to Jesus in faith and asked him to heal his little girl who is sick. As Jesus is making his way to the man's house, he is touched by the woman afflicted with a hemorrhage. Not particularly fond of the rich and powerful, Mark describes her as having been the victim of quacks for twelve years, who not only have impoverished her but left her worse than she was before she started seeing them. Her faith possesses her; she feels that she doesn't even need Jesus's attention to be healed, just to touch the hem of his garment. With the crowd of mourners pressing around him on the way to Jairus's house, you would think that the stealthy approach of this woman would go unnoticed, but a different Spirit engages Jesus, and he knows that power has flowed through him to heal her. 

What are we to make of her twelve years of suffering? She obviously is in the story to symbolize everyone who has been victimized by the legalities of the clean-unclean polarity, which is controlled by the religious establishment. She has spent everything to be healed, nothing has worked, she has gotten worse. In contrast to Jairus, she has no status. She is a woman, she has an issue of blood which renders her unclean, and she has had this affliction for twelve years. Furthermore, her touching of Jesus, on his way to the house of Jairus, effectively makes him unclean as well. There is a lot of brokenness in this story, isn't there? A lot that needs healing.

And it's not all physical. The breach between the woman and the community would be complete when her resources were exhausted. She could be driven out and might have to fend for herself. The synagogue official's need to keep kosher, which is understood in the story though not explicit, will be invaded by Jesus who comes as guest into his home after being touched by the allegedly unclean woman. But Jesus tells her, "your faith has healed you." And she is healed. She is both no longer afflicted with the hemorrhage and no longer needs to be kept at a distance from those who are part of the "kosher" community.  The healing of God's dominion, brought in the person of Jesus when she touched the hem of his garment, heals both rifts. But it has even more startling work to do. Oh, the twelve years! What do you think? Is it a generation, and so representing all generations? Is it the twelve tribes, and so she comes to symbolize the fracturing of Israel itself? Is it just meant to be a mystical number, twelve years, as if to say, "she had been bleeding as long as she could remember"? I don't know. Some of all of that might be in there, and there's probably a lot more.

But the little girl is twelve years old, the age of puberty, the age at which a betrothal might take place. Taken with the older woman, they become a symbol of all women in the story of Jesus in Mark's gospel, women whose menstrual blood rendered them ritually impure every month. Again, Jesus throws all that aside. But this little girl has a bigger problem than being twelve: she's dead. "Why bother the rabbi any more," the messengers tell Jairus. But Jesus is not put off. "She's just asleep. Have a little faith." And he raises her from the dead. Is it any surprise that the verb there (egerein) is the same one that all three synoptics use to describe the resurrection of Jesus? She gets up and starts walking around, and Jesus tells them to get her something to eat. Maybe for himself too? Eating is a big deal for the man. And it's a nexus of many of the purity rituals for Judaism. Jesus has shown them what purity is all about: it's about living in the dominion of the living God, the one who has nothing to do with death, for whom death is not only not an obstacle, but doesn't even exist. I suspect that  dining and food sharing took on a new meaning in that house that day, that the blessing of the bread and wine and the meal they ate with Talitha or whatever her name was was a meal they did not forget, whatever other meals might have become a part of their routine.

Isn't it wonderful that these three readings come together today, somewhat arbitrarily (in the sense that the second reading is just part of a more-or-less consecutive lection from 2 Corinthians over these several weeks), and shed such wonderful light on each other? Jesus, the self-gift of God poured out into creation and incarnate as a human being, brings life and health to two other people, healing both their bodies and their community as a result. He shows that God has nothing to with death, and that the equality of the Exodus economy means that women are not to be marginalized on account of their woman-ness (would that it were true even today, in the church, at least in this part of the church!). 

I struggle with the concept that God has nothing to do with death, but there it is, for my reflection, right in the book of Wisdom. It's not a 21st century theological concept, it dates from the end of the pre-Common Era. What does it mean for us, the living? How possible is it that, when we become filled with divine spirit and are moved to do so, that death will have no dominion in this world at all, visibl, perceptibly to believer and non-believer alike?

This weekend, hearing the words Talitha koumi spoken four times by our gospel readers, my heart will remember Taylor Sullivan, a three-year-old in our parish who drowned in the family pool nine years ago this week, whose memory is tied for me forever to this gospel. I will remember the nine killed in Charleston at the AME church last week. I'll remember the children killed in Sandy Hook, in Norway a few years ago, and victims of ISIS and Boko Haram and U.S. drone strikes in Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. I hope that the Christian preachers have the courage to tell their families and ours, broken and grieving as they are, that hope for mending will arise from those words of the Lord again. As terrible as the encounter with death is, our faith is that, from the moment of our baptism, death had no power over us. Even for the unbaptized, the loving God who created everything holds us all in deathless love. I pray that the Word of God shatters the grief of those families, in God's time, and replaces it with a profound Easter joy, and that one day they will eat and drink together again, that little Taylor herself, with the nine, and the children of Sandy Hook and all the lost others, will bring them something to eat from the Messiah's table.

Healing and equality in the dominion of God — 1

There are some extraordinary claims made in the readings Sunday.  Hearing them in a couple of different translations made them even more radiant than I expected.
God did not make death,

nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.

For he fashioned all things that they might have being;

and the creatures of the world are wholesome,

and there is not a destructive drug among them

nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,

for justice is undying.

For God formed man to be imperishable;

the image of his own nature he made him.

But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,

and they who belong to his company experience it.

The "envy of the devil" is an interesting anthropomorphism; I wonder whether it might be just as valid to hear, "the envy that is diabolical," in the Girardian sense, that kind of envy or desire for what the other has which escalates and leads to the violence that Girard describes as the scapegoat mechanism. Presented with life and goodness, in other words, we aren't satisfied with the life and goodness God has given us; we require the goodness which God has given to the neighbor, and we are eventually willing to kill to get it. What takes the wind out of our violence is religion, which substitutes ritualized violence, sacrifice, for the violence which we would do to one another. Ultimately, the undoing of sacrifice is the self-gift of Jesus, by which humanity, in sacrificing him, discovers that an innocent victim has been killed, and that this innocent victim was in fact the Son of God. Having exposed the scapegoating mechanism for the counterfeit of peace that it is, blood sacrifice has thus been ended forever in the death and resurrection of the Messiah. 

In the second reading, Paul is writing to the Corinthians, exhorting them to generosity in his collection for the impoverished and persecuted Christian church in Jerusalem. What I find striking is the connection Paul makes between generosity (charity) and equality, and both in the context of exodus freedom. As I wrote the word "charity" in the preceding sentence, it struck me that its Latin root, caritas, is derived from the Greek noun charis which appears several times in 2 Corinthians, and is translated various as "gift," "grace," and "gracious act/work/gift" as well as "favor." Further, the word is the basis of the word eucharistia or thanksgiving, a connection which Paul exploits in his writing to show that they are aspects of a single reality.

But the thing that strikes me is the argument Paul is making:

  1. You excel in so much, excel in this charis (the collection) also.

  2. Jesus was rich, but made himself poor to make you rich. (kenosis)

  3. I'm not asking you to make yourself poor, but that your abundance might supply their need as a matter of equality.

  4. Because sometime your need may be supplied by their abundance.

  5.  This is God's idea, because it is written (in the Torah), "Whoever had much did not have more; and whoever had little did not have less."

Now, to the casual listener, that last line might just get lost. Our heads are still spinning from the proto-Marxist sound of what went before, which was part of the economic revolution called for in Das Kapital: "From each according to his capacity; to each according to his need." And here, those very words are part of the Second Letter to the Corinthians! Furthermore, Paul seals his argument with a quotation from Exodus, from the very passage that describes the way manna was collected in the desert by the chosen people. In other words, everything we have is a gift from God, like manna. And as such, it belongs to all of us, and there ought to be a kind of equality, and that equality is tied to our freedom and deliverance by God from human bondage. Our being a people hinges on our attempt to do what we have been commanded to do with the manna, and what God makes (miraculously) happen: when the manna is gathered, no one who gathered more had too much, no one who gathered less had too little. 

God's charis underlies both of those readings. God made the world for life, and whatever is of death has nothing to do with God. Our clinging to what we have, our need to control the future by stockpiling money and assets when others have nothing, is an mark of our fear of death, of our terror that things will run out and we will die. But Wisdom says otherwise: God formed us to be imperishable. There can be nothing of death in the world because "justice is undying," and God's justice suffuses the photons, quarks and muons of this and every world in a way that cannot be fissioned by human manipulation. 

Recently, I read James Alison's book The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998). Alison, a disciple and proponent of René Girard's mimetic theory, goes so far as to say that God has nothing to do with death, and that in the final analysis, death is something that needs to be forgiven. I don't even pretend to understand the thought process that gets him to that point, but Alison is convinced that the resurrection proves that God is in rivalry with nothing and no one. Nothing is even capable of being in rivalry with God. See what you think of this brief excerpt from chapter four, "The Resurrection and Original Sin," which I have copied courtesy of a Girardian lectionary website:

1. ...So, we have a first step in the recasting of God by the demonstration of the impossibility of perceiving God within the frame of reference structured by death. This, if you like, is a step made by the 'fact' of the resurrection: that, in the midst of history, this man who was dead is now alive.

2. ...whatever death is, God has nothing to do with it. That is to say, it becomes apparent not only that death is simply present as something which just is, but, exactly because of the resurrection of Jesus, it becomes present as something which need not be.

3. The second step shows that death is not merely something which has nothing to do with God, and which need not be, but that as a human reality, it is opposed to God. It is not only that our representation of God is inaccurate, needing refocusing, but our representation of God is actively contrary to the understanding of God which he wishes to make known. That is to say that the death of this man Jesus showed that death is not merely a biological reality, but is also a sinful reality. To put it in another way: it is not just that death is a human reality and not a divine one, but as a human reality it is a sinful reality. God, in raising Jesus was not merely showing that death has no power over him, but also revealing that the putting to death of Jesus showed humans as actively involved in death. In human reality, death and sin are intertwined: the necessity of human death is itself a necessity born of sin. In us, death is not merely a passive reality, but an active one; not something we merely receive, but one we deal out.

4. However, God did not raise Jesus from the dead merely to demonstrate his own deathless-ness, or to rescue Jesus from the middle of the human reality of death as a bodyguard may rescue a beleaguered pop star from the midst of a pressing crowd of fans, to get her away from it all as quickly as possible. The third step in the recasting of God and the recasting of sin is that God raised up this man who had been killed in this way for us. The victim of human iniquity was raised up as forgiveness; in fact the resurrection was the raising up of the victim as forgiveness. This it was which permitted the recasting of God as love. (pp. 116-118)

OK, this is getting kind of long, so I'm going to save what I was thinking about Sunday's gospel for later, or tomorrow, or soon. At any rate, for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, there is a lot to hear in the readings. And the gospel is really the best of all...

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Calming the Storm (B12O)

The beautiful readings this weekend always remind me of a song I wrote almost 30 years ago called "Safety Harbor." My friends at Old St. Patrick’s in downtown Chicago have sung it in past years on this Sunday as we have. This year, I opted for a different “gospel hymn” for our mass, Tom Kendzia's inviting "Stand by Me," but I'll say a little more about Safety Harbor below.

Sunday, we hear the tiny first reading from Job which is meant to call to mind all the tortured rhetoric of that wonderful book of the Hebrew scriptures. After hearing out Job and his interlocutors for the first thirty-some chapters of the book, God enters into the debate of which divine justice is the center. In what amounts to a beautiful non-answer to the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?”, God makes the case that suffering is part of the divine plan, and that understanding its place in the cosmos is beyond human reason or access. This may or may not be the author's opinion, or s/he might be offended by the injustice of that, and is making the case with the sarcastic enthusiasm of, say, Qoheleth. Be that as it may, in the section that is cogent for today’s liturgy, God asks Job where he (Job) was when God set the boundaries of the sea, and wrapped clouds and darkness around it like a mother wraps a baby. In other words, “shut up, I’ll be God, you be Job.” This will eventually be good enough for Job, who will confess, when God has finished with the divine tongue-lashing four chapters later:

I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
I have dealt with great things that I do not understand;
things too wonderful for me, which I cannot know.
I had heard of you by word of mouth,
but now my eye has seen you.
Therefore I disown what I have said,
and repent in dust and ashes. (Jb 42: 2-6)

This little reading, with the psalm of the day (I have substituted Psalm 98, because the "proper" psalm is so rarely used on Sunday), set up our hearing of the gospel pericope from Mark when Jesus calms the storm on the sea of Galilee. Psalms and wisdom literature like the book of Job attest both to God's rule over the waters "above and below" and to the joy the waters know,  in fact, that all of creation knows, in God's rule. So it comes as no surprise that the gospels remember and interpret this communal memory of Jesus as a sign of his divine power. Without dismissing the possibility of a miracle, modern scholars tend to interpret the meaning of the story, that in times of persecution and uncertainly, Christ is “in the boat with us.” Whatever it might mean for Jesus to exercise divine power, we can be assured of the solidarity of Christ, who is with the church in distress, and has suffered the same persecution himself and conquered it by the Father’s reversal of his death.

How does Christ calm the sea? There’s no one answer to that, nothing that is completely satisfactory. But let it be said that when we say “Christ” we acknowledge the communal dimension to divine action that complements the individual comforting we may be seeking. The message in this gospel is always twofold, at least, like so much of the gospel. This dual message is a mandatum that echoes Christ’s command at the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan: Go and do likewise. The gospel message is, as Christ has done for you, for me, in calming the storms of our lives, so let us do for others. The calming of the storms of the world, of the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, bewildered, all people, is the work of Christ, which is to say the work of the church. Christ, who is with the church always through the power of the Holy Spirit, sees to it that gifts are given to the faithful to serve the needs of the world. We have to believe that. That’s what it means to be baptized, to be part of the Body of Christ in space and time.

This brings me to the song I mentioned when I started this blog. One of the first workshop-concerts that Terry, Gary, and I gave was in a parish called Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor, Florida. There wasn’t much memorable about us, I’m sure, we were just starting out. But the name of that town stuck with me, and some months later when I was going through yet another period of writer’s block, Terry suggested that I write something Irish-sounding that we could do in concert. I started to think about it, and remembered the town called “Safety Harbor,” thinking what a good metaphor that was for the church. The song didn’t start out as a sacred song, it was just about friendship and home; but as it went through some revisions as I brought it to Gary and Terry, it became more and more an anthem of solidarity, an allegory about the common life of the church, the church’s relationship to God, and God’s with us. Here’s a YouTube video with the song, and below, the text. I’ll leave you with this, and what we are singing at St. Anne Sunday.

Safety Harbor by Rory Cooney

Sweet vision, Bless my eyes! 

Land upon the western skies! 

Constant stars, I bid you rise over Safety Harbor.

Home, home! At last, becalmed! 

Far behind us screams the storm. 

Tattered canvas waves like arms greeting Safety Harbor. 

From the windows of the tower, where the beacon burns, 

Faithful friends at ev'ry hour watch for my return. 

Yours the calm and peace I claim 

When I face the waves and rain, 

When the searoad calls my name 

Out from Safety Harbor. 

Thru the fearsome, foaming gale, 

When no spirit fills my sail, 

I shall see, tho' sight may fail, 

Lights of Safety Harbor.

Where from windows of the tower, 

Bright the beacon burns. 

Faithful friends at ev'ry hour watch for my return. 

Heart's haven, mem'ry's shore, 

Call me thru the tempest's roar, 

Where the pilgrim sails no more, 

Home to Safety Harbor, 

Where the pilgrim sails no more, 

Home to Safety Harbor.

Copyright © 1989 GIA Publications Inc.

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time at St. Anne:

Gathering: How Can I Keep from Singing (Lowry) I wrote with some ambivalence about this song last year. It's not that I don't think the song is terrific, it's that sometimes it takes me a while to find the place from which I can sing it, should sing it authentically. Of course, the sections most apropos of this Sunday's scriptures are the (modern hymnal) refrain, and references to tumult and gathering darkness. But take a look at the first quatrain of the third stanza, below. The original text of this lovely American hymn may be even more beautiful than the verse-refrain adaptation in most hymnals these days. Someone posted it recently on a listserv - here’s a part of the original text:

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth's lamentation

I hear the sweet though far off hymn

That hails a new creation:

Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul-

How can I keep from singing?  
What though my joys and comforts die?

The Lord my Savior liveth;

What though the darkness gather round!

Songs in the night He giveth:

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that refuge clinging;

Since Christ is Lord of Heav'n and earth,

How can I keep from singing? 
I lift mine eyes; the cloud grows thin;

I see the blue above it;

And day by day this pathway smoothes

Since first I learned to love it:

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,

A fountain ever springing:

All things are mine since I am His-

How can I keep from singing?

Psalm 98: The Lord Comes to Rule (Cooney, OCP) Among the many things that the psalm seems to celebrate is that, the human condition aside, nature never rebelled against God, and so when "the Lord comes to rule" the world, the seas thunder applause, and the rivers clap their hands.

Preparation rite: Stand by Me (Kendzia, OCP) “When the darkness overwhelms me, like a ship upon the sea,/ You who rule the wind and water, Lord,/ Stand by me.” Tom’s lovely song, inspired by an early 20th century gospel song, makes a great prayer and meditation on today’s scriptures, especially when the “me” is all of us together!

Communion: Be Not Afraid (Dufford) “Though you pass through raging waters of the sea, you shall not drown.” The promise of God, through Isaiah, to Israel, finds an expression in today’s gospel story. The key issue is that Christ, and therefore God, is in the boat with the Church. Unless we forget that, we are unafraid.

Recessional: I Am for You (vv 1&3, Cooney)

He woke up,

rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Quiet!  Be still!
The wind ceased and there was great calm.

Then he asked them, "Why are you terrified?”

Friday, June 12, 2015

The mystical mythic mustard seed - B11O

"To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?"

Sunday's gospel gives us two parables for the reign of God, the farmer's field and the mustard seed. The choice of the first reading, from Ezekiel, about the restoration of Israel after the exile, indicates that someone wants us to focus on the mustard seed that seems to grow into a tree. It seems that way also because of the responsorial psalm today, which refers to the proverbially mighty "cedar of Lebanon," an apt metaphor for the reign of God, one might think, as well as for the one who believes in God.

On the surface, we can glom onto aspects of God's reign that appeal to us: big things come in small packages, from small starts great things appear, God is in control and all is right in the garden. But it might also be possible that there are cracks in those interpretations, or maybe that by focusing on them, we are missing important truths that Jesus is trying to communicate, to help us break out of our competitive nature, of being-in-rivalry with whatever we see. Ultimately, we want to be the winner, and we suspect that, by being on God's side, we will be the winner, and that being the winner will make us better than somebody else. Maybe.

Bernard Brandon Scott and Dominic Crossan point to inner language in the parable of the mustard seed as it appears in the gospels (and probably appeared in Q, the collection of Jesus's sayings that was a source—quelle— document for the synoptics) to indicate that Jesus might well have been parodying his listeners expectations about the reign of God. In other words, it's as though Jesus said, "What on earth is the reign of God like? Well, you think that it must be like a cedar of Lebanon with huge branches that birds can nest in, and whose wood builds temples and palaces. Maybe it's more like something you don't want in your garden that grows there anyway, and grows so fast and large that birds nest in the branches anyway."

Other commentators point out the detail that the mustard seed was a weed, and that its presence was forbidden in kosher gardens, though mishnah from just a century or two later than the time of the gospels indicate that this was not universally the case, and that at any rate there were different kinds of mustard seed around. It's hard to hear these parables with peasant ears, and ears in a different culture, time, and political status at that!

Scott suggests that whatever Jesus might have said, his own language might have done him in, precisely because what we hear in the phrase reign of God is so subsumed by our notion of empire that we manage somehow to turn a subversive metaphor about a tiny seed, a weed, a forbidden plant, into a metaphor of grandiosity because, for us, an empire can't be any other way! Perhaps Jesus's intent was that the empire of God was "more pervasive than dominant." (Scott, p. 30) So the parable asks, which kind of empire do you want?

Sown in Caesar's field, in Nebuchadnezzar's field, in Monsanto's or Bechtel's or AIG's field, the kingdom of God is a weed that threatens the harmony of the pretender's order. But as Amy-Jill Levine writes, in her somewhat iconoclastic take on the parables (she relentlessly puts down the opinions of the very scholars upon whose shoulders she stands), one doesn't need to see the mustard seed as a "weed in the garden" either, or from the point of view that she calls "anti-empire." Rather,
...the kingdom of heaven is found in what today we might call  “our own backyard” in the generosity of nature and in the daily working of men and women. We need not adopt an “anti-empire” image here. Better would be the notion that the “lust for big-time success” is misplaced. The challenge of the parable can be much homier: don’t ask “when” the kingdom comes or “where” it is. The when is in its own good time—as long as it takes for seed to sprout or dough to rise. The where is that it is already present, inchoate, in the world. The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do—to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well. (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus)
There is a story told about a farmer named Martin who had received a parcel of land that had not been developed for farming. He spent years removing rocks and tree stumps, then weeding, preparing the land, plowing and seeding the field. After some time, he had a magnificent farm, aesthetically beautiful, lush, and fertile. His cousin, a priest, came to visit him in the summer, and after dinner they were on the porch, looking out over the beautiful geometric expanse of greens and browns. The priest smiled and said to him, "Martin, this is just a wonderful sight. What a beautiful piece of land God has given you!" The farmer rocked back in his chair, and with one eye cocked to his clerical cousin retorted, "Beautiful it is, Father, but you should have seen it when God had it all to himself." Another aspect of the reign of God, as articulated so well by Dom Crossan, is this: we can't do it without God, and God won't do it without us. The meaning of baptism is salvation by participation; we "opt in" to the life of the spirit, the life of service and enemy-love.

The reign of God is among us, we are "among" it, it's God's work, and evidence of it pops up every time someone refuses to take revenge on another person, every time someone puts the needs of a stranger or friend ahead of her own, every time we love an enemy, every time we use the gifts we've been given, any kind of gift, to make the world of the poor and the outsider better. The kingdom is not like the other political, economic, or other empire that makes a claim on our allegiance. When Jesus looked for an image of God's dominion, it was the lowly but generous mustard, not much of a seed, but enough of a plant that birds can nest in its branches. As he would teach without parables at another time, greatness in God's reign is determined by service, not power. The least among you will be the greatest. What is understood there is: the greatest will still look small. Being the one who serves will still be service. It will simply be revealed to be what it always was: a making-present of the unseen life of God, the incarnation of God's Word. The tiny seed may not grow into a cedar of Lebanon, but it will be enough for life, and it's growing and spreading, without being noticed, all the time.

If you would like to investigate the texts:
Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine.
Re-Imagine the World by Bernard Brandon Scott.

Here's what we're singing this week:

Entrance: Gather Us In (Haugen, GIA) or The Reign of God (Dufner, MCKEE)
Psalm 1: Roots in the Earth (Cooney, GIA)
Presentation: The Reign of God (Dufner, MCKEE) or  O Agape
Communion: Within the Reign of God (Haugen)
Recessional: Thy Kingdom Come (Cooney, OCP)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

After the 50 day feast, the search for meaning goes on

Agape feast, from the catacombs of St. Priscilla
So we finally finished Easter and began Ordinary Time as we finished the feast of Pentecost back in May, and since have celebrated the two feasts of the Holy Trinity and the Body and Blood of the Lord. I know I already wrote about those feasts, but I had one other thought that sort of covers both of them, and I thought I’d share it with you.

My thought last Sunday was this: after reflecting for 50 days, a perfect week of 8 Sundays on the paschal mystery of Jesus, these two feasts of Trinity and the Body and Blood of Christ seem to me to be asking us to ask the angelic question from the first chapter of Acts: Why are you staring up into the skies? In the feast of the Holy Trinity and in the feast of Corpus Christi, we are asked to look outward at one another (“blessed are the people you have chosen”) and back into the nature of God, to try to grasp the depth of the paschal mystery. This great mystery, made flesh in Jesus, reveals to us what God is really like, and reveals to us what we are really like, to help us discern what is really living about ourselves, and what life-like counterfeits are really just death in disguise.

It seemed to me, thinking about the feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord, that there was so much possibility in preaching about the feast that never got touched on. Part of it, of course, was that the readings in Year B are unusual with their central image of blood, though it is a good reminder both of the necessity to deal with the reality of sacrifice and, concomitantly, to understand that “when we eat the bread and drink of the cup we proclaim the death of the Lord Jesus until he comes.” (1 Cor. 10) The central issues, it seems to me, are that Christ is Lord of the living, his sacrifice is worship of the living God; and furthermore that the meal that is shared in memory of Jesus, though calling to mind in a certain sense the Last Supper and the Passover, also is a remembrance of the whole table ministry of Jesus. It was the life he lived, from the center of which his table ministry radiated belonging and forgiveness, that landed him in hot water in the first place. Certainly, from one point of view, his willingness to share and practice of sharing table-fellowship with the “untouchables” was a crime that lead directly to his death. His insistence on freedom, on love above law, and mercy above sacrifice, these attitudes are all subsumed in the sharing of food with those whom the law and its proponents saw as outside the realm of divine favor. The table-ministry of Christ and of his disciples, certainly made abundantly clear in Acts in the dream of Peter in the story of the journey to the house of Cornelius, is directly in contradiction to such an attitude.

Agape feast, from the catacombs of St Domitilla, Rome.
Trinity Sunday invited us to see our whole experience of Christ as dead and risen, as executed as a criminal but alive by God’s acquittal, as a picture of what God really looks like. To baptize the world “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” is to baptize the world in the paschal mystery, in the mystery of agape, of surrender, of love that seeks no reward but only the better life of the other. This seems foolish and suicidal to us sometimes; our watchword since the eighties seems to be “take care of yourself.” The paschal mystery doesn’t deny that at all; it simply suggests that somehow we take care of ourselves by loving other people. Jesus put it simply, in the form of a paradox: “The person who wishes to find self must lose self, take up the cross, and follow me.”

So the feasting is over for now, though it continues every Sunday when we gather as the Body of Christ to be made more perfectly into the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit, the life of God poured out in agape upon us and all that we bring to the table of Jesus. Movers and shakers, losers big and small, all are welcome at the table of the one whose glory is to be among those who aren’t invited anywhere else, along with the rest of us elites who have the illusion of entitlement, upward mobility, and places at the left or right hand of an emperor. Surprise! the party is with the waiters in the kitchen.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Precious Blood (Body and Blood of the Lord, Year B)

I wasn't a part of the Twilight craze, which is pretty amazing since I am such a follower of pop trends. I guess I feel too old for it, and I’m happy with the way the vampire legend rests (so to speak) in the line that runs from Bram Stoker through Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi to Anne Rice and Lestat, with a brief detour through Mel Brooks. Recently I saw a lovely and disturbingly insightful Swedish film entitled Let the Right One In, which was about a chillingly young vampire who had been twelve years old “for a very long time,” a movie that revisited those universal connections between rejection and friendship, persecution and solidarity, and most uncomfortably, love and obsession. But at its heart, the vampire legend and our ongoing obsession with it is about the desire for immortality and the inevitability of death as an apparent obstacle to it, and the intimacy of sexual union and obsession as a sort of foretaste or substitute for it. This was possibly never quite so apparent as it was in the sensual free-for-all called The Hunger, a rhapsodic cinematic response to the AIDS awakening, when blood suddenly became an obstacle to love and, in a sense, a kiss of death.

Where on earth was I going with this?
 Ah, I remember! 😊

Sunday for Catholics is the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, the feast formerly known as Corpus Christi. There is a different set of readings for this feast for each year of the lectionary, and this year the central image is the image of blood, particularly the blood of the covenant. Moses seals the Lord’s covenant with Israel by the sprinkling of the blood of sacrificed bullocks; Jesus pronounces “a new covenant in my blood” at the last supper with the disciples; the author of the letter to the Hebrews waxes eloquent on Christ as sacrifice and priest, ending animal sacrifice and through his death bringing eternal life to the human race.

Now, while the scriptures (and the vampire legends) are fairly clear about blood and its meaning for the community, we ourselves, stuck in our enlightenment literalism, are not. For us, blood is, literally, blood; for Catholics, we can’t deal with saying that blood is “just” a “symbol” of anything — we have to be belligerent and defensive that, for instance, the consecrated wine at Mass is literally the blood of Christ. But surely, transubstantiation is more than that. Since what is seen does not change, it is the meaning of what is unseen that must be changed, and we end up being caught in a polemic battle whose terms we not only don’t understand but to whose possibly infinite wonder we aren’t able to be open because we’ve chosen to block the pathway to it by narrowly understanding what a sign or symbol might be.

For Moses and Israel, the sprinkled blood of the bulls was a symbol of life and death. Blood was both the life-force of the bull (and for that matter, of the people as they well knew), it was also a sign of death. Blood drained was life drained. The sprinkling of the blood of the animals sacrificed to God was both a bonding with that God and a way of saying, “may the same thing that happened to the animal happen to us if we fail to keep this promise.” But the sacrifice was essentially a symbol of life: the slaughtered animal was seen as food for the gods; sometimes, this food was shared by those who took place in the rite.

With the resurrection eyes of the evangelist looking backward toward the events in the life of Jesus and seeing them through the eyes of a church only a few decades old, the food Jesus shared in his meals, including the last supper were also matters of life and death. Life, in the sense that all meal-sharing is life-sharing, that the meals of Jesus in particular were ways of restoring or re-forging the bonds of community between outsiders and friends, and that the remembered meals in the agape, the breaking of the bread or Eucharist, were also life-giving to the fledgling community which asserted the living presence of the Lord in their midst while affirming and strengthening the spirit that held them together in unity. At the same time, as Paul had made clear in the first letter to the Corinthians, the food that symbolized “the body and blood of the Lord” (by which he meant the living and risen presence of Christ in the community) proclaimed the death of the Lord. That death was in no small way the direct result of the solidarity with sinners that the meal-sharing of Jesus had come to represent. By claiming relationship to God and at the same time eating and drinking with sinners, Jesus’ life became a kind of blasphemy to some of the Jewish leaders. It was this crime, at least in part, that led them to their collaboration with the Romans to have him executed.

Blood is a powerful symbol, because within it is the reality of the sign it conveys. Think of how we use the words “blood brothers” - in common usage, it means friends who are bound to one another in a way that is as important and intimate as family, but, ironically, not by being “blood relatives” but through the sharing of actual blood in an oath. The words themselves are so powerful that they are often used to describe a relationship that doesn’t include a blood oath, but that strengthens the sign, and doesn’t dilute it. Blood constitutes a group, whether it’s a group of blood relations or a clan, a military platoon, a gang of thugs, or a family of vampires. But for Christians, the real thing is that our covenant, what binds us together, is the blood of Christ. This blood was once and for all poured out in love for the life of the world, but is now a sign in a shared cup of sacred wine that is a symbol with bread of the living Christ. In the paschal mystery of God, as we continue to meditate upon it, death and life are mysteriously intertwined. The pouring-out of self that is agape, the divine love in which the Christian shares through the baptismal life of the Holy Spirit, looks a lot like death, and in fact shares much in common with death. Only faith tells us that God is, at the heart of this self-emptying love, the God of life, abundant life, and communion. The myth of the vampire, the blood-brotherhood of gang life and violent militarism, are all counterfeits and shadows of the true reality of communion in the blood of Christ. There, in the shadow of the cross, in a death embraced by the innocent one who lived for and sought the reconciliation of all the children of God, we can discover how precious life really is, and how rich and complex a sign it is to partake of the body and blood of the Lord. For it is a living Christ whose life it is we share, a living Christ head and members, the sacred body and precious blood of every person at the table, every person served by any of them, every person who has ever lived or who is yet to be born who participates in agape by truly living for another. It’s something to sing about for another week as we come to join in Christ’s banquet of love.

Gathering: Table of Plenty (Schutte)
Psalm 116: Our Blessing Cup (Cooney)

Gifts: We Come to Your Feast (Joncas)
Communion: May We Be One (cup verses) (Daigle-Cooney)

Recessional: All Are Welcome (Haugen)

"The blood is the life!" (Dracula, by Bram Stoker)