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Monday, July 30, 2018

SongStories 57: May We Be One (Communion Rite) [Praise the Maker's Love, GIA, 1993]

Writing a communion song ranks for me among the most difficult tasks liturgical composers have, especially if we hope to say anything original. The inaestimabile donum that is the Eucharist may be a mystery inexhaustible in its riches, but there's pretty little doubt that we keep saying the same things over and over again, and often without music musical innovation to balance off the overused texts.

It's not because we're not trying! I can't tell you how many times I start off thinking I'm writing something that genuinely feels new to me, but by the time I commit a text to paper and start singing it, all I hear are the similarities between what I've written and everything that has gone before. "Sing a new song," we're told, ostensibly because there's new stuff too be grateful for, for which to praise God. But the song doesn't sound new most of the time. Because it isn't. I hate when that happens!

"May We Be One" was the fruit of one of Gary's and my trips together to Prescott in the early 90s. Many of my songs from the Vision collection came from there. I remember writing "Covenant Hymn" with Gary there, and calling Terry to sing it to her over the phone; we were psyched. Gary had this idea for a communion song based on one of the old (1972) mass "memorial acclamations," now called the "mystery of faith." He had set the first half of a communion refrain to the text of the acclamation,
When we eat this bread and drink this cup,
We proclaim your death, Lord Jesus Christ...
...but I convinced him that even though his version followed the Huijbers-Oosterhuis guideline of "one syllable to a note," the refrain text would be stronger with two notes on the "Je-" syllable of Jesus, and letting the short U sound rhyme with the same sound in "cup" on the previous line. Then I went about writing the last two lines of the refrain:
So as we share this feast, may we become
Healing and light and peace. May we be one.
The text of the chorus is a trope on the acclamation, explicitly tying the act of communion (becoming one—with God and others) to the paschal mystery (dying to self in love). The entire communion rite that appeared in the collection included a harmonization of the Lord's Prayer chant with its embolism, a Fraction Rite with multiple verses, and a communion hymn. Musical material that Gary employed in the setting of the Glory to God and Fraction Rite is wedded to the response "Amen, amen," making the response both memorable and resonant with the action of communion, and the familiarity of the text (1 Cor. 10 and the Roman Missal) made the congregation's part a quick learn.

"May We Be One" uses a call-and-response form for the verses, with a refrain.  There are thirteen verses for the cantor(s), too, making May We Be One a good choice for even the longest communion processions. The verses use images about bread, wine, and common life to give variety to the performance of the song.
This is the bread of Israel's wandering. (Amen, amen.)
The bread that strengthened Elijah. (Amen, amen.)...
Take and eat, this bread is the life of God.
This is the cup of Cana's amazement. (Amen, amen.)
The cup that would not pass from you. (Amen, amen.)
Take and drink, this cup is the life of God....
This is a people homeless and wandering. (Amen, amen.)
A people at home with each other. (Amen, amen.)
Drink warmth and hope from this winecup. (Amen, amen.)
May all creation meet at this table. (Amen, amen.)
And deep within all people the breath of God.
Maybe my way of trying to do something new with a communion song was to embrace the cascade of images, biblical, natural, and experiential, that is behind the liturgical action of taking up, blessing, dividing, and sharing bread and wine. The gift of the Eucharist is the work of God in the universe, always giving all of the divine creative energy to create strength for the weak, freedom for the unfree, unity where there is division, beautiful diversity amid chaos. Thirteen stanzas doesn't cover it all by any means, but at least it's an indication of the impossibility of the task!

And a word about the music: Gary did a really lovely job on this piece, especially when seen in the context of the other parts of the eucharistic suite he included on his recording. The refrain is in the key of F, and moves toward resolving at its conclusion to Dm, but Gary substituted the G major chord there for the relative minor, and so the verses were able to swing into Cm. This is the key and melodic material that the Lamb of God was built from, creating a lovely match between these related ritual pieces, and as I mentioned earlier, the descending melody of the response line of these call-and-response verses is based on the melody of the Glory to God, also used in the Alleluia. Gary handles all this in a way that is imitative but not slavishly so, and so each piece of the suite becomes a mnemonic for other parts without making us get sick of singing it before we've learned them all. (Go ye and do likewise!)

We dedicated "May We Be One" to Rev. Richard Fragomeni, a wonderful liturgist, mentor, and long-time friend whose dedication to the Eucharist has inspired us for over two decades. It was a homily, or a talk, or a story about a homily or a talk of his, that was the inspiration for this song so many years ago. Thank to Richard for his friendship and ministry over the years.

With "Covenant Hymn," the Lamb of God and May We Be One are the most enduring of the songs we wrote for Praise the Maker's Love. They have appeared in all the iterations of Gather so far through the Third Edition, as well as in RitualSong