The Music of Pentecost: the original Spiritual

Yearning is a big part of our religious existence… ultimately yearning for God, but by extension yearning for all the good things of this world.  I’ve written before about the positive power of yearning, about the eros-dimension of our love for God.  Yearning is front and center in the life of the Church as we “groan in expectation” (Rm 8:19) of what God promises, and never more so than on Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.  At Christmas we await his coming in the fullness of time.  At Easter, even though we know how the story ends, who can help but watch, wait and wonder with the Apostles on Holy Saturday, “What happens next?”  And at Pentecost we cry out, Veni creator Spiritus.  And Veni sancte Spiritus!  Come Creator Spirit!  Come Holy Spirit!  

The yearning of Pentecost is associated with it a particularly venerable musical tradition, enshrined in two hymns Veni Sancte Spiritus and Veni Creator Spiritus.  Their music comes from the middle ages (9th and 11th centuries), but their texts and their sentiment call forth memories of a more distant antiquity.  

As the Apostles prayed following the Ascension, we know that they awaited the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit promised by Christ.  Huddled in the Upper Room they would’ve chanted the psalms together, as the Jews still do today at the Western Wall and in their synagogues, a musical expression of the heart’s deepest yearning.

We know that immediately following Pentecost the Church’s musical tradition began.  There are, in fact, many texts within the Gospels and writings of the Apostles that were most likely musical lyrics before they were ever enshrined as Scripture.  Indeed, in an oral tradition, music makes it much easier to remember and hand on information across generations.  The Magnificat is a great example of this, as is the Canticle of Zechariah.  

Both Christian and pagan imperial records tell us that during the Roman persecutions, Christians were famed for singing under torture, and in the arenas as they prepared for death in the mouths of beasts, or on the cross after the fashion of our Lord.  This music was particularly powerful: It witnessed to tens of thousands of onlookers the power of the Holy Spirit whose gifts of hope and fortitude filled the dying Christians.  That witness turned the dynamic of the arenas on its head so that the very events meant to crush the Church spread her message of hope to vast crowds.  By their musical witness, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.  

Through the dark ages, the droning chant of the monks preserved civilization like a low flame supported by the power of the Spirit flowing from their altars… I could go on and on… but I should fast forward through time and space to America and a dark chapter in our own history.  What was it that sustained enslaved peoples here in the US if not their nascent Christian faith expressed through… spirituals… This beautiful genre of music witnessed hope not only to successive generations of enslaved individuals, but also to those who would become their greatest advocates, the abolitionists.  Their work and prayer finally sent the Grand Army of the Republic marching to the Battle Hymn of the Republic to end slavery and preserve the union.  

One of the great things about Pentecost is that its gifts go on unchanged.  The gift of the Incarnation at Christmas ultimately ascends to the Father out of human sight.  The gift of the Resurrection happened once.  But the descent of the Holy Spirit continues unchanged to this day, if only you and I can see it with eyes of faith.  And the music of the Spirit is our great helper in that effort. 

Recommended Listening: Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony – based on the Veni Creator Spiritus 

The Beauty of Ascension Thursday

 

Baldassare Franceschini, Ascension – in the National Gallery of Art, DC

We’re in a season of really beauty… it’s not just the Washington is ablaze with roses, irises, and peonies.  It’s not just the broad smiles and easy laughter of college grads moving on to great things… It’s also a holy season.  We’ve just concluded the great cycle that began way back at the beginning of December with the first Sunday of Advent.  That flowed into Christmas, Epiphanytide, the preparation for Lent, Easter, and now finally, Ascension and Pentecost.  And these last two really do shine to match the natural beauty of the world around us.

I propose three ways in which the Ascension may be called beautiful: superficially, philosophically and theologically…

At Ascension Jesus rises Body and Soul into the glory of heaven, finally returning to the Father… and bringing with him something new, our humanity.  On the face of it, we may well say, “Wow, bright light, clouds, angels, how beautiful!” And we’d be right.  But there’s more!

Ascension participates in the classical philosophical definition of things objectively beautiful.  It is marked by three classical categories: Integrity, Consonance, and Clarity.  Integrity – Ascension is the fulfillment of all Jesus prepared us for.  He had to leave to complete his mission.  He alludes to this in the Last Supper discourses in John (ch. 14 and 15), and said as much overtly to Mary Magdalene: Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn 20:17).  Consonance – Jesus Ascension works not only within itself, but also in conjunction with all that came before and after it.  The Ascension fulfills Prophecy and corresponds with everything the the Apostolic age that followed.  It is a harmonious or consonant part of salvation history.  Finally, the Ascension is marked by clarity… by which we mean it is radiant, warming us and calling us to change are selves for its sake.  You see, the Ascension of Jesus finally means that the Church is his remaining Mystical Body on earth.  The Church is now called on to live his ministry: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)

The Ascension’s beauty is also seen in what it accomplishes as part of theology.  The event marks a very real beginning to what theologians call “recapitulation,” that process by which Jesus presents redeemed Creation to the Father… and the first thing to be presented is our humanity, restored by his divine presence.  It’s the beginning of him presenting the Church, Christ’s bride, to the Father as St. Paul suggests in Ephesians (5:27): that [the Lord] might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  A fallen world restored and presented to its Creator as worthy once more of heaven… Beautiful.

Up next…  a few thoughts on the beauty of Pentecost and the divine music it initiates.

The Easter Candle Tells Us Who We Are

Each year, one of the most striking moments of the Easter Vigil is the presentation of the Paschal Candle and the Exultet the Easter Proclamation.  It speaks to us not only of the candle itself, but also about us, about who we are. Lifting the light up onto the paschal candlestick, its light is multiplied, divided yet undimmed, among us, each of our lights representing our baptism, our new identity given to us in Christ the very first time we received the light so long ago.  During the Easter season, admiring that light, that pillar of fire, what can it tell us about ourselves and who we are called to be?

To begin with, as the proclamation reminds, the candle is “the work of bees”… many bees.  Thousands of little instruments of earthly nature came together to make the wax of this candle.  Likewise, we are – each of us – the product of a multi-generational effort.  All that came before us worked together to make us who we are.  We should give thanks and pray daily for those who went before us, not only in our family lines, but in the lineage of the Church.  We are the inheritors of their efforts.

But the our identity doesn’t stop with the natural.  If that were the case, life would be meaningless, colored and condemned by the inevitability of death.  All those generations that came before us knew this… and so, well aware of our mortality, we were – like the Easter candle – raised up to the glory of God, “hallowed to the honor of His name.” Scored with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the candle shows an awareness of our beginnings, but also of the divine end in store for those who live out their baptismal identity.  Never lose track of that orientation, lest you should fall back into mortality and its consequences.

The candle, made by nature, lifted to the glory of God is by its nature made to be shared.  It’s light spreads, not only on its own within the limits of the church building.  In us, that light spreads into the whole world.  It’s sanctifying power is meant to, “dispel wickedness, wash faults away, restore innocence to the fallen and joy to mourners.”  If we keep all that locked up in a building, or even with the polite confines of our immediate family, we deny the candle’s identity and our own.  Be joyful and share that light in whatever way you can each day.

So often we come up with excuses to put off our sharing of the light.  Like the Italians we say, “domani, domani, e dopo domani.”  “Tomorrow, tomorrow and after tomorrow.”  Have we forgotten the very first words of Lent, “Now is a very acceptable time.  Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor. 6:2) The candle is marked by the year, “2-0-1-8.”  It was built and consecrated for this time, no other; likewise each of us.  “I am too young and inexperienced.” The Lord says otherwise (Jer. 1:7).  “I don’t know what to say.”  Neither did Moses (Ex. 6:30), and God made him leader of his people.  I am too old, too infirmed.  God doesn’t accept sacrifice only from the young and the able… He asks us each to give our all whatever that may be!  Be an evangelist, share the light now, like the candle, in 2018!

Finally, as Holy Week reminded us so well, the candle, like our lives, is marked by the cross.  It suffers as the cross is carved into its base… but it is not defeated by that mark.  Indeed, the contrast of the cross’ wounds and the prevailing light gives the light so much more credibility.  Like Jesus with the Apostles in the Upper Room, show the world your wounds.  It’s not a matter of taking pride in our battle scars, but rather of reminding our brothers and sisters that vulnerability is not the end of us… that the limits of our flesh are not the limits of our being.  Its worthy to note that the nails we insert into the candle contain a grain of incense in each of them… a reminder that each wound is a completely offered gift to God.  Through that gift the wound is transformed.

This Easter season pay special attention each time you see the Paschal Candle burning in church.  It’s an eloquent reminder and inspiration for us to be who we are meant to be, a people of the Light.  -Amen

Memories of Holy Thursday

In the readings for Holy Thursday, Moses instructs the people on how to slaughter the Passover Lamb and keep a memorial of the Passover each year thereafter.  For the Jews, to keep a memorial is not a matter of stale dates on a page… It’s a bit more like… ?time travel?  Because each time you memorialize an event, the realities of the original action become fully present again.  It’s no coincidence then, that Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of the new covenant would instruct his disciples in how to keep a memorial of the event.  His instruction, understood in its proper Jewish context, testifies to the reality of Transubstantiation: our belief that bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus in all their reality each time we keep his memorial (that is, at Mass).

So Holy Thursday is a day full of memory.  It’s not just the events of Calvary that we memorialize, but also the establishment of the Priesthood.  Jesus – the High Priest – hands on to the Apostles the capacity to offer His unique and saving sacrifice for the rest of human history.  The Apostles in turn hand that capacity on to their successors and assistants, the bishops and priests of today’s Catholic Church.

Now each time a memorial sacrifice is offered, among the many things that go on, two stick out: the offering of thanksgiving, and the offering of expiatory sacrifice (that is to say, sacrifice for the obtaining of mercy).  And so as we keep this Holy Thursday, I propose that we engage in memorializing the priesthood with thanksgiving and supplication.

We give God thanks for the High Priest Jesus Christ, who not only opened for us the doors of salvation, but also invited us to collaborate with him.  He gave us the ordained priesthood of the clergy to lead that process, but he also gave us the royal priesthood of the faithful to be the lived substance of that sacrifice visible to the world each and every day!  Thank you Lord for the Priesthood of Jesus Christ!  We also offer to the Father, the Body and Blood of that same High Priest asking his pardon for our sins, our many sins.

We remember and we give thanks for our priests here on earth.  Their presence in our lives is an enduring spark of hope in a world that is all too often so conscious of its own limits, its own mortality.  Think of the priests you’ve loved.  The priest who baptized, you… who excited you with a great homily… who hears your confessions week in and week out… the priest who visited you or a loved one at the hospital… the priest who ministered to your family at the death of a loved one… the priest who offers masses prayers and other sacrifices for our needs whatever they may be.  These good men give us hope in darkness.  Some shine more brightly than others, but the virtue common to all that ministry is HOPE… not just earthly optimism, but a real hope of heaven.

We also need to remember and ask mercy for the priests who have failed us. News headlines remind us all too often of the extraordinary cases, but for vast majority of us, priestly failure comes in the form of mediocrity.  When a priest becomes bound to the earth, he stops inspiring, stops giving hope of heaven.  And while that’s not a crime, per se, it’s a failure from which the faithful suffer terribly.

I remember the priest in my neighborhood parish.  For decades, he was there boring us all to death… a nice enough man, but there was nothing about him that made me want heaven.  I returned to my home parish after ordination, in cognito as it were, to attend one of his masses.  I thought that my new identity as a priest might make me more understanding, or help me to see him in a different light.  Sad to say… it didn’t.  I couldn’t believe that in 20 years NOTHING had changed.  When a new priest finally arrived, the parish began slowly returning to life.

I recently heard a true story of a priest in Southern Maryland, in the days of Jim Crow who ordered seminarians to knock over the headstones of African American Catholics.  It was a crime against the dead and against God.  It was sacrilege.  Nonetheless, if we’re going to be a better Church than that, we must pray and offer memorial sacrifice for his forgiveness.

Priests have no spouses, no children, no one to remember them after they’re gone.  The fate of their souls is in the hands of the faithful… and so whether horrible or mediocre, we need to ask the mercy of the High Priest for them… because Hell isn’t something we should wish for anyone, even a bad priest.

This Holy Week, keep the memory of the priesthood… of the High Priest Jesus Christ, and of his earthly servants, good and bad.  Pray that one day we may all be united at the wedding banquet of heaven there to contemplate his sacred countenance forever more.

The meeting I didn’t attend

I recently received the minutes of a meeting I couldn’t attend… Actually it’s not so much that I couldn’t attend it as I didn’t.  More on that in a minute…

In today’s mass readings, Isaiah (49:1-6) speaks about his beginnings as a prophet.

“from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.”

He also points out that the mission of a prophet is not simply to be God’s lackey, but to be a gift to the whole world.

“It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant…
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Beautiful… but an odd pairing with today’s Gospel (Jn 13) in which Jesus identifies Judas as his betrayer.   Then the Lord gave me a clue as to what he wanted me to hear in today’s Scriptures.  Asking the Lord who would turn on him, Jesus replies to the Apostles,

” ‘It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.’
So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas,
son of Simon the Iscariot.
After Judas took the morsel, Satan entered him.”

Wasn’t Jesus offering Judas an out here?  All he had to do was say, “thanks but no thanks; I don’t want the morsel.”  and the moment might have passed by.  Indeed the Apostles themselves were so dumbfounded that even when Judas left the table they thought he was leaving to get the money bag or give alms.  Jesus gave Judas an out, but rather than receive his gift, his opportunity, Judas took the morsel, “and Satan entered him.”

It’s telling.  Isaiah was receptive and became and instrument of God’s light.  Judas took matters into his own hands and became an instrument of darkness.

Back to my meeting…  It was a meeting of good people, all of them well intentioned, talking about good things.  After attending many such meetings as a priest, my prayer antennae perceive something: a distinct flavor of frenzied activity.  …and beyond that, something more… a corporate flavor.  People throw around slogans, lingo and logos.  It’s all very nice and very well meant… but what I don’t perceive (and believe me I’ve tried) is the flavor of the Church.

In trying to take back lost ground in he cause of evangelization, do we sometimes risk taking the morsel instead?  Pushing our version of the Gospel instead of the version we know Jesus gives us?  I think Judas may well have thought he was doing a good thing, jump-starting the “kingdom process” that Jesus seemed to be doing so slowly… but in the midst of all his activity he missed the point.

Think about it: who do parishioners love more, the Pastor who leads them in meetings, or the pastor who leads them in prayer, family life, and service of the poor.  Think of the most successful parish you know.  Is it characterized by endless meetings, posters and peppy slogans?  or is it characterized by people who adore the Blessed Sacrament, visit the sick, and teach their children the faith at home?

A representative of the USCCB once said to me and a group of priests, “If you want to help your parish evangelize, do away with all programs that require posters.”  Of course there was some humor, some sarcasm in his words, but there was also truth.  I asked him afterwards if he’d ever said that to his bosses at the Conference… and there was silence.

The Church is so tempted by the society in which she finds herself to be  corporate instead of a convivial… litigious instead of canonical… sincere instead of sacred.  It’s an understandable temptation; I feel the tug myself.  We want so much to rebuild and to restore… but unless that effort begins with silence, Scripture and Saints… unless we begin by being receptive like Isaiah, we risk becoming acquisitive like Judas.  The proof is there.  “You will know them by their fruits.”  Have any meeting/poster-oriented Church efforts resulted in more baptisms, marriages, confessions?  In ten years as priest I haven’t seen it.  What I have seen is parishes and movements flourishing where there is a receptive attitude and a family spirit present.  Pray this Holy Week that we not take the morsel.