Thoughts on moving…

On Friday I received word that I’ll be moving to a new parish in July.

Whenever a priest moves there are mixed emotions on all fronts.  People at both parishes are usually sad to see their local priest move.  Despite the many protestations of pop culture, I’m fairly convinced that most human hearts don’t jump at the prospect of change; not this kind of change anyway.

At the exact same time, one feels excitement.  The excitement of new challenges, new possibilities… even something as mundane and the opportunity to rearrange all your pictures in new quarters.  Like I said: it’s a mix.  And that’s before the priest even considers himself.  While priests are called on to think of themselves last, we do still have to think of ourselves.  In my case, moving is always a challenge because in my heart of hearts I yearn for stability.  Perhaps it’s God’s sense of humor that in ten years of priesthood I’ve lived in five places… six if you count the time I did emergency fill-in work for two months at a parish… living out of a suit case.

What’s a parish, and what are priest, to do?  How do all of us process these changes that must come at some point?  Below is my homily for Trinity Sunday. I hope you find it edifying, a helpful spiritual proposal for how to process such moments in the light of our Catholic beliefs about the Holy Trinity.

Please be sure to pray for my current parishioners at St. Francis Xavier whom I am sad to leave, and the people of my new parish, St. Mary Mother of God in Gallery Place who I am so very excited to meet… and if you think of it, offer up a prayer for me too.

 

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.