All posts by Carolyn

Celebrity Passings and the Memento Mori

Jill Maria MurdyJill Maria Murdy
Director of Liturgy and Music
Saint Frances Cabrini Parish,
West Bend, WI

Since Christmas, I have been involved with seven funerals in the parish where I work. My volunteer choir members and cantors have been out to sing for most of those liturgies. In my profession, death is a constant. Some families have been overwhelmed with grief, others shocked, and others just feeling a sense of grateful relief that their loved one is no longer struggling to live. My own beloved mother has been gone since 1992, and there is probably not a day that goes by when I don’t miss her. Recently I have seen posts of many other friends grieving the loss of a parent, young spouse, nephew, or child, and I have felt the angst with them.

Perhaps this is why I’ve been thinking a lot of all the celebrity deaths that have made the news lately: David Bowie, Glen Frey, Alan Rickman, René Angélil, Dan Haggerty, Natalie Cole, Pat Harrington, and Olympian Bill Johnson just to name a few. Radio playlists and newscasts telling of their life’s work have filled the airwaves, and various organizations have sought to pay tribute in different ways (like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra who has already announced a program of David Bowie’s music as part of their fall concert lineup).

But why should these deaths shock us? Surely it is a loss when each of these musicians or actors leaves us, but what about the countless other obituaries printed each day? Don’t we mourn the teachers, the scientists? The factory workers, the grandmothers and grandfathers? Are not their legacies as rich and important to us all?

In his Instruments of Good Works, St. Benedict wisely told his monks to “keep death before one’s eyes daily.” This is something our society is not very good at: the health and fitness industries continue to grow, while others spend money on Botox, cosmetics, plastic surgery, whatever will “keep us young.” Everything we hear focuses on “living the good life,” so when life comes to a screeching halt, we are often devastated, even if the life was that of a celebrity whom we have never met.

For celebrities are those whom we have galvanized with Teflon, those who are “larger than life,” and it is unnerving for us to learn that they, too, suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, or a stroke. Perhaps the reason their deaths resonate with us is because they bring “death before our eyes daily.” If these seemingly untouchable celebrities are no longer young, are in fact dying, it is a sign that we too are perhaps middle aged, a reminder that this will be us someday, that everyone will eventually face death. This begs the question: are we mourning the loss of these creative artists and their gifts and talents, or are we mourning our own lost youth and inevitable death?

As Bowie himself sang in “Changes”:

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time.

Or, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit have we from all the toil
which we toil at under the sun?
One generation departs and another generation comes,
but the world forever stays.

Musical Mystagogy: The Presentation of Jesus

As we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple today, we contemplate the revelation of “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5)—the “light revealed to the nations” (Lk 2:32) that “the darkness will not overcome” (Jn 1:5).

In the world today, evidence of the darkness is not difficult to find; it can be much more difficult to discern those places where the light still gleams. Yet, as Christians, we cling in faith to the truth that Jesus Christ is the true light—the light that has come into the world; the light that conquered the darkness of death precisely by entering into it and emerged victorious in a blaze of resurrected glory; the light that remains with us today through the gift of the Holy Spirit poured forth in the Church; the light that we who bear his name are called to share.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the aged Simeon proclaim his canticle of thanksgiving, prayed each and every night at the end of Compline. Simeon, too, lived in times that seemed to be overcome with darkness, and yet he never lost hope that the Messiah was coming. In the midst of darkness, he continually sought and awaited the light, and rejoiced when at last he held that light in his arms.

Arvo Pärt’s 2001 setting of the Canticle of Simeon—the Nunc Dimittis—captures this interplay between darkness and light in the kaleidoscopic change of colors, and it captures something of the patient waiting, the yearning for the light, and ultimately, the light’s triumph over darkness, even as it somehow acknowledges that the darkness is still very much present. It is fitting that, throughout the world, candles will be blessed today that will be used in liturgical celebration throughout the coming year (hence the occasional reference to this feast as Candlemas). May we who received the light of Christ at our Baptism continue to keep that flame burning brightly, setting it on a lampstand so that it might illuminate the darkness around us and draw all people to Christ, the light of the world.

 

 

Musical Mystagogy: Conversion of St. Paul

Carolyn Pirtle
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today we celebrate an unusual feast: the conversion of St. Paul. There are countless stories of other holy men and women who experienced profound conversion: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi, and in our own day Blessed Oscar Romero and Servant of God Dorothy Day. Indeed, one does not become a saint without experiencing not simply a momentary conversion but a lifetime of conversion, a continual turning away from sin and turning toward Christ. And yet St. Paul’s is the only conversion that appears on the liturgical calendar. Why? Because when Paul left Saul behind—the one who had made it his life’s mission to wipe out Christian communities—the entire trajectory of Christianity changed. After his conversion, Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, traveling and teaching and dying for the sake of spreading the faith to all peoples in all corners of the world, and in his epistles, he continues to draw souls to Christ even to this day.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, c.1600–1601)
Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, c.1600–1601)

In the first reading for today’s feast, we hear Paul himself relate the story of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, a scene that has been famously depicted by many artists (twice by Caravaggio alone). In many cases, these paintings focus on the moment in which Saul falls to the ground as the catalytic moment of his conversion. This moment was indeed the beginning: Saul sees a blinding light, falls to the ground, and hears a voice he does not know asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 22:7; see also Acts 9:3ff). Yet, this moment was only the beginning. Saul did not rise from the ground as the fully-fledged Apostle to the Gentiles he would become. On the contrary, he was rendered blind and helpless by his encounter with the light of Christ, and it was only with the assistance of his companions that he was able to reach Damascus at all. Then, it was only with the help of Ananias that he regained his sight, discovered the truths of Christianity, and was initiated into the community through Baptism. In other words, Paul’s conversion that we celebrate today was not a just singular moment that could be captured in a painting or a snapshot; rather, beginning from that singular moment, his conversion encompassed a lifetime of turning away from his old ways in order to follow the way of Christ, the way of the Cross.

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847
Felix Mendelssohn, 1809–1847

Felix Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of St. Paul’s conversion in his oratorio Paulus, op. 36 helps to capture this ongoing sense of conversion in a way that perhaps a painting cannot. Musical performance by its nature involves a journey through time, and as such, it can serve as a powerful metaphor for one’s journey through life. The story of St. Paul’s conversion unfolds over several movements in this oratorio, beginning in the fourteenth movement. This movement consists of two parts: in the first part, Acts 9:3–6 is proclaimed in a recitative (sung speech) by a tenor narrator, a baritone (Paul), and a three-part treble chorus (the voice of Jesus). The jagged tenor melody soars at the moment the narrator describes the blinding light. The strings create tension-filled harmonies through a technique called tremolo (literally meaning “trembling”). The hesitant baritone melody conveys the fear that must have overcome Saul. All of these elements work together to create an incredibly dramatic moment, translated from the German below:

And as he journeyed, he came near unto Damascus
when suddenly there shone around him a light from Heaven: and he fell to the Earth;
and he heard a voice saying unto him:

Saul! Saul! Why persecutest thou me?
And he said: Lord! who art thou?
and the Lord said to him:
I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutes.

And he said, trembling and astonish’d:
Lord, what wilt thou have me do?

The Lord said to him: Arise and go into the city,
and there thou shalt be told what thou must do.

What is perhaps most striking about this section is the way in which Mendelssohn chose to set the words of Jesus by using a three-part treble chorus, a marked departure from the model set forth by the Passion oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach (who greatly influenced Mendelssohn), where the words of Jesus were sung by a bass soloist. The effect is stunning: the drama described above melts away as Jesus speaks; the tension is dissolved and the voice of the risen Christ is heard as something utterly luminous, radiant. Whereas in Caravaggio’s paintings we see the light enveloping Saul through the beauty of chiaroscuro, in Mendelssohn’s setting of Jesus’ words, we hear this light pierce through the darkness, and its radiance penetrates the listener’s heart just as it must have penetrated Saul’s. When we hear or read Jesus’ words proclaimed in Scripture, we might interpret his question to Saul as accusatory, as judgmental; but here, these words are set in such a way that we hear Jesus genuinely questioning this lost son of his. This is the Man of Sorrows speaking, the Good Shepherd himself reaching out to a lost sheep so that he might be brought into the fold. In setting the words of Jesus this simple, vulnerable way, Mendelssohn makes a profound theological statement, calling to mind to the self-emptying love of Christ wherein power is made perfect in weakness. In a way, the unexpected vulnerability of this music hearkens back to the Incarnation itself, when the eternal Word stripped himself of glory to be born of the Virgin, as well as the Passion and Death of Jesus, when the Word made flesh emptied himself all the more for our sakes by enduring a horrific and humiliating death in order to redeem the world from sin.

It is this gentle, merciful beauty that attracts, that draws Saul in, that illuminates his heart even as his eyes are blinded; it is the beauty of his encounter with Christ that provides the catalyst to Saul’s conversion. Yet neither Saul’s story nor Mendelssohn’s oratorio ends with this moment of conversion; Saul must arise and follow the command of Jesus by proceeding into Damascus to find Ananias. Saul must become Paul. And to do this, he needs the love of Christ shown forth in the merciful witness of those around him.

It is at this point that Mendelssohn’s music itself turns, transitioning into a triumphant choral response to the narrative that has just unfolded. Throughout the oratorio, the chorus is designated in the score as Stimme der Christenheit, or the Voice of Christendom, and so it gives voice to the Christian community, encouraging Paul on the road toward Christ. The text Mendelssohn set for this movement (Is 60:1–2) also makes a theological statement by providing a beautiful complement to what has preceded it:

Arise, shine! For thy light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness [thick clouds] the people.

But shall arise upon thee, the Lord,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.

This is the moment of Paul’s illumination; he has been visited by the very light of Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon him, and the Christian community is now exhorting him to arise (as we hear in the glorious ascending melodies) and follow that light (as we hear in the intricate imitation and echoes) so that God’s glory might be seen not only upon him, but through him as well. And for us listening, this music can provide a moment of illumination as well. Just as the Scriptures are never read as a simple story but are proclaimed so that they may take root in our hearts, so too is this music a moment meant to serve as a proclamation, reminding us that we are on our own road to Christ, that we must allow his light to heal our spiritual blindness and be converted ourselves. This music serves as a reminder that, in our Christian journey, we are both Paul and the chorus: called to lifelong conversion and called to encourage others along their path of discipleship.

As we listen to the voice of Christ and the voice of our fellow Christians represented in the chorus, may we pray for the grace of continual conversion for ourselves, and for the conversion of those who continue to persecute Christ in the members of His Body throughout the world. May we hear in this music the radiance of Christ’s light and allow it to permeate our hearts all the more deeply, so that we, like St. Paul, might continue on our journey toward Christ.

St. Paul, pray for us.

On Martyrs and Marchers

Ann AstellSr. Ann Astell

Professor, Notre Dame Department of Theology

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Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

Brothers and sisters, in your relations with one another,
clothe yourselves with humility,
because God “is stern with the arrogant
but to the humble he shows kindness.”
Bow humbly before God’s mighty hand,
so that in due time he may lift you high.

Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.

Stay sober and alert.
Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion
looking for someone to devour.
Resist him, solid in your faith,
realizing that the brotherhood of believers
is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.

The God of all grace,
who called you to his everlasting glory in Christ,
will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish
those who have suffered a little while.
Dominion be his throughout the ages! Amen.
(1 Peter 5:5b–11)

Today is the feast of a martyr, St. Sebastian, who gave his life for Christ in the third century, under the emperor Diocletian. Christian art depicts Sebastian as an alter Christus, muscular, young, bound naked to a post, his body shot full of arrows, as Jesus was nailed to his Cross. The epistle of Peter speaks to Sebastian and to all the martyrs. It rings in their ears: “Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:–9). A prowling lion! During the reigns of Nero and Diocletian, Christians were literally fed to lions.

Throughout the centuries, however, the epistle’s exhortation sounds in the present tense. When has the age of martyrs ever ended? To Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., who died on January 20, 1873, and whose feast we also observe today—to him too came the call to martyrdom! A martyrdom suffered not with a pagan emperor’s arrows and not through violent death, but through the suppression of the Church in a fiercely laical France. Facing that hostility and the countless challenges that were his as a founder, he looked to the Cross as his—and our—only hope.

We celebrate these Vespers on the eve of the departure of Notre Dame students and faculty who will be traveling to Washington, D.C. to bear witness to the sanctity of human life in the midst of a culture of death. They will end their march at the steps leading up to the Supreme Court Building, where the Roe v. Wade decision was made in 1973, and where an important case with regard to religious liberty and health care is currently being considered. To the Little Sisters of the Poor, their legal defenders, and their co-litigants, the call to martyrdom has also come. Staying “sober and alert,” they have “cast all their care” on the Lord who cares for them, trusting that he “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish those who have suffered a little while” (1 Pet 5:7–8, 10).

According to the epistle we have just heard, Christians undergoing persecution and trial can draw strength from the knowledge that they do not suffer alone, that “the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world” (1 Pet 5:9). In our day, “throughout the world” brings to mind a litany of place names: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, China, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Burundi, Mexico, Brazil, refugee camps in Europe. Everywhere the lion prowls. And everywhere brave souls continue to love, to hope, to confess Christ, to bow humbly beneath the cross, terrible and triumphant, that conforms the Christian to Christ. Ave Crux, Spes Unica!

On this day, January 20, in 1942, Servant of God Joseph Kentenich (1885–1968), a Pallottine priest and the founder of Schoenstatt, celebrated Holy Mass in his prison cell. Soon to be sent to Dachau, where he was to suffer for three and a half years, Fr. Kentenich freely laid down his life in union with Christ during that Eucharist, celebrated alone and in secret, but in spiritual union with his followers, some of whom were already prisoners in the concentration camp. “The brotherhood of believers” (1 Pet 5:9)! Fr. Kentenich’s risk-taking, his trusting “yes” to the Cross, expressed his deep faith in Christ, but also in the mystical body of Christ, the communion of saints. “What I do, what I suffer, how I love, affects others,” he wrote.

Let us live our lives, day by day, in a greater consciousness of our responsibility for one another, in solidarity with the martyrs who suffer not only for Christ but, in Christ, for us.

St. Sebastian, Blessed Basil Moreau, pray for us.

And the Nominees Are . . .

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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This morning in Hollywood, the nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards were announced. If you’re a film-lover like me, this time of year is the post-season, where the hundreds of films released over the past year have been culled to a short list of the elite, and soon, there will be only one—the Best Picture of the Year. The problem with the post-season comparison, of course, is that athletes only compete within their sport, whereas films of completely different genres are all lumped together and pitted against one another for Best Picture. This is essentially like comparing apples to Ferraris. Their only commonalities are: they are both things, and they are both red. And the latter isn’t even true all of the time.

As a result of the apples and Ferraris conundrum, the Academy increased the number of possible Best Picture nominees from five to ten for the 2010 awards ceremony in order to allow a wider variety of films to be represented. As it turns out, 2010 and 2011 have been the only years that all ten nominations spots have been filled; 2012–2014 each saw nine films nominated, and, as in 2015, this year there are only eight. While I initially bristled at the increase in nominated films, this year I am once again surprised at the fact that the Academy didn’t just go ahead and fill all ten slots (Dear Academy: Could we nominate just one comedy some year? Maybe?? Please???).

In which J.Law seems to have forgotten that she won the previous year. . . Everybody wants Oscar.
In which J.Law seems to have forgotten that she won the previous year. . . Everybody wants Oscar.

Then I remembered that the Oscar nominations represent the culmination of often politically charged marketing campaigns spearheaded by studios intent upon garnering awards (like a sports team shelling out big bucks for a key player in order to win championships), and this reality means that good films—even excellent films—are sometimes reduced to collateral damage.

Despite these and other flaws inherent in the system (including once again a complete lack of diversity in the acting nominees), I still love the Oscars because they provide people a way in to discovering, thinking about, and talking about movies, and movies in turn provide people a way in to discovering, thinking about, and talking about those things that are part and parcel of human life: identity and the search for it, relationships and all their glorious and heartbreaking complexities, the presence of evil and the struggle for good. And when films tell these human narratives in an authentic and compelling way, I would argue that they have the capacity to open audiences up to encountering a deeper narrative, indeed, the narrative—the narrative that insists that humanity has its source and its summit in something other than itself; the narrative that reassures us that death and evil will ultimately falter and life and love will triumph; the narrative that points, in the end, to God.

Granted, this capacity varies from film to film. Some films, like last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), open viewers up to this deeper narrative by offering a cautionary tale, encouraging us to rethink and perhaps change the ways we live and interact with family, loved ones, strangers, even ourselves. But others, like Best Picture winners A Man for All Seasons, Ghandi, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years a Slave, have the capacity to inspire us to be better human beings by presenting us with a picture of humanity’s own capacity to transcend itself precisely through entry into that deeper narrative. All good art does this for those who take the time to look closely and listen carefully.

And so, over the next several weeks, we here at Oblation will once again be taking a closer look at this year’s Best Picture nominees in the hopes of discovering within their individual narratives seeds of the narrative. As we’ve learned over the past couple of years, this task will be more difficult for some films than others, but this series will afford us the opportunity to engage with “popular culture” and “secular media” in ways that are intriguing and challenging for us and, hopefully, uplifting and life-giving for you (or at the very least, entertaining). As Siskel and Ebert used to say, “See you at the movies.”

Musical Mystagogy: Singing the Incarnation

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Every year, I lament the fact that there simply aren’t enough days in the Christmas season to listen to all of the incredible music that helps us enter the exultant hymn of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus. Let’s face it: there’s a reason we secretly start listening to Christmas music around the middle of Advent (or that we at least really want to). Christmas music is sacred music par excellence. Whether it’s a traditional carol like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing or Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, or a chant like Of the Father’s Love Begotten, or a more recent addition to the repertoire like Morten Lauridsen’s anthem O Magnum Mysterium, or Alfred Burt’s carol Jesu Parvule, the songs of Christmas make real the idea of “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” a phrase that comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions as he addresses God himself. Some may balk at this analogy between the earthly beauty of music and the divine beauty, but I maintain that one can indeed use Augustine’s description with reference to Christmas music, because its material beauty points beyond itself to the divine beauty present in the very mystery this music helps us celebrate.

On the one hand, Christmas music does seem ancient: we know it intimately. It has accompanied us to the manger each and every year. And yet, on the other hand, it is indeed ever new: we never seem to grow tired of it. The reason for this, I believe, is that every year, we approach this season and this music different people than we were at this time last year, and as a result, though the music remains the same, we will hear it differently. This is the gift of a set repertoire of carols and hymns and chants, and the gift of the new additions to the repertoire that have slowly and steadily found a home within this treasury over time. The music of Christmas allows us to return to it year after year after year, and, like a wellspring, it continually slakes our thirst for beauty and mystery and meaning.

So, with the vast breadth of music, how does one choose a single piece to encapsulate the Christmas season? With the understanding that there is not ever going to be one piece that does so, but with the hope that, at least for this year, this one will help unfold the mystery a little more fully. With that, I offer Egil Hovland’s The Glory of the Father. I came across this piece as an undergraduate member of the St. Isidore Catholic Student Center Choir at my alma mater, Kansas State University, and I have come back to it every Christmas since then. This piece, written in 1957 by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland, uses as its text excerpts from the stunning prologue of St. John’s Gospel. This passage is proclaimed on Christmas at the Mass during the day, which perhaps seems an unusual choice. There is no mention of a journey to Bethlehem or a manger, no angels singing or shepherds dropping in. Instead, what we have is light. The light of the human race. The light that shines in darkness. The light that no darkness can overcome. The true light which enlightens everyone. The true light that was coming into the world. And what is this light? St. John tells us.

The Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.

This text serves as the beginning and end of Hovland’s stunning yet simple piece. In constructing the piece this way, Hovland is holding up the Incarnation—Jesus Christ Himself—as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The music in these sections is open—hollow sounding and yet somehow also full. The first words of the piece—“The Word became flesh”—are sung with a chant-like rhythm using the interval of a perfect fifth, one of the two intervals used in the medieval period to create the first instances of harmony. The other interval was the perfect fourth, and Hovland ends the phrase “dwelt among us” on this sonority (the italics designate the syllables on which this interval occurs). Why mention this? To demonstrate that the openness of the piece comes from a compositional technique that signaled the birth of harmony as we now know it. A beauty ever ancient. On the other hand, the composer uses close harmonies and controlled dissonance (clashing notes) to create a sense of fullness, particularly when the choir sings “We beheld the glory of the Father” the second time. A beauty ever new.

At the heart of the piece, Hovland returns to the beginning of the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God.” The piece takes on more life and movement here, indicating the life and movement of the eternal Word, the second Person of the triune God. With the text “In him was life,” a stirring drama builds, and suddenly, a tension is introduced with the phrase “and the life was the light of men.” The startling chord on the word “men” indicates a new presence: darkness. Through the sin of humanity, darkness enters the world and threatens to blot out the life of the Word, “the light of men.” This darkness continues as the composer holds up for our attention a reality that we would rather forget as we celebrate Christmas: “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” This child, the Word made flesh, the true light which enlightens everyone, was rejected by those whom he called his own. Is still rejected.

And yet, immediately after this sobering, convicting statement, the composer returns to the opening section, indicating that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Moreover, the abrupt shift from the darkness back to the light indicates that the glory of the Incarnate Word—“the glory as of the Father’s only Son”—is not contingent upon our acceptance of Him. The light has come into the world. It is offered as gift for those with the eyes to see it, and “to those who did accept him”—who accept him still today—“he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). This season, as we sing the mysteries of the Incarnation, may we open our eyes to see and our hearts to welcome the light of the world, the Word made flesh, the glory of the Father.

“Stop Passing Judgment”

Colleen Moore

Director, Echo

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Editorial Note: This post was originally delivered as a homily during Vespers on Wednesday, December 2. We are grateful for the author’s permission to publish it here.

Brothers and sisters,
Stop passing judgment before the time of the Lord’s return.
He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and manifest the intentions of hearts.
At that time, everyone will receive his praise from God.
(1 Corinthians 4:5)

My father, whose death anniversary is tomorrow, gathered often with friends and colleagues to discuss University politics and national and international goings-on. I was privy to many such sessions and noticed that while the topics often changed, the script often didn’t. Routinely the conversation would identify a potential antagonist about whom one of my dad’s friends would say, “He’s a complete jerk” (or perhaps he’d employ a more colorful term), to which my dad would typically respond, “Not complete.”

It wasn’t as if my dad didn’t agree with the judgment being passed, but his habitual response for which he became known among his friends recognized the difference between his own limited judgment and God’s ultimate judgment.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters we hear of the importance of making prudent judgments, especially of those within our own Christian community, and of ourselves and our own behavior. But in this passage, Paul reminds us that there is much we cannot see and know, not only about others but also about ourselves and the intentions of our own hearts. Paul says of himself, “I will not even be the judge of my own self. It’s true that my conscience does not reproach me but that is not enough to justify me: it is the Lord who is my judge” (1 Cor 4:3–4).

The final judgment, then, does not belong to us. Instead, as Paul says in the lines preceding the passage we read this evening, “We belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” Not only are our premature and final judgments not ours to make but our need to calculate our worthiness against the worthiness of others is dissolved by our belonging to Christ, through whom we have already inherited everything. Our task then, it seems, is much more than just avoiding passing judgment before the Lord’s return; it is to practice belonging to Christ.

There is much said in Advent of waiting in hopeful anticipation for the first coming of Jesus and of the second coming of Christ. We carefully ready our homes, our altars, our hearts to take in God who in his mercy has come to be with us.

Preparation is not foreign to us. As students and professionals we prepare for class, conferences, and important meetings weekly. But it strikes me that in Advent we should not so much be preparing for things to go smoothly or as planned, as we have grown accustomed to doing. In welcoming the gift of the Incarnation and the second coming of Christ, we are preparing ourselves to be overcome, overtaken, utterly overwhelmed by God. We are preparing to be completely undone in a way and to be given ourselves in a truer form than we have previously known.

If St. Joseph County was anticipating being overwhelmed by a wind storm, we would no doubt be alerted by text, phone, and email by ND Alert, and would prepare for its coming as I prepare for my young nieces to visit: by putting everything away, securing our belongings, battening down the hatches so that as much would remain in place and intact as possible. In contrast, preparing for the coming of Christ looks more like taking everything out of storage and laying it out to be exposed, dismantled, and reordered; preparing ourselves to be taken in, taken up, moved, perhaps even to fly.

I recently saw a story about a man who parasail skis, meaning he alternately parasails and skis depending on the terrain as he flies down the mountain. Then he releases his parasail to ski off a cliff, and then releases his skis as he free-falls in a winged suit for several minutes before hopefully pulling a parachute to land. The interviewer asked him, “How do you physically prepare for something like this?” He said, “Your whole life really, not just your physical training, has to be about replacing the instinct to cling to your chute and skis with the instinct to release them.”

As we prepare our homes and hearts to receive Christ and our family and friends this Advent, let our waiting and preparation be marked by release . . . release of passing premature judgment on ourselves and others, release of the need to keep everything intact, release of the desire to stay the same, and if not these, than release of whatever it is that we give ourselves to, to avoid giving ourselves to God, who once again gives himself to us and waits to see how he will be received.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray: A Response to Prayer Shaming

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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In the heartbreaking wake of yet another mass shooting, The Atlantic published an article entitled “Prayer Shaming After a Mass Shooting in San Bernardino.” The author cited a side-by-side comparison of tweets from political leaders and candidates posted by “the liberal publication The Nation” and noted:

There’s a clear claim being made here, and one with an edge: Democrats care about doing something and taking action while Republicans waste time offering meaningless prayers. These two reactions, policy-making and praying, are portrayed as mutually exclusive, coming from totally contrasting worldviews.

This claim is one that would reiterate the false dichotomy that is often set up between action and contemplation, between doing and praying (as though praying itself is not a doing). In the Gospel of Luke, too, we have a narrative that ostensibly holds up action and contemplation—doing and praying—as two different things, but upon closer examination, they are revealed as the two sides of the same coin.

Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken from her.” (Lk 10:38–42, NRSV)

On the one hand, action without prayer is “worried” and “distracted.” On the other hand, we read in the letter of James a warning against prayer without action:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (Jas 2:14–17, NRSV)

In other words, prayer impels us to action, and our action ought to flow from our prayer, as Fr. James Martin, SJ articulated in his response to this morning’s cover story in The New York Daily News (a prime example of prayer shaming if there ever was one).

Perhaps the real issue at hand is the impoverished understanding of prayer that’s being splashed about in headlines and on social media. To be fair, 140 characters or less isn’t exactly a mode of communication that lends itself well to anything but impoverished expression. Nevertheless, the tweets and status updates being posted around the country and around the world since the devastating attacks in Paris serve as a symptom of an underlying condition—a spiritual anemia in which prayer has been reduced to pious platitude that is never incarnated in a life of action on behalf of the other.

Immediately after the episode at Martha and Mary’s house recounted above, Jesus’ disciples come to him and say, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1, NRSV). Perhaps, like us, they were confused by what Jesus meant when he said that Mary had chosen “the better part.” Perhaps they knew that he identified the life of prayer as that better part, but they weren’t quite sure what that entailed. And so, in response to his disciples’ earnest request to teach them to pray (which, when you’re talking to God, is really a prayer in and of itself), Jesus responds:

“When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Lk 11:2–4, NRSV)

The Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer expands the second petition, resulting in the version that is and has been recited by billions of people throughout the world and across the centuries: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6: 10). And in this petition we come to the heart of the matter, the prayer that no one would dare shame. For the point of prayer is not simply to express solidarity with those who are suffering, although through prayer God does indeed unite us with those for whom we pray; it’s also not simply to ask for things, although it does indeed allow us not only to ask, to seek, and to knock, but also to expect with hope-filled confidence that God will answer (cf. Mt 7:7–8). Rather, there is a deeper posture of prayer than solidarity or petition. Ultimately, the point of prayer is to cultivate a stance of radical openness before God. The point of prayer is to learn how to say “Your will be done.” Your will, God, not mine, no matter what it costs me.

Nowhere do we see this posture of true prayer more vividly than in Jesus’ agony in the garden just before his Passion and Death. The divine Word incarnate, the very Son of God, prays from the depths of his full humanity that his will and his Father’s continue to be one, that he possess the courage to accept and to drink the cup that has been prepared for him. Then, rising from his prayer, Jesus performs the greatest act of love in the history of the world by offering his life on the Cross. The whole Christ is his life of prayer and his life of action; the two are inseparable from one another.

When we pray, we place ourselves before God, and we learn to say “Thy will be done.” In so doing, we acknowledge that our relationship with God is one of creature and Creator, an acknowledgment that requires a spirit of humility first and foremost. Out of this humility is born openness—openness to the voice of the One who made us and openness to the conversion that enables us to silence the voice that insists on our own will. In humility we open ourselves up. In openness we listen for God’s will. And having heard God’s will, we ask God to fill us with the courage necessary to live out that which we have been asked to do. Prayer overflows into the life of action, so that just as we learn to pray “Thy will be done,” we learn to live so that God’s will might be done in and through us. Then, the false dichotomy between action and prayer melts away, and we become creatures whose entire lives are prayers offered to the Creator.

Follow Carolyn on twitter @carolyn_pirtle

Musical Mystagogy: Advent Longing

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Ask a friend to rattle off their Top 10 Christmas Carols, and you’re bound to get an instant response of the perennial favorites. For example: O Holy Night, Silent Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, What Child is This, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem—this list could go on and on. Ask that same friend to rattle off their Top 10 Advent hymns, and you’re more likely to get one or two right away (maybe even four or five), and then perhaps the stymied silence of trying to come up with a few more: O Come O Come Emmanuel, On Jordan’s Bank, Creator of the Stars of Night, Wait for the Lord, My Soul in Stillness Waits, People Look East, Awake! Awake and Greet the New Morn, Wake O Wake and Sleep No Longer, O Come Divine Messiah, The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns (or, if you’re a Stephen Colbert fan, The King of Glory).

The truth is, we’re more familiar with Christmas music because we’re inundated with it 24/7 beginning the day after Thanksgiving. It’s piped over the speakers of stores and restaurants; it’s performed in children’s school concerts; it’s on the radio; it’s everywhere. In such an environment, our experience of Advent music can often become relegated to what we hear and sing at Mass, meaning that we might only spend four days of the Advent season singing of our longing for the Messiah. In many parishes, the celebration of Advent Lessons and Carols provides a way to bring the music of this season front and center but outside of that, it can be difficult to find opportunities to immerse oneself in this repertoire. There are a number of excellent recordings that feature music exclusively for the Advent season, and a recent composition that’s finding its way onto more of those recordings is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come. More than ten years ago, Minnesota Public Radio ran a profile on the composer and his wife (who compiled the lyrics to this piece from Scripture), which detailed how this composition grew out of the couple’s anguish in facing a child’s life-threatening illness, and when one listens to this piece knowing its back-story, its impact becomes all the greater. The longing expressed in this piece is not disembodied; it’s not detached from real life or written merely to tug at the heartstrings during what many people find to be an emotionally difficult time of year. This piece is an expression of one couple’s longing for the coming of Christ as an answer to their prayers during a time of great duress, and now, it has the capacity to give voice to the anguished longings of those who hear it this season and every season, whatever those longings may be.

Gregory de Wit, OSB, from the chapter room of St. Meinrad Archabbey The scroll in Jesus' hand reads: "Behold, I am coming soon." (Rev 22:12)
Gregory de Wit, OSB, Saint Meinrad Archabbey (Chapter Room)
The scroll in Jesus’ hand reads: “Behold, I am coming soon.” (Rev 22:12)
Image used with permission

The minor key and the dark color of this piece seem at first glance to clash with the text of the opening measures: “Peace be to you and grace from him who freed us from our sins, who loved us all and shed his blood that we might saved be.” Yet, the minor key testifies to the fact that the peace and grace of Christ are stained with his blood, shed out of pure love to save the human race. This saving work of God in Christ is the reason for the acclamation in the next section of the piece: “Sing Holy, Holy to our Lord, the Lord Almighty God, who was and is, and is to come—Sing Holy, Holy Lord.” Following this acclamation, an exhortation: “Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein; rejoice on earth, ye saints below, for Christ is coming—is coming soon! For Christ is coming soon!” This section represents the musical climax of the piece: the soaring soprano line and the noble harmonies suggest the majesty of Christ’s return in glory, but the section ends with the harmony unresolved. Christ is coming soon, but not yet.

William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (1851–2)
William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (1851–2)

The final section returns us to the here and now, where the coming of Christ in history has not taken away our present trials and tribulations, but insofar as we unite our sufferings to his, Christ may transfigure those sufferings and give us the grace to endure them until he returns in glory, when he will end suffering forever: “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more. They need no light, nor lamp, nor sun, for Christ will be their all.” The title lyric of this piece takes the final prayer from the book of Revelation—“Come, Lord Jesus,” and heightens it—“Lord Jesus, quickly come.” Come, quickly, Lord Jesus, delay no longer, for the night is vast and the world is in need of your light, the light in and by which we see light (Ps. 36:10), the light no darkness can overcome (Jn 1:5).

Our annual observance of Advent and Christmas doesn’t suspend the trials and sufferings we experience as human beings. As individuals, we may be facing loneliness or illness or death, and as a members of a global community, we live in a time plagued with violence and poverty and corruption, just like Jesus himself lived in a time that was plagued with violence and poverty and corruption. Nevertheless, Jesus’ coming in history, his future coming in glory, and his coming to us even now in the liturgical life of the Church provide sure footing for us in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations, and even as we lift our hearts and voices in anguished longing, we also look forward to the day “when night shall be no more,” “when Christ will be [our] all.”

Singing the Season: Advent Introits (part 1)

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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As we begin a new liturgical year, I thought it an appropriate time to take a look at an often-overlooked liturgical moment: the beginning of the Mass. People often make the mistake of thinking that the truly mysterious part of the Mass doesn’t “kick in” until about 10 minutes in to the liturgy, but this isn’t actually the case. The mystery of the Eucharistic celebration doesn’t begin with the Liturgy of the Word, or even the institution narrative of the Eucharistic Prayer. The mystery of the Eucharistic celebration begins the moment you leave for the church. The grace of the Holy Spirit, the love of God poured into the hearts of men and women everywhere and at every moment and in every place, draws people to seek the source of their life and discover their true end in its summit, and there is only one place on earth that is both the source and the summit of the Christian life: the Mass (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11).

So if the mystery of the Mass begins with the promptings of the Holy Spirit, before a person even darkens the door of a church, then it stands to reason that no part of this celebration stands outside of the realm of this mystery. Every word, every gesture, every action is rife with richness and meaning. Including the words, gestures, and actions that get the whole ball rolling: the Introductory Rites. And what introduces the Introductory Rites? Music.

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the music sung at the beginning of Mass is more than an aesthetically pleasing way to move the priest from the back (or side) of the church to the front. This music serves to “open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity,” and, yes, “accompany the procession of the priest and ministers” (GIRM, 47). In other words, this music gathers the individuals of the assembly—who have come from across the street, across town, or even across the country—and draws them into one voice, one body, offering one prayer to the Father through the One Mediator, Christ (1 Tim 2:5), through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

In many Catholic parishes today (if not most), the Mass begins with a congregational hymn, usually chosen because its text compliments or highlights other elements of the liturgical celebration like the Scripture passages prescribed for the day or the liturgical season. Many beautiful hymns have been written throughout the history of the Church, and during Advent, perennial favorites are brought forth from the treasury such as hymnalO Come, O Come, Emmanuel, Creator of the Stars of Night, and People, Look East. As beautiful as these hymns are, and as much as I love singing them throughout this season, I’ve found myself drawn to the texts actually given to us by the Church for this liturgical moment, discovering within them a source of contemplation—a new (old) point of entry into the mystery of the Eucharist; a mystery that, like God himself, is ever ancient and ever new. This Advent, I’m rediscovering the Introit.

Before the now familiar four-fold pattern of congregational hymns became normative (Entrance, Offertory, Communion, Recessional), Mass began with the Introit, which takes its name from the Latin word for “entrance,” introitus. Every single celebration of the liturgy has a designated Introit, found in the Roman Missal along with the various prayers of the priest like the Collect, the Prayer over the Offerings, and the Prayer after Communion. Mass_001-200x300What is remarkable is that the texts for the Introit are specifically and intentionally chosen according to the liturgical feast being celebrated, and they serve an important, beautiful, mysterious purpose. Equally remarkable is that many people are unfamiliar with them.

Over these four weeks of Advent, I’m going to spend time with these texts that open the door, as it were, to the marriage feast of the Lamb. I’ll be taking a look at their sources in Scripture, the ways in which they tie in to the liturgical season, and how they’ve been sung across the centuries. Believe it or not, composers today are still setting these texts to music, and many of them—like the composer of this week’s contemporary setting—are even drawing inspiration from the ancient chant melodies of these Introits, using those melodies as a springboard in their crafting of a new “song of praise to our God” (cf. Ps 40:3). I hope to discover a new layer of depth within the Entrance Rite of the Mass that will enrich my (and hopefully your) understanding of and appreciation for the Advent liturgies. At the very least, there’s going to be some beautiful music involved.

adtelevavi700In the original Latin, the Introit for the First Sunday of Advent is:

Ad te [Domine] levavi animam meam, Deus meus, in te confido: non erubescam neque irrideant me inimici mei. Etenim universi qui te expectant non confundentur. Vias tuas, Domine, demonstra mihi: et semitas tuas edoce me.

Now if, like me, you know just enough Latin to get yourself in trouble (“Et tu, Brute?”), here’s an English translation, courtesy of the monks of Solesmes:

Unto you have I lifted up my soul. O my God, I trust in you, let me not be put to shame; do not allow my enemies to laugh at me; for none of those who are awaiting you will be disappointed. O Lord, make me know your ways. Teach me your paths.

And finally, in the current Roman Missal, we read:

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God. In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame. Nor let my enemies exult over me; and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

(In case you were wondering why the current version is shorter, the first two versions contain the antiphon and the first verse of the accompanying Psalm, while the third version contains only the antiphon. Nevertheless, the proper Psalm may still be sung with the antiphon.)

Both the Entrance Antiphon and the Psalm verse are taken from Psalm 25, which is the proper Psalm for the First Sunday of Advent (cycle C), and has also been designated as one of the seasonal Responsorial Psalms for Advent. So right away, even on the surface, we see that this Entrance Antiphon ties in with other Scriptures proclaimed during Advent.

On a deeper level, though, it is profoundly significant that the first words the Church sings during the Advent—in fact the very first words of the new liturgical year—are “To you, I lift my soul, O my God.” In just nine simple words, a relationship is established: a relationship of humility between us and God, between creature and Creator. But why do we lift our souls to God? Because without God’s help and protection, our enemies (sin and death) laugh at us—the devil exults over us in our sinfulness, and in this sorry state, we lift our souls to God as an acknowledgment that we are in need of a redeemer. We lift our souls to God because God is the only one who can help us. And God helps us by showing us his paths, revealing the way to himself by sending the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). Jesus Christ is the answer to our prayer when we beseech God, “O Lord, make me know your ways. Teach me your paths.”

In 2006, Belgian composer Ludo Claesen composed a setting of this Introit using the Latin text (he composed settings of the other Advent Introits in the years following). If you listen first to the original chant melody,

 

and then listen to Claesen’s setting,

 

you can perhaps hear some similarities between the two melodies. What is so striking about this piece, not even ten years old, is that it is firmly rooted in a musical tradition that is centuries old, and yet it still sounds fresh and new and beautiful to our ears, for it is written in a musical language that is entirely the composer’s own. This is ancient beauty that has been made new. This is sacred music that draws from the treasure house of the Church’s tradition and yet breathes forth new life by engaging with that tradition in a creative way.

Even without knowing that this piece of music was inspired by an ancient chant source, a person can still sense the yearning conveyed in its melodies and harmonies. Even without knowing the translation of the Latin above, one can still perceive in this music a lack, an incompletion, a need that, in the end, can only be fulfilled by God. “To you, I lift up my soul, O God.” Because my soul is broken. I have broken it by my sinfulness. And you, God, are the only one who can heal it. You are the only one who can triumph over the enemy who would exult over me, and you are the only one who can guide me back to your heart. “To you, I lift up my soul, O God,” and I can lift it no higher, for I am too small. Reach down and receive my soul—stoop down from heaven and save me.

This is how we begin the Advent season, and we will conclude it by celebrating God’s response to our desperate plea, when God does indeed reach down to us and heals our souls by becoming small himself—by taking on a body that can be broken as our souls have been broken by sin, by offering that body, lifting it up to the Father in love so that we might all be lifted up. We pray: “To you, I lift up my soul, O God,” and God replies: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12).

Follow Carolyn on twitter @carolyn_pirtle