Tag Archives: discipleship

Musical Mystagogy: Conversion of St. Paul

Carolyn Pirtle
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

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.

Baseball and Discipleship

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Oh hey, ball, I'm just gonna slide across the ground and catch you now. No big deal.
Oh hey, ball, I’m just gonna slide across the ground and catch you now. No big deal.

Professional baseball players make the sport look easy. It’s not. Everything happens in fractions of a second: a batter decides to swing at a smallish ball traveling toward him at a speed faster than most cars are allowed to drive on a highway; a fielder decides how far to run in a particular direction for a catch, or at what trajectory he needs to throw the ball to his teammate; a pitcher suddenly hurls the ball to a baseman instead of the catcher in an attempt to throw a runner out. Watch the World Series game tonight if you don’t believe me. This game is hard. And yet, again, the pros make it look easy; or, more accurately, they make it look possible. When kids watch their heroes step up to the plate and knock a homerun out of the park, they often think to themselves, “I can do that.”

What those kids rarely realize is that the effortlessness they’re watching onscreen or in the ballpark is the result of years spent cultivating God-given athletic talent through training, hard work, discipline, and sacrifice. They’re watching the hours spent in the gym, the innumerable practices, the strict diet (in most cases), the intense spring training, the grueling travel schedule. They’re watching a lifetime of choosing one way over another for the sake of a desired goal. In other words, they’re watching a pretty good model for the life of Christian discipleship (you know, if you give the players the benefit of the doubt as far as performance-enhancing drugs and other illicit activities are concerned—it’s a good model, not a perfect one).

Where the model breaks down is precisely where it also breaks open. Whereas professional athletes, or musicians, or dancers, or actors, or teachers, or doctors all have specific God-given talents or capacities that they’ve chosen to cultivate through work and study, in the Christian life, God has capacitated everyone to become a disciple. Indeed, God has not only capacitated but called everyone to become a disciple, and not just any run-of-the-mill disciple, but a Major League Disciple—a saint. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

We read in Lumen Gentium of this “universal call to holiness,” that “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and the perfection of charity” (§40). Yet this sanctity is not something we can attain on our own through sheer capacity of will (sorry, Pelagius); that would be like someone with no athletic ability whatsoever dreaming that a career in Major League Baseball is possible if he simply eats enough Wheaties and works out enough. Rather, the capacity for sanctity is derived from the grace received in Baptism, from being grafted like a branch onto Christ the true vine. Just like the athlete or musician does not “earn” his or her natural capacities like height or a particular physical build, this grace—this capacity for discipleship and holiness and sainthood—is also a gift the Christian has not earned; yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, the fact that the Christian has not earned this grace in no way reduces its value. Quite the opposite. This is a “costly grace” (The Cost of Discipleship, ch.1), and the price is nothing less than the life of the beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Léon Bonnat, Christ on the Cross
Léon Bonnat, Christ on the Cross

Accepting this gift of costly grace costs us something, too. Just as imparting the gift of grace cost the Son of God his life on the Cross, so too does our receiving his gift of grace cost us our very lives: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23–24; see also Mt 16:24–25 and Mk 8:34–35). The professional athlete knows that growing in his or her ability means saying no to some things in order to say yes to others. To grow in holiness, we must follow Christ, and to follow Christ means we say yes to one way of life and no to all others; we must say yes to him who is The Way (cf. Jn 14:6). Grace costs, both in the giving and in the receiving, but, as any professional athlete will tell you, the price of pain is worth the prize of glory on the field, and how much more so for the Christian, whose prize is the glory of eternal life with God in heaven.

Just as the pros make baseball look easy, in the Christian life, too, we find outstanding examples of holiness who almost make following Jesus look easy. Some of these men and women have been canonized as saints, and as we prepare to celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints this Sunday, we have to be aware of the reality that, in recalling the lives of these canonized saints, or even in thinking back on the lives of those holy loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, it can be easy to look at them with the eyes of children watching their favorite baseball players at bat—to see only the seeming effortlessness of the saints and to forget that their faith only radiates the life of Christ because it has been tried and tested and purified by fire (cf. 1 Pet 1:6). The effortlessness we see when we look at the saints attests to the mystery that they have attained what T.S. Eliot describes as “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing nothing less than everything)” (“Little Gidding,” Four Quartets). Every day of the Christian life is a day in the crucible, but for those who persevere, for those who gaze at their Savior on the Cross and say, “I can do that” or better yet, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13), the glory of eternal life awaits.

Baseball is hard, but this is a good thing, for as Coach Jimmy Dugan reminds us in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” The reality is that, no matter how hard a person may try, not everyone has the physical, God-given capacities to play this sport well. The life of discipleship is infinitely harder, but it’s supposed to be hard, because Christ’s gift of self on the Cross that made this life possible was the hardest and greatest gift of all, and our only possible response to the gift of “costly grace” we receive in the waters of Baptism (where, as St. Paul reminds us, we are baptized into Christ’s death (cf. Rom 6:3)) is to offer in return a life of “costly discipleship”—a life that costs “nothing less than everything,” a life poured forth in love that gives unto the end. The hard is what makes it great. The hard is what makes us saints.

Practicing Easter: Building the Church

Hope BoettnerHope Bethany ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

Springtime means a number of things. It means the smell of freshly cut grass, the return of thunderstorms, and the bane of allergies. But this springtime through this reflection brings together two of my favorite things in a new way. It brings together a) baseball and b) a concrete example of a way that theological thought—the way we think about and grow in our faith—truly does impact our daily lives.

field-of-dreams-poster-artwork-kevin-costner-amy-madigan-james-earl-jonesThe connection here is a little more subtle than a church softball league, so I will explain. In the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams, a down-on-his-luck Iowa farmer begins (without really understanding why) building a baseball diamond in his cornfields. He is prompted to do this by a few rather mystical experiences, including the whispered, repeated phrase, “If you build it, he will come.”

My home diocese, the Diocese of Knoxville in Tennessee,  isn’t building a baseball diamond. But she is embarking on a building adventure of her own. This past weekend, members from all corners of the diocese (along with leaders of the wider Church) came together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the building project for a new Cathedral. Originally, when Pope John Paul II created the Diocese of Knoxville in 1988 by splitting it from Nashville, the already existing Sacred Heart Parish was chosen because of its size and central location to serve as the Cathedral parish. But the diocese has grown and changed in the last twenty-five years, and with it, the Cathedral parish demographics have increased and changed dramatically. In deciding to build a Cathedral, Catholics of East Tennessee are coming together to build; we are remembering and honoring the past and (short) history of our diocese and we are getting ready for the future, for a new chapter in which we will stand more on our own feet as a maturing diocese.

From left, Father David Boettner Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam, Governor Bill Haslam, Bishop Richard Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Cardinal William Levada participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.   (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
From left, Father David Boettner Tennessee First Lady Crissy Haslam, Governor Bill Haslam, Bishop Richard Stika, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and Cardinal William Levada participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

Although I was privileged to go home for the weekend and participate in the events associated with the groundbreaking, I have mostly been watching this entire process unfold from afar. My home diocese has been my home in many ways for nearly my whole life. As a daughter of the Diocese who loves her home, while living (in happy exile) away from home and majoring in Theology at Notre Dame, I have been geeking out quite a bit as it all transpires.

I am watching my home Church come together, work together, and learn together about why and how we think about our sacred spaces in the way that we do. I am seeing tutorials on the meaning behind church architecture reach people; I am watching as people transition from hesitancy about the need for a new Cathedral to excitement, pride, and willingness to go the distance and to be a part of this effort. I am seeing a countless number of individuals devote their time, their talents, and their efforts in order to make all of this happen. And most importantly, I am seeing first-hand the way that physically building a new Cathedral church is teaching, forming, and building up the Body of Christ in East Tennessee.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, greets guests at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.   (SAUL YOUNG/NEWS SENTINEL)
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, greets guests at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, April 19, 2015.

This weekend, I saw hundreds and hundreds of people work together and come together for this moment. (Apparently the final count was 1200 local folks, 12 bishops, 3 cardinals, a governor, and two mayors.) This time in Knoxville diocesan history clearly has become a teaching and formational moment. It has taught and re-taught us about our need to worship God rightly so that we may live rightly, not just as the parish of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but as the entire diocese and all of her members. The tagline of the Cathedral campaign itself packs a theological punch about this rightly ordered way of looking at church building: “Home, Where We Worship, Teach, and Serve.”Home-Campaign-Logo_RGB

Thinking about building, thinking about the seasons of life, and deciding to build has helped all of us who call ourselves a part of the diocese of Knoxville to realize that the Mass, the liturgy, and the life of the Church (both local and universal) is not simply about “we the people.” The Church is actually about the Trinity; the Church only exists because the love of the Trinity overflowed and continues to overflow to creation. God’s overflowing, self-giving, and ever-expanding love explains the basic fact of why we are here. But reflecting on God’s love also helps us understand the fitting priority list for our lives and that if we don’t worship rightly we cannot live rightly—and this is why I’m so proud of the “Worship, Teach, Serve” tagline.

Reflecting on worship and on what it means to build a fitting space for the “home base” of the Diocese (the baseball jokes continue) also means something else. It means that we realize our lives of faith mean more than the sense of community or feeling of belonging that we encounter when we gather for the liturgy. In the Mass and in other liturgies, we (the people of God) participate and pray in hope and in confidence of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us.

But we ourselves, though we are the people and the assembly of God, are not actually the main focus of the liturgy. The Mass and the liturgical life of the Church is not meant to inspire and entertain us, so that we come back next time for more. The liturgical life of the Church is meant to take all of us up into the love of the Trinity, so that we glorify our Creator and are strengthened by the sacraments in order that we may then go out and participate in the work of the Trinity. We do this by helping to sanctify the world with Christ’s love and Christ’s beauty. Paraphrasing Mother Teresa, we make something beautiful for God by our lives and our loves.

Design of the interior of the Cathedral
Design of the interior of the Cathedral

There’s a pertinent phrase in liturgical theology “lex orandi, lex credendi” that can help us think about this. It means that the law of prayer is the law of belief, or more colloquially, what we say in prayer reflects what we truly believe. Building decisions with churches and with this cathedral extends this “lex orandi, lex credendi” to “lex aedificandi, lex credendi.”  Aedificandi means build, and so what we build and the way we build it reflects what we believe, too. In his book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis McNamara says that “architecture is the built form of ideas; church architecture is the built form of theology. As go the ideas, so goes the architecture . . . all architectural decisions are theological decisions.”

Actually, the self-gift (kenosis) of Christ on the Cross forever changed the way that we see our lives and think about beauty. Because Christ’s gift of Himself to the point of death transformed even the worst suffering into the opportunity to give and in that giving to become something beautiful for God, everything in our lives can be transformed by Christ’s work on our behalf. Here and now, in our local churches, we have a chance to give of ourselves, in our daily life. This occurs for Christians all over the world in a significant way through the celebration of the liturgy. By investing prayer, thought, time, energy, and our own personal resources into the building of our local churches (both physically and metaphorically) we also participate in another way in that mystery of self-gift and self-emptying in order to help build the Kingdom of God in new ways.**

In the book Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer, this theological understanding that what we build and the way we build it says something about what we believe is inferred from the title itself. Kieckhefer also makes the comment that

“art in a religious setting can serve as a sacrament of grace, and the capacity to see oneself as worthy of beauty is one dimension of recognizing oneself as by grace made worthy for grace—the sole condition for beginning to receive it” (99).

New Dome 041415(1)Our churches should be fitting, beautiful places for God to be housed, where we can enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Faith so that we can recognize that we are called to be where God is—because God is worthy of the beautiful. And since God is the author and source of all beauty, and since our ultimate call is to become more like God, we are worthy to sit and contemplate God’s love and God’s beauty in beautiful places so that in better understanding God’s beauty we can go into the world and share that beauty.

So how is a building project or thinking about building up and supporting a local church practicing Easter?

Many of our first readings in the Lectionary this time of the year are drawn from the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the stories of the early Church growing and building, coming together to break bread and to hear the Word of God. In East Tennessee, we are building and re-building our growing local church, so that we may have a place to come together as an entire diocese. Like the members of the early Church, we do this so that we may hear the Word of God in the Scriptures and break bread together in the Eucharist. The book of Ecclesiastes helps us think about this in another way highlighting tbe seasonal, liturgical factor of life.  There is a season for everything. The season of spring is baseball season, like I mentioned earlier. But in East Tennessee this year, spring is also church-building season. It is a stone-moving season, and a planting season for the seeds of faith.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together” (Eccl 3:1–5a)

1397951614000-ghostfieldAt the end of his own season of building in Field of Dreams,  Ray Kinsella realizes that his baseball diamond building project was not about the baseball players who came, or the field for its own sake. Instead, it was actually about re-building his relationship with his own father, through a simple coming together in playing a game of catch.  At the end of Field of Dreams, Ray is asked by his father, “Is this heaven?” Ray responds by stammering out, “…This.. it’s… it’s Iowa…”

In the movie Field of Dreams, because of his building project, Ray experiences the healing and growth of relationships in his life, including his father. The comparison with the Cathedral project in Knoxville wasn’t meant to be trite. Because in the building and completion of a Cathedral for the Church in East Tennessee (or anywhere where the people of God continue to build) we see a closer glimpse into the call of our eternal relationships with our Heavenly Father and with each other.  Our Father in Heaven wants much more than the time spent in a game of catch with us; He wants time with us for  all of eternity. The glimpses of that heavenly call  show us little glances of the beauty of God’s image for the world in His new, restored creation made possible for us by Christ’s defeat of death and promise of eternal life.

East Tennessee isn’t heaven. But I swear,  sometimes, it is pretty close. And I do think that the new Cathedral, upon its completion, will be a little bit like a glimpse into heaven.




**We obviously do this too by the way we serve the wider people of God. The website for the campaign, http://www.sacredheartcampaign.org/, puts it this way: “While we aspire to glorify God through our worship, we plan to continue our work to help the poor. The Diocese of Knoxville provides over $6 million in ongoing charitable services to the poor and marginalized every year. Over the next 5 years, we will have spent more on charitable initiatives than we will have spent on the building of the cathedral.”


For more information, visit:

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus website: http://shcathedral.org

Diocescan Website: http://dioknox.org/ ; also http://dioknox.org/32538/ground-broken-for-new-sacred-heart-cathedral/

McCrery Architects: http://www.mccreryarchitects.com/


The Joy of Fishing

Samuel Bellafiore
Undergraduate Fellow
B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance

Gregorian chant is a funny thing. There are New Age folks who don’t stop buying chant recordings. There are chant geeks like me, who love singing it and a significant minority whose t-shirts have chant on the front. There’s a middle ground of people who definitely appreciate it but do not hear it much. And there’s the rest, a group in which everyone finds themselves at some point, to whom chant sounds old, boring, and obtrusively foreign. Thence the conventional wisdom that associates chant with dirges, crabby old monks, and Monty Python.

003v_altI was definitely there before I got the opportunity to start singing chant at Mass each week in freshman year. Then I began realizing there was something more. For those who get to sing or hear it regularly at Mass, there is often a discovery of ever-unfolding reasons why chant is so appropriate for the Church’s prayer.

For those who encounter chant often, perhaps the greatest surprise is its utter joy. A great example is the entrance chant or introit for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time. For every Mass there is a set of chants (the entrance, psalm, alleluia, offertory and Communion) that follow and shed light on the liturgical year and readings. In some cases these chants have been sung at a particular Mass (e.g., Pentecost) for over 1000 years! The Third Sunday’s entrance chant follows the progression of readings in early Ordinary Time, recounting Jesus’ early ministry. To accompany the entrance procession, it sings Matthew’s version of the Gospel from Mark 1:

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,
he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew,
Jesus said to them, “Come after me,
and I will make you fishers of men.”

Take a listen.

A lot of the beauty of this chant comes from this little guy, called a torculus.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 11.07.12 AM

It’s a figure that occurs pretty often in chant. Its upward leap expresses exaltation and its little descent, a little repose. It appears in the most common chant version of the Magnificat, where it emphasizes “My soul magnifies the Lord.” If you try singing that little figure, you can get a sense of the excitement (and maybe nervous fear) it communicates. It appears four times in this chant. Once on the second line in “duos fratres” (two brothers); three other times in the phrase, I will make you fishers of men, in “vos” (you) and “piscatores” (fishers).

This chant reminds me of the call to discipleship. The whole chant wanders around lots of different notes, resembling both the rolling sea where Jesus was walking and the life of discipleship, which so often seems uncertain.

That last line of the chant, I will make you fishers of men, won’t stop moving around. It settles on the first note of “vos” (you) but then jumps up and reposes. “Fieri” (will make) is stretched out and maybe a st-andrew-the-first-called-Duccio-di-Buoninsegnalittle turbulent, like the path of learning to follow the Lord. And the torculus occurs twice in “piscatores” (fishers). It might signal how repetitive and boring discipleship can get. (Despite my efforts to promote chant, sometimes prayer just is boring.) Or it could be a reminder that once one hears the call it can be hard to keep still. An unavoidable centrifugal push comes from the uncontainable call to “go out to all the world.” (Mk 16:15)

There’s a great joy and a great uncertainty in this “sober inebriation of the Spirit,” a phrase Josef Ratzinger borrows in The Spirit of the Liturgy from St. Ambrose. Ratzinger uses the phrase to describe worship. It also describes evangelization. At the moment of Peter’s call, the unpredictability in this chant is a musical version of Christ’s later warning to Peter that someone “will lead you where you do not want to go.” (Jn 21:18)

This all gave me pause as I travelled to Washington, D.C. recently to participate in the March for Life. After my first trip there freshman year, I have had consistently mixed feelings about the March. The parts I enjoy most are the praying—the Rosary on the bus or on the March, Mass that morning, the hidden adoration chapel I discovered at the parish where we stay—but most of the March is not particularly prayerful. Though usually in the best ways, it’s crowded, exuberant, and little noisy. I’d rather be quiet. The March has also struck me as almost totally ineffective at producing any sort of change and anything more than a peep of media coverage.

I too easily fall into the utilitarian mindset I show up to protest. But I’m not always sure why I s23contahow up. I’ve learned the last few years that  if I don’t sign up, inevitably someone will encourage me at the last minute and I won’t have much reason to say no. So I follow, knowing where I’m going but never really why.

Two homilies I heard while in Washington, D.C. gave me fresh insight on why it might be worth marching. In one of them, I heard the March is above all an expression of joy at life. Indeed the marching crowds that sometimes put me off are very full of joy. In the other, delivered at Mass on the morning of the March, Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, told over 700 students and faculty from Notre Dame, St. Mary’s College, and Holy Cross College that we march with and because of the knowledge that Christ has already triumphed over death. The Prayer over the Offerings for the day said:

Accept our humble offerings,
O Lord of the living,
and unite us to the perfect sacrifice of your Son,
through whom you have made all creation new.
(Roman Missal,
Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life)

Those insights sent me to the March with a different perspective. It was comforting that perhaps I went in joy and peace more than in protest, though I still shudder at the slightest hints of legislative apathy in this. It made it easy to join a number of my friends in singing psalms and hymns during the March.

It reminded me that, despite the uncertainty Peter and Andrew must have felt at Christ’s call, there is a certainty in His triumph. I hesitate to believe it, but this and this only is definitive triumph. Despite the tumult and confusion at any moment of discipleship, there is also joy in God’s inexorable peace and love.

So I can make my humble offering of a quick walk to the Supreme Court, knowing, as the entrance chant for the Third Sunday exclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of the God: and the firmament shows forth the works of his hands” (Ps 19:2). And the very next verses of Psalm 19 say, “No speech, no word, no voice is heard yet their span extends through all the earth, their words to the utmost bounds of the world” (vs 3–4). No act of faith, no matter how little media coverage it receives, fails to glorify the living God, the Word who has come down and will not go back void.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.55.22 PM
The Oblation undergraduate fellows share some March for Life joy.

Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of Gospel Joy

Esther TerryEsther Terry
Program Director, Camino
STEP, Institute for Church Life

As a relatively new Catholic, I admit that I occasionally experience moments of discomfort with the Church’s Marian doctrines. But in spite of any former-Protestant-qualms about the Blessed Mother, I have always loved Our Lady of Guadalupe. In her apparition on the margins of Mexico City, “La Guadalupana” leads us to reflect on the Incarnation of her Son and what this means for the evangelization of culture. Her apparition also invites us to follow Christ as “missionary disciples” who show special preference for the poor and vulnerable.

Evangelization of culture, missionary discipleship, and the preferential option for the poor are themes emphasized by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, in which he quotes Our Lady of Guadalupe, recognizing Mary as the “Mother of the Living Gospel” and “the Star of the New Evangelization” (§§284–288). GuadalupeIt seems fitting, as we celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, to read Evangelii Gaudium with an eye towards her sixteenth-century appearance at Tepeyac. With her, may we “treasure these things and ponder them in our hearts” (cf. Lk 2:19) and may we undergo a deepening and ongoing conversion of our mindsets and actions.

First, Our Lady of Guadalupe invites us to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation and what it implies for our understanding of culture. When the Second Person of the Trinity took on human flesh, he did so at a particular time, in a particular place, with a particular people. Jesus entered human history, joined himself to human culture, and in doing so, affirmed their created goodness. Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego as a pregnant maiden, clothed in native clothing and speaking Nahuatl, not only points to the Incarnation in her expectant state, but also in the way her message becomes incarnate in Nahua language and cultural symbols. For example, in Nahua cosmology, “flower and song” represent divine revelation or ultimate truth. (See Fr. Virgil Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation (Orbis Books, 1997), 34–35.) This gives deeper meaning to the fact that Our Lady appears to Juan Diego on the hill accompanied by beautiful singing and then leaves him flowers as proof for the bishop.

Fr. Virgil Elizondo argues that the New Evangelization in the Americas began with Our Lady of Guadalupe (Ibid., 76). She is an evangelizer of culture; her apparition and message to Juan Diego affirm the beauty of Nahua language, symbols and practices, while uplifting and transforming them, infusing them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, as Pope Francis reminds us, “Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it. . . Whenever a community receives the message of salvation, the Holy Spirit enriches its culture with the transforming power of the Gospel” (EG §§115, 116).

So Our Lady of Guadalupe represents “evangelization as inculturation” (EG §122), and perhaps this is why her apparition in the Americas has prompted unprecedented participation in popular devotional practices. It’s worth noting that Pope Francis encourages these popular devotions because he recognizes them as incarnational. They lead people to encounter Jesus Christ, to experience palpable relationships with the Church in the communion of saints: “Genuine forms of popular religiosity are incarnate, since they are born of the incarnation of Christian faith in popular culture” (EG §90). How fitting that the expectant mother of the Incarnate Word should play such a role in the gospel’s taking flesh in Nahua culture.

If Our Lady of Guadalupe is a model for the evangelization of cultures, she is also a model “missionary disciple.” Even as Mary “set out and traveled to the hill country in haste” (Lk 1:39) to visit and help her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, to share with her the joy and mystery of the annunciation, we meet Mary again in “the hill country” of Tepeyac, an expectant mother with a joyful, mysterious message to share with Juan Diego. This “missionary impulse” draws her out to the periphery of society, leading her first to a man among “the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked” (EG §48). In this way, she imitates her Son’s compassionate preference for the poor and attention to the lowly. By her native appearance and gentle words, Mary identifies herself with the poverty and simplicity of the peasant and conveys to him the “meaning, beauty and attractiveness” at the heart of the gospel (EG §34).

Our Lady not only models missionary discipleship, but also invites us to join her in mission, even as she sent Juan Diego on a mission to the Bishop of Mexico City. She affirms the dignity, value, and missionary capacity of a poor person whom others despise. When Juan Diego attempts to carry out his mission, people of influence try to stop him, and when he repeats the Lady’s request to build a shrine on Tepeyac, Bishop Zumárraga hesitates and insists on more evidence. Of course we know how the story ends, that Guadalupe miraculously heals Juan Diego’s uncle, provides him with Spanish roses, and leaves her own image on the tilma as proofs for the bishop. But have we ever considered how our own attitudes and lives often mirror those of the bishop? How often do we ignore God’s presence and promptings when we encounter them in unexpected places or in unlikely people?

Perhaps this is why Pope Francis invites us to open ourselves to the evangelizing work of the poor in our midst:

We need to let ourselves be evangelized by [the poor]. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them. (EG §198)

As we remember Our Lady of Guadalupe this Advent, as we participate in popular devotions and wait with her in hopeful expectation of her Son’s birth, let us pray for renewed boldness and creativity in proclaiming the good news of salvation to our culture. May we open ourselves to friendship with the poor and allow them to evangelize us, offering new insights into the Gospel. May Our Lady lead us to conversion, to a fresh encounter with Jesus, in whom “joy is constantly born anew” (EG §1).

Do Not Be Afraid: The Spiritual Legacy of Saint John Paul II

Chris LabadieChris Labadie

MA Candidate, Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary

Director of Liturgy, Saint John’s University Campus Ministry


Every Sunday afternoon I gather with a couple of the undergraduates who work in our Campus Ministry office for liturgy planning. We pray the collect of the Sunday which we are planning, we go around the circle reading what the lectionary offers us, and then I open with a question, “What are your thoughts?” What I want is for these young students to get used to actually listening to what they are hearing in the weekly readings. As they listen and make connections I want them to be able to voice those connections by offering thematic possibilities for hymns, choral pieces, and ritual SaintJohnsUniversityactions that will serve our campus community well in the liturgy. What I invariably get are a couple moments of silence as I look from person to person, trying to catch their eye. Finally, as if in pain, someone mumbles a thought in the form of a question: “Something about sheep?” That triggers someone else to offer the idea of God as a shepherd, leading and protecting his flock. The ideas can begin to flow more freely at this point and the planning can really begin.

At a recent meeting of this liturgy planning team one of our youngest members, a freshman, looked like she really had some idea to share. I poked and prodded until the student finally offered the suggestion of a piece they thought might work for the liturgy we were planning. It was a piece that I too had been thinking about and I told them as much, hoping to encourage further suggestions. I asked why there was such hesitancy whenever I asked for suggestions and the response I received was one that I have heard in many of my interactions as a campus minister: “I didn’t want to sound stupid.” Most everyone encounters this feeling at some point in their lives, perhaps especially those of us engaged in ministry! What if we say something wrong? What if someone thinks our opinion is worthless or is offended by what we say? It can be a paralyzing fear, and it sure seemed to be for these students when it came to liturgy planning. I know that in my own experience of ministry there have been times when I was paralyzed by the fear of doing or saying something that was wrong. I am positive that some great moments of grace, some great moments of encountering Christ, have been missed because I was too afraid to make a misstep. But what is worse, being so unable to take the risk that we let the moment of grace pass us by, or taking the risk by reaching out for that encounter with Christ even if we do not find what we were expecting?

This week we celebrated the first liturgical feast of Saint John Paul II. In an unusual liturgical phenomenon his feast day is not celebrated on the day of his death but on the anniversary of the inauguration of his pontificate, October 22. On that day in 1978 the new Pope offered the homily which in many ways would come to define the message of his pontificate. He knew that the young JPIIPopegeneration of people around the world were in a state of flux after almost two decades of social change. Many were unsure what role Christ had in their lives. They were paralyzed with the fear that if they followed Christ they might be ostracized. The Holy Father challenged that all with four simple words: Do not be afraid. He challenged the young people of the world to be open to Christ, even when the political, economic, and cultural situations would say otherwise. Do not be afraid. It is only when we are open to Christ that we are able to overcome the paralyzing fears that can plague us – in ministry, in our relationships, in offering a hymn suggestion at a liturgy planning meeting.

This is the message that I have tried to take to heart in my own ministry, and it was the message that I offered to the student that day: Do not ever be afraid to offer something, to speak up, to put yourself forward. It is the only way that we are going to have those moments of grace. It is the only way that we are going to encounter Christ in one another. The student was able to offer a few more suggestions during the meeting and has been more open in subsequent interactions. I hope that all of us can have experiences that build confidence in the knowledge that when we offer something of ourselves to others in the name of Christ we can never be stupid, we can never fail. Do not be afraid.


Say What You Really Mean: The Common Language of the Church

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 11.03.46 PMTimothy J. Kenney ’14

MTS Candidate, Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

When I was in 3rd grade I was confronted with the reality of my “expressional” ignorance. After a hard math lesson in which we were first exposed to the imposing object known as the multiplication table, I was informed that I was to report to a room down the hall where a week earlier the entire class had met one on one with the Speech teacher. When I got to the room I was confused when told I would be starting Speech classes for my lisp. “What lithp?” I asked. I was so confused because I had no idea what the teacher was talking about when she patiently explained to me that the way I pronounced my words was different than everyone else. “I don’t think I thound different.” I remained indignant until I met my Mom at the bus stop and she confirmed that, though I knew all the notes, I was not playing the same tune as everyone else.

And so I returned to class every week determined to amend my speaking issues. After all, The West Wing had just started its run on NBC a few weeks before all this and I had set my heart on being president some day. I had to be able to communicate with people. Despite the added challenge that in fixing my lisp I developed a reverse lisp (I worked so hard on “s” not sounding like “th” that my “th” started to sound like an “s,” prolonging Speech class well into the spring semester), I am proud to say I now speak as clearly as possible given that I mutter everything.Kid President

There are a lot of words, many of them quite large, that I don’t know. I have never had much of a handle, for example, on the proper meaning of the word “irony.” I thought I did for a long time and was quite content with how I used it. My personal definition does not, however, change the fact that things I call ironic are in fact not even close. Is my usage of irony ironic? I’m honestly asking here, like I said I haven’t a clue how to really use it. This definition seems to limit what I can say. There is something I am trying to express and I am told that the word I thought summed up a situation is in fact completely unrelated. In much the same way, most of the time people literally use the word “literally” in a completely different way than its intended.

Why did I have to correct my lisp? Why can I not use “ironic” or “literally” the way I want? Why should I listen to other people when they correct my means of expression? Who is to say there is not something wrong with everyone else and not me? It’s not my speaking that is the problem but their hearing. We all feel this tension at times, probably daily, in our own way. We resent others for telling us what to do or expressing their ideas, opinions, and vision of reality that run counter to how we want things to work. We want to say no to “the way things are” and make things the way we want them to be. It is a sentiment as old as Eden.Matrix

The Church calls us out of this self-oriented approach to the world and into community with those around us. Instead of responding with aggravation or resentment, we are called to express ourselves through love. Love witnesses and appreciates what is special and unique in others and seeks community with them. The Church does not call us to silent obedience or to live identical lives, but rather to express our quirks and differences using a common language. When Christians share their unique gifts through the language of virtue and orient their lives toward Christ and his Church, we make this love present. To express ourselves as part of the community and choose not to, as Avery Cardinal Dulles describes it, exalt in personal autonomy, we need a communal understanding through which we can communicate. By using shared means of expression such as prayer, the sacraments, and a creed of common beliefs, we can understand one another and in turn grow with one another in our relationship with God.

I no longer speak with a lisp because I accepted in my own 9 year old way that to be a member of my community I needed to be able to express myself in its own language. There are still times when I get tongue-tied, especially when speaking in front of a lot of people or in class discussions, and the lisp makes a brief return, but even then I am usually the only one who can hear it. And despite my best efforts, I literally could not pick an ironic statement off a page if you paid me. Following the grammar and language of our community can be challenging, but I still embrace the power and possibility contained in expression. Using this language that confuses me as a vehicle for understanding theology, faith, and God, I have found that the biggest words are not in fact the hardest to define. The most profoundly beautiful things are often expressed in the simplest terms. “This is my body.” “Peace be with you.” “Behold the man.” “Amen.” There is a mystery tied up in these words that gives them deeper meaning that we could ever fully grasp. What the Church does offer us, however, is a place to start, from which the possibilities are literally endless.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

Contact Author

If I happened to be the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (a hypothesis that I consider far too often), the Transfiguration upon Mount Tabor would have been a rather regular event. I would have climbed that mountain at least once a week, inviting all those hostile to my mission to perceive who I really was. In fact, why limit the Transfiguration to Mount Tabor?   When engaged in hostile discourse with those who could not see me as the Messiah, who refused to allow the love of God to extend to those on the margins, why not shine like the sun as proof of my identity as the Word made flesh? When the disciples asked who would be the greatest in the kingdom, why not call down the voice of the Father? Transfiguration-Fra AngelicoI would teach my disciples through a pedagogy of bedazzlement, of awe and fear, that their line of questioning was at best problematic. They would come to know my deepest identity through my constant glory, through the light that emerged from my whole existence.

Of course, we know that Jesus Christ does not perform the mystery of the Transfiguration as a way of overpowering human freedom, of overcoming our wills through a glory that conquers us. On Mount Tabor, he reveals his identity as the Son, as the one whose face is ever turned to the Father in total self-giving love. Jean Corbon writes:

We must certainly enter into mystery of committed love
if we are to understand that the Transfiguration is not
an impossible unveiling of the light of the Word to the eyes
of the Apostles, but rather a moment of intensity
in which the entire being of Jesus is utterly united
with the compassion of the Father.
During these decisive days of his life He becomes transparent
to the light of the love of the One who gives himself to men
for their salvation. If, then, Jesus is transfigured,
the reason is that the Father causes his own joy to flame out in him.
The radiance of the light in the suffering body of Jesus is, as it were,
the thrill experienced by the Father in response
to the total self-giving of his only Son.
This explains the voice that pierces through the cloud:  ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him’ (Mt. 17:5)
(Jean Corbon,
The Wellspring of Worship, 93).

TransfigurationThe Son’s glory is not a matter of overwhelming power, of shocking Peter, James, and John to believe even in the midst of the darkness. The Son exists as gift, as one whose glory is most fully manifested not merely in the luminous character of Mount Tabor but on the darkness of Calvary in which he reveals to the world the depths of divine compassion. Mount Tabor provides the lens that we might use to notice that it is the beloved Son, the one who finds favor with the Father, who gives himself up for the life of the world. The one who converses intimately with Moses and Elijah is the very same one who offers his will to the Father, who transforms human life into a Eucharistic offering of gift.

Transfiguration iconOf course, this manifestation of love does not conclude with the Ascension of the Son into heaven. As adopted daughters and sons of God through baptism, as those whose lives are being formed into the image of the Son, the glory of Mount Tabor continues even now. It continues among those young adults who discover the gift of the Christian life as a pattern of discipleship, which does not seek power and prestige, fame and fortune, but love unto the end. It continues among those who dedicate themselves to the quiet art of discipleship, whose gift of Christian charity is never noticed by the world. It continues among those who look into the eyes of the poor, the sick, those suffering from loneliness and despair and who offer the kindness of a presence learned through the prodigal logic of the Gospel. It continues among those who see death not as an obstacle to avoid at all costs but as the last mystery of a life configured to the Cross. The light of the Transfiguration shines out in our parishes, in our schools, in every place that the logic of self-giving love slowly conquers the darkness, in which God’s compassion becomes our own.

The Transfiguration is thus not a remote mystery, an event experienced by three disciples in the Holy Land thousands of years ago. Instead, the mystery of the Transfiguration offers a vision of the Christian life as a glorious hiddenness; in which our truest identities are nothing less than adopted children of the living God. Indeed, for us, the Transfiguration continues not simply on Mount Tabor. But in South Bend, in Chicago, in New York City and Los Angeles. It continues because there are those who allow themselves to be conformed to the self-giving love of the Son, of a life offered to the Father to the end. When we enter our parish church, when we head out into the world to live our vocations as sons and daughters of the Triune God, we climb up Mount Tabor to receive a glimpse of the hidden glory of the God who freely loves unto the end:

Therefore, since each of us possesses God in his heart
and is being transformed into his divine images,
we also should cry out with joy:
It is good for us to be here—here where all things shine
with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. For here, in our hearts,
Christ takes up his abode together with the Father,
saying as he enters: 
Today salvation has come to this house.
With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him,
we see reflected as in a mirror both the firstfruits
and the whole of the world to come (Anastasius of Sinai).

Transfiguration-RaphaelIt is good for us to be here, to be among those whose lives are conformed to the Son, precisely because even in the midst of the hidden life of the disciple, we taste sacramentally the joy of eternal life. Of that moment in which we ourselves will shimmer like the sun in the eternal courts of heaven; not out of any innate power we have received but because our whole lives will have become self-gift. To the one formed to see the world in this manner, this moment is available to us even now.

This is my beloved Son, listen to him.

The Song of the Gospel: Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Contact Author

Editorial Note: This series is not meant to be a commentary on the practices or ministry of liturgical music per se. Rather, its goal is to examine recent hymn texts in the light of Scripture, in the hopes of bringing to light new ways of reflecting on the Gospel for each Sunday.

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time; Matthew 5:38-48
Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on the one who wants to borrow.

“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

To Love Just Those Who Love You (Worship, 4th edition #743)
Text: Rae E. Whitney (b. 1927), ©1995, Selah Publishing Co., Inc.

Reprinted with permission of GIA Publications.

To love just those who love you is rarely hard to do,
For even unbelievers love those who love them too.
But you must love, said Jesus, those you don’t care about,
And feed them if they’re hungry, though you then go without. 

To laugh with those who please you and share a simple joy
Is diff’rent than enduring the people who annoy.
And those you hate, said Jesus, or wound you deep within,
Are still your Father’s children and must be claimed as kin. 

Since Christ is Truth and Teacher, the Day Star and the Day,
The Life and our Lifegiver, Wayfarer and the Way,
If you would come, said Jesus, and my companion be,
In love and joy and suff’ring, you’ll walk God’s path with me.

The first two verses of this hymn text follows a fairly common structural pattern: the first half of the verse is devoted to scriptural exegesis, the second half is a pedagogical moment in which the exegesis is translated into an applicable form, made relevant for the daily life of the person singing the hymn. The final verse departs from the specificity of the Scripture text, the Person of Jesus Himself provides the content for the exegetical portion, and the whole of the Gospel—including the call to discipleship—provides the content for the pedagogical portion. As we will see with this text, this structure constitutes an incredibly ambitious scope for so few syllables, words, and lines, and at times, the enormity of the task results in a compromise of either the theological or the poetic depth.

Last week’s discussion on the kind of elevated, timeless language often utilized in hymn texts serves as a helpful precursor in beginning to delve into the text above. “To Love Just Those Who Love You” comes across as an example of a hymn text that is too big for its meter; in other words, the theological ideas the author wishes to convey are too expansive for the number of syllables within this metrical framework. The result is that there are some moments of potentially profound theological insight that have been straitjacketed by the number of syllables allowed per line, and the author is forced to use contractions and/or colloquialisms in order to fit the square peg of what she wishes to say theologically into the round hole of the meter of the hymn tune.

Absent the use of quotation marks throughout the hymn, it’s unclear as to whether or not the author wishes us to hear the first two lines of the first two verses as coming from the mouth of Jesus, or if it’s only the third and fourth lines. (The third verse contains no such ambiguity with its commentary on the Person of Jesus in the first two lines.) Regardless, the first two lines of the first two verses are a rephrasing and an expansion of the Gospel text; the entire first verse lies within the parameters of a more literal restatement of Matthew 5:43-48, while the second verse brings a more contemporary interpretation to the Gospel message. AnnoyanceThe author expands the idea of love and compassion beyond that of overcoming hatred for one’s enemies to include even extending love toward those who merely “annoy”, which is, perhaps, even more difficult to do. Loving one’s enemies, given its broad scope, carries a nobility within it; whereas loving the people who annoy pierces to the heart of what is most mundane and real in everyday life. (How difficult is it to say to the person who just cut you off in traffic, “I love you”?) The unexpected use of the word “annoy” places this hymn squarely in a modern context—this is perhaps the only text I’ve come across where this particular word is used. Some might find this linguistic usage jarring, or even, ironically, annoying, yet this bringing of the Gospel message into the mundanity of everyday life fulfills an important catechetical task. The love Christ commands us to extend is not simply intended for one’s enemies. In fact, for those who don’t consider themselves to have any “enemies,” the word—and by extension, the teaching—may be relegated to the world of the abstract. Yet with the second verse, the author expands on Christ’s teaching to make it more applicable to the everyday lives of those who may find themselves in a pew on Sunday morning, who may even find themselves annoyed with those in the pew in front of them for chit-chatting to one another during the parts of the Mass intended for silent prayer or for nodding off during the homily. Moreover, the second half of verse two drives home this point, particularly through the use of the word “kin”, unusual in hymn texts (though not entirely out of place) because of its more archaic usage. In one verse, the author has brought disparate linguistic elements together in order to create a strong theological message. All people—from those we “hate” to those who “wound…deep within,” even to those who simply “annoy”—are all children of God, and for those who call themselves followers of his Son Jesus, such people “must be claimed as kin.”

The final verse provides a departure from the structure of the preceding verses, stepping away from a restatement of the Gospel and even from an expansion on its teaching to a reflection on the Person of Jesus Christ, and how the call to love one’s enemies is encapsulated in His life and in His call to discipleship. Golgatha - Edvard MunchChrist is “Truth… Teacher… Day Star… Day… Life… Lifegiver… Wayfarer… and Way”, who in His life—particularly in His Passion and Death—fulfilled to the end His command to love His enemies, thus showing His followers that such love was possible, even in the most horrific of circumstances. It is this love to which Jesus calls those who would be His “companions”. His love for all led Jesus down the path of “joy and suff’ring,” and in this love, He continues to walk beside His disciples on their pilgrim journey, providing the perfect example of love freely offered to all people, friends and enemies alike. Moreover, Jesus strengthens us, His disciples, with food for the journey in the gift of the Eucharist, and through this Communion, He transforms us into Himself. By receiving in the Eucharist the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Him who is love incarnate, we are then capacitated to follow His example and pour ourselves forth in love for all people, friends and enemies alike.

The Song of the Gospel: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Contact Author


Editorial Note: This series is not intended to be a commentary on the practices or ministry of liturgical music per se. Rather, its goal is to examine recent hymn texts in the light of Scripture, in the hopes of bringing to light new ways of reflecting on the Gospel for each Sunday.

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time; Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus said to his disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”

Build Your City on a Hill (Worship, 4th edition #741)
Text: Sylvia G. Dunstan (1953-1993), ©1991, GIA Publications, Inc.

Reprinted with permission. 

Build your city on the hill,
For it must not be hidden!
As Christ’s body living still,
Bear witness as you’re bidden.

Set your lamp upon the stand;
Do not conceal its glowing!
In the night the waiting land
Rejoices with its showing. 

Salt is found within the earth,
And in the bread is leaven.
Bland and stale they have no worth,
But fresh they lift to heaven. 

Lamp and city, salt and yeast
Are signs of grace and favor.
As the people of the Feast
We glorify our Savior.

The first verse of this hymn text is an interesting amalgamation of Gospel paraphrase and exhortation. It’s unusual in a hymn text to find a direct address to the worshiping assembly. Often, hymn texts are written from the perspective of the faithful in direct address to God, either expressly praising him for his innumerable gifts to us (“O God, beyond all praising, we worship you today”), or praying for continued graces to be poured out on us and on the earth (“Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heav’n to earth come down!”). Thus, when the word “you” appears in a hymn text, its referent is either God generally or a Person of the Trinity specifically. Should the word “you” be used as a referent to the gathered assembly, it is often within the context of a passage from Scripture or a poetic address from God (or again, a specific Person of the Trinity, often Jesus Christ). The well-known refrain of “I Am the Bread of Life” exemplifies both of these descriptors; the word “you” refers to the assembly singing the hymn, the speaker in this case is Jesus, and the text is based on the words of John 6:40: “…and I will raise you up on the last day”.  In the case of the hymn text above, the second person address is ambiguous. The phrase “bear witness as you’re bidden” is clearly an exhortation to the faithful, reminding them of Jesus’ command in the Gospel to allow one’s light of faith to “shine before others”; however, the identity of the one bidding us to do so is unclear. The first two lines seem to suggest that Jesus might be speaking to us, as they are adapted from the Gospel passage: City on a Hill“Build your city on a hill, / for it must not be hidden.” At this point, it is natural to hear these words as coming from Jesus. However, the third line diminishes the clarity of who has been doing the talking thus far: “As Christ’s body living still…”. Now, it no longer seems likely that Jesus is the speaker, since it would be awkward linguistically for Him to refer to Himself in the third person. If the author had intended Jesus as the speaker of the first two lines, the third line would have read “As my body living still” or something to that effect. So by the time we reach the exhortation of the fourth line to “bear witness as you’re bidden”, we understand that someone is addressing us to bear witness to our faith, but we’re not quite sure who it is. I would posit that the “speaker” in this first verse is actually the members of the worshiping community, who are exhorting one another to remain steadfast in the commitment to live as witnesses to the faith. Another possibility (admittedly a bit of a stretch) is to interpret the “speaker” in this instance as those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. This would lend a new dimension of depth to the line about “Christ’s body, living still”; those who are able to bear witness to the world are those who are still alive in the world, and they are encouraged now by their brothers and sisters who have completed their earthly pilgrimage. Ambiguity aside, the first verse, as previously stated, is part recap of the Gospel text and part exhortation, and regardless of who is bidding us as the worshiping assembly, the command itself is clear: as members of the Body of Christ in the world, we are called to bear witness to the faith.

Verse two continues this pattern of combining a recap of the Gospel with an exhortation, this time in the first two lines of text: “Set your lamp upon the stand; / Do not conceal its glowing!”. These lines draw on the image of the lampstand from the Gospel as a means of unpacking Jesus’ command, “you must your light must shine before others”. In the Gospel, the context for the lampstand was an observation: Lamp on a Stand“Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house” (Mt 5:5). In this second verse of the hymn text, the author has interpreted the worshiping community as the “they” of whom Jesus speaks in the Gospel. By virtue of baptism, each Christian has received the light of Christ; thus the baptismal candle (and the life to which it summons all the faithful) is the lamp that must be set on a stand so as to “[give] light to all in the house”. Those who fulfill the exhortation to “set [their] lamp upon the stand” by witnessing to Christ the true light (cf. Jn 1:9) will become a source of light and gladness to the world: “In the night the waiting land / Rejoices with its showing.”

Verse three contains linguistic ambiguity that makes various interpretations possible. If one reads the first two lines with the word “and” serving as a conjunction for two distinct clauses, there is no issue. The second line is simply a poetic inversion of the subject/verb pattern, thus the two lines together would simply be understood as: “Salt is found in the earth, and leaven is found in bread.” However, this poetic inversion complicates things, for it is also possible to interpret the word “leaven” not as a noun and subject of a second independent clause, but as an adjective modifying the subject “salt.” This second reading results in a kind of mixed metaphor: “Salt…in the bread is leaven.” Regardless of which reading one favors, the Gospel passage above on which this hymn text is based makes no mention of leaven; that image is presented in Matthew 13:33, where Jesus compares the Kingdom of heaven to yeast that was mixed with “three measures of flour until the whole batch was leavened.” Jesus, in speaking of salt in Matthew 5:13, refers to its properties as a flavoring agent (“if salt loses its flavor…”). In calling his disciples the “salt of the earth,” Jesus meant that they were to infuse the rest of the world with the savor of goodness. Additionally, Saltsalt was used as a preserving agent for food, particularly meat. In this capacity, the disciple who embodies Jesus’ calling to be the salt of the earth becomes a means by which others may be preserved from decay and corruption. By witnessing to Christ, the disciple who is salt will infuse others with the flavor of Christ’s goodness, thereby preserving them from corruption. Sometimes in a hymn text, an author will choose to combine images from various passages of Scripture for emphasis (again, see “I Am the Bread of Life,” which combines scriptural images and phrases from John 6 and 11). As mentioned earlier, the first two lines of verse three incorporate imagery from Matthew 5 and 13, but here, using the second reading where leaven is an adjective, the salt and leaven seem to be interchangeable: “Salt is found within the earth, / And in the bread is leaven.” The author has collapsed the image of salt from Matthew 5 into the image of the leaven from Matthew 13.  However, in the third line the author chooses to focus on the unique properties of these ingredients rather than any similarities between them. The descriptors “bland” and “stale” seem to refer to salt and leaven, respectively: “Bland and stale they have no worth.” Bland salt has “lost its taste,” and as Jesus says, “is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Mt 5:13b), and anyone who has tried to bake bread using stale or expired yeast can attest to the fact that the dough will not rise as it should. The fourth line of this verse—“But fresh they lift to heaven”—is ultimately true, applicable both to salt that preserves food from spoiling and to yeast that leavens dough. However, the linguistic imprecision of the scriptural interpretation throughout this verse might lead to more questions than insights for the person singing it.  This verse highlights the extreme care that must be taken in crafting a hymn text: even if there is an overarching element of truth to the text, poetic considerations of rhyme, meter, and number of syllables can never be prioritized over theological clarity.

The final verse of this text is a combination of the images from the preceding verses. This occurs often in hymn texts: the author will present individual elements in each verse, and then in the final verse create a sense of culmination by bringing them all back into play. The first two lines recall the unique images and create a commonality among them: “Lamp and city, salt and yeast / Are signs of grace and favor”. In calling the lamp, city, salt, and yeast “signs of grace and favor,” the author is asking the worshiping community to recall the insights of the previous three verses. One who witnesses to the world as a disciple of Jesus Christ—as a light on a lampstand, as a city on a hill, as salt flavoring and preserving food, as yeast leavening dough—is one who is filled with the grace and favor of God, and thus the very life of the disciple becomes a sign for the world of God’s grace and favor. In the final lines, the author acknowledges the continued source of this grace and favor in the life of the disciple: the Eucharist. “As the people of the Feast / We glorify our Savior.” It is in the gift of the Eucharist that we receive most fully of God’s grace and favor, for we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ Himself. Having received this inexhaustible grace, we are capacitated and empowered to bear witness to that grace in the world, thereby glorifying our Savior. This last line provides a linguistic tie to the Gospel passage, when Jesus proclaims “…your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:16). In the end, the light, the city, the salt, and the yeast never exist as ends unto themselves; rather, they exist for the good and the flourishing of another. So too with the disciple. It is only in witnessing to the love of Christ that one is able to be a light in darkness, a city standing steadfast on a hill, salt preserving from corruption, or yeast leavening dough, and it is only in receiving the gift of Christ Himself in the Eucharist that one is strengthened for a life of witness.

In its successes and its shortcomings, this hymn is an apt example of just how difficult it is for a writer to craft an excellent hymn text. First, the writer must engage in a careful exegesis of Scripture, while also bearing in mind the liturgical context in which the hymn will be sung and the theology implicit in the liturgical celebration. Next, the writer must distill the insights gained from study and prayerful contemplation into a few potent words and phrases that remain faithful to both the scriptural origin and the liturgical context—words and images that are simple enough to be readily grasped without much unpacking (which can’t take place while singing a hymn anyway), yet rich enough to inspire new insight and promote further contemplation of Scripture, the liturgical action, or both. Additionally, the writer must almost always work within parameters of rhyme and meter, sensitive to the restrictions that will be placed upon a text by the contour of a certain melody with regard to stressed and unstressed syllables. In short, writing hymn texts is exceedingly difficult. In keeping with the food imagery of salt and yeast, one could liken writing hymn texts to the creation of a sauce: many ingredients are combined at the outset, some may be removed or strained out later, and then the mixture is heated until it reduces or thickens to its most delicious essence. The job of the hymn text writer is to unpack and then distill, creating something that not only compliments and enhances both the proclamation of Scripture and the liturgical celebration (while never overpowering either), but also inspires greater fervor and devotion on the part of all who offer the hymn as a sung prayer to the praise and glory of God.