Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Stewards of the Mysteries of God

We began this essay last summer (in the archives for August 2010 and November 2010) with a consideration of mystery as manifested in the Trinity. This year’s unusually-long pre-Lenten season presented us with St. Paul’s reflections on “God’s secret plan.” On the feast of the Epiphany, we heard a reading from Ephesians 3, in which Paul discovers that the mystery of Christ is that all people of whatever origin share equally in the promise of salvation.

This mystery is obviously still working itself out today. Does it open our eyes to the gifts that every race, culture and language bring to our worship? And we worshipers are “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4). We wait as God “brings to light what is hidden in darkness,” because “God’s folly is wiser than all of us, and his weakness more powerful.” God demands time: there are no instant answers. Sr. Joan Chittister writes: “So mystery, the notion that something wonderful can happen at any time if we will only allow space for it, takes us into a whole new awareness of the immanence of God in time. God comes, we learn now, when we least expect it. Maybe most likely of all when we least expect it.” Can God surprise us during worship? Can we freely give him the time and space to? Or do we hold worship prisoner to our preconceived notions of how long worship should be? Or what Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter are all about? Do we need to keep liturgy on a leash, lest it lead someplace we haven’t been before?

So we come to another celebration of the Trinity, our gateway into the parables of the kingdom as recounted in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 13, Jesus quotes Psalm 78: “I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world.” He uses imagery to appeal directly to our imagination and get around our hard-hearted obstinacy and left-brain cynicism. Alluding to Isaiah, Jesus says of his audience that they “hardly hear with their ears,” they “close their eyes, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn back to God, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9). In the words of Psalm 95, which we will hear on September 4: “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your hearts.” Worship in Spirit and in truth requires unstopped ears, open eyes and an eager heart. Attentive listening trumps “seeing is believing.” As Thomas Aquinas wrote of the Blessed Sacrament in the hymn Adoro te devote, “Sight, touch and taste are each deceived; the ear alone most safely is believed.” Perhaps Aquinas was conscious of his namesake apostle when he wrote those words. Faith is more a matter of listening than reading.

What does it mean to be “stewards of the mysteries of God”? James exhorts us: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1: 22) We enflesh the Word by our action, in our worship and in the world. Recall that one sense of mysterion was sacramentum, the outward sign of an inner reality. As the doers of liturgy, we will have an opportunity to grow when changes to the text of the Mass take effect this Advent. We might see this opportunity, to use another parable (Luke 13), as a fig tree being cultivated in an effort to stimulate it to bear fruit. Practically speaking, the changes to the sung refrain of the Gloria and Holy, Holy are minor. The verses of the Gloria are structured differently from what we have become accustomed to, so these will require more attention on the part of the choir and cantors, and from the congregation when the Gloria is recited. There is some debate among liturgists over whether it will be easier to use a familiar musical setting which has been revised, or a setting which has been expressly composed for the new text. We will begin practicing a new memorial acclamation in November. On occasions when worshippers from many communities may be present, such as funerals and weddings, the music will need to be familiar and as intuitive as possible. A call-and-response form of the memorial acclamation might be the most natural approach to this situation.

A greater challenge is presented by the vision of liturgy laid out in Sing to the Lord, the American bishops’ document on music in worship, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which is the preface to the Missal. These documents place great importance on the singing of the dialogues, particularly before the Preface (“The Lord be with you . . . ”); the penitential rite, which Deacon Bill often does; and the opening and closing prayers. The new Missal also emphasizes singing the Lord’s Prayer. This places the ball squarely in our court. How much energy and time are we willing to invest to lend a sense of mystery to our worship? Undoubtedly part of the attraction of the Tridentine rite (sometimes called “extraordinary form”) is the chanted prayers and responses. There is no reason that these sung dialogues cannot be part of our regular worship. It certainly takes no more time to sing them than to recite them. It just takes that little push of energy to elevate a spoken acclamation to a sung one. Again, it’s a matter of attitude: are we always looking for the easy way out, the short form, “liturgy-express”?

The GIRM has this to say about our stewardship of the mysteries of God: “In the celebration of Mass the faithful form a holy people, a people whom God has made his own, a royal priesthood, so that they may give thanks to God and offer the spotless Victim not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, and so that they may learn to offer themselves. They should, moreover, endeavor to make this clear by their deep religious sense and their charity toward brothers and sisters who participate with them in the same celebration. Thus, they are to shun any appearance of individualism or division, keeping before their eyes that they have only one Father in heaven and accordingly are all brothers and sisters to each other. Indeed, they form one body, whether by hearing the word of God, or by joining in the prayers and the singing, or above all by the common offering of sacrifice and by a common partaking at the Lord’s table. This unity is beautifully apparent from the gestures and postures observed in common by the faithful. The faithful, moreover, should not refuse to serve the People of God gladly whenever they are asked to perform some particular ministry or function in the celebration.”

Our stewardship might be seen in terms of the parables of the sower and the seed growing by itself. The energy and time we invest now are the seeds of the church of the future. Our children will reap the harvest of what we sow today (John 4: 37–38). And, once the crop has been planted, the fate of the harvest is in God’s hands (Mark 4: 26–29). We have no way of knowing if the seed has landed on good soil, on the rocks, among the thorns or will become food for the birds. Time will tell, the ultimate mystery. One of the lessons of life is the wisdom of letting go. When children grow up, parents must allow them to find their own way. When relatives or friends become old and die, we must let go of them. When we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is time to let go of “stuff” and have a garage sale. The same lesson applies to music. “Sons of God” and “Here We Are,” so meaningful when Mass was first celebrated in English, were supplanted by the scripture-based music of the 70s. The music of Weston Priory seemed fresh and reminded many of the experiences they had at retreats in Vermont, but the texts did not age well (“All I Ask of You”) and often did not respect the natural rhythm of English (“Bread That Was Sown”). Composers like Joe Wise, Ray Repp, Jack Miffleton, Carey Landry, and Tom Conry all had their moment, and many of the songs we hold precious today may no longer adequately express the faith of the mid-21st century.

One approach to music claims it doesn’t matter what we sing as long as we sing. Another theory is that whatever we sing should connect with the themes of the readings for that day. The former usually leads to singing “what we know” and the latter demands time spent with the scripture to discern what God’s message for this parish is today. That message evolves over time, and taking it home in music demands growth. Everyone who has taken biology knows that whatever isn’t growing is dead. In Bob Dylan’s words, “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.” We can never rest on our laurels. There is no end to the search for the pearl of great price, the field with the hidden treasure, sorting out the treasure from the trash or weeding out the garden (Matthew 13). As long as we have the leaven of the Spirit, the dough keeps rising and the bread is fresh.

Glenn Hufnagel
this is the third part of an essay
see Part I
see Part II