Saturday, January 20, 2018

We Need Jesus

The world needs Jesus.

People need the love and mercy of Jesus. People need the freedom to embrace suffering in a way that does not crush them; they need to know and experience the companionship of Jesus in their suffering. 

People need the freedom to forgive and to let themselves be forgiven, so that wounds can heal instead of being passed through the generations until they become great scars that hinder the life of whole societies and cultures.

The world needs Jesus. We need Jesus. I need Jesus!

The love of Jesus is everything. Through his love and mercy, we can be changed and empowered to live a new life. We can become vessels of God's love. We can make God's love and mercy present in the world.

If we look at ourselves just in terms of what we can generate by ourselves, according to the measure of our own powers, we could never hope to do this. But Jesus loves us, and promises to take us beyond the limits of ourselves, to convert us and heal us of our sins, and transform us by the grace of his Holy Spirit.

He wants to make us real lovers of God and of human beings in the image and likeness of God. We should open our own hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit, give the Spirit "space" to work within us, ask him to change us.

God has created us and called us to share in his eternal life, to become and remain forever his sons and daughters in his uncreated, only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. His Holy Spirit is already stirring up this vocation in the depths of our hearts, within the mysterious reality of our daily lives. He is calling us, inviting us to share his joy, even when this call seems inaudible, confusing, or distant.

It often seems perplexing to me, at least when I regard it as an actual proposal for life.

It's easy to talk about it, or talk around it. I can talk forever about being Catholic. I can talk about God and the Church, all the problems in the world, all the errors of people (the closer they are to me, the more eloquent my critique). I can talk about bishops and politicians, doctrine and social issues, who's "good" and who's "bad."

But actually to change, to love the way God loves? How will I ever reach that point? I can hardly even imagine becoming just a little bit less selfish. I could try, but I'd be more likely to fall on my face and end up feeling more guilty. What's missing from my life?

Jesus Christ. A real relationship with Jesus. I forget about him. I forget to communicate with him, to ask him to pour out his Spirit upon me, to renew me, to come and change me. I forget to entrust everything to him, to listen to him, to hope in him. I forget Jesus.

I can go around all day saying "I'm a Catholic, I'm a Christian, I know the right way, I'm one of the good people in this bad bad bad world" -- I can say all these kinds of things and still ignore Jesus Christ.

But I need Jesus. The love of Jesus is everything.

I need Jesus, truly God and truly human, eternally with the Father in the Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, dwelling among us, crucified and risen from the dead, our Lord, our brother: not just Jesus in abstract theological terms but a real Person who loves me and calls me to live in his love.

I don't know how to recognize him and live in a relationship with him. I need to change, but I don't know how to change. All I can do is ask, beg him to change me: "Jesus, change what needs changing in me."

We are always forgetting him. But he is infinite mercy. He comes to us again and again. He calls us. He doesn't want us to remain in our forgetfulness.

When we remember him, we should beg from the poverty of our hearts for his mercy. He knows what we need, how to draw us, to change us, to bring us closer to him.

And when we ask him to change us, we have already begun to love. A new energy, a new kind of life has been awakened in us.

"Jesus, make me the person you created me to be."

Friday, January 19, 2018

He Will Destroy Death Forever

"You have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress;
Shelter from the rain,
shade from the heat.

"When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rain,
the roar of strangers like heat in the desert,
You subdued the heat with the shade of a cloud,
the rain of the tyrants was vanquished.

"On this mountain the Lord of hosts
will provide for all peoples
A feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.

"On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
The web that is woven over all nations.
He will destroy death forever.

"The Lord God will wipe away
the tears from all faces;
The reproach of his people he will remove
from the whole earth; for the Lord has spoken.

"On that day it will be said:
'Indeed, this is our God; we looked to him, and he saved us!
This is the Lord to whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!'"

~Isaiah 25:4-9

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Peace and Security (Digital Artwork)

"Peace and Security...Peace and Security"
(Original digital artwork, 1/18/2018).

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Epiphany as Personal Encounter: Andrew and John Meet Jesus

It all began on an ordinary afternoon. "They went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon."

Last Sunday's Gospel reading continues the seasonal theme of God's "epiphany" in the world. But here we have the announcement of a more intimate manifestation, in the form of those personal encounters with Jesus that begin with the two disciples who follow the testimony of John the Baptist. We do not even know the details of what transpired on that afternoon—what exactly they "saw" when they went to the place where Jesus was staying—but it was enough to make Andrew himself into a witness to his brother, Simon (whom Jesus would call 'Peter'): "We have found the Messiah."

On that first afternoon, they met a man whose human face revealed the saving love of God. They experienced something beautiful and new in the time they spent with that man—beautiful, unique, awesome, meaningful, convincing, and worth following.
"John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
'Behold, the Lamb of God.'
The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,
'What are you looking for?'
They said to him, 'Rabbi' — which translated means Teacher —
'where are you staying?'
He said to them, 'Come, and you will see.'
So they went and saw where Jesus was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.
It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter,
was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus.
He first found his own brother Simon and told him,
'We have found the Messiah' — which is translated Christ.
Then he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said,
'You are Simon the son of John;
you will be called Cephas' — which is translated Peter" (John 1:35:42).

In his remarks prior the Angelus on January 14, Pope Francis articulates the factors involves in this very intimate and decisive moment at the beginning of Jesus's ministry, and how the same dynamic pertains to each one of us:
"Each one of us, in as much as we are a human being, is seeking: seeking happiness, seeking love, a good and full life. God the Father has given us all this in His Son Jesus.
"Fundamental in this search is the role of a true witness, of a person who first of all has made the journey and has encountered the Lord. In the Gospel, John the Baptist is this witness. Therefore he can direct the disciples to Jesus, who involves them in a new experience, saying: 'Come and see' (John 1:39).
"And those two will never be able to forget the beauty of that encounter, to the point that the Evangelist even notes the hour: 'it was about four o’clock in the afternoon.'
"Only a personal encounter with Jesus generates a path of faith and of discipleship.
"We can have many experiences, do many things, establish relations with many persons, but only the meeting with Jesus, in the hour that God knows, can give full meaning to our life and make our projects and our initiatives fruitful."

Monday, January 15, 2018

Martin Luther King: "I Just Want to Do God's Will."

"...I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

Today, the United States of America observes the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The image below presents the closing words of a speech King gave in Memphis, Tennessee, on the night of April 3, 1968.

These were his last words in public. He was assassinated the next day. This coming April 4th will mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Read from the Bible... Even Just a Little Bit 😊

Even the most casual encounter with the Bible can be fruitful. So if you're moving books around on a shelf and you come across a Bible, open it and read something.

I'm not suggesting any sort of superstitious attempt to find your "fortune" or predict the future by random Bible verses. This attitude is foreign to the receptive openness, the quality of listening, the hunger for the truth that we need to have if we want to be nourished by the Word of God.

Find a familiar or much loved text, or one appropriate for the season of the year. In this situation, what text you choose doesn't matter as much as just taking a moment to encounter God speaking to us.

All of God's Word has relevance for our lives, at any and every moment.

Here is the text of Psalm 62:6-11.

Good words to revisit in these times, in the "afterglow" of the Christmas season, in a new year when we do well to consider once again the foundation of our lives, the source of our hope.

Let us remember, then, to set our hearts not on our own power, wealth, comforts, youth, or any other thing that can so easily change: here today, gone tomorrow. Let us set our hearts on God, our refuge and our strength.

Let us set our hearts on God, who has come to dwell with us.

Friday, January 12, 2018

We Can Have a Relationship with the Truth

We cannot live without truth. Our minds are engaged in a constant search for the meaning of things and the purpose of our existence in this world. The life of a personal being yearns for truth, and demands the freedom to seek the truth and to adhere to it.

The more we come to know the truth--not an ideological scheme or agenda, but the truth about reality--the more we realize that all truth speaks of the Mystery that is the source and meaning of everything, a Mystery that is Personal in the deepest sense, and who calls us into a living, all-fulfilling relationship.

In presenting us with all the wonderful facets of reality, truth whispers to the heart that it is worthy of adherence and affirmation; it discloses all the goodness and beauty of reality, and thereby points to the One who is Good and Beautiful. This disclosure invites a response of our minds and hearts; it summons us to affirm the truth with conviction and joy, and to continue to seek it.

The work of discovering and deepening this adherence to the truth is personal, but this does not mean that it is a solitary endeavor that each person must carry out in isolation from all others. Quite the contrary. This is the common journey of the human race through all of history. It is the source from which peoples are generated, in which natural ties of kinship develop into the network of human relationships that advances through history and transforms genealogy into heritage and culture.

Human beings are born with the capacity to grow in understanding and freedom, but they cannot do this by themselves. Just as babies and children need to be fed, clothed, and sheltered in order to develop physically, so also they need care and mentoring in the life of the spirit. They need education.

The teacher, or educator, has always held a respected place in human communities. In their responsibility to pass on the heritage of communities and peoples, educators hold a kind of authority, and therefore are entitled to respect and a certain measure of trust in different ways, depending on experience, proven wisdom, office, or recognized scholarship. The educator also is very important in serving as a helper and a guide on the path of truth. 

The genuine educator points to the truth, not to his or her self. The truth, ultimately, is the Infinite Mystery who creates and calls the heart of every person.

There have, of course, been people throughout history who have proposed themselves as "the answer" for others. They are the manipulators and insurrectionists, the violent and abusive figures in history and life. In their "purest" form, they are the cult leaders and totalitarian dictators of history. They betray the relationship of persons which ought to exist between teachers and students, leaders and followers. They turn people into slaves, and they destroy families, communities, cultures, and societies.

But there was one man who was different. Once in history, a man came and said, "I am the Truth." Once in history a man said, "come to me, follow me" and that man was not abusive and manipulative and inhuman.

On the contrary, he transformed those who followed him.

They became, not less human, but a hundred times more profoundly human, and more than that, they themselves became reflections of the Mystery; they became--in a unique way--witnesses to the presence of the Mystery dwelling among us in this man

And their followers have carried the light of the hope of the human race down through the centuries, bearing witness to all the peoples of the world. This presence and promise remains alive in the communion of these followers, even in the midst of all their human frailty and their repeated forgetfulness and betrayal of that unique man in whom the Transcendent Mystery is given and poured out into the very heart of the world.

Jesus Christ is totally unique in history. He and he alone stands before the human person--with integrity, with spectacular greatness and goodness and beauty--and asks, "Who do you say that I am?"

The answer to this question is a continual source of amazement to me. The Mystery that sustains all of reality became a man.

Thus everyone's "personal journey" to a "relationship with the truth" finds its true path and its fulfillment in him. Billions of human beings don't really know him. Still, if they are searching for the truth, they are searching for him. In fact, it is he who is calling their hearts. He has come for each and all. He loves them. There is much that is mysterious about this, but for Christians it should inspire a great desire to make him known more and more to all the world.

The Infinite Mystery reveals himself by becoming man in order to give himself to us. He comes as loving mercy, to be our path and our sustenance and our fulfillment. He comes for the "personal journey" of each one of us, and he draws close to that personal dignity and the special quality, attractions, capabilities and aspirations that distinguish each of our hearts.

We have been created to give ourselves in love. He knows who we are destined to be by means of that gift of love, and he empowers us in his Spirit to achieve this destiny (which is the fulfillment of the humanity that is common to all of us, and also the complete realization of what is unique to each one of us as persons).

Jesus is the Eternal Word of the Father, who gives to all things their attractiveness and beauty and meaning, and then draws all things to himself.

Jesus draws every human person to himself.

The fact that all things find their fulfillment in him does not mean that we should conceive of created things in a reductive way, as having value only insofar as they are "religious stuff." By this I am referring to "religion" inasmuch as we (inevitably) conceive of it when we forget Jesus Christ, as a collection of merely human rules, customs, taboos, invented rituals, theoretical constructs, and power schemes.

Rather, to say that "all things find their fulfillment in him" means that He really is the Mystery: "All things were created through him; all things were created for him" (see Col 1:16).

His "particularity" in history and in our lives is not meant to suffocate us. On the contrary, it is the promise of freedom. It is the guarantee of God's love for each one of us. Jesus Christ is the truth! In him we really will find the fullness of life; indeed we will find "eternal life."

His particularity, his concrete presence, in the life and worship and ministry of the Church brings the Mystery of God close to us and communicates it to us, so that we might live forever as God's children, and so that we might see the vividness of God's mercy and goodness in every aspect of this earthly life, in its joys and hopes and sufferings.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Christina Grimmie After Nineteen Months

This screenshot reproduces my very brief blog post from January 10, 2017. It marked the seven month anniversary of the murder of Christina Grimmie, the 22 year old singer, songwriter, musician, finalist on Season 6 of The Voice, and pioneering YouTube artist:


Now it has been one year and seven months.

People who have followed her career since 2009 (as well as others who are only now discovering her) continue to honor her remarkable legacy. Many of the nearly four million subscribers to her YouTube channel from all over the world—and above all the young people who were inspired by her example—still feel a sorrow for her death. It is a different kind of sorrow from the more distant, more nostalgic, and less "personal" sense of loss generally experienced by fans when a celebrity dies.

This, no doubt, is due in part to her youth and the circumstances of her death, and in part to the way new forms of media permit artists and performers to be (or at least seem to be) more accessible to their fans by letting them see more of their lives off-stage.

But there are other factors in play here.

Christina Grimmie really communicated herself through her music and her luminous personality, touching so many hearts even "from a distance" (and still doing so) in ways that can't be adequately explained in terms of her natural talents or of the powerful possibilities of the new communications media.

Thus people find themselves still in mourning for her, still "missing her." This sorrow is felt in various ways and with varying degrees of intensity, and with genuine and at times surprising emotion. Here too people with all kinds of backgrounds and temperaments find it hard to explain the intimacy and power of this sorrow, and why it continues to stand out in their experience.

It may not always be a healthy thing. Certain people who continually revisit their sadness (about this or any other tragedy) can become discouraged, excessively melodramatic, self-absorbed, or self-indulgent. Indeed, people can transfer their struggles and frustrations over many serious problems onto a single tragic event, especially one that has less real consequences for their immediate lives than their own more pressing and direct troubles. They don't want to (or may not know how to) respond to their own circumstances and direct sufferings. This is not to put them down, because suffering is always mysterious and cannot be met except with compassion.

If we know people personally who are stuck in this kind of sadness (wherever it might be focused), we can see that they need encouragement, direction, companionship, and in certain cases mental health care. We must help them in whatever way we can. But there are rarely any easy ways to do this. So many people in the world are burdened by human poverty—living in isolation, surrounded by deeply dysfunctional or broken human relationships, displaced by war or estranged by other more obscure, hidden, and petty forms of human violence.

Christina had a heart for all kinds of suffering people. She wasn't afraid to love them, and affirm them in whatever ways, with whatever simple gestures were possible in a given moment.

Here is Christina sitting on the floor in her room with a guitar,
live-streaming through her iPhone, chatting, taking requests,
picking up the tune or just singing off the cuff, and totally
blowing us away with her renditions and her amazing voice! 
But this unhealthy sadness is not the experience of most of Christina's frands (a term combining "fan+friend" which she applied to anyone who followed her music). For them, there remains a simple but decidedly human grief. It has not prevented them from going on with their lives, grappling with their own problems, and being grateful for the joys in life. It's not a morbid preoccupation that paralyzes them. Rather it's an ordinary grief that is "settling in" as part of their life-experience, but also an intimate grief with features like that which accompany the loss of a relative or friend.

The difference, of course, is the fact that most of them never met Christina Grimmie. Nevertheless they loved her, and they have no doubt that she loved them back. 

Thus, their sorrow is more and more taking shape as a constructive and creative energy, a desire to remember her and to collaborate in the work of securing her legacy. But here is a wonderful thing: the leaders of this work are precisely the people who knew her best, whose loss was incomparable, whose mourning has been (and continues to be) the most arduous and personal because they knew her best and loved her like no one else could—her family.

In the past 19 months, Christina's parents and brother have given their own outstanding witness. They have grieved openly and honestly, without pretense, without any facile claims to understand why God allowed this terrible evil to happen, but with a faith that continues to trust in Him.

They have also taken up the labor of building and sustaining the vitality of all she gave us in her brief, bright, burning life as an artist and as a human being. They have released more of her music that she had recorded before her death, including an entire album (All is Vanity), which is a vocally stunning, genre-fusing collection of songs that range from pop and electronica to soul and R&B. They also launched a charitable foundation in her name last Fall, and they continue to strengthen the bonds among thousands of Team Grimmie frands across the globe.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that in all this time, they have not spoken an unkind word against any person in any public or social media forum.

They were silent for a while after the televised public memorial service, at which they appeared and spoke and showed all of us their faith and their immense pain and their humble suffering.

They were silent, and who wouldn't respect that? Who would have asked them to do more?

But when they did speak, it was only with words of kindness, gratitude and encouragement, and it was with the desire to continue the presence and the active work of compassion and mercy that Christina had initiated and lived so well.

Along with Christina's closest friends from childhood, and no doubt with the love and support of many other family and friends, the Grimmie family is showing us how a deeply felt, catastrophic, heart-crushing grief can be acknowledged and endured and lived concretely without wrecking the persons afflicted by it. Somehow, with much patience and trust in God, love can begin to generate something new.

Brother and sister Mark and Christina Grimmie from this past year's
Christmas greeting posted on Facebook by the Grimmie family.
It may be very fragile and small. There may be setbacks and failures. But there will also be more possibilities. Good things take time and require faithfulness to God's plan. But there is every reason for hope. A seed sown very deep in the earth has started to grow. Something new has begun. 

And here's the thing: the Grimmies are not angels or space aliens or superheroes. They are not inimitable moral giants or great geniuses. Bud and Tina and Mark Grimmie are just regular, down-to-earth people; honest, frank, good New Jersey people. I was born a couple of miles and a bridge away from the New Jersey border. I have relatives descended from Italian immigrants still living in New Jersey. These kind of people are solid people, very real people.

I continue to be struck powerfully by the family and closest friends of Christina Grimmie, the people behind her old social media accounts with the address "@TheRealGrimmie" ... because they are so real.

We live in a world where the standard response to violence is vengeance and fury, or bitterness and cynicism, or discouragement and despair. The Grimmie family has been going through a range of emotions that I can't even imagine, and I'm sure they've had to confront within themselves some of these temptations to respond to violence with more violence, or to just give up on life.

Their hearts have wrestled with these responses. But they have chosen not to be defined by them. Instead they have chosen to respond with love.

This choice, by God's grace, is a light and an inspiration for all of us.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

A Two-Edged Sword

"The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account" 
~Hebrews 4:12-13

Sunday, January 7, 2018

From Distant Lands

Epiphany, Coptic Ethiopian tradition.

I do not know the reason why the Magi have wings.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

He Comes For Us All

I wish everyone a Blessed and Happy Epiphany!

On this great day of celebration, we remember Jesus coming among us. He comes as a little child, to reveal the immensity of God's mercy. He comes for the poor, and for the Gentiles, and for Israel—for the whole world.

He comes to seek out and save what is lost. He comes for sinners.

Mercy is an incredible thing. From Bethlehem and its Star, through the hidden life of Nazareth, to the manifestation of the Trinity at the Jordan river, Jesus appears in the world as the revelation of God's love, a love that has come conquer sin and death. No person, no sinner, is excluded from this love.

Indeed, Jesus loves the worst sinners, the people who we would consider disgusting. He loves them, He goes out in search of them, He gives Himself completely for them.

He wants sinners. We must recognize the full measure of this desire of the heart of God Incarnate. Jesus wants the most awful people, the creepy people, the people we don't want to touch or even go near. He wants to take away their sins, to change their hearts by His grace, to heal them, to forgive them, and to enable them to love Him. He wants them to be with Him forever. His heart burns with love for them: the gross, ugly, really bad people.

This should be a cause for great hope. For who among us looks in the mirror and sees a face with no cause for shame? The hope of the world is our hope. Jesus wants to awaken in us and draw forth from our hearts a true sorrow for our sins, and then He wants to fill our hearts with His love and transform us and make us beautiful.

On the Cross, in the Church, in the sacraments, and in these beautiful days of the Christmas season that we celebrate, He shows how He has given Himself to us, and how He longs for us.

He wants us to pray, to open our hearts to Him in trust. We must pray. "Lord, make me the person You will me to be. Shape me, change me, lead me. I believe in Your love for me. I trust in You."

The people who are literally disgusting, who have done horrible things, the most horrible things we can imagineHe loves them. He wants them with such a longing; He wants to draw them and convert them and heal them and transform them. He wants us to pray for them.

And He wants each one of us.

He loves us. He has come for us, and He gives Himself for us.

"Jesus make me into the person You have created me to be. I trust in You."

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Chant East and West (My Christmas/Epiphany Music, Part 4)

Medieval illuminated chant manuscript
We are now moving toward the Epiphany/Theophany events and their celebration as the manifestation of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, dwelling among us. This gives us a good opportunity to grow in appreciation for that which is called "sacred music" in the primary and eminent sense: the great liturgical chants hallowed by ancient or (at least) long-standing usage in public worship.

As I have said before, I find beauty in music in diverse and analogous senses, and I appreciate—in the right place, at the right time—good contemporary popular music, jazz, folk and roots music from all over the world, classical music, vocal and instrumental music of all kinds, electronic music, blues and gospel music, etc. All of these ways of crafting sound have their measure of aesthetic excellence, and in their attainment of beauty they are also good and therefore can be edifying.

Some of these forms can be constructed and presented in ways conducive to prayer, and in the appropriate circumstances can contribute to youth gatherings, pilgrimages, prayer meetings, and even parts of the liturgy. It is very moving to see and hear this done well, in a fitting manner, by artists who are themselves people of deep faith and prayer. Unfortunately, it is much more common to find it done badly, carelessly, disjointed from its context. Instead of fostering prayer, it becomes distracting, intrusive, or annoying.

The Lord deserves our best, and there are certainly different ways we can offer that to him in our songs.

But the great ancient chants have endured as liturgical worship music down the centuries for a reason. In them sensible sound draws our complex humanity into simplicity and "silence," and stirs the apex of the soul to prepare us to encounter God. These chants have come forth from prayer and lead back to prayer. They are the fruit of profound communion with God, self-offering, and suffering. They are, so to speak, icons written with sound.

Even in chant, however, there is the concreteness of human expression marked by the history of the great liturgical traditions and the cultures and peoples among whom they arose, our ancestors who continue to be alive within the Communion of Saints.

I can only touch very briefly on these excerpts, and then allow the music to "speak" for itself.

Most familiar to me, of course, is the chant that holds preeminence in the Roman Rite, the most widely used ancient chant of the "Western" liturgical tradition, the Gregorian chant. Pope Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) is the patron of the Roman liturgy.

The traditional Western celebration of the Epiphany focuses on the arrival of the "Magi" from the East to present gifts to the newborn King (as narrated in the beginning of chapter 2 of Matthew's gospel). In these visitors, we can see a symbol of all the nations of the earth, and thus the nations are represented as "present" at the beginning of Christ's coming into the world.

Listen here to the noble simplicity of Gregorian chant in this recorded (and visual) presentation of the Vidimus Stellam, the Gospel Acclamation that immediately precedes the reading (or chanting) of the Gospel for the Mass of the Epiphany in the Roman Rite: "Alleluia. We have seen his star in the East, and we have come with our gifts, to adore the Lord."

Take a moment to lift up your mind and heart to God. We are not in a hurry.

Take some time.

We can perceive in this chant something of the spirit of the monastic life in its gentle rhythm, great peace, interior focus, and the seeking of God and the finding of him in adoration and worship. For well over a millennium and still today, monasteries have prayed using Gregorian chant in different degrees, manners, and adaptations.

But it's not only for monasteries.

The verse above, of course, is primarily intended for a single voice (the cantor), and many chants in public Mass settings are sung by a small, trained choir. Nevertheless much Gregorian chant (especially chant of the basic prayers of the Roman liturgy) is accessible to congregational singing, with a little pastoral initiative, attention, and effort. It's an effort worth making.

Meanwhile, although the Western liturgical tradition is the most widely diffused throughout the world, it is not the only tradition. Let us take time to look to the East.

The Byzantine liturgical tradition has Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) as its primary patron. The high point of the Christmas season in the Byzantine tradition is the celebration of the Theophany on January 6th (which corresponds to the Western traditional feast of "The Baptism of the Lord" on the Sunday following January 6th).

Here the focus is entirely on Christ's baptism in the Jordan river as a corollary event to his birth. The revelation of the Trinity in the Spirit descending in the appearance of a dove, the Father's voice, and the flesh of the Word plunged into the river radically "consecrates" all the waters of the world and establishes the foundation for the sacrament of baptism, the new birth of the Christian in Christ.

Byzantine chant has great solemnity and also various styles, as we shall hear by way of a small example. First, here is the "Theophany Hymn" chanted in Greek: All you that in Christ have been baptized have put on Christ, Alleluia. This beautiful hymn is accompanied in this video by a fine visual presentation of different icons. Listen and watch here:

Take some silent time if you wish.

When the Byzantine tradition moved beyond the Greek speaking Eastern Roman Empire later in the first millennium, it both shaped and was shaped by the distinctive peoples and languages of the Slavic world. A different style emerged within the Byzantine rite, expressed in a different language that can still be heard today, that has become known as Church Slavonic.

This video presents a different verse from the same Byzantine liturgy for the feast of the Theophany, in a different language (though here I think it is Russian rather than Church Slavonic). Listen to the very distinctive beautiful style of the old Slavonic chant:

What tremendous music this is.

I'm putting these various links here, but please don't feel like you have to rush though them. Come back to these links whenever you want, or go on YouTube to listen to more, or take a course on sacred music, join your parish choir, or go on a retreat, go pray.


Welcome back.

We're going to take a turn to something very different in sound and language from what we have heard in the Latin, Greek, and Slavic traditions. Ironically, however, this ancient chant may be closer to the musical style and language of Jesus himself and his first apostles and disciples.

The Copic liturgical tradition is one of the ancient Semitic traditions that endures to this day, from the church of Alexandria in Egypt which has Saint Mark the Evangelist as its patron. Here again, we are celebrating the Epiphany, in a style and language that sounds like Arabic but is in fact the language that predates the Muslim conquest of Egypt and the Middle East. The chant of Psalm 150 is fittingly accompanied by cymbals (see 150:5).

The sacred music of the "ancient Near East" is also the sacred music of people today who worship Christ under dangerous circumstances, under the constant threat of violence. This is the song and music of people who have very recently shed their blood in the name of Jesus, and who will courageously face that danger again this weekend when they gather to celebrate Epiphany and sing this song:

So we have these profound "sonic icons" through which our ears are opened and our hearts lifted to the glory of God and his angels and all the saints. Music in these modes was handed down through the centuries, modified only with the greatest care.


But then what happened?

[Permit me to have a bit of "fun" here?😉 I don't intend to be flippant for no reason; there is a broader "point."]

What happened? MODERNITY came. New ways of thinking. New art and new music. A tremendously confusing time. Tumultuous changes in the world. There was an Ecumenical Council, with rumor and scandal rife in the Church. Meanwhile, the "new music" was being used in the liturgy. Some people in the Church were shocked by the strangeness of the new style, its loud volume, its lack of order, and its incorporation of secular music themes and techniques. Musical sounds that came from bars, from the street, from secular love songs (!) invaded the liturgy, distracting from prayer, turning the emphasis to theatrical performance, emphasizing excessive sensuality.

In fact, these good people had a point. Some of this musical experimentation was too jarring. It was done without being shaped for the liturgy, or for people's sense of the sacred. It was confusing. And people were already leaving the Church in droves, seduced by heresies that everywhere abounded.

Some bishops and cardinals wanted this music banned entirely from the liturgy. But a Pope, influenced by the modern ideas and by the Jesuits (of course!), allowed some forms of this music to prevail in the Church.

As a consequence, we got stuff like THIS in the liturgy at Christmas:

Magnificent. Today it is hard to imagine how music like this could ever have been categorized as controversial.

But let me speak to those of you who are saying "hardy-hardy-har-har what is your point?" My point is NOT "Let's have hard rock Masses because eventually in the future people will think they're sublime because it's all just cultural conditioning." No no no no no!

My overall point is that we live and are called to follow Christ in the Church within a very small piece of a very large history. We don't see a lot of what's happening even now, in our small piece of time. We certainly don't see the future. We don't even see the past very well.

In the wild winds of 16th century Europe, it probably wasn't easy to see the now-obvious distinction between a Vittoria or a Palestrina and the lesser practitioners of the new music: the sloppy ones, the cranks, the salacious seducers, the drunks, the mediocre pretenders, the well-meaning-but-clueless folks (invariably the largest group in human affairs), and the puffed up self-important people who just generally had no sense for prayer or the sacred or any kind of real excellence.

Moreover, these people were living in a tumultuous "piece" of historical time. Lots of things were really new to the lives of Europeans (and everybody else) in the 16th century. It was the dawn of the global experience of the world. Half the world was "new," and its exploration and conquest were the source and/or the occasion of many bad new things and good new things in its time and thereafter.

New things were all over the place. Printing was a new thing. The gun was a new thing. The telescope was a new thing. The idea that the whole universe didn't go around the earth was a new thing. This idea seemed like a dangerous thing but it wasn't, ultimately. The Turkish empire casting its increasingly powerful and greedy eyes to the West was a new thing. This also seemed like a dangerous thing. It was, in fact, a very dangerous thing. On top of all of this, of course, the division of Western Christendom—which is now a very old thing—was a new thing in the 16th century.

And, yes, poly-phonic music with multiple harmonies and a 12 tone scale was a new thing. We can hardly imagine a world without this full musical palette, but 500 years ago it was a thing strange to the human ear.

I'm not a music history expert. But I suspect that the development of polyphony (which began in the late middle ages) was a long and messy process. Mistakes were made. Excess and banality abounded, I would imagine. Polyphonic music probably traveled a long road of refinement before it attained its "iconic form." Its critics probably contributed to this development.

Some things, however, had not yet been invented. So there are no audio recordings of all the awful music that fell by the wayside. It was also before the age of Twitter. Thus we have no record of all the intemperate, rude, insulting exchanges of criticisms and counter-criticisms and plottings and hand-wringing that filled the halls and cloisters and sacristies and palaces all over Europe. We only have a few summaries of discussion from the record of the aforementioned Ecumenical Council, which was, of course, the Council of Trent.

Now here we are today in century number 21, which is even more tumultuous. In the global village that is today's interdependent world, we can hardly keep up with all the new things. What kind of cultures will emerge in the future and how will they be connected? It is difficult to imagine.

We know this much: conscious sustenance and appreciation of the achievements of the past (such as music) is more possible than ever before. At the same time, universal distraction tempts us to forget the past. But we must overcome this temptation, and use our intelligence and our resources and our humanity to remain vitally connected to the great traditions, to let them live and grow, and to share them with one another more fully. Certainly this applies to our iconic sacred music. It will always move what is most fundamental in us.

There are also so many possibilities for creativity, and this is certainly true for music. We must not fear those who feel called to develop new kinds of music, but help them, guide them to be faithful to their vocation, to test everything and hold fast to what is good. This goes above all for the intersection of music with the life of the spirit, of prayer, of inspiration, focus of the heart, the longing for God, and adoration and worship.

I know some artists today who seek to enrich and renew the realm of "popular devotions" with music that uses elements of the secular idiom to fashion not cheap copies of secular music but distinctive musical forms fitted and appropriate to occasions of prayer and pilgrimage, musical forms that engender reverence. We can hear some of this at World Youth Days and youth conferences, side by side with plenty of mediocre, spiritually-tone-deaf, and even preposterous efforts.

As this musical work continues, people will disagree about what is really fitting and in what settings it can be used. These disagreements will help ultimately refine the development of different kinds of music, even if the arguments become angry and vituperative because we fail to communicate with one another along the way.

But we need not cause one another to suffer in this way. We need not fear disagreements, difference of taste, and everything in between if we subordinate them appropriately to our mutual adherence to Christ in the Church and the rule of charity.

Let us, in this as in all other things, strive to be faithful to God's will, to our vocations in this place and time that have been given to us; and let us endeavor to observe toward one another the great rule of Saint Augustine: "In things necessary, unity. In things 'doubtful' (i.e. open to legitimate differences of opinion however passionately we hold them), liberty, in all things, charity."

May you be blessed in the remainder of this Christmas season and throughout the New Year.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Monday, January 1, 2018

Jesus Embraces Each One of Us

I would like to begin the year 2018 and mark the Octave of Christmas Week and the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God with some words from the man whose ministry did so much to shape my own faith and my adherence to Jesus in the Church.

Jesus embraces each one of us with the Father's love. By taking our nature, Jesus enters into the history of each human being.

"We thank you, eternal Father, for the Motherhood of the Virgin Mary, who under the protection of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, brought your Son into the world, in utter poverty. 'He came to his own home, and his own people received him not' (John 1:11).

"And yet, he received all of us from his very birth and embraced each one of us with the eternal love of the Father, with the love that saves man, that raises the human conscience from sin. In him we have reconciliation and the forgiveness of sins.

"We thank you heavenly Father, for the child laid in a manger: in him 'the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared' (Titus 3:4). We thank you, eternal Father, for this love, which comes down like a frail infant into the history of each human being.

"We thank you, because, though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

"Impel individuals and peoples to break down the wall of selfishness, of arrogance and hate, in order to open themselves to fraternal respect for all human beings, near or far, because they are people, brothers and sisters in Christ. Induce all individuals to offer the help necessary for those in need, to renew their own hearts in the grace of Christ the Redeemer."

~John Paul II, Message at St Peter’s Basilica, December 25, 1983


Painting is detail from Nativity, William Congdon

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christmas on New Media (My Christmas Music, Part 3)

I'm still enjoying my Christmas music this week; indeed I'll keep it up through the "Twelve Days" which bring us to the Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the "Magi" from "the East."

In this post I want to just indicate and introduce you to a few of the very talented and dedicated people who make music on YouTube. Here I am referring not to mainstream label artists who post their music (though it's great that good artists do so).

I am referring to (usually independent) artists who use YouTube as a "place" where they really "do" their music. This often includes taking advantage of the possibilities offered by an audiovisual medium, as you will see here. These artists each deserve their own post (and I intend to write more about them and others). Today, I am just going to offer a few Christmas songs.

I do want to emphasize that the artists here, and others like them, are not amateurs, though some of them started out that way, and grew over the past decade along with the huge development and unprecedented access to high quality audiovisual media. Many of them are still very young. These "jewels" are not always easy to find in the rough and chaotic world of YouTube, where anybody can post videos.

I have been paying close attention to this media platform for about seven years, but even though I keep my eyes and ears open for good music, there are many outstanding performers that I have not found, or that I know very little about. YouTube is a vast and ever-changing realm. Often the best we can hope to do is to find our own niche where there is music we enjoy, and then expand our horizons a bit by trying some new things.

Let me show you a few examples of some good YouTube music artists that I know, in the context of their Christmas music.

Tyler Ward. This talented young man has been a protagonist on YouTube for a long time. He does covers and original songs, and also tries to bring other YouTubers greater recognition. He coordinated a YouTube Christmas Show in 2014 with many other artists to raise money for charity. In this video, Tyler sings Silent Night in a subdued acoustic presentation of his "pop-country" style:

Cimorelli. Here are six girls who have been singing covers and also their own songs on YouTube for nine years. They are also a YouTube star story, who began in their living room and now have nearly four million subscribers from all over the world and over a billion views (that's not a typo; that's billion with a "B"). We will have to tell more of their story another time.

Oh, did I mention they are sisters? They're all sisters. Six sisters. Not sorority sisters or step-sisters or half-sisters. Full sisters, all from the same mother and father. Oh, and there are five brothers too. That's 11 kids in the Cimorelli family. (Well, some of them are grownups by now.)

They often do a very interesting pop a-cappella style, with the girls trading off different sections of the lead singing role. They are all fine singers and blend very well together.

"But wait," you say, "who the heck is this family with 11 kids?" It's a big wacky, ebullient, hilarious Catholic family! I'm sure some of you who are reading this blog know families like them. (Some of you are families like them!)

The Cimorelli sisters are an excellent and admirable group of kids and young people. Still—notwithstanding their serious demeanor in this recent, very lovely cover of Carol of the Bells—they are also a hoot! They are funny, full of laughter, and have a fascinating interpersonal dynamic. They are very hip with teenage girl stuff and definitely boy-crazy (though with clear boundaries, which they do not hide). They are also willing to talk about problems that kids go through, and speak about their own experiences, vulnerability, and the lessons they have learned.

But more about Cimorelli "next year." Listen to this beautiful rendition of Carol of the Bells:

Just to give you a sense of their funnier side, check out this cover too, of Santa Claus is Coming to Town:

Jonatan Narvaez with Veronica Sanfilippo. YouTube is really bringing together the international music scene, or rather, it allows local music scenes to remain local while also being connected with others all over the world. Singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Jonatan Narvaez of Buenos Aires, Argentina brings outstanding young talent from around the region to his YouTube channel, working with them and giving them a place to develop their singing and performance art and producing the highest quality music videos.

I will be writing more about Jonatan and this very special Hispanic musical community. Here we present an original Christmas song, Ha Traido la Esperanza, beautifully sung by the very talented young artist Veronica Sanfilippo:

Peter Hollens and Mike Tompkins. When it comes to the audiovisual art of being a one person a-cappella choir, Peter Hollens is the master; he is brilliant in so many ways. I don't have time to write much about him here, so I'll have to take up his phenomenal accomplishments at another time. Peter has built a solid following on YouTube and finances his unique music performances through Patreon, one of several crowdfunding platforms specially dedicated to building community between artists and their "fans"—the latter being in fact actively engaged in a creative collaboration. He also seeks to help other artists by working with them on his platform.

On this cover of the classic Little Drummer Boy, Peter Hollens joins forces with another a-cappella YouTube star. Mike Tompkins is a one person band, who specializes in vocalizing a large variety of rhythmic and instrumental sounds in addition to singing. Here are the two of them presenting a rousing and polished rendition of the rumpa-pum-pum: