Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Innocuous Benediction

It happened yesterday, on Delta flight #3938 to Richmond, Virginia. And I suspect that it will happen to you, too, sometime in the next few days. And its happening has been increasing in amplitude little by little over the years, such that now it has become a strong yet disturbing majority.

Here is what happened: my wife and I were stepping off the plane. And the flight attendant, a younger man who had been quite entertaining throughout the flight, stood by the cockpit door as the travelers left. "Happy Holidays," he said.

I looked him straight in the eye, and responded differently. "Merry Christmas," said I. And in that quick moment, I saw in the face of this attendant an awkwardness that summed up the whole of our American society. There was the slightest hesitation, a bewilderment at this seemingly blatant spiritual greeting. And then, there appeared a look in his eyes that said to me, "I wish I could greet you the same way."

Quickly he looked away, ready to bestow the same, innocuous, completely politically correct and inoffensive - and therefore utterly meaningless - benediction on the next passenger.

"Merry Christmas" is a rather enchanting greeting, when you stop and think about it. First of all, it is a wish for joy - and that is something we don't often hear in normal discourse. (How often do you greet a person, or leave their company, simply wishing them joy?)

And equally marvelous: this wish for joy is intimately linked with a feast day! But so much more than a feast; it is the feast of Love come down to earth, out of the heavens, undeserved, unexpected, and so utterly humble that nowadays we still try to recreate it in crèches, pageants, and stories. All this, in two simple words.

Our society is making a quiet but disturbing shift over the years. We are assuming that spiritual greetings are politically incorrect, that they don't belong in common parlance. In short, we are taking away from ourselves permission to be spiritual. And yesterday, that dynamic played itself out as we departed an airplane.

But there have been delightful exceptions to this shift, and if this commentary is to be fair (and, I hope, optimistic), this should also be noted. Last year, while traveling across the Pacific ocean on Alaska Airlines, we were served little lunches with accompanying cards on our trays. The cards had little verses from the Book of Psalms! And that day, as I left the plane, I told the flight attendant how impressed I was that their company did such a thing. And she responded "You'd be surprised how many people tell me that!"

Yes, Virginia, there is a Jesus. And it's ok to talk about him. Better yet, it's just fine to bestow a good wish in his name, especially at this time of year.

Merry Christmas! What a wonderful thing to say, and to receive.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gaudete: Why we're pretty in pink

This awesome Sunday is, as we all know, one of just two times in the year when we break out our rose colored vestments and accoutrements and dust them off. Our song changes, and our spirits have the chance to be transformed as well.

We need this respite from violet, every now and again, to remember the why of our penitence: that, even while we lower our heads and occasionally beat out breasts, God intends us not to be sorrowful, but joy-filled witnesses. We are meant to lift our eyes higher – "to the mountains," as Psalm 121 exhorts us. Ultimately, we are meant to eventually shake off our purple: we are meant to look pretty in pink.

I've heard a lot of talk over these past few months, talk about what brings people to mass, what keeps them coming back, how the new edition of the Missal factors into the whole process. And there are just a few things that I keep coming back to.

First, I don't think people want to go to a celebration of the Eucharist which is not, in fact, celebratory. Do you go to mass because you're compelled by guilt? I think not. I truly believe that it is not obedience or guilt or even tradition that will ensure the regular participation of the faithful. They attend because there is something joyful to witness. They'll go because, at the dismissal rite, they have something to carry with them out the door. And I'm not talking about palm branches here (though we do carry them, once a year). They carry with them an inexhaustible spirit, a joyful countenance, an inner strength, fed by both word and song and Holy Body and Blood.

And secondly, I believe that this Church of ours, if it truly is constituted of holy Joy, has a transformative power that we simply have not dared to experience much over the years. Music that dares to lift, homilies that are bold and engaging and dare to challenge, assemblies that risk unabashed raising of voices – even challenging the strength of a full choir – when have you witnessed such a thing? It is what I strive for, week after week. It is, as our venerable leaders compelled us to dream of two generations ago, a model based on "full, conscious, and active" participation. Full – not half-empty; conscious – not daydreaming; and active – not passive. Three exhortations... just so there was no doubt about what we might try to cook up on our own, with our own agenda.

So as we take pause in the midst of our Advent waiting, let's all keep an eye on our wardrobe. We are a Gaudete people. We are meant to bring joy back to our Creator. We are meant to share that joy with those we meet. We are, indeed, meant to look pretty in pink.

And that is cause for great rejoicing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"I think I could make a career out of this..."

A colleague of mine, who happens to be a liturgy professor here at Notre Dame, once remarked "the liturgy of the church is a continuous thing – it simply never stops." And it is true, evidenced so clearly by a campus which, while preparing for final exams and papers, is also in the midst of Advent, a transition into a new Roman Missal, a celebration of seasonal Lessons and Carols, and a huge mass on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe next Monday afternoon.

So it was, in the midst of all this Advent busy-ness, that I found myself requested to provide music for a memorial mass last Saturday. The liturgy had its own challenges, for it was bringing together congregants from the four corners of our country, and here we were in the middle of a pretty big transition, with new prayers, new dialogs, and new songs.

We had a few stumbling moments, but for the most part, the assembly that gathered in the Basilica Crypt to honor the departed did a really wonderful job of keeping with the new responses. They also sang the Mass for Our Lady – and were superb in their singing.

I played this memorial mass with two great seniors in the Folk Choir: Katie Klee, who cantored, is the current president of the ensemble. And Catherine Hackbarth has been a dedicated librarian who just so happens to play a phenomenal violin!

At the end of the liturgy, Catherine and I were walking back over to the Basilica with all the gear – the guitar, the music, the folders, the amp (half our lives, I swear, is about being your own roadie with the stuff you need to schlep from place to place). And out of her mouth slips this statement: "You know, Steve, I could make a career out of this."

Catherine might not comprehend this, but that kind of statement really defines the work of a minister and choral director. When someone steps up to the plate and says: "I think I want to do what you do!" – it says a lot about the joy you've tried to impart among your young collaborators.

Much of what we do in ministry is about walking along a path. Years ago in Campus Ministry, we were lucky to simply hold the walk together, week to week and season by season. But now, because of the support of wonderful benefactors and more than a generation of experience, we've had the grace and the stability to show and share this work with an ever-expanding group of students. And many of them are beginning to share this path as well.

It is a unique path, this career in sacred music. But for some of us, it is a path worthy of our time, attention and passion. For every time we sing, we tug at the veil that separates earth from heaven. And that is a very noble vocation.