Thursday, December 26, 2013

Of Flash Mobs and Seraphim

I remember the first flash mob video I ever watched – it was this jaw dropping, spontaneous invasion of Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia. On some random workday and totally unbeknownst to the shoppers, the store had been infiltrated by that fair city's Opera Company. The mighty organ launched into G. F. Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," and said shoppers listened and gaped, trance-like as in a rapture, while that magnificent music washed over them.

It's getting to the point where flash mobs are becoming almost commonplace, which is a crying shame; but still and all there are times when sheer joy and an almost reckless magnificence can take people off their guard. (Musicians, of course, know that this is not just dumb luck; even the unfolding of a flash mob sequence has to be carefully orchestrated...)

And so it was that, about a week ago, I was able to behold an event that went viral on NPR over the holiday season. The unsuspecting crowd was in the magnificent lobby of the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC; those to blame for all the musical commotion were the amazing musicians and choristers of the United States Air Force Band and Choir.

What happened in that lobby I hope to describe as best I can. But if you want the video experience of the event first, click here. Then read on for my humble take.

It began almost like a murmur. Overwhelmed by the lobby noise of that huge gathering space, a single cello player intoned the notes of Bach's beloved "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Innocuous enough... he could've been a busker, save for the fact that he was in uniform. But then he was joined by another, this time the double bass – and then more: various woodwinds like the bassoon, oboe, flute and clarinet. One anxious listener moved hastily away, but the rest of the crowd began to be drawn in, focusing their attention on the small group that was growing bigger by the moment.

Soon it was a band, and at that point the audience had grabbed whatever electronic devices they could (the enemies of good listening, these things are!) to record the event. By now they knew something was up.

Suddenly, a duo of beautifully matched sopranos, who at first were incognito in the mezzanine, doffed their winter jackets and took over the melody from the strings. The mob had now grown, morphed from instruments to the human voice, and hopscotched from the ground level to the level above. The wonder on the assembly's faces could not be contained – larger and larger the sound grew, going from vocal duet to four part harmony, a small choir now being heard out of nowhere.

And THEN, just when one might think this joy to be complete, the arrangement went ambiguous for a moment, almost as if it was wondering what to do. But this was all intentional, for in the blink of an eye the last surprise emerged from the balcony: an entire cavalcade of brass players! The choir quadrupled in size, the modulation caused every heartbeat to accelerate, and lo! the entire lobby broke forth in acclamation: "Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come!"

It was this moment, one that had been carefully prepared by the music that preceded it, that made me fight back the tears. It was as if the ensemble was saying: "See! Just when you thought your joy was at its greatest, we have not even begun to make our music for you!"

Now what does one do with all of this? To the ears of the cynic or the non-believer, it is merely entertainment. But to the eyes and ears of the believer, what took place in that lobby is a foretaste of heaven.

We sing about this, we Christians. We sing about angels and we actually sing about what it means to sing:
Hark, the glad celestial hymn! Angel choirs above are praising,
Cherubim and Seraphim, in unceasing chorus praising.
Fill the heavens with sweet accord: Holy, holy, holy Lord!

There are rare times on this earth when the angelic, when the sweet accord of heaven, bursts in upon our earthly cacophony. Oftentimes it comes on the wings of song – song which is the enemy of hopelessness and discord.

And on a winter day in our nation's capital, in a huge room festooned by trophies of mankind moving through the heavens, mere humans showed that the fastest and most exhilarating way they can move through air and space is to raise their hearts and voices in common praise of the Source of Love.

If any of you know of someone in the Air Force, please pass this along. They did both their country and their branch of the Armed Services proud.

And if any of you ever need proof positive of the Cherubim, Seraphim, or the angels that move in our midst – do some research on flash mobs. Or maybe turn to this video of the Air Force, which illustrates the amazing powers that truly do fly around us.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Crestmoor Dr, Boone, United States

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Fit

If you're like me, you've been bombarded with Christmas Carols over the past several weeks. And not just by carols – but by every crooner and performer that could conceivably sing the stuff, from Willie Nelson to the Canadian Brass, from Frank Sinatra to Diana Krall, from Ella Fitzgerald to Nat (and Natalie) King Cole.

So it's probably understandable that I actually tune out a lot of this music as long as I can, in order to wrap my mind and voice around it at the proper time.

But a few days ago, my eyes and heart were opened to a phrase that I'd sung for years, heard for years, but had never really thought much about. It's in verse three of Away in a Manger, and the text goes as follows:

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Just out of the blue, I found myself fascinated with the whole concept of this text: We are fitted for heaven. We don't just show up at the gates of eternity and ask for admission. There is a process involved, a "fitting," if you will. An active give and take, a stretching, a wearing down of rough edges, a planting of the flag and a conformity, all at one and the same time.

Fitted for heaven.

I look at the empty manger scene (the very one sung about in this hymn), and I wonder what God has actually done in my own life, this year, to cajole me into the sacred landscape. Almost as if I'm a shoe or a coat: where have I been stretched? Where has the cutting of the cloth taken place? Where is the hole in the coat pocket or the worn out sections? Is everything fitting properly?

When I walk with students at the University, more often than not they're pondering what to do with their lives, and most times they've got, as do most enterprising students, several game plans to choose from. And I find myself often using language like this: "If you make this decision with your life, how does it fit? Walk in these shoes for a while. How does the decision feel? Do you feel comfortable with it?"

In the song, I especially love what precedes the notion of "fitting for heaven." It calls down a blessing on children. Children, who love spontaneity, enter so effortlessly into the eternity of playtime, who are innocent and full of trust. Being like children might just be a key to being fitted into the kingdom of heaven.

These thoughts swirl around me as I stand before the empty manger, looking down upon the straw, and ask myself the selfsame questions that I pose to Notre Dame students: "How am I being fitted for heaven?"

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Location:Waters Dr, Southern Pines, United States

Thursday, December 19, 2013

And the Glory of the Lord Shone About Them...

Anyone knows that the most successful theatre presentation is a Christmas pageant starring first- through third-graders. Parents become blithering, gushing fools; cameras, iPads and video cameras compete for space as if you were at a press conference. No matter if the kids sing off-key, blow their lines, or even knock over the donkey in the stable: they are kids, which means they can do no wrong. The cute factor goes off the charts, and we sit there with grins as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge, tears in our eyes, eating up every moment of it.

Even Charles Schulz couldn't resist the temptation with "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (and to his credit, he even got past CBS with Linus reciting the text of St. Luke's gospel). There they were, doing their Christmas play thing. And by the time Linus takes the stage, we're a mass of emotion.

So when my son, Nathan, invited me and Michele up to Harlem to watch St. Mark's Catholic School's Annual Christmas pageant, we hummed a little bit of "Sign Me Up," hopped onto the subway and headed to 138th Street.

It seems to me that the Church is always at her best when she is most vulnerable. Maybe that's why Jesus made sure to let children come to him. Maybe that's why Pope Francis is making such a point – daily – about realigning ourselves with the poor, marginalized, and prophetic voices about us. Maybe that's why I am so transformed, weekly, by an amazing group of college students who allow the vulnerable yet transformative power of song to touch people's hearts and souls when they sing.

The pictures I took at St. Mark's yesterday were graciously allowed on this post by their superb principal, Mr. Antwan Allen. I'll tell you this – if you want to get closer to God this Christmas season, if you want a huge dose of the glory of the Lord, spend some time with children. Or the homeless. Or find a way to loosen up your vocal chords and become prophetic in the choir loft. The glory is all around us! And just as Scripture says, it is ushered in by the children of the world.

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Location:3rd Ave,New York,United States

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Roses in the Snow

Ya gotta love South Bend in the winter time.

It's always a hoot watching the prospective students and their parents come through on tours in September – the month of Indian summer, when all is golden, the air is warm during the day and crisp at night. "And it's like this all the time!" So say the tour guides.

But then along comes November, and December close behind, and Old Man Winter serves up one of two delectable dishes: either constant grey, and a damp cold that's only mildly aggravating, or those legendary high pressure systems that swoop down from Alberta, Canada – with a cold so intense that your toenails want to curl up and die.

So in the midst of this harshness, I take comfort in one of the more colorful, joyful moments of the liturgical year, one that presented itself at Notre Dame this week: the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The sheer color and alegria of the day makes my heart glad. Mariachi trumpet players with their fat, joyful vibrato, Mexican dancers whose costumes are a resplendent riot of azure and gold and ruby, a Basilica full of faithful people who carry bright red roses and carnations in prayerful pilgrimage... these things are a feast for those who hearts are surrounded by the constant grey and white of Northern Indiana.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is an amazing mystery to me: a tilde presented to an illiterate and indigenous peasant, an image filled with such profound imagery that no one could've conceived it, a maternal presence so strong that it converted a nation to Catholicism when the might of a Spanish army could not. But when I survey these most amazing things, it was the presence of roses in winter that made my heart the happiest. The Patroness of the Americas knew what she was doing when she brought this gift of color and witness to the world. We need them up here, up in South Bend.

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Location:Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Notre Dame

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Company You Keep

This past Friday, I had the joy of spending a few precious hours with friends that I consider some of the most valued in all my labors.

The world in which I live and breathe is that of sacred music – helping people sing by encouraging them to use their own voices. And much of that work, over the years, has been through both composing my own sacred music, and assisting/promoting the work of others at the same time.

None of this happens on its own. There are now, literally, hundreds of thousands of Songs of the Notre Dame Folk Choir scores all around the world. But they wouldn't be there were it not for the dedication of a small group of editors at World Library Publications – the publishers of the ND Folk Choir.

I've been working with many of these people for almost two decades; their dedication to the craft of congregational singing is second to none. Just about all of them have church jobs in addition to their full-time work at WLP. They are, as I have found, just as fiercely committed to the admonitions of the Second Vatican Council as I am.

Throughout the years, the projects I've worked on with my WLP editors have become all the better through creative collaboration with these people. From the Mass for Our Lady to a live recording of 1,500 church musicians in Louisville, from the Abbey of Gethsemani to pulling together talented instrumentalists for an Irish recording, they have been faithful and creative colleagues through my long journey in the world of sacred music publishing.

It is sometimes said that you are known, in part, by the company you keep. If such is the case, then my own life has been all the better because of these people. So here's to you: Ron, brilliant guitarist; Keith, my eyes and ears in the studio; Jerry, the best editor at the helm anyone could ask for; Mary Beth, a never-ending source of elegant class and poise; Jen, whose courage and commitment this past year has been nothing short of inspirational; and Deb, who keeps the presses rolling and always seems to have our concert programs printed ahead of schedule. (And Alan, that master word-smith, I can't go without mentioning you, who have helped me so often over the years!)

I have been blessed, indeed, by these best of companions. They are the company I keep – faithful men and women who work in the same vineyard as I, who pour themselves out that the church might ever be born anew.

As we approach Gaudate Sunday, I can't help but think that rejoicing means all the more, because of this great circle of support.

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Location:Franklin Park, Illinois

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Conundrum of the Four Candles

It happens every year: that strange juxtaposition of two realities.

On the one hand, all the signals from our spiritual life is slowing us down. The songs we put on our lips emphasize waiting, watching, listening. The tone is simpler, more plaintive, deliberate. Even nature cooperates: bare trees, grey skies, seasons in flux – all emphasizing that something else is soon to come.

On the other hand, what surrounds this stance is nothing short of a seasonal sluice pipe: a virtual onslaught of tasks, preparations, lists, details, travel arrangements, party schedules. We approach this end-of-year tsunami with fearful respect for the intensity it brings upon our psyche.

I am always taken aback when these two realities collide. If anything, I need Advent more than ever: sunlight continues to be more precious, darkness seems to be winning the day, and the liturgical work I am facing over the next few weeks seems staggering. I watch, with consternation, the students in my choir, as they face this very same season – topped with their end-of-semester academic demands. I view, with nervousness, the endless marketing mantra that urges us toward Santa Claus (note that I do not infer the Nativity or the Incarnation in this sentence).

It is the conundrum of the Four Candles: this strange mystery of Advent, the time of waiting in the midst of forward motion, the admonition to stay put when all else seems to scream "Get it done!", the holding of my breath when I am out of breath.

I love the music of this season perhaps more than any other. Maybe because I need it now more than at any other time. Maybe because the words I sing are ones that I am not particularly good at: being still, waiting, quieting down, watching.

Maranatha. Let us wait, so that we might be joyful at the last.

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Location:Notre Dame, IN