Monday, March 21, 2011

The Solemn Reproaches on Good Friday

In the Good Friday rite of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, one of the options during the Procession of the Cross is to sing the Solemn Reproaches. This ancient text, known also as the Improperia, first appeared in Good Friday or Holy Saturday rites of the ninth century. The text then slowly spread in use through the middle ages and then was finally added to the Roman rite in the fourteenth century. One of the great controversies with the ancient text is its anti-semitic stance. This known history makes the use of the text today very difficult. But, thankfully, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship text of the Reproaches has been revised for contemporary usage.

The structure of the text is simple: each reproach begins with an expansion on Micah 6:3: "O my people, [O my church,] what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!" Then, each reproach continues with a new biblical claim, not unlike that of Micah 6:4; "I brought you up from the land of Egypt..." Finally, each reproach concludes "...but you have prepared a cross for your savior." The assembly responds to each reproach with a petition for mercy; in the ELW text the response is the Trisagion (the "thrice holy") of the eastern church: "Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us."

The biblical claims are a tour de force of scriptural allusions, from both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament:
  • I led you out of slavery into freedom;
  • I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud and fire;
  • I made you branches of the vine and never left your side;
  • I gave you the kingdom and crowned you with eternal life;
  • I washed your feet as a sign of my love;
  • I raised you from death and prepared for you a tree of life;
The next to last reproach of the ELW text merits the most attention.

O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?
Answer me.
I grafted you into my people Israel,
but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt,
and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
        Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
        have mercy on us.
This additional reproach in the classically anti-semitic text calls the church to repentance of all earlier versions. Further, when sung in the Good Friday liturgy in which the John Passion could be heard as an indictment of the Jewish nation, this reproach aids the liturgy considerably. This reproach, along with the newly reworked Bidding Prayer in the ELW Good Friday rite will help us considerably.

Various musical settings of the Solemn Reproaches exist that allow for the reproach to be sung by a cantor and the response by the assembly. Several settings, including one that I composed, are included in the "Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days" from Augsburg Fortress:

Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days

One last word: these Reproaches find themselves in a rite that is widely unknown among ELCA congregations. Having spent the last three years doing workshops across the church on Lent and the Three Days, we found that overwhelming numbers of churches do lots of different things on Good Friday -- tenebre, three hours with the "seven last words," cantatas, even requiems (very, very bad idea) -- and not this Good Friday rite. I cannot recommend the Good Friday rite as it is in ELW to you and your congregations enough. Do it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why do we sing?

Upon attending vibrant Christian worship, some in the assembly might come away from the event asking, "Why do Christians sing as much as they do?" Of course, there are plenty of Christian assemblies these days that do little communal singing. Such assemblies are influenced by our entertainment culture that values recorded music, or highly professionalized music, such that those assemblies are quite content to sit back and let a hot-shot band or choir do it for them. But there are also plenty of Christian assemblies that are enjoying a renewal of assembly song, where Sunday after Sunday, the assembly is given the task of being the primary musical ensemble in the room, singing a diverse repertoire of hymns and canticles around the means of grace.

That anyone would ask the question above should not surprise us. We live in a time when communal singing is a counter-cultural activity. Even at the ballpark, when the singing of a national anthem was once common-place, fewer and fewer people actually sing the anthem, and more listen to the professional hired to do it for them. Families may have more frequently found time to sing together in the past, but the plethora of activities pressing in on household schedules means that families infrequently eat together, much less sing together. So when Christians sing together, they are engaging in an activity that they rarely do elsewhere. Some may wonder if such a counter-cultural activity is worth it. Here is why I think it is worth it:

Jews and Christians believe in a God who creates out of an audible impetus. The first creation story of Genesis tells the story of a God who speaks, and from that speaking all creation comes into being. "God said, Let there be...light, dome, waters..." The story does not imagine that God visualized these things and made them visible. No, they exist because God makes a noise. Christians continue this understanding of an audible God with their reception of the Gospel of John, in which the Word -- the audible presence of the living God -- takes on flesh and lives among us. That Christians value ordered sound -- or music -- as a primary means of gathering, proclaiming, celebrating, and sending is no accident. Our God is an audible God.

The ancients even considered that when God set the planets, the sun, the moons in their orbits -- the very movement of the orbs caused a "music of the spheres." Such a belief values that music is intrinsic to creation, part of God's created order.

So, when Christians sing together in assembly, they participate in the creative work of God. Further, God's spirit is breath, and God's breath fills us that we may sing. When we sing together, our breathing is unified and we participate in the inhaling and exhaling of God's very spirit. Music gives form to the moving breath of God.

When voices are set together in tandem, either unisons happen, or relationships of harmony are created. The relationships of harmony can be consonant or dissonant, but they are still only created by relationship. Our singing together is metaphoric to our life together. Our individual voices come together with others and create relationships that are not unlike our life as a united body. The sound is molded and stressed and reshaped when we sing together. Such singing helps us to identify ourselves intrinsic to a body, like a hand or and eye or a mouth. In the singing assembly, we discover our part of the body.

Why do we sing? Because singing does something for us that no other thing can do. It pulls us into community, into the breath of God, into relationship, and into the ordered sound of creation.

Some may feel unqualified for the task. "I can't sing," they say. While it may be true that some of us are so damaged or abused that our voices lie dormant in our bodies, and some of us legitimately were created without voice, more of us can sing than we are willing to admit. Again, we are silenced by a recorded culture that creates an expectation in us that singing be perfect. No communal singing is perfect. It will bear the marks of humanity; it will be frail and fragile. It will not always be in perfect rhythm or pitch. Most people have the potential to find their voice and join it to the voice of the assembly, perhaps with help and encouragement. The Christian assembly has a responsibility to welcome all voices and to cultivate and encourage each voice to find its part. Such is the nature of a united body, set on a task. The body of Christ -- the assembly in which the Triune God is made audible -- welcomes your voice, be it fantastic or feeble, to the song of the church.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hymns on the Sundays in Lent

At a recent discussion about hymnody with some musical colleagues from diverse congregations across the ELCA, someone suggested that we might sing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" (ELW 503-505) as hymn of the day on the First Sunday in Lent. Many bristled at the idea; one person even said, "Oh, we can't do that in my congregation -- it's not a Lenten hymn." And I wondered, "what do they think makes for a good Lenten hymn?"

It is true that many of us were formed in a church where Lent was understood as a primarily penitential time, a period where we walked step-by-step each week of Lent with Jesus to Jerusalem. It made some sense, if one experienced the liturgical year as a chronological walk through Jesus' earthly life -- you know: Advent (Jesus is unborn in Mary's womb), Christmas (Jesus is born), Epiphany and the time after (Kings come, Jesus is baptized, begins earthly ministry), Lent (moving toward Jerusalem), Holy Week (eats with disciples, is denied and tried, dies) and Easter (he is risen and appears) and Pentecost and the time after (the Spirit is poured out and the church lives into its future). But the church year did not originate as a chronological walk through Jesus' life, but as a gathering each Lord's Day (Sunday) over which are imposed two different cycles -- the incarnational cycle of Advent / Christmas / Epiphany, and the paschal cycle of Lent / Easter. The incarnational cycle occurs when it does in the year not because we believe Jesus to have been born on December 25, but because we keep the feast of the light of the world coming into the world on the darkest days in the northern hemisphere. More, the paschal cycle comes when it comes because Christians know from the scriptures that Jesus was crucified at passover, the springtime festival, and so we keep our annual observance in tandem with the Jewish calendar. English speaking Christians are at a disadvantage at Easter -- most other languages and peoples use the same word for the Jewish passover and the Christian observance of passover -- Pascha (or some variant on that word)

Because Christians understand baptism as the sacrament that joins us, by water and the word, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, it became customary that baptisms happened at Easter. If the church baptized at Easter, then there was needed a time to prepare candidates for baptism, to teach them the faith into which they were being baptized. Forty days of preparation before the feast allowed the church to teach the meaning of the faith and especially the meaning of baptism.

Lent, in its origins, is then a time of preparation for baptism and baptismal renewal. The scripture readings we read now during Lent are the classics of the Christian faith. This year we read from the Hebrew scriptures of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, and Ezekiel, from Paul's letters his correspondence with the church at Roman and Ephesus, and except for the first and last Sunday in Lent when we read from Matthew, we read from John's Gospel stories of images of baptism: Nicodemus and his nightime inquisition, the woman at the well, the healing of the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. Finally, at the end of Lent we have the Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) when we read the details of Jesus' denial, trial, punishment, and death. We read the story of his passion one way, from the synoptic gospels, on Sunday, and then another version of the story, from John, on Good Friday.

It is right to sing the hymns of Christ's passion and death at the end of Lent, when we read these amazing and perplexing stories. But leading up to the Sunday of the Passion, the Sundays draw us deeper into the meaning of being baptized into Christ's death and resurrection -- into the stories of people of faith called to live a life in God. Lenten hymns then can sing robustly or with solemnity, in major and minor keys, in rhythmic vigor or meditative nuance, in joy and contemplation -- in the vast array of ways music sings the faith of the church.

So, in our Lent in our time, musicians will resist the temptation of playing only music in minor keys or in slow mournful strain, as if to impose a pall of gloom and sadness. Lent in our time does not deny the cross or repentance for sin. But Lent does not invite us to have amnesia about the story of our life in God and pretend that the resurrection and forgiveness have not already also come to us. And especially the Sundays in Lent, which are in the season and not of the season (skip Sundays when counting to forty), call us to sing the breadth and depth of the Christian life. Thus, music in Lent has many colors, tempos, and tonalities. And all of it points to the rich life in Christ we receive through cross and resurrection.

Sing "A Mighty Fortress" on the First Sunday in Lent this year -- and don't hold back. This is the best Sunday for the hymn. Let it rip.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Singing with our Brothers and Sisters in Japan

All of the news and pictures coming from Japan beg our contant prayers. In addition to our prayers, we might also find ourselves in the company of our Japanese brothers and sisters by singing one of their hymns in our Sunday assemblies. Consider adding one or both of the hymns with Japanese origins included in Evangelical Lutheran Worship over the next weeks.

ELW Hymn 718, "In a Lowly Manger Born" at first glance looks like a Christmas or Time after Epiphany hymn, but it is broader in scope. Stanza three reads:
Then, to rescue you and me, Jesus died upon the tree. See in him God's love revealed; by his passion we are healed. Now he lives in glory bright, lives again in pow'r and might; come and take the path he trod, son of mary, Son of God.
Set next to John 3:16 ("God loved the world in this way..."), this hymn would be a welcome addition on the Second Sunday in Lent in Year A.The tune name MABUNE comes from the first word of the hymn in Japanese and it means "manger."

ELW Hymn 530, "Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather" was written for the Fourteenth World Council of Christian Education Convention held in Tokyo in 1958. In the ELW Hymnal Companion, Paul Westermeyer writes:
The hymn was written when fear and suspicion were mingles with new possibilities. Beyond the world's perplexity the church, as is its birthright, looked for sustenance and help to Jesus as savior, teacher, healer, and master. The hymn presumes passages like John 14:12, Romans 10:12-13, Ephesians 1:7-14, 2:13-22, and Psalm 102:25-27 along with John 14:6 as context for the world's confusion and need: servants old and young from many tongues and scattered lands gather at the cross of Christ -- with love's demands, hope in darkness, and nature's secrets opened wide -- facing change, looking for peace in the midst of distress and endless strife, praying for help to work in an age of renewal.
The tune TOKYO sounds considerably more Japanese than MABUNE, but is still easily sung. Also, if assemblies learned to sing it this Lent, it could very well be repeated on the Fifth Sunday of Easter this year when we have the passage from John's gospel as Jesus "the way, the truth, the life."

Singing an ever-widening repertoire of global hymnody is important for every Christian assembly, whether the congregation is monolithic or quite diverse. Singing words and music from other times and places reminds us that the church exists beyond the four walls of a building, beyond the confines of our city, state, or country, beyond the cultural make-up of one particular congregation or church, and beyond the boundaries of time and location. Singing global hymnody is not about trying to create a church that is more enticing to people of diverse cultural backgrounds, as if we were marketing Jesus to a particular demographic ("Let's sing an Asian hymn to get Asians to come to our church"!!) Nor is singing global hymnody a task that is motivated by somehow being "politically correct." Instead, singing global hymnody is about the incarnation -- it means that God comes enfleshed in diverse colors, tongues, and styles. We sing what the body of Christ -- the church -- looks like.