Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hosanna in the highest!

We sing this too quickly, forgetting that "hosanna" is Hebrew for "save us," and "in excelsis" means (in a world that is not a three-story universe where heaven us up and earth is down) "beyond all things." Gail Ramshaw once translated "Hosanna in the highest," as "Save us, we pray, you beyond all." Our musical settings of Hosanna  often treat the word as though it were interchangable with "Alleluia" (a latinization of the Hebrew word for "praise YAH (unspeakable name of God)" -- but Hosanna is more petition ("save us") than praise.

Think about that while waving your branch around: "Save us, we pray, you beyond all."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Two Passions Each Year: Part Two

My opinion that the church read two passions each year is informed by an unusual context. This year I have the remarkable opportunity to prepare and perform Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Society at Christ the King Lutheran Church. Last year I was able to prepare and perform Bach's St. John Passion also with the Bach Society. Preparing and studying these two large works, created by Bach for the Good Friday Vespers in 1724 and 1727 respectively, gives anyone who does such preparation a unique perspective.

Bach Society Houston

Bach's setting of Matthew's passion story accentuates Anselm's theory of the atonement. This theory understands Christ as a sacrificial lamb, willingly going to his death, out of love (aus Liebe) to redeem humanity of sin and death. Such was the orthodox Lutheran position that dominated Leipzig in Bach's day. Bach's setting of John's passion story illuminates the "Christus Victor" paradigm, where God in Christ goes deeply into sin and death and swallows it up in a cosmic battle, destroying death forever. For this, Bach goes back in time, skipping over Lutheran orthodoxy, and uncovering Luther's theology of the cross. See, for instance, Luther's Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden:
Our Savior Jesus, God's own Son,
here in our stead descended;
the knot of sin has been undone,
the claim of death is ended.
Christ has crushed the power of hell;
now there is naught but death's gray shell --
its sting is lost forever. Hallelujah. (ELW 370, Stanza Two)
Bach inherited the pattern of presenting the passion accounts from the four gospels in the communal worship of his time. That he tried to balance the best of orthodoxy with the best of Pietism, and that he seeks to tell the stories of Christ's life, death, and resurrection in remarkably different ways can serve as a model for us in our time of competing pieties, where religion of the heart and mind always need to be held in balance and creative tension, lest we arrive at a practice that is either too intellectual or too emotional.

My defense of the RCL appointment of two passions each year is motivated by a hope that the church take the opportunity to go deeply into both (all?) of these ways of thinking about Christ's loving act for the world on the cross. I urge the use of the lectionary not only for all of the ecumenical churches that shared in its creation, but especially for Lutherans who have a history of honoring both (all?) of these ways of looking at the atonement. The passion stories from Mark and Luke, while different from Matthew, share the viewpoint of Christ in his humanity. The current RCL proposal is still very good for our churches -- we should embrace it.

The stated goal of liturgical renewal in our time toward the recovery of the Three Days, spanning sundown Maundy Thursday through sundown on Easter Day, and the encouragement to the church to attend the worship of the Three Days is still urgent. We should not discard the lectionary because current attendance figures show that people don't come on Good Friday. And we should not imagine that the RCL on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday was created out of practical concern that people hear at least one passion each year. Instead, we should commit to teaching about the bible, the liturgy, and even the lectionary, so that we encourage people to observe the richness of the year by attending both Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and Good Friday, so that our proclamation is like a deep well and not a shallow stream.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Two Passions Each Year

(Warning: this blogpost is more about liturgy and lectionary at Pascha than it is about music, although those who make music in the liturgy will want to at least think about these matters, especially if they make music on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and definitely if they serve as a cantor for a sung Passion.)

Each year the questions arises: "Why does the lectionary appoint a reading of the Passion on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and another on Good Friday? Isn't one Passion enough?" It is true -- the Revised Common Lectionary recovers the more ancient pattern of reading the Passion from the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) on Sunday of the Passion, and the Passion narrative from John on Good Friday. Some remember a time when Palm Sunday included only the gospel narrative of the entry to Jerusalem and never took the paradoxical turn that the liturgy appointed for us now takes. Here are a few reasons why I think we need both Passions each year:
  • The four gospels tell the story of Jesus in remarkably different ways, but the differences are most vividly seen when one compares the stories surrounding Jesus crucifixion in the synoptic gospels with the story from John's Gospel. In John, Jesus' divinity is proclaimed. In the synoptics, Jesus' humanity is proclaimed. To quote from Worship Guidebook for Lent and the Three Days:
The synoptic accounts stress the humanity of Jesus, and each tells in its unique way about his sufferings. Yet, paradoxically, we read of his sufferings on a Sunday, the same day in which we celebrate his resurrection. On Good Friday we proclaim his trial and crucifixion as told by John. John's gospel stresses that Jesus is the incarnate God who goes to reign from the cross. Again, paradoxically, on the Friday of Jesus' death, we proclaim the gospel that boldly announces the divinity of Christ... Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, and each year we strengthen this faith by listening to the passion in both the synoptic gospel and John. We hear the more sorrowful story on Sunday and the more triumphant story on Good Friday.
  • Although it may appear to be so at first glance, the liturgical year is not a chronological walk-through of Jesus' earthly life. (i.e. Advent = Jesus in Mary's womb; Christmas = Jesus is born; Epiphany and Time after Epiphany = Jesus' earthly ministry gets started; Lent = walk with Jesus to Jerusalem; Easter = Jesus dies and is raised; Pentecost and the Time after Pentecost = the Spirit is poured out on the churches) Instead, the church year is shaped first by the Sunday-after-Sunday encounter with the risen Christ in word and sacrament, over which two annual cycles are laid: the incarnational cycle around the winter solstice, and the paschal cycle around the first full moon of the spring equinox. The lectionary is "our way to read the bible against our experience of time on this globe we call earth." (Lathrop, from an unpublished lecture) People who argue that Palm Sunday should be dedicated to the entrance into Jerusalem and the narrative of the crucifixion be reserved for Good Friday are often arguing from an expectation that the lectionary be a chronological calendar, which it is not.
  • "We always need at least two things to tell the truth about anything." Telling a biblical story two different ways saves us from the trap of reading the bible as though it were a newspaper report of how things actually happened. Telling the story of Christ's passion two ways each year protects us from pretending to be Mel Gibson creating a movie of the "way it was." Having two stories each year helps us not read the bible as literalists, but instead helps us to read the stories that we might believe -- not because we have the facts, but because the paradoxically different stories give space for us to find hope and comfort. So -- read Luke on Christmas Eve and John on Christmas Day; read John's narrative of Easter morning at the Vigil of Easter and the synoptic story on Easter Day. Christians tell our most important stories in at least two ways.
One final opinion, and this is a word about the lectionary in general:
  • There is a remarkable witness made when congregations around the globe make use of a common lectionary. This witness speaks of the unity we share as Christians beyond denominational lines and beyond the borders of country and continent. Certainly the current lectionary we share is not perfect, but it is the best we have right now, and is far better than what we had before. Biblical, liturgical, and other theological scholars today are right to share insights concerning how the lectionary might be reformed in the years ahead. But local congregations should be careful about discarding the lectionary because of an article here or a lecture there. Let lectionary reform happen among the consensus of the churches -- but until then: keep the lectionary. By making a commitment to keep the calendar of readings and psalms, regardless of whether we're feeling up to proclaiming it or not, makes a statement about our commitment to unity among our churches, and the unity we have in Christ Jesus.