Monday, January 7, 2019

Robbing the People of God of Their Inheritance

Who was robbing the people's inheritance? That was me. I was the stingy uncle holding back from my parishioners the wealth that is theirs in the treasure troves of Catholic music. This homily is a bit about culture, beauty, homage, and awe, but mostly it's about not being afraid to dole out (or to receive) the gems that exist only in Catholic music, and which too often we've left in boxes up in the Catholic attic. Time to pull those crates down and see what we have been missing. And no, I'm not immediately putting in any sweeping changes in music—other than adding a sung Kyrie Eleison where merely we had only recited one before—but more like whetting the appetite for things that we might even be jealous of in other traditions, without realizing we had them in our storage all along. 

Feast of Epiphany, 2019

Robbing the People of God of Their Inheritance

On Christmas I talked about how that holy day is all about bowing. We look at our manger and we see the statues all bowing down to Jesus. The animals bowed. And even the angels from heaven bow down to the Incarnate Word, this little baby. And we talked about how we do a lot of bows during Mass. 

So what do you do on Christmas when already every single Sunday at the Creed you bow down at the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us ("and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of Virgin Mary and became man")? When we get to that part on Christmas,  what do we do? Well, we do a super-duper bow; we genuflect all the way down because we're in awe of the mystery of God come to be with us. And I pointed out that traditionally you see the Magi in various states of bowing. You look over there—now that we have the Magi out—and you see that the back one usually has his head bowed. The middle one is usually genuflecting, nice and prim and proper. And the front one is kneeling, but then he's like almost falling forward:as if he is doing what we heard of in the gospel, "they prostrated themselves and did homage". He is getting as close as possible, bowing down before this beautiful baby. And in fact we actually hear that word “beauty” in our Collect today. The opening prayer says, "that we may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory through this feast day". And that's what they do. They come to worship and to adore and to bow down before that beautiful Christ child.

And we do some weird things all the time as Catholics with our bodies to honor him. We make the sign of the cross. We do our little crosses before the Gospel. We genuflect. We kneel. We do all those sort of things. And we can learn something from Magi about what it is we're doing when we do these physical actions. So first of all, they come to do what? They come to give homage and to adore. Three times we hear that word in the gospel: they come to do homage. But like I said, when they actually got there they added something else; they prostrated themselves. They fell down on their faces as they did him homage. That's what they do. They do it physically. There's a physicality to everything the Magi do. These actions, these motions, but also in the gifts they bring: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are like sacramentals that they're bringing to our Lord in that way. It's very physical what they do. Also note, they bring their own culture. They are not Jews. These are gentiles. That's the whole point of Epiphany. The manifestation of God to Israel was on Christmas when the angels come to the Jewish shepherds and said, "your Messiah has come at last". That's their Epiphany. What we celebrate on January 6 is the Epiphany to the rest of the nations. That's how we get to know about God coming to this earth. It's the Gentiles, the pagans, these Magi—they are there not Jews. They are being brought in to find out about this mystery. And then the last thing is that they took it seriously. Sure, they do some odd things, as in the previous point about their own culture. They always seemed to be dressed up a little weird. As a kid you notice that the Magi have the funny turbans and the funny clothes. They're having their culture, they're doing their thing, and they take seriously that "I've got a job to do." I'm coming here to do this. We too might do odd things as Catholics, but we take seriously that sometimes you do odd things for a good reason and in a serious way and they bring their things of beauty to him. He is beautiful and they bring him things of beauty.

So what do we do? When we come to worship at Mass when we come here to have private prayer time. Even in our own homes, when we come before the Lord, what do we do? We imitate the Magi. We give homage and we adore; we physically enter into it in one way or the other. We bring our own culture. We can't separate ourselves from our own culture or own habits and stuff like that, And we take it all seriously. We say I'm going to put myself in the frame of mind, in the kind of actions, and yeah, maybe we do the weird things. You know, I'm going to kneel. I'm going to use the holy water. Genuflect. Yep! Those are odd things but we take them seriously as we do them, as we bring our beautiful gifts before the Lord. Those are the things we do.

Heck, even look around us now. We have this beautiful church and it expresses those sort of things. It's a way of worshipping and adoring in a physical manner. It has lots of aspects of our culture. It's very Midwestern, very American; it reflects a lot of the things we inherited from our European ancestors—the Czechs mostly, but also the Germans the Irish a little bit. And so these things come out in our art and in our architecture and our music: the things that help us to worship better. It's our beautiful response back to God.

Now, do we have to have them? Are they required? No. Could we have Mass in a field? Sure we could. Can we have Mass with no music. Absolutely. Can we have Mass still if we took away all these things—if we didn't have our statues and our stained glass or incense, icons, the rosary to hold; the wood we have; the gold we have? Sure, we could totally do that, and yet something is heightened and we bring in our own culture when we have those things; when we bring these things of beauty before the Lord. Culture forms art, and then we bring things of beauty out of our art to worship God better.

Vatican II talked about renewing the arts; renewing how we bring beauty to God. And one of the biggest places it emphasized that was in music. It did touch on the visual arts, but especially on music. Vatican II said we really need to realize how important music is. It hit hard on that. But with music at church, it is sometimes hard to really appreciate its place. And the reason why is we're not all good at it...starting right here. <<points to self>> We all have our limitations. Some of us can't read music, including me. I can look and see that the little dots are going up and down and kind of guess. I can do the "Every Good Boy Does Fine" trick. Some of you still do that too, probably. And so I can figure out "That's a C." <ding> You know, I can do that. But that's a limitation. Sometimes if we hear it, we know it well, and we can sing it well. They say we have a golden tongue but a tin ear! We don't always catch the pitch right. Or can't harmonize with others. And that's why sometimes we just let music slide to the side.

I admit it: I did that. When I was newly made a pastor out in Doniphan, I came to this little country church, a tiny little place. We had eight or nine weekend Masses per month. And we had the choir sing at one of those, and the choir had one person on the little organ, and we had about six ladies, aged 40 to 92, probably. And they did their best, but it wasn't exactly the strongest choir you've ever seen. Then at half of the Masses, we had a Clavinova, where literally you push a button and it plays a song—hopefully the song you intended to play, hopefully at the tempo you intended, hopefully in the key you intended. And when you don't get those, it can be kind of a bad day for music. And at the other four Mass a month had nothing. It was literally dependent on the priest, and they are very various levels of skill, to pick out the music and to start it and hope it will keep going through the Offertory and stuff like that.

So it is a little hard to make that shift. And I was telling this to my friend Scott. Now, Scott is a music dork. He is a total music nerd. He was actually at the time getting either his master's or his doctorate in choral conducting. So he's the guy up there with the baton making all the little choir people sing. And I told him about my problems. Now, Scott loves music. He even wrote music for my first Mass. And I said, "You know, I think music is going to be kind of a rough spot for us." And I had kind of decided that it's better not to worry about it. "Better to not have any music than to have bad music," so we'll just kind of shelve the music. And I think a lot of modern Catholics think that. There's actually a book called "Why Catholics Can't Sing" which is all about our internalizing that idea of it being better to have no music than bad music. And I said to Scott I think we're going to have to do that. 

And he said, "No, you can't do that. You can't take that away from them." And I said, "Scott, you're a music guy; you're a music nerd. Of course you'd say that. But you're in different time zone and so you can't help me out." And he said, "No, but literally you cannot take that away from them." I said, "Scott, it's pretty bad; we're actually pretty bad at this." And he said, "It doesn't matter! Look in your Roman Missal (that's the big red book that tells us all the prayers to say.) He says, "Look through there. It doesn't mention lights. It doesn't mention heating or air conditioning. It doesn't mention pews or any kind of seats in there. But there's lots of places it tells you to sing." I replied, "Ok, well, kinda...." And he fired, "Listen. You are robbing the People of God of their inheritance." Whoa. He said, "Yup. Literally they are heirs, as Catholics, to 2000 years of amazing, beautiful music—an unmatched tradition in any other denomination—traditional music, new music, whatever. They are the heirs to all of it. And you're like the stingy uncle who won't let the kids have the money their parents left them if you do that." 

And I was like, "Ooo, that sounds bad." But after talking to him, I realized he was right, that I was holding back. I wasn't willing to "put out into the deep" to try different things, to invite people in, to make tough requests of people to try harder. I thought it was easier to cut the music out. But now I realized I can't do that: that's stealing your birthright. The music of the Church is the birthright of the Christian people, and there are certain things that we and we alone own in the music world. (And in the art world too; there are symbols and traditions, creations of beauty, that we alone have) but especially in music, there are things that are uniquely ours and we need realize that and to love them. They are our treasures, and when we get to see them, we're like, "Whoa, that is super cool," but we have to have the chance to see them to realize what we have there.

Some of you might have seen the meme that's gone around the last couple of years at Christmas time. I think it's from Downton Abbey. That's the super rich noble family in the mansion in England before World War II, and the kinda snobby daughter is saying (I think to a new maid), "The Christmas tree stays up until Epiphany. The longer you stay here you'll learn how to do things the right way. Properly." And I think it's meant to be a meme for us Christians to keep Christmas going throughout the Christmas season. But as I read it, it's not so much about getting things "proper", in the sense of manners, but it's about giving people the little things that they've inherited in their faith that they can't get elsewhere. And there are things like that that are uniquely ours—this symbol, that image, this music—which are uniquely ours.

Have you ever talked to somebody who is trying to describe a moment from a Catholic ceremony or ritual or Mass, but they don't know how to describe it. Maybe they've gone to a different place like a big cathedral and they don't know how to describe what they saw. Maybe it was like on Holy Thursday or Good Friday, so it's something we don't see very often. And you are like, "Was it this?" "No." "Hmm, was it like that?" "No." And then you try to find the right words to give them an image, or maybe even hum something, or you sing it, and they're like, "YES! That! That was the thing." Ok cool. That was the this. And they are like, "That was awesome. I loved that."

Or even from a non-Catholic or a non-Christian—they might, you know, have gone to a Catholic thing and seen something that struck them and they are like. "What is this? This, this...dirt? The head dirt. You put the dirt on the head." And we reply, "Was it Ash Wednesday? Was it on a Wednesday?" And they say, "Yes, I Think it was a Wednesday. I like the dirt. It's good sign.".

Yes. Because it's one of our coolest things: that we have this outward sign that we wear the rest of the day saying yes I really, truly, greatly, mean what I'm saying here as I begin Lent. And it's a cool thing that the other person caught it. It hit them, and they just knew there was something unique and special on that day at that ceremony. And that's ours and I love that.

You'll see people go to different rites, like the Byzantine Rite—or they'll go to a Coptic church—for like a wedding or a funeral and they'll come back and they'll be excited, "Ahhhh, they sang this hymn or they did this thing..." And as a Catholic priest half the time I want to say something to say like, "You know, we actually have that. We have the cool thing too. Did you know that?" It might be buried in like our hope chest of Catholic things up in our Catholic attic that we've kind of neglected, but we have it. And usually it is those iconic things—and I mean "iconic" here literally. There's a sound or an image that just summarizes everything. Hollywood gets this. If you watch a Hollywood movie and they want to show you this person is religious and it's showing you something, they will give you that image, that ritual, that sound, that music, whatever, to drive home "This is the thing that encapsulates an entire religious idea." It was reflecting on this after what Scott said, that made me realize we need to start chasing after those things. We need to start rifling through those chests up in our attic and find when we have. Things that are uniquely ours that you're not going to find anywhere else.

So a couple of years ago when I got here to Wahoo I realized I would have a lot more funerals than I used. And one of the things that struck me was: "I want to sing the In Paradisum." It's a simple thing; it's 90 seconds long—in paradisum deducant te angeli—it's this tiny little song but it exists in only one place in this world. Only Catholics do it, and it is done only at the end of a Catholic funeral Mass. If it wasn't for YouTube, you would literally have to have a Catholic friend die before you could hear it. And it's ours. But it's forgotten. I mean, I went to a lot of funerals growing up and I never heard it. And it's like this little ruby, this tiny jewel, in our chest that we've forgotten about. And so I literally took six months practicing before I ever pulled it out because I was scared to death of getting it wrong, but I finally had the guts to do it about a year ago. And I did it for a couple of funerals. And some person came up and said, "Hey that little thing you do, the little song you do at the casket? Whatever that is. Keep doing that. That's really cool." Again they can't describe it, but they know that it hits some little thing for them. If you've ever seen the movie "Rudy", when Rudy leaves the funeral of his friend to go and chase his dream....that happens while they are showing you the In Paradisum. Again, Hollywood knows: You grab the most iconic moment to say "This is a Catholic funeral." They know that. We've forgotten.

Give you another example. For years I would go to people's bedsides and anoint them. And in the ritual where it gives you the Prayers for the Dying, after you give them the last blessing (the apostolic pardon), it gives you the option to sing the Salve Regina. But I'm always sitting there with family, and I think,  "Well, we learned it in the seminary but normal people don't know it." I mean, it's the "Hail Holy Queen" in Latin; we could just recite it in English, but I didn't usually do it. But one day I was at a hospital bed, alone. The person seemed to be struggling and no one else was in the room. So I was like, "I'm just going to sing it. Maybe it will help." So I sing the Salve Regina and actually the nurse came in before I finished and she was like, "Ooh that was cool. Do you always do that?" I was like, "No...." And she said, "Keep it up. I like that. Do that." And it was a thing where I thought to myself: Yeah we should do that. I am going to do that every time I do an anointing now, at least if it's near a person's death, because maybe they can't hear the words we are speaking to them normally, but maybe they hear that tune and it strikes something from their childhood and reminds them that Mary is there to lead them over the waters to her Son...that could be an incredible consolation in that moment.

Another example, the Exsultet. That's the big, very tricky song, which we only sing at one place—at the Easter Vigil after we light the paschal candle. You only do it on that night and you only do it in the Roman rite of the Catholic Church. And we do that. But I didn't do it for years. "That's too tricky. I can't do that." And no one in Doniphan was brave enough to do it and even my first year here in Wahoo we said, "You know I've got a big voice. I'll just proclaim it nice and loud and robustly," something like that. But then people started saying, "It needs to be sung." I replied, "Yeah...but we can't really sing it well." But people need to hear it; it's one of those things that they deserve. Again, you're robbing the people of their inheritance. So we got somebody who could sing it and I'm like OK we're never not singing that again. That should be sung.

Even the Christmas Proclamation: if you went to Midnight Mass, you heard it. I did it. I don't think I sang it very well. But again it's one of those things that only goes one place all year. You have to do it at that Mass; you can't do it even at the vigil Mass or the next day, Christmas itself. It only goes there and it's just this beautiful thing that tells about everything leading up to Christ being born.

So today when I had you sing the Kyrie Eleison, there was, first, a practical aspect to that, because we literally have no sung "Lord have mercy/Kyrie eleison" in this parish. I asked people and they said that for decades we've never sung anything there; only recited it. Well, if we need to pick one, then well, let's pick one of those nuggets—let's find that little sapphire and hold that up to the light. And sit there saying, "Yeah, that's a really cool thing." And again, if your kindergartner who can't read English yet can sing in Greek, you can too. It's not that hard; you can totally do it; I believe in you.

So this is our inheritance. It's all these cool things. And yeah we can be scared to venture out into the musical world with all this. G.K. Chesterton had a cool line on this. He said, "Yes, anything that's worth doing, is worth doing well. But things that are really worth doing, are even worth doing poorly." And I think that includes our music as well. We have to be brave enough to face that.

I want to end with one last thing that doesn't have to do with sound but with sight and touch. In the back of the church, there are bowls full of chalk. Yup, chalk. Blessed chalk; I blessed it before each of the Masses. You can take a colored one if your little kids like the bright colors, or you can take white if you're old and boring, that's fine. I encourage you to take one home with you; and there's a little blessing back there also. It's the house blessing for Epiphany. Again it's for the Day of Epiphany and you put up on your door the little crosses and you put the year 2019; you put "CMB" for "Casper, Melchior, Balthazar" the Wise Men. We're saying, "May we invite people in and receive them, but then also we will keep bad things out." It's one of those things where they told us at our last Priest Study Day that exorcism experts say it's probably the best house blessing out there. What's cool is you don't need the priest there to do it. The priest has blessed chalk; you as the head of your household can do it. So like the dad would do it, or some other head of a household can do this. And you yourselves do the blessing of the house.

And the most important thing is your kids will see you do it. And you might feel like this is a little weird...this feels kind of dumb...old timey...what am I doing here? That's OK. Your kids are going to remember it years later, and they're gonna be like, "I don't remember what that was about, but we did it and it belongs to the Catholic world, which means it belongs to me. It's part of my inheritance. It's one of those little sapphires in the treasure chest that is mine. It's a piece of my inheritance. And I got to hold it after not having looked it for a long long time and say 'This is part of my treasure.'"


  1. The C M B letters abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat: “May Christ bless the house.”

  2. Amen, Father, As a Lutheran church musician, I support sing hymns and the propers and ordinary in Mass. God bless you, Thomas