The Genius of Sacred Music as Heard in Seven Musical “Onomatopoeias”

Do you remember the meaning of the literary term onomatopoeia? In case you’ve forgotten, it’s a word that sounds like the object it describes. Words like oink, meow, wham, sizzle, and my personal favorite: yackety-yak are examples of onomatopoeia.

There are times when music, including sacred music, has an onomatopoetic quality; they sound like what their words are describing. For example, there are songs that describe the crucifixion featuring hammer blows in the background, and songs about the resurrection and ascension that feature notes soaring up the scale.

The best way to understand musical onomatopoeia is to listen to examples of it. So, consider the eight examples of sacred music I present below, which powerfully take up the very sound of what the words are describing.

N.B. The clips below are meant to be played by an embedded player. If your browser does not support such a player, clicking directly on the source hyperlinks to link directly to the MP3 files.

This first clip is from the vespers of Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, a French composer who lived in the 1700s. In his treatment of the text of Psalm 126 Nisi Dominus (unless the Lord build the house) comes the line sicut sagittae in manu potentiae ita filii (like arrows in the hand of the mighty, thus are his children). This is a psalm that praises the gift of children and goes on to declare, “Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them!” In this short clip, the text sicut sagittae (like arrows) thrillingly depicts the sound of arrows flying forth. The sound is created both by the strings and the voices. As you listen, marvel at the vocal discipline required of the choir to create this musical onomatopoeia.

Source: Mondonville Grands Motets, Purcell Choir, Orfeo Orchestra

Could you hear the arrows flying forth?

The second clip continues in a kind of battle-like mode. It is from the oratorio “Jepthe” by Giacomo Carissimi, who lived in the 1600s. It recalls the Old Testament story of Jepthe, one the Judges who ruled Israel prior to the monarchy. Jepthe is summoned to battle against the Ammonites and wins a great victory, only to fall into the grave sin of keeping an evil vow that leads to the death of his only daughter. The clip we will hear is from the battle scene in the oratorio. The Latin text is Fugite, fugite, cedite, cedite impii, corruite, et in furore galdii, dissipamini! (Flee, flee, yield, yield, impious ones, be scattered, in the furor of swords we strike you down!) You’ll hear pulsing sounds from the choir and strings, reminiscent of the sound of clashing swords and spears. The rushing sounds of the strings also paint a picture of a fleeing army. The sudden softening of the volume of the choir creates the image of an army that has fled and is now off in the distance.

Source: Carissimi, Oratorios. Chamber Choir And Orchestra Of The Gulbenkian Foundation Of Lisbon/Michel Corboz Dir.

Our third musical onomatopoeia is probably the best known of all the clips presented here. It is from Handel’s Messiah. The text says, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Sure enough, the music sounds just like what the words describe as the choir creates a meandering sound. One can almost hear and see the sheep going astray.

Source Messiah: London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Walter Süsskind

And while we are considering animals, our fourth clip is a musical onomatopoeia that imitates the sound of a cock crowing. It is from the motet “Vigilate” by William Byrd. The text of the Motet is from Mark’s Gospel (13:35-37), in which the Lord Jesus, Vigilate, nescitis enim quando dominus domus veniat, sero, an media nocte, an gallicantu, an mane (Watch! For you know not when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, at the cock crow or morning). The excerpt is of the choir singing the words an gallicantu (at cock crow). Just see if the music sung doesn’t imitate the very sound of a cock crowing (cock-a-doodle-doo)! It begins in the men’s voices but becomes clearest in the treble voices at the end.

Source: The Tallis Scholars Sing William Byrd, Peter Phillips Dir.

The fifth clip depicts a common technique in Orchestral Masses. At the words crucifixus etiam pro nobis (and He was also crucified for us), the orchestra takes up the sound of hammer blows. The clip is from the Beethoven Mass in C. Listen especially to the deep bass and cello sounds and the hammer blows they bring to mind.

Source Beethoven Mass in C Robert Shaw; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus

Our sixth clip moves us from war and suffering to love. It is Palestrina’s treatment of a text from the Song of Songs. The Latin text is Surge amica mea (Arise my beloved). As the word surge (arise) is sung by the various voices, the notes soar high through the scale. (The sopranos reach the highest notes, of course.)

Source: Palestrina: Missa Aeterna Christi Munera, James O’Donnell & Westminster Cathedral Choir.

The seventh clip is from a well-known motet by Thomas Luis Victoria, a Spanish priest, mystic, and composer of the 16th century. The Latin text is O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery). The overall text develops the idea of the paradoxical mystery that animals would witness the birth of Christ and see him rest in their feed box (manger). In the opening bars, hollow fifths evoke the very mystery of which the text speaks. Victoria’s mystical prayer resonates through this wonderful piece.

Source: Missa O Magnum Mysterium. The Choir of Westminster.

Our eighth and final clip bring us to Jericho and another battle scene, this one thrillingly set forth in the arrangement of the African-American spiritual “The Battle Jericho” by Moses Hogan. We hear the percussive intensity of a battle during the siege of the walls and the likely use of arrows and swords. A soprano soloist takes up the sound of the trumpet that the Lord directed to be sounded. And then the choir imitates the sound of falling with their final word, “Down!”

Source: The Spirituals, Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

So, then, here is a brief tour of musical genius evident in the sacred music of the Christian tradition. Perhaps you know of other examples of musical onomatopoeia!

 

 

 

Two Hard Sayings in One Day – A Homily for the 21st Sunday of the Year

Hard Sayings

Hard SayingsThe readings this Sunday feature two “hard sayings,” one on the Eucharist, the other on marriage. One is hard because it defies our sensibilities, the other because it is out-of-season and politically incorrect. This is a long reflection. What I present here is really two separate sermons, but both merit some attention.

The first “hard saying” is Jesus’ insistence that the Eucharist is actually His Body and Blood. He says that we must eat His true Flesh and drink His true Blood as our true food, as our necessary manna to sustain us on our journey through the desert of this life to the Promised Land of Heaven.

We have examined this teaching extensively in previous weeks and it is clear that the Lord is not speaking figuratively or symbolically. His listeners understand Him to be speaking literally; He is insisting that they eat His flesh, really, truly, and substantially. The severe reaction of His listeners can only be explained if they believe that Jesus is speaking literally. The listeners scoff and murmur, but Jesus only doubles down, insisting that unless they gnaw (trogon) on His flesh and devour His blood they have no life in them (cf Jn 6:53-54).

This leads to the crowd’s response: This saying is hard; who can accept it? The Greek word translated here as “hard” is Σκληρός (skleros) and does not mean hard in the sense of being difficult to understand. Rather, it means hard in the sense of being violent, harsh, or stern. It describes a position (or person) that is stubborn and unyielding; it describes something (or someone) that won’t bend or submit.

Despite every protest, Jesus will not back down. He will not qualify what He said or in any way try to minimize its impact. So essential is the food of His Flesh and Blood that He will not even hint that there is some way out of this “hard saying.”

The upshot is that many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Knowing this and seeing it, Jesus still sticks to His teaching. He poses this question: Do you also want to leave?

The Eucharist remains a “hard saying” because it goes against our senses. Of the five senses, four are utterly deceived, for the Eucharistic elements still look, taste, smell, and feel like bread and wine. Only the sense of hearing is safely believed: “This is my Body … This is my Blood … The Bread that I will give is my flesh.”

Yes, it is hard; will you leave? Maybe you won’t leave, but will your faith in the Eucharist be tepid, the kind of faith that is not devoted? Will you drift away from regular reception of the Eucharist? Where do you stand on this “hard saying”?

How consoled the Lord must have been by Peter’s words: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God. How joyful He must be hearing your “Amen” each Sunday as you are summoned to faith: “The Body of Christ.” Yes, you stand with Christ.

Sadly, others leave. Only about a quarter of Catholics today go to Mass. Further, many others reject the dogma of the True Presence in the Holy Eucharist even though Jesus paid so dearly to proclaim it to us. In light of the recent scandals and the loss of trust, I am immensely grateful that many of the faithful can look beyond the mess and still find Jesus. He is still here and some live beautifully this old saying: “Don’t leave Jesus because of Judas.”

Is it a hard saying? Yes, but say Amen anyway! Stand with Jesus!

The second “hard saying” is hard for a different reason: it is (way) out-of-season and politically incorrect. It insists not only on headship within marriage but male headship. The Holy Spirit and the apostles apparently never got the memo that this teaching is a “no go” in our modern, “enlightened” age. Indeed, the text Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord is like a stick in the eye to most moderns. Talk about a hard saying!

There are cultural and worldly notions that underlie the rejection by many Catholics and Christians of the biblical teaching on the headship of the husband. This concept is unpopular in our culture, which usually gets pretty worked up over questions of authority in general, but that is because the worldly notion of authority usually equates it with power, dignity, rights, and being somehow better than someone else.

That is not the biblical view of authority. Consider what Jesus says about authority:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority and make their importance felt. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:41-45).

Jesus sets aside the worldly notion of authority, wherein those in authority wield their power by “lording it over” others using fear and the trappings of power. In the Christian setting there is authority (there must be), but it exists for service.

Consider a classroom teacher. She has authority; she must, so that she can unify and keep order. However, she has that authority in order to serve the children, not to berate them and revel in her power over them. The same is true for a police officer, who has authority not for his own sake but for ours, so that he can protect us and preserve order.

Having authority in a Christian setting does not make one person better than another, for authority is always exercised among equals. Our greatest dignity is to be a child of God, and none of us is more so just because we hold a position of authority.

Worldly notions of authority do affect Christians. Many harbor resentments against authority because they think of it in worldly ways. Further, many who have authority (and most of us have some authority in some capacity) can fall prey to these worldly notions and abuse their leadership role.

The key to understanding the authority of a husband and father within the home is to set aside worldly notions of authority and see the teaching in the light of the Christian understanding of authority: that it exists for love and service, to unite and preserve.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the highly unpopular and politically incorrect notion of wives being submissive to their husbands. The teaching is found in several places in the New Testament: Ephesians 5:22ff (today’s text); Col 3:18; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1. In all these texts, the wording is quite similar: wives are to be submissive to, that is under the authority of, their husbands. In each case, however, the teaching is balanced by an exhortation that the husband is to love and be considerate of his wife.

The most well-known of these passages is today’s text from Ephesians 5: Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is Head of the Church … so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything (Eph 5:20-21, 23).

This may grate on your nerves, but don’t just dismiss what God teaches here. One of the great dangers of this passage is that it is so startling to modern ears that many people just tune out after the first line and miss the rest of what God has to say. There is text that follows. And before men gloat over the first part of the passage, or women react to it with anger or sadness, they should pay attention to the rest of the text, which spells out the duties of a husband.

You see, if you’re going to be the head of the household there are certain requirements that must be met. God is not playing around here or choosing sides. He has a comprehensive plan for husbands that is demanding; it requires them to curb any notions that authority is about power and to remember that, for a Christian, authority is always given so that the one who has it may serve. Before we look at submission we might do well to look at the requirements for the husband:

Love your wife – Pay attention, men! Don’t just tolerate your wife. Don’t just bring home a paycheck. Don’t just love her in some intellectual sort of way. Love your wife with all your heart. Beg God for the grace to love your wife tenderly, powerfully, and unconditionally. Do you hear what God says? Love your wife! He goes on to tell husbands to love their wives in three ways: passionately, with a purifying love, and with a providing love.

Passionate love – The text says that a man is to love his wife even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her. The Greek word παραδίδωμι (paradidomi), translated here as “handed over,” always refers in the New Testament to Jesus’ crucifixion. Husbands, are you willing to give your life for your wife and children? Are you willing to die to yourself and give your life as a daily sacrifice for them? God instructs you to love your wife (and children) with the same kind of love He has for His Bride, the Church. That kind of love is summed up in the cross. Love your wife passionately. Be willing to suffer for her. Be willing to make sacrifices for her and for your children.

Purifying love – The text says of Christ (and of the husband who is to imitate Him) that He wills to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Now a husband cannot sanctify his wife in the same way that God can, but what he is called to do is to help his wife and children grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. First, he is to be himself under God’s authority, thus making it easier for his wife and children to live out their baptismal commitments. He ought to be a spiritual leader in his home, praying with his wife and children, reading scripture, and seeing to it that his home is a place where God is loved and obeyed, first of all by him. His wife should not have to drag him to Mass. He should willingly help her to grow in holiness and pray with her every day. He should become more holy himself as well, thus making it easier for his wife to live the Christian life. He should be the first teacher of his children, along with his wife, in the ways of faith. In too many American homes, the man does not act as the spiritual leader of his household. If anyone at all is raising up the children in the Lord, it is usually the wife. Scripture has in mind that the husband and father should be the spiritual leader to his wife and children. Scripture says, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). Fathers and husbands need to step up and not leave all the burden on their wives.

Providing love So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it. Husbands, take care of your wife in her needs. She needs more than food, clothing, and shelter. These days, she can get a lot of that for herself. What she needs more is your love, understanding, and appreciation. She needs for you to be a good listener. She needs an attentive husband who is present to her. Like any human being, she needs reassurance and affirmation. Tell her of your love and appreciation; don’t just assume that she knows. Show care for your wife; attend to her needs just as you do instinctively for your own. Encourage her with the children. Confirm her authority over them and teach them to respect their mother. Show her providing love by taking up your proper role and duty as a father who is involved with his children. That is what God is teaching here.

So, scripture does teach that a wife should submit to her husband, but what kind of husband does Scripture have in mind? A husband who really loves his wife, who is a servant-leader, who makes sacrifices for his wife, who is prayerful and spiritual, who submits to God’s authority, and who cares deeply for his wife and her needs. The same God who teaches submission (and He does) also clearly teaches these things for the husband. The teaching must be taken in its entirety, but all that said, there is a teaching on wives submitting (properly understood) to their husbands.

There is just no way around it. No matter how much the modern age wants to insist that there doesn’t need to be headship, there does. Every organization needs a head. Consider your own body. With two heads you’d be a freak; with no head you’d be dead. The members of your body need a head to unify the parts, otherwise there would be disunity, decay, and decay. Every organization needs headship. It needs an ultimate decision maker, a person to whom all look when consensus on a significant issue cannot be reached. The Protestants have tried to have a “Church” without a head, without a Pope, and behold the division. Even this country, which we like to call a “democracy,” is not actually a pure democracy. There are legislators, judges, law enforcers, and many other people and mechanisms that exercise local, state, federal, and final headship and authority.

Thus, in a family, where consensus and compromise may often win the day, there nevertheless must be a head, a final decider to whom all look and submit, in order to resolve conflicts that cannot otherwise be worked out. Scripture assigns this task to the husband and father. Headship just has to be, but remember to shed your worldly notions of it when considering the teaching of Scripture. Headship (authority) is for love and service; it is for unity and preservation not for power, prestige, or superiority.

His Wrath is Not Turned Back, His Hand is Still Outstretched! Pondering the Wrath of God as a Work of Revelation

When reading Scripture that mentions the wrath of God, most think of His wrath in human terms. But we must be clear that God does not get angry the way we do. Further, our God is not moody: pleasant and patient one moment and then angry and punishing the next. No, God does not suffer from mood swings or throw tantrums. God is love; stably, serenely, and consistently so.

So then what is God’s wrath? I have written on this topic in greater depth here: What is the Wrath of God? However for this post, allow me to summarize by saying that God’s wrath is His “passion” to set things right. His wrath is His work to root out sin and injustice and bring forth holiness and righteousness.

Another thing to note about God’s wrath is that the anger is really more in us than in God. The wrath of God is our experience of the total incompatibility of our unrepentant sin before the holiness of God. It is like fire and water: they do not mix. And one can hear the wrathful conflict when fire and water come together. So the sinner in the presence of the all holy God is going to experience a conflict. It is not so much that God is angry as that the sinner is incapable of enduring His glory, so bright and awesome. It is like wax before the fire.

In this post I would like explore how God’s wrath is also a work of revelation. St. Paul says, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). And so St. Paul speaks of God’s wrath as being revealed, as being a work of revelation. As such, it exposes our injustice, error, and sin.

A text we read in the Liturgy of the Hours this week (from Isaiah Ch. 9) also develops God’s wrath as a kind of light of revelation, as a hand pointing out our iniquity. Within the longer passage below there is this refrain: For all this, his wrath is not turned back, and his hand is still outstretched! For indeed, God’s wrath casts a light on our wrongs and his outstretched hand points to them, revealing them and executing their results. Let’s consider Isaiah’s treatment of the revelatory wrath of God.

The Lord has sent word against Jacob,
it falls upon Israel;
And all the people know it,
Ephraim and those who dwell in Samaria,
those who say in arrogance and pride of heart,
“Bricks have fallen,
but we will build with cut stone;
Sycamores are felled,
but we will replace them with cedars.”
But the Lord raises up their foes against them
and stirs up their enemies to action:
Aram on the east and the Philistines on the west
devour Israel with open mouth.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
and his hand is still outstretched!
(Is 9:8-12)

And thus we see that the wrath of God reveals in Israel a bold, prideful resistance to His warnings. “Bricks have fallen … [and] sycamores have been felled.” These were warnings from God that neither natural nor man-made structures can stand; they crumble under the weight of sin and injustice. Yet instead of heeding the warning, the people doubled-down on their sins, arrogantly thinking that they could replace what God had established with designs of their own.

For us today a similar pattern is evident, as our families crumble and we twist nature. But even seeing the darkness and deep confusion we have ushered in, we still do not seek God’s light again. Rather, our culture “doubles down” and arrogantly asserts that we can redefine marriage, family, sexuality, and even the nature of things themselves. We sweep aside the “bricks and sycamores” that God has established, thinking that we can do better with the stone and cedars of our imagining.

Having instructed Israel through His law and warned her to no avail, God handed Israel over to her enemies, just as today we are being handed over to the enemies of our rebellion: STDs, depopulation, divorce, cohabitation, sexual confusion of a colossal nature, the tragic loss of our children through abortion, the decline of our children (lack of discipline, lack of proper psychological formation) due to broken families—the list could go on and on.

When the text says that God “handed them over,” it means that He let them have their own way and allowed them to suffer the consequences. As would any loving father, God seeks first to teach and warn His children. Next, He resorts to punishments that seek to draw us back from the full impact of our sin. But if all these fail, He finally hands us over to our own designs.

When we experience wrath, we experience the total incompatibility of our sinful stance with the glory for which we were made. There comes on us, collectively and individually, a burning indignation toward God and any who represent Him or remind us of the truth for which we were made. We project our anger on God. But God is not angry. Rather, He has a passion, a will to set things right. His justice and love are one reality.

How is the wrath of God a work of revelation? It shows us the full consequences of our sinful rejection of God and His plan for us. The fact is, we grow weak and become easy prey for our enemies, both literal and figurative. For Ancient Israel this meant Aram and the Philistines. For us in the decaying, once-Christian West it means we become too weak to resist enemies like lust and greed. We can no longer make commitments and keep them; we have little self-control. These enemies devour our strength, cloud our minds, and erode our progress.

This wrathful condition is a revelation from God, showing us what we are when we reject His favor, His mercy, and His call to truth. As a work of revelation, there is always the hoped-for response: repentance. But, sadly, the text continues in this way:

The people do not turn to him who struck them,
nor seek the Lord of hosts
.

And so the wrath continues, revealing to us in ever-deeper and darker tones the full depths of our condition, of our sad state. Sin grows; the young especially suffer from the sins of parents and elders. If we do not want grace, we will not have it; if we do not seek His mercy and grace, we will be increasingly without them. We cannot endure God’s holiness and justice apart from grace and mercy, and so we experience His holiness as wrath. This reveals to us our grave condition.

Time does not permit further commentary on the text below (from Isaiah). But as you read it, is there not a sobering sense that what is described is all too familiar? Is not this wrathful recitation a revelation?

The leaders of this people mislead them
and those to be led are engulfed.
For this reason, the Lord does not spare their young men,
and their orphans and widows he does not pity;
They are wholly profaned and sinful,
and every mouth gives vent to folly.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched!

For wickedness burns like fire,
devouring brier and thorn;
It kindles the forest thickets,
which go up in columns of smoke.
At the wrath of the Lord of hosts the land quakes,
and the people are like fuel for fire;
No man spares his brother,
each devours the flesh of his neighbor.
Though they hack on the right, they are hungry;
though they eat on the left, they are not filled.
Manasseh devours Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh;
together they turn on Judah.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched!

Woe to those who enact unjust statutes
and who write oppressive decrees,
Depriving the needy of judgment
and robbing my people’s poor of their rights,
Making widows their plunder,
and orphans their prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
when ruin comes from afar?
To whom will you flee for help?
Where will you leave your wealth,
Lest it sink beneath the captive
or fall beneath the slain?
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched
!

Yes, as the text asks, what will we do on the day of full judgment? Even when we are in our worst state, God allows His wrath (our experience of His holy justice) to be a revelation to us, in the hope that before our final judgment we will finally call on Him. For on that day, the door of possible change will close and our condition will be final and forever fixed.

Woe to us that God’s wrath must be our revelation, his wrath is not turned back, his hand is still outstretched. Better for us to repent and allow His beautiful truth and mercy to be our light, our revelation. Have mercy on us, Lord. Give us added graces to repent!

Rock-a My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham – the Wisdom of an Old Spiritual

In times like these, you need a refuge, a place to rest.

There is an old African-American spiritual that says, “Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-a my soul!” At first glance its meaning may seem obscure, but it speaks to a deep tradition and a kind of spiritual strategy that has great wisdom.

Biblically, the “bosom of Abraham” referred to the place of rest in Sheol, where the righteous dead awaited the Messiah and Judgment Day. It is mentioned once: in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke16:22-23). In it, Lazarus is said to rest and abide in the bosom of Abraham awaiting the Messiah’s full redemption, while the rich man is in Gehenna, a place of torment.

More generally, though, the image of resting in the bosom of Abraham is rooted in that of a sick, frightened, or wounded child in the arms of his father. Most people can remember awakening from a bad dream when they were young and running into their parents’ bedroom for refuge.

Spiritually, Abraham is our father in faith; he also symbolizes the heavenly Father. The ancient Jews considered the bosom of Abraham a place of security, both in life and after death. Resting in the arms of Abraham meant being where the evil one could not reach and the just rested securely.

Christians, too, have taken this image of safety and rest in the arms of Abraham. It finds expression in the beautiful hymn “In Paradisum,” in which Christians are commended to the place (the bosom of Abraham) where Lazarus is poor no longer. One of the antiphons in the final commendation says, “May angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.”

Then came this African-American spiritual that added a rocking motion to the beautiful rest in Abraham’s arms. The spiritual life is likened to the action of a father rhythmically rocking his child in his arms. The rocking is soothing and reassuring, and (if one is attuned to it) adds a necessary spiritual rhythm to life.

Yes, rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Oh, rock-a my soul. In a world of injustice and great darkness, we need the soothing rhythm of the Father’s love. We need to learn to dance and move to its rhythms and not be overcome with the tremors and evils of this world.

Consider the graceful dance in this video and seek to imitate its wisdom. Learn to move to the rhythm of the Father rocking us in His arms. Learn to move to the gentle and steady beat of God’s love as He holds us close.

Rock-a my soul …

Enjoy this video, featuring an interpretation of this beautiful and rhythmic spiritual. It is a graceful and exuberant dance showing security in God’s love and embrace.

The Assumption of Mary is Our Feast, Too

Let’s ponder this feast in three stages.

I. ExplainedTo be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into Heaven. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary was taken up into Heaven. We do not just acknowledge that her soul was taken to Heaven as is the case with all the rest of the faithful who are taken there (likely after purgation). Rather, Mary was taken up soul AND body into Heaven after her sojourn on this earth was complete. There is no earthly tomb containing her body; neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful. This is our ancient memory and what we celebrate today: Mary was taken up body and soul into Heaven.

II. Exemplified – The actual event of Mary’s Assumption is not described in Scripture. However, there are other assumptions recorded in the Scriptures, thus the concept itself is biblical.

    1. It happened to Enoch in the Old Testament. The Book of Genesis records: Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). Hebrews 11:5 elaborates: By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God.
    2.  It also happened to Elijah as he walked with Elisha: And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven … And he was seen no more. (2 Kings 2:11 ).
    3. Some say that Moses, too, was taken up since his grave is not known: He was buried  in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt. 34:6). The text of course does not say that his body was taken up, and even if it was, it occurred after death and burial. Jude 1:9 hints at that fact when it says, But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses … (Jude 1:9). Some further credibility is lent to the view of Moses being assumed by the fact that he appears alongside Elijah in the Transfiguration account. Some of the Church Fathers held this view and there is also a Jewish work from the 6th Century AD entitled The Assumption of Moses that represents the tradition of Moses’ assumption. But in the end the assumption of Moses is a view held only by some, and it not officially held by the Church.
    4. And while it is true that the historical event of Mary’s Assumption is not recorded in Scripture nor are there historical accounts of the event, there may be one other scriptural account that evidences Mary’s whereabouts, body and soul.  The Church presents for our consideration in today’s second reading a passage from the Book of Revelation wherein John records his sighting of the Ark of God:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads … The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter (Rev 11:19 – 12:5).

The woman is clearly Mary since the child is clearly Jesus. And where is Mary seen? In Heaven. Now some may argue that this passage does not necessarily indicate that her body is in Heaven but rather may only be referring to her soul. However, the physical description of her in the text is rather strong.  Some also argue that Mary is linked to John’s sighting of the Ark of the Covenant, which is seen by John in Heaven. He mentions the Ark and goes on to describe the woman clothed with the sun (Mary) and there is a possibility that he is still describing the Ark. (I have written on this elsewhere: Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant.)  If Mary is the Ark described, then she is in Heaven, since the Ark is clearly described as being in Heaven.

So the biblical record, while not recording the event of the Assumption of Mary, does set forth other assumptions and thus shows that assumption itself is a biblical concept. Further, Mary’s physical presence in Heaven seems to be hinted at by John and some would argue that the passage actually attests to her physical presence there.

But remember, the Church does not rely solely on Scripture. In this case what we celebrate is most fundamentally taught to us by Sacred Tradition in that the memory of Mary’s Assumption goes back as long as we can remember.

III. Extended – The Feast of the Assumption may be of theological interest to some and may provide for interesting biblical reflection, but eventually the question is bound to arise: “So what? How does what happened to Mary affect my life and what does it mean for me?” The answer to this question is bound up in nearly every Marian doctrine. Simply put, what happened to Mary, in a profound and preliminary way, will also happen to us in the end. As Mary bore Christ into the world, we too bear him there in the Holy Communion we receive and in the witness of his indwelling presence in our life. As Mary is (and always was) sinless, so too will we one day be sinless (immaculate) with God in Heaven. As Mary cared for Christ in His need, so do we care for Him in the poor, the suffering, the needy, and the afflicted. And as Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven, so too will we be there one day, both body and soul.

For now, our soul goes to Heaven (once purified) but our body lies in a tomb. But one day when the trumpet shall sound, on that “great gettin’ up morning,” our body will rise and be joined to our soul:

For we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” … Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:51-57).

So our body shall be assumed, shall rise and be joined to our soul.

Improved model!  An older woman once said to me (upon hearing that her body would rise): “Father if this old body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!” Yes indeed! Me too! I want my hair back, my slender figure to return, and I want knees that work! I want to upgrade from a general issue version to a luxury model. And God will in fact do that. Scripture says,

    • He will take these lowly bodies of ours and transform them to be like his own glorified body (Phil 3:21).
    • But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body … So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; … And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven (1 Cor 15:35-49).
    • Yes, we shall also be taken up—assumed—and then shall be fulfilled for us the saying of Job, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another ‘s (Job 19:25-27).

The assumption of our bodies, prefigured by Christ in His own power and also in Mary by the gift of God, will one day be our gift, too. For now, though, it waits till that “great gettin’ up morning.” Until that day and on that day, fare you well; fare you well!

This song is an African-American Spiritual and speaks of that “great gettin’ up morning” when our bodies will rise. And if we have been faithful they will rise to glory!

I’m gonna tell you about the coming of the judgment (Fare you well) There’s a better day a coming … In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well! Oh preacher fold your Bible, For the last soul’s converted … Blow your trumpet Gabriel … Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right calm and easy Do not alarm all my people … Tell them to come to the judgment … In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well. Do you see them coffins bursting? Do you see them folks is rising? Do you see the world on fire? Do you see the stars a falling? Do you see that smoke and lightning? Do you hear the rumbling thunder? Oh Fare you well poor sinner. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well.

Are Some of the Psalms Boastful?

To anyone who regularly reads the Liturgy of the Hours, some of the psalms seem downright boastful. They sound too much like the Pharisee who went to pray and said, God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:11-12). In the very next verse, Jesus recommends a briefer prayer for us: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How, then, are we to understand some of the psalms that seem to take up a rather boastful and presumptuous tone? Consider these three passages:

    • The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight (Psalm 18:21-24).
    • My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Psalm 131:1-4).
    • I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me … therefore I hate every wrong path (Psalm 119:100-102).

For us who would pray these, the spiritual approach is twofold.

These psalms are prayed in hope. While we are not worthy to say such words without a lot of qualifications, by God’s grace they will one day be true for us. God is drawing us to perfection. While total perfection will not come until we attain Heaven, if we are faithful we should be progressing toward this lofty reality even now.

Hope is the confident expectation of God’s help in attaining holiness and salvation. One day in Heaven we will be able to say, “I do not sin; I am blameless before God. I am not proud and never depart from your decrees, O Lord.” Hope is the vigorous expectation that these words will one day apply to us fully; for now, we recite them in that fervent hope.

In effect, we are memorizing our lines for a future moment, when by God’s grace we will actually be able to recite them truthfully. Praying psalms like these is like a dress rehearsal for Heaven. These psalms amount to prolepses of a sort, whereby we proclaim a future reality as if it were already present. Our confidence to speak proleptically is in Christ alone.

These psalms are on the lips of Christ. When the Church prays, Head and members pray together; it is the whole Body of Christ that proclaims these psalms.

Christ never wavered, never drew back from God’s Law. He never sinned; His hands were clean from defilement and He was rewarded for His righteousness. Christ alone prays these psalms without any qualification.

In the Old Testament, these psalms pointed forward to the Christ, to the anointed Messiah. Today, they still point to Christ and He alone utters them authentically. None of us can really pray them apart from Christ, as members of His Body.

Even the perfected in Heaven cannot pray them without reference to Christ, for it is He who accomplished in them the perfection that makes such psalms a reality for them.

It is Christ who prays these psalms, and we—through Him, with Him and in Him—head and members—are praying them to the Father.

Without Christ, such psalms amount to haughty boasts and presumptuous declarations, but with Christ our Head, they are true; we can rightly pray them in the hope of our own perfection, one day, by His grace. We can also pray them in the joy that some of our brothers and sisters in Heaven have already attained to the perfection described therein. This is because the grace of Christ has had in them its full effect.

By Breaking a Wooden Yoke, You Forge an Iron Yoke!

Monday of last week (18th Week of the year) there was a powerful passage from the Book of Jeremiah. It is practical, profound, and sweeping in its implications, and it comes to us from the Lord through the mouth of Jeremiah the Prophet:

By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

Rather than looking at the historical meaning (i.e., that God was going to use Assyria to humble Israel), let’s consider what it means for us today.

What is the wooden yoke if it is not the cross? Indeed, the Lord says as much: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt 11:28-30).

The Lord has a paradoxical answer for us who labor and are heavily burdened. He tells us to take the yoke and burden that He has for us. The yoke is a symbol for the cross, and like most yokes, it connects us with another—the Lord! To be sure, God does have a yoke for us. We do need purification and discipline. However, the yoke He has for us is “easy.” The Greek word used is χρηστός (chrestos), which also has the connotation of being well-fitting, serviceable, or adapted to its purpose. The Lord’s yoke for us is productive unto the end He has in mind: our healing and salvation.

Do not turn the yoke (cross) into something abstract or think of it only in terms of major things such as cancer. The cross also has real, practical, daily dimensions such as exercising self-control and moderation. The cross (yoke) includes resisting sin, forgiving, and living chastely and courageously despite difficulties or persecution. These crosses are common to all true Christians. There are also some specific crosses that each of us carries, ones that the Lord permits for our humility and purification. Perhaps it is a physical illness or infirmity; maybe it is a spiritual emotional struggle; perhaps it is the loss of a loved one, job, or home.

These things are the wooden yoke, the cross of the Lord, and He carries it with us for we are yoked with Him (praise God). Because these burdens are from Him, they are well-suited to us; they are just what we need to avoid even worse things, including Hell itself.

What if we break and cast aside the wooden yoke, as many do today by ridiculing the Christian moral vision and the wisdom of the cross given to us by Jesus?

By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

How is this? Consider the toll that indulging in the moment can take: 

    • In rejecting the wooden yoke of moderation, chastity, and the limits of God’s moral law, we forge the iron yoke of addiction, obesity, financial trouble, sexually transmitted diseases, broken families, and all the heartache that follows. Pornography, lust, alcohol, and drugs enslave with an iron yoke.
    • In refusing the grace to forgive, we fuel violence and conflict. Many wars in the world today are fought over grievances that stretch back hundreds or even thousands of years.
    • Our greed fuels an insatiable desire for more, and we begin to live beyond our means or to live in such a way that bring us more stress than happiness.
    • Even the simple neglect of our daily duties causes work to pile up and seem overwhelming.
    • Our culture has become ever more severe as we abandon the wooden yoke of common moral standards and simple human decency. What we end up with is a culture that is more unforgiving and severe than ever. General moral standards give way to selective moral outrage resulting in: cancel culture, growing lists of grievances, and an easily offended victim-culture,  a bewildering list of words  are now forbidden and an outright criminalizing of views contrary to the sexual revolution. It is an iron yoke.  

All of these iron yokes, and more come upon us because we break the wooden yoke of the cross. To be sure, fulfilling our daily duties, living moderately, chastely, and soberly are all crosses because they involve some degree of self-denial, at least in the moment. However, the wooden yoke is a lot easier than the iron yoke that results if we cast aside the more manageable, and well-fitting yoke of the cross.

Pay attention, fellow Christian, Satan is a liar. He offers to lift the gentle yoke of the Lord. He expresses “outrage” that the Lord should require any suffering or discipline from us. He “takes our side” and utters a complaint on our behalf, but he is a liar and a fraud. Once we let him lift the wooden yoke he locks us in an iron yoke. Do not forsake the wooden yoke of the cross, for if you do, an iron yoke is sure to follow.

It is a simple pearl of wisdom, yet it is so often ignored: By breaking a wooden yoke, you forge an iron yoke! (Jeremiah 28:13)

Believe What Jesus Says – A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday amounts to a summons to faith by Jesus. He is summoning us to faith in Himself and in the truth He proclaims about His presence in the Holy Eucharist. Last week’s Gospel ended with Jesus declaring that He was the bread come down from Heaven. This Sunday’s Gospel opens with His Jewish listeners grumbling because He claims to have come from Heaven. Throughout the Gospel Jesus stands firm in His call to faith; He teaches them of the necessity of faith, its origins, and its fruits. Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in four stages.

I. The Focus of FaithThe Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Their lack of faith is a scandal. In addition, it shifts our focus to the need for faith and emphasizes how difficult it is to have faith. Both the scandal and the difficulty are illustrated in the background to the crowd’s lack of faith.

Recall that Jesus had just fed over 20,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, leaving 12 baskets full of scraps. It was this very miracle that led many of them follow Him to the other side of the lake. All the miracles Jesus worked were meant to summon people to faith and to provide evidence for the truth of His words. The Gospel of John recounts Jesus saying, for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear witness that the Father has sent me (John 5:36).

Yes, their lack of faith, their grumbling, and their murmuring was scandalous. The multiplication of the loaves and fishes was not the first miracle Jesus had worked to this point and it would not be the last. Recall that he had

Changed water into wine, healed lepers, healed the centurion’s servant, cast out demons, healed the lame, healed the woman with a hemorrhage, raised Jairus’ daughter, cast out blindness, cured the man with a withered hand, walked on water, calmed storms at sea, healed the deaf and mute, caused miraculous catches of fish, raised the widow’s son, and raised Lazarus!

What do they focus on? On what Jesus does or on where He is from? It seems clear they are more focused on His human origins: where He is from and who His human kin are.

How many people today really put their focus on what God is doing, on the many daily miracles of simple existence, and on the many ways that even defeats become victories?

Jesus focuses on faith because we humans are a hard case and our faith needs to grow.

II. The Font of Faith – Noting their lack of faith, Jesus rebukes them in these words: Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets: They shall all be taught by God. Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.

Jesus teaches two things here: that our faith in Him comes from the Father, and that we are a hard case.

First, Jesus teaches that His Father is the source of our faith in Him. Scripture teaches this truth elsewhere as well:

  • For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8).
  • This is my beloved son, listen to him (Matt 3:17).
  • But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me (John 5:36).
  • I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me (John 8:18).

The central work of the Father is to save us by drawing us to faith in His Son, whom He sent to redeem the world.

Jesus also teaches that this work of God generally meets considerable resistance from us. This is evident in Jesus’ words: the Father must “draw” us to the Son. The Greek word used here is ἑλκύσῃ (helkuse), which means to drag, draw, pull, or persuade; it implies that the thing being drawn or dragged is resisting. This same word is used in John 21:6 in describing drawing a heavily laden net to shore.

Thus, Jesus points to their stubbornness in coming to faith. We are stubborn and stiff-necked, so the Father must exert effort to draw—even drag—us to Jesus.

Yes, we’re a hard case and sometimes we have to be “drug.” Someone once said,

I had a drug problem when I was young: I was drug to church on Sunday morning. I was drug to church for weddings and funerals. I was drug to family reunions and community socials no matter the weather. I was drug by my ears when I was disrespectful to adults. I was also drug to the woodshed when I disobeyed my parents, told a lie, brought home a bad report card, did not speak with respect, spoke ill of the teacher or preacher, or if I didn’t put forth my best effort in everything that was asked of me. I was drug to the kitchen sink to have my mouth washed out with soap if I uttered a profane four-letter word. I was drug to pull weeds in Mom’s garden and to do my chores. I was drug to the homes of family, friends, and neighbors to help some poor soul who had no one to mow the yard, repair the clothesline, or chop some fire wood. And if my mother had ever known that I took a single dime as a tip for this kindness, she would have drug me back to the woodshed. Those drugs are still in my veins and they affect my behavior in everything I do, say, and think. They are stronger than cocaine, crack, or heroin. If today’s children had this kind of drug problem, America might be a better place.

III. The Functioning of Faith Jesus goes on to teach about how faith functions and what its fruit is: Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.

Regarding the functioning of faith, the Greek text is clearer than the English translation. The Greek word used here for “believes” is πιστεύων (pisteuon), a present, active participle. This construction signifies an ongoing action and is better translated as “He who goes on believing” or “He who is believing.”

The danger is in reducing faith to an event or an act. Some say that they answered an altar call; others point to their baptism. That’s good, but what is going on today? What is prescribed here by the Lord is lasting, ongoing faith. It is a lasting faith because faith is more than a one-time event; it is an ongoing reality. Faith is more than something you have; it is something you do, daily. It involves learning and trusting in God. It is a basing our whole life on His Word, the daily obedience of faith.

Here are a few other Scripture passages about the ongoing need for faith:

  • But you must hold fast to faith, be firmly grounded and steadfast in it. Unshaken in the hope promised you by the gospel you have heard (Col 1:21ff).
  • Brethren I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved by it at this very moment provided you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain (1 Cor 15:1).
  • He who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).

IV. The Fruit of Faith – Having taught of the ongoing quality of faith, Jesus also speaks of its fruit: eternal life.

The Christian use of the word “eternal” does not refer only to the length of life but to its fullness or quality. The Greek word that is used here is αἰώνιος (aionios), from which we get the English word (a)eon). According the Greek lexicon of Scripture, the word does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age.

Note, too, that the Greek word translated here as “has” is ἔχει (echei), which is a present, active indicative. Thus, it does not refer just to something that we will have but something we now have. Believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession. We do not enjoy it fully, as we will in Heaven, but we do have it now and it is growing within us.

Thus, Jesus teaches that the believer enjoys the fullness of life in him even now, and in a growing way each day. One day we too we will enjoy the fullness of life, to the top, in Heaven.

Here, then, is Jesus teaching on the functioning of faith (its ongoing quality) and the fruit of faith (eternal life, i.e., the fullness of life).

V. The Food of Faith – Having set forth the necessity of faith, Jesus now prepares to turn the heat up a bit and test their faith. Not only does He tell them that He has come from Heaven, but also that He is Bread they must eat. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died but this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.

This final verse points to next week’s Gospel, in which this concept will be developed more fully and more graphically.

Having warned them of the necessity of faith, Jesus now points to one of His most essential teachings: the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

Without faith, they cannot grasp or accept this teaching. As we shall see in next week’s Gospel reading, most of them turned away and would no longer follow Him because they could not accept what He was saying; they did not have the faith to trust Him in this matter. Instead, they scoff and leave Him. We will say more about this next week as John 6 continues to unfold.

For now, let the Lord ask you, “Do you have faith to believe what I teach you on this?” Perhaps, like the centurion, we can say, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Perhaps, like the apostles, we can say, “Increase our faith.” Perhaps we can imitate St. Thomas Aquinas and say,

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur, (Sight, touch and taste, in thee fail)
 Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. (But only the hearing is safely believed)
 Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; (I believe whatever the Son of God says)
 Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius. (Nothing is more true than this word of truth)

In the end we either have faith or will be famished. We will have the faith to approach the Lord’s table or we will go unfed. Jesus says later, Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his Blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). In other words, we starve spiritually without the faith that brings us to God’s table.

How few come to the Lord’s table today, in these times when faith is so lacking. Only about a quarter of American Catholics attend Mass regularly. How can we stay away if we have faith in the Eucharist? We cannot. If we truly we believe, we will never deliberately miss Sunday Mass. Our devotion to the Lord will grow daily and our experience of the fullness of life (eternal life) will grow.

It’s faith or famine. Do you believe?