The Epiphany Season
He is the Way. Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
Holy Saturday. It would be nice to know what that is, but I can't slow down enough to figure it out this year.
So, on to the Great Vigil. There are Great Preparations for this service, and it is always very beautiful, even when it's not perfect. And how can it be? It's huge.
In the first reading we were brought back to the very beginning -- the very beginning of the week, actually. In the beginning was the Word (remember Monday?). The whole story begins with words. With the meaning that comes from them. And more than meaning, Bishop Ted Gulick told us, desire.
We desire God; God desires us.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the intentional, gracious, and profound way that Bishop Gulick anointed the baptismal candidates with oil, and confirmed, received, and reaffirmed others. There was an acknowledgement of their coming home.
Bishop Shannon Johnston, who officiated at yesterday's three hour service, chose a poem of W. H. Auden as the last words of the service.
He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
The Baptisms and Confirmations we celebrated in this Mass were a homecoming of sorts. ". . . marked as Christ's own forever." We're not going anywhere, and the desire God has for us is profound.
And we too desire God. "Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes . . .", "Like as the hart desireth the water brooks . . .", "As the deer longs for the water-brooks, * so longs my soul for you, O God."
And, for me, the music of Palestrina's motet gives this real meaning. There's one moment especially with that delicious convergence that results in a double third, but it sounds just perfect. There I think we encounter both desires. Ours and Gods. Just like Mahler Symphony No. 5, the slow movement, except that it's not romantic love, it's divine love, and desire for the divine.
He is the Life. Love Him in the World of the Flesh; And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
And so through our desire, we encounter God.
Bishop Gulick said that we even taste his desire in our mouths through the bread of the Eucharist.
At the Lamb's high feast we sing: Alleluia.
It's not often that you plan for a service to last three hours, but sometimes you do plan for exactly that on Good Friday. Jack Spong returned today, to offer meditations at six half-hour services from noon to 3 p.m.
He was in fine form, and is preaching/teaching from his forthcoming book on the Gospel of John. We delved into the symbolism and the "thesis" of that Gospel all afternoon.
A discovery for me, was that reading Mary's presence at the crucifixion as a symbol (John is the only Gospel to include her at the cross) gives incredible meaning to the words: "Woman, here is your son." Words directed at the elusive, unnamed "beloved disciple", whoever he is and whatever he signifies.
It was a low church service for this solemn Fast Day. The organ was on, the bells rang to cue the start and the end (and perhaps once in the middle due to programmer error...), but local tradition always supersedes denominational tradition, and here the local traditions of the of the parish piled on fast and furious.
We were well represented with rectors of the parish. The present rector; the preacher, Jack Spong; the author of one of the hymns sung at the service, "Lord Christ, when first thou cam'st to earth", Walter Russell Bowie; and even the present rector's predecessor, who situated himself near the choir for the service.
These days are, of course, inherently conservative, liturgically. Look at Tenebrae. Who can understand it? What is it? Where does it come from? Just try to explain it to a Presbyterian, and you'll see what I mean.
So it should be no surprise that in these days, we do things as we've always done them, or at least, the best that we remember them, and to the best of our ability.
Who put that cross there? What does it mean?
Today, Jesus' cross stands between us and the Eucharist. Maybe that's why it's leaning on the altar rail (I think I've even seen it blocking the sanctuary entrance in other places).
But for the first time early this morning, I did receive communion from the reserved Sacrament. It's an interesting experience. The residue of the previous night's Eucharistic celebration lingers, but only in the memory. The bulk of the church itself is devastated. There is no cloth, no ornament, no light. And we occupy this strange area of circular logic, which crops up so often this week. Which Jesus are we eating? Well, the Resurrected Jesus who is fully present, of course. But weren't we contemplating him in prayer the garden? And doesn't he hang on the cross later today? The chronology is screwy.
But one thing has made a bit of sense this week, it continues to do so, and it will culminate rather gloriously at the end of the month. In the Daily Office readings, if one reads the entire Psalter in a month, one finishes the Psalter on Easter Day.
The dark, gritty bit that we're going through right now suits us just fine, and the Psalter will conclude tomorrow and the next day (twice; you read the "thirtieth day" portion on the thirty-first day as well).
But that's not all. I really can't recommend The St. Bede's Breviary highly enough for praying the Daily Office via an online text. The changes to the office that are made in Holy Week are stark:
(full info on the changes)
- Offices begin with the Psalms (and antiphons if used) except for Compline; Compline begins with the Confession and Absolution, then jumps to the Psalms.
- All Gloria Patris are omitted.
- A penitential responsory replaces the 1st canticle at Morning and Evening Prayer
- All hymns are omitted
- The Offices conclude early. After the Gospel/second canticle of Morning and Evening Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer and the Collect of the Day are said at which point the Office ends. At Noon Prayer the Lord’s Prayer and Collect of the Day complete the Office immediately after the Psalm(s). At Compline, the Nunc Dimittis without Antiphon follows the Psalms, then the Lord’s Prayer and Collect conclude the hour.
Even the ever-familiar Magnificat takes on a different tone when the office around it shifts a bit. This is a wonderful tradition to know about, and to take part in.
File that under tricks of the trade. Like, how to hold a thurible (working on it), or how to program the bells (via graphing calculator?!), or how to feed a choir so no one faints (working on it)
. . . or how Jesus died so that we too can give our lives away fully to others, and we can be most fully ourselves.
To say it another way, so we can all be most fully alive.
Even when everything is stripped down, and sometimes because of that stripping down, we focus on what's present, what still remains -- what is just as effectual and real as ever -- out of God's abundance and grace.
LET man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this, Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is ; And as the other spheres, by being grown Subject to foreign motion, lose their own, And being by others hurried every day, Scarce in a year their natural form obey ; Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it. Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west, This day, when my soul's form bends to the East. There I should see a Sun by rising set, And by that setting endless day beget. But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall, Sin had eternally benighted all. Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see That spectacle of too much weight for me. Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ; What a death were it then to see God die ? It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink, It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink. Could I behold those hands, which span the poles And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ? Could I behold that endless height, which is Zenith to us and our antipodes, Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is The seat of all our soul's, if not of His, Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn By God for His apparel, ragg'd and torn ? If on these things I durst not look, durst I On His distressed Mother cast mine eye, Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus Half of that sacrifice which ransom'd us ? Though these things as I ride be from mine eye, They're present yet unto my memory, For that looks towards them ; and Thou look'st towards me, O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree. I turn my back to thee but to receive Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave. O think me worth Thine anger, punish me, Burn off my rust, and my deformity ; Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace, That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.
Maundy Thursday is full of light -- until it isn't. It's traditional in many places to sing the Gloria at the beginning of the Eucharist, the hymn of praise that hasn't been heard since the Last Sunday after Epiphany (can you even remember February 10, 2013? We were so young then!).
We finally get some answers to our questions.
Except those pesky, nagging questions like, who does what during the stripping of the altar, exactly?
But, mostly, it's full of light at the start. There was an extra light on the pulpit tonight for Bishop Jack Spong, who preached the sermon at the Eucharist at the parish where I serve.
He gave us a talking to about the Gospel of John, and how it's characters all symbolize something or other. I forget exactly what. I'm sorry.
As I write this in the wee hours, the experience of my shift at the all-night vigil looms much larger in my memory. It was in that space that I encountered John 7:6, which I've never paid any attention to.
Jesus said to them, "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here."
And before that, I took a moment to read "I do not know the man" in the collection of sermons A Ray of Darkness by Rowan Williams.
Go read it. I have nothing else to say.
There's a texture to Holy Wednesday: a subtle shift in the wind.
It's the only day outside of the Triduum (Thursday to Saturday) that has garnered a name: Spy Wednesday. It's the day when Judas (the "spy") would have conspired to betray Jesus.
I don't know if this really influences our perception of Holy Wednesday, but here's what I think does: this day is the last gasp before the inexorable descent toward the watery baptismal depths and resurrection that comes in the Great Vigil of Easter.
And so, Wednesday has it's own special "Evensong", but it is somewhat massive, seeing how it must encompass the eve of a three-day observance.
Tenebrae is fully loaded, and fully automatic. And it's placement in modern Episcopal usage on Wednesday in Holy Week seems just about perfect.
There are antiphons (stunningly beautiful antiphons), psalms, canticles, Christus Factus Est, and a final penitential psalm taken in while kneeling. The lights diminish one by one, until all is pitch black. We pray for hope. We hold our breaths.
And then a rapid, roaring plunge.
The noise at the end of Tenebrae (or strepitus, if you prefer it's Latin name) bears with it almost everything that will transpire in the Triduum. It is the betrayal in the garden. It is the crucifixion. It is Jesus' loud cry on the cross. It is the earthquake. It is the curtain ripping in two. It could even be the noise of the stone itself being rolled away.
I suppose it must be everything just shy of resurrection itself, which is only alluded to by the return of that wayward candle, the one that wandered away from the fold toward the end of the Benedictus. (Or perhaps this candle simply fled in terror as it saw its lesser siblings succumb without a fight.)
Because without that light there is full darkness. There is only a tattered tapestry and shaky ground. There is only a hoarse, bloody Jewish man, crying out from a cross. There is only a tale of religious/political intrigue that comes to a head for thirty grimy coins.
There is only an empty tomb, and its meaning is not yet grasped.
We know what's coming. There's a mini-Easter at the end of Tenebrae, but not really. The light comes back, but just barely. It doesn't light anything else, and we're still basically sitting in the dark.
And that's where we are in this pre-Triduum Triduum (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday). We're left with the light of one candle.
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, * and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Some light. But not enough. We can't do much on our own. Luckily, the spy is going to get Jesus involved in the story, and things will get very interesting very quickly.
This morning I began enmeshed in the density of Johannes Brams's Fugue in A-flat minor (that's the key with seven flats -- ALL of the the flats). It seemed, in it's quietly seething opacity, to be the perfect piece of music for the day. It served as the prelude to the noon preaching service at the Parish where I serve.
The Rev. Brian McLaren, the preacher at these services for the first three weekdays of Holy Week, preached a beautiful sermon about re-imagining the model of what it means to be human and how that relates to our faith. He preached that the old "ghost in the machine" model doesn't really have much relevance to us, and that instead, we are creatures imbued with and hungry for meaning.
("What is truth?," Pilate asked?)
We are, McLaren said, "sponges" for meaning. We are created from the Word (as is everything in the first creation story in Genesis). Words give meaning. And of course, in Poetry we see a heightened level of meaning. And he even made reference to last night's Poetry and Music meditations, calling the event "a baptism in meaning".
The day then slid toward a full choir rehearsal, and entailed some devotions before the copy machine, etc.
I tried to get a haircut partway through this, but alas, the building where my barber does his work was surrounded by fire apparati. There was a burning smell, and some light traces of smoke were visible. Something had been or was still on fire.
There was something fitting about this, of course: lots of red, the fire, the smoke, an assembly gathered outside, waiting to go in.
It's Holy Week again.
And so, I returned to the keyboard (the Qwerty one, this time), shaggy as ever, and replied to an email from a budding composer in the parish.
On the advice of Vincent Persichetti's Harmony, which I find sort of interesting as a place to start thinking about the subject, I pointed him toward The "Mysterious Mountain" Symphony by Alan Hovahness. He said he listened to it, and I shot him back quick reply about themes, and "melodies", and how you need a couple of them to make Sonata Form -- all the gibberish that we couch the wonderful world of music in. Or maybe we just do that because we're seeking meaning from the whole thing.
What does music mean?
And then the rehearsal flew in like a Mack truck, and it was glorious -- except that I completely forgot to rehearse that wonderful six-voice Tudor motet that we're singing on Easter Day. It's okay. The choir will never know. I'll just rehearse it with them the next time I see them (which is basically every day this week, right?), and act like that was the plan all along.
And then I found myself tidying up here and there. The odd bit of organ part that I never really fleshed out for my new arrangement of such and such, and how do we end that service, and does the officiant need a pen light so that she can see the concluding collect?
And then tidying up led into full-on practice in a way that I didn't quite manage earlier. I threw myself into another dense score, one that has it's roots in improvisation, and one that I probably have no business playing -- at least not this year.
But the score is so meaningful, at least to me, and even if I miss a few notes here and there, won't it still mean just as much?
What do people listen to when they hear music in this place?
Do people listen?
Who knows. And then, in the car on the way home, Holy Week reared it's head again. There on the radio, as if it knew I had been talking about it, was "Mysterious Mountain". And now it was my turn to listen because it's a great piece for a young composer to hear, but it's also a great piece for me to hear. I had forgotten all that that celesta part does. It is mystery. The celesta plays what cannot be explained. It's the emptiness of the church late at night when everyone has gone. It's the grace to sing Byrd tomorrow, or the next day. It's the impromptu Holy Week gathering outside your barber shop.
It's the joy and question that is this life.
It is the song that is sung all around us and the meaning that we seek.
It occurs to me that perhaps I might offer a window on what it is to be a church musician in Holy Week. And perhaps a few other thoughts too.
This evening at the parish where I serve, we offered "Poetry and Music: Meditations for Holy Week." The Reverend the Rector chose several poems, and I set them to music, mostly at the spur of the moment. This is the third year we have done this.
As I entered this service/poetry reading/concert (what is this thing that we do, exactly?) I had several things in mind. First, something the pianist Jeremy Denk said about the last Beethoven piano sonata, Op. 111 when he performed it here on Saturday evening. He talked about how the second movement is a variation set, but that the theme eventually disappears, and that eventually "the answers overwhelm the question."
That phrase looms large in my consciousness this week. What is this thing that we do, Holy Week? There's darkness, a few candles, there's foot washing, altar stripping, moaning and groaning, more candles, more darkness, washing people in water, and suddenly it's Easter.
There was a question in here somewhere. Maybe it was "what is truth" or something like that. But the question we ask in Holy Week – if we let it – can and should be overwhelmed by the answers.
I was grateful tonight that the Rector broke the "rubric" if we can be said to have such a thing for tonight's little happening, and included the following prose by Thomas Merton's Thoughts in Solitude:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
What wonderful reassurance for improvisation and for this life. "I have no idea where I am going."
But the answers come nonetheless.
Online resources are surprisingly scarce. Would love to see a video of the entire service.
and you may want to watch this longer highlight video (before it gets taken down . . .)
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