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Cantor Avenue 2014 Archives

The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Roman civilization rose to its high point in the first two centuries. Territorial expansion, increased wealth, rising population, and burgeoning art and architecture produced “the glory that was Rome.” Along with the famous Roman roads, stone and brick buildings, bridges, and aqueducts were built with such integrity that many survive and even serve to this day.

Another famous Roman structure, the Lateran Basilica, first served as the residence of a noble Roman family. It later became the property of the Emperor Constantine. After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, he presented the palace to the Pope as both a cathedral and a residence for the Holy Father.

As the cathedral of the diocese of Rome, over which the Pope presides as Bishop of Rome, St. John Lateran Basilica bears the title “Cathedral to the World,” even to the present day. It has stood witness to the running history of both the papacy and the Church of Rome for seventeen hundred years. The building has survived, though sacked and pillaged numerous times and subjected to earthquake and fire, rebuilding and renovation.

As Catholics, each of us can claim membership in a parish (with a parish church) and a diocese (with a cathedral). We may experience a strong sense of attachment, both to our parish church and to our diocesan cathedral. Today, the Church Universal invites us to claim St. John Lateran Basilica, our Roman Cathedral, as a world-wide center of grace and pilgrimage.

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The marriage of today’s first reading from Proverbs (the virtuous wife) with Psalm 128 (the good man who fears the Lord) seems obvious—a no-brainer. After all, we cantors know Psalm 128 as the premier wedding psalm, with its handful of popular versions sung almost from memory by those of us tasked with engaging the assembly at parish weddings.

Wisdom underlies the good wife’s devotion to worthy activity within and beyond her household, and others (husband, children, servants, and the poor at her door) enjoy the fruits of her labor. She follows the traditions handed on to her, and in turn, offers each of us, female and male, an example worthy of imitation. Even contemporary psychology wags would find her praiseworthy, for she has let go of the illusion of control to live in the now.

Psalm 128 comes from a famous grouping called Psalms of Ascent, associated with Wisdom literature in the Bible, and known for repeatedly affirming the need to rely on the Lord alone. The Hebrew word translated “ascent” refers to a step: part of a journey toward (e.g. Jerusalem) or away from (e.g. Babylon), or setting a direction (e.g. the rising pitch of a song).

Today’s selection includes nearly all of the biblical text. The first verse recalls Psalm 1, linking God’s blessing with reverence (fear of the Lord) and justice (walking in God’s ways). Verse two points to children as evidence of that blessing, comparing them to olive plants, scions of the most culturally honored and fruitful of trees.

Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe
Each year, as the celebration of Christmas nears, someone reminds us that more than two thousand years have gone by since the birth of Christ. If we figure that to be year 1 (not exactly, but close enough for this exercise) and go back another thousand years, we land in the time when David made his meteoric rise from shepherd to king (around 1000 BC) and made Jerusalem his capital city. As the monarchy stabilized, so did the liturgy. Thus, psalmists went to work, composing for worship (as well as borrowing from existing material).

Three thousand years ago, just about everything was different from the way it is now. Take sheep for example. Very common and quite popular in the ancient middle east, sheep provided wool, milk, and cheese; and at some point, meat and skins. Had you been alive then, you would have had a different relationship with sheep. You might even have admired them because they hardly made a noise (even in danger) or because they lived quite happily outside of the family dwelling. You might have thought of them as honorable, strong, and somehow noble.

Continuing along these lines, you might easily have thought of your king, your ruler, or even one of your gods as a shepherd, for the job of a shepherd is to feed, guide, and protect the sheep, even as the job of the king is to do the same for the people.

Now can you imagine composing today’s psalm?

Thanksgiving Day
We have arrived together at the end of another year. First, let me thank you for sharing the journey. Second, let me make a request: Please turn to page 3 of Respond and Acclaim, look to the bottom of the left hand column, and find the five brief paragraphs under the heading, “On the Singing of Chant Verses.”

The first paragraph reminds you of the first step in preparing the psalm. There is, however, a word missing from these otherwise sound instructions. Please read the paragraph and discover the missing word.

The second and fourth paragraphs relate to one another and offer particular advice about your role as cantor of the psalm. Let me add: Once you grasp the meaning of the psalm verses, sing the text expressively, as you understand it, using the rhythm of speech as a guide. Some words and phrases will require emphasis as you communicate the text, typically achieved by increased volume (accent) or duration (rubato). Think of your delivery as heightened speech, neither too fast nor too slow, with the chant tune functioning as a vehicle for the text. Rehearse with your accompanist, so that he or she knows what to expect from your interpretation.

Psalm 113 offers a particular challenge. Consider how you might use accent, rubato, and crisp diction to tackle verse three: highlighting the corresponding (and important) words in the parallel lines, singing “dunghill” with unabashed clarity, and keeping the word “princes” from morphing into “princess.”

[The missing word is “aloud,” of course!]

© 2014 OCP. All rights reserved.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
At the Mass during the Day

The broad waves of romance that emanate from a royal wedding touch all but the most hardened of hearts. As the great event approaches, little girls from four to seventy-four suffer a rush of envy, and young men of every age stand a little straighter. Regardless of national allegiance, a world of people gasp at a spectacle devised to showcase the power and history of the moment. Film clips endure for generations with the tiniest movements analyzed and memorized.

Music punctuated much of Israelite life, and not surprisingly the most elaborate songs, dances, and rhythms found a place in the royal court. The best of this music was likely repeated often and used for reoccurring ceremonies. (Something similar happens today. To this, weary wedding cantors and accompanists can readily attest.)

Psalm 45 recalls a royal wedding, but mentions neither king nor queen by name, freeing the song for repeated use and adaptation. We do well to read the complete text in the Book of Psalms and notice its intimate quality and its structure (both reminiscent of the Song of Songs). Even the Lectionary version retains a certain richness, presenting themes of praise and promise appropriate to the royal party, as the queen relinquishes her family loyalty to that of the king, and the king is named both lord and lover.

The psalms rarely feature women, but here we find rich material speaking to the life and destiny of a strong woman. How fitting a song for this beautiful occasion!

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Local response to immigration often falls short of the ideal. Governments and receiving populations express inhospitality and even hostility. The influx of new people has challenged communities throughout the ages. Israel herself experienced both sides of the divide (as guest population, then host, then guest, again and again).

Today’s reading from Isaiah spells out the conditions under which “foreigners” may join the worshipping community. Specifically, those who love the name of the Lord, keep the Sabbath, and hold to the covenant are acceptable to the Lord and welcome in his “house of prayer for all peoples.” Foreign origin presents no obstacle to observing what is right, doing what is just, and receiving the salvation and justice of the Lord.

Psalm 67 begins with a blessing: “May God have pity on us and bless us. May he let his face shine upon us.” This follows the pattern of priestly blessing established by the Lord and entrusted to Aaron and his sons (cf. Numbers 6:24–26). The next verse reveals the persuasive power of Israel, since, “So may your way be known upon earth; among all nations, your salvation,” gives God reason to bless, if only to secure a stellar reputation among the peoples.

Verses four and seven, identical in the biblical version, function as a refrain there, confirming the use of Psalm 67 in worship. With the memory of her own exile and immigrant status still fresh, Israel prays this psalm, recognizing the “foreigners” in her midst, and seeking to share God’s blessing with all peoples.

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
After nearly three years of conversation on the Avenue, we suggest a frank self-assessment. Your company on this journey indicates to us that you care about your work as a cantor in your parish. Given our relationship to this point, we feel confident in your readiness to move to the next level, as a cantor and partner in this work. Walk with us on the Avenue, and think about your progress thus far, focusing on the following areas:
Rehearsal: Do you get enough time with your accompanist to put text and tune in proper alignment, explore interpretive possibilities, and agree on performance notes? Do you sing on key with solid support? Do you prepare to sing well by getting enough rest, hydrating in advance, and warming up with appropriate vocal exercises?
Text study: Do you research the psalm text, reading aloud the full psalm in more than one English version? (RNAB, Revised Grail, NRSV, Jewish Publication Society, etc.) Do you have access to one of the recommended commentaries, either at home or at the parish, from which you can learn more about the psalms you sing? (e.g., Sing a New Song, Irene Nowell, OSB, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1993).
Community life: Do you hang out with other cantors? Do the parish cantors meet every five or six weeks to practice together, learn new music, exchange ideas, and socialize? Do you and your fellow cantors find ways to serve the parish community outside of liturgy?
Leaning forward: Have you and your partners in ministry been to a workshop lately?

© 2014 OCP. All rights reserved.

Third Sunday of Easter
This Sunday treats us to a splendid selection of verses from Psalm 16, in which skillful editing of the biblical text yields a straightforward psalm of trust. As psalmists, we do well to check the missing verses, for these put our first verse in an interesting context. Between its first line, “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge…,” and its second, “O Lord, my allotted portion and my cup…,” the biblical version includes two verses disavowing other Gods, their devotees, and the trappings of their worship. This psalmist chooses the one God of Israel over “the false Gods of the land.”

In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear Peter quote this very psalm in his sermon on Pentecost (a flash forward), attempting to help his Jewish audience find the fulfillment of Scripture in Jesus Christ, whom God did not abandon “to the netherworld,” but raised from the dead and placed in power at God’s right hand. Luke (in Acts) channels Peter (in the sermon), who quotes David (as honorary psalmist), who speaks for his descendent (the Christ) in a kind of play within a play within a play.

Place yourself in the role of Luke (telling this story) or Peter (giving the sermon): Who stands before you as you speak and how are they reacting? Now, read the Lectionary psalm aloud (as we do each week to prepare for singing). Listen to the words and decide: Who is speaking now, today?

Fourth Sunday of Easter
A flush of recognition at the mention of Psalm 23 almost overtakes its real depth with the ubiquitous cultural image of a helpless lambkin slung over masculine shoulders. If we open our eyes to see past the pristine hillside, a far more useful interpretation comes into view—Psalm 23 as a record of God’s deliverance of Israel from exile in Babylon.

In the first part of the psalm, God, as shepherd (an ancient image of beneficent royalty), leads the flock to lush pasture, by still (not rushing) waters, and on through wild desert territory (on the homeward journey toward Jerusalem). The second part introduces the banquet metaphor with the Lord as the host. Hospitality (“You spread the table before me”) and abundance (“My cup overflows”) mark this meal. Even the enemies are invited to witness the homecoming feast.

Sometimes called the second exodus, this scenario of exiles returning connects with today’s first reading. Here Peter proclaims the good news of resurrection and calls for conversion and baptism (passage through the waters) for those “cut to the heart” by his message. The invitation and its promise apply to those gathered, to their children, and to “all those far off” (exiles), whom the Lord will call home.

Peter’s impressive number of converts (three thousand persons) may also have numerological significance as 10 x 10 x 10 (the most perfect number) x 3 (triune divinity; past, present, and future) (cf. Found in Translation, Rhonda K. Kindig. Bloomington, IN: West Bow Press, 2011).

Fifth Sunday of Easter

In the first reading, we get another glimpse of the early days, though this one appears less idyllic, and rather more familiar. Rapid growth in the community has loosened the ties among its members, generating factions (Hebrews and Hellenists) and complaints (neglect of widows in the “daily distribution”). In response, the apostles direct the community to select from among its own seven Spirit-filled men known for wisdom and honorable behavior. With these proto-deacons appointed to “serve at table” and see to the care of the community, especially its more vulnerable members, the apostles can devote their own energies to prayer and preaching.

This episode marks the beginning of the diaconal role, but in its long history, one can detect a cantorial thread.

Near the beginning of the fourth century, and for about two hundred years following, deacons in Rome were known to step forward and chant the psalm according to their ability and inclination. The honorary title of “levita” or “Levite” bestowed on some gives evidence of this practice and suggests a link with a legitimate office in the Jewish Temple. (See 1 Chronicles 15:16 for an example of Levites singing in liturgical procession.)

According to synod records, certain deacons rose to elite status, and while their skill as singers gained them enthusiastic recognition, presbyters and bishops who sought to limit the reach of these multi-taskers worked the system to that end. The practice was suppressed in 595 by Gregory l, who perceived a danger to personal humility and local stability.

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Diaconal anecdotes continue this week as Phillip, one of the seven selected in last Sunday’s account, flees persecution in Jerusalem and begins to evangelize in Samaria, capital city of the north. In spite of the hostile relationship between Samaritans and Judeans, dating back centuries, Phillip, with a heady mix of preaching, healing, and cleansing of unclean spirits, manages to astound the Samaritans, motivating them to accept Christ and be baptized.

A joyful shout erupts in Samaria in the wake of Philip’s ministry. (In the section left out of today’s reading, even the local magician, Simon, recognizes Philip as the real deal, believes the good news, and is baptized.) Word of Philip’s success gets back to the apostles in Jerusalem, who send Peter and John out to Samaria to investigate. They lay hands on the newly baptized believers, who then receive the Holy Spirit. (Ever the charlatan, Simon tries to buy this power, but gets a sharp rebuke from Peter for his cheek.)

The Lectionary selection from Psalm 66 sets out to praise God and the glory of his name in parallel verses, calling “all the earth” to “shout joyfully” and “all on earth” to “worship and sing praise” for God’s tremendous deeds and mighty works. In the third verse, the psalmist reviews the mighty deeds worked by God at the Red Sea and at the Jordan River crossing, then brings us to the present (or to Philip), as God works great wonders here and now.

The Ascension of the Lord
In the first reading, we hear a question directed at the gathered disciples by messengers in white garments: “Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?” These two dazzlers deliver this question to rouse the “men of Galilee,” seemingly immobilized by the otherworldly vision of Jesus returning to the Father. The real point of the story is not the absence of Jesus, but his enduring presence, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Only the Luke-Acts evangelist sets the Ascension forty days after the resurrection (and only in the Acts of the Apostles). The number forty rings with symbolic overtones: Noah in the ark; Israel, and then Jesus, in the desert. It means something like when the time was fulfilled. Of course, even with this extended period of instruction, the disciples still ask the wrong question: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” His answer sounds a bit like none of your business. Then we hear his parting words: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Now the prodding question of the messengers makes a bit more sense. Bernard Huijbers wrote a wonderful round based on this text (and Isaiah 43:18–19): Why stand staring at what has gone before? Don’t get lost in things of the past. I, says he, will begin something new. It’s beginning already; haven’t you heard?

Seventh Sunday of Easter
In the first reading from Acts, we pick up the story precisely where we left off last Sunday. Jesus has just gone up into the sky, leaving the small group of disciples quite on their own on Mount Olivet, a Sabbath day’s journey east of Jerusalem. They take their leave and make their way back to the city, headed for the upper room. In another idealized scenario, the eleven (named in this account) are joined by some women (unnamed); by Mary, the mother of Jesus; and by his brothers (generic for male kin; again, unnamed). Gathered in community, they pray together in expectation, waiting for the coming of the Spirit.

Today’s Lectionary selection from Psalm 27 serves well as their prayer of faith and confidence. As cantor, you speak for them in the midst of the community gathered now, today. The refrain, “I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living,” sings with just the right touch of hope in this liminal period between the departure of Jesus and the outpouring of his Spirit. Verse one quells fear with the assurance of God’s protection; verse two expresses the longing for God’s presence; and verse three delivers a plea for both mercy and an answer in the present situation of need.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples, these soon-to-be temples of the Holy Spirit who will remain in the world after he returns to the Father.

Pentecost Sunday: At the Vigil Mass
There are stories that go back in time as far, for the ancient Hebrews, as their stories go back for us. In the time before time, there were epic tales of the earth and its struggles (Sumerian and Babylonian) that our ancestors in faith heard before they told their own stories: of Tiamat, the outrageous mother goddess whose own children divided her body into parts to form the continents; of Atrahasis and Gilgamesh and ancient floods predating Noah.

As Israel began to emerge as a people and to distinguish its life from that of its neighbors, it became apparent that while these old stories contained some truth, they demanded certain changes. The ancient epics did not reflect Israel’s experience of the one God, nor did they align with the values of a people living in covenant with that God. In some respects, the old stories were just wrong.

The first reading from Genesis reflects this corrective impulse. Though the tower usually bears the name, the city gets the blame. In the biblical text the tower (perhaps a traditional Babylonian ziggurat) never stands alone: “Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower…and so make a name for ourselves.” (In contrast, Israel becomes a people at God’s bidding; at every turn God does the naming.) To our ancestors, “city” meant complex society, intricate architecture, crowds of people, crime, and huge, overblown temples—it meant Babylon. The wordplay in Hebrew between “Babel” and “confusion” takes a backhanded swipe at the big city.

Pentecost Sunday: At the Mass during the Day
The first reading describes the noisy delivery of the Church from the womb of God, underscored by the sound (strong, driving wind) and fury (flame-like openings to an alternate reality) of the Holy Spirit. We witness the birth of a new “city.” Here people “from every nation under heaven” understand one another, with each one hearing of the mighty acts of God “in his own language” (Babel confusion in reverse).

For such a singular occasion, we sing Psalm 104, an equally singular psalm birthed from the depths of history. Assembling and editing its thirty-five verses, our ancestors borrowed from the creation stories of other nations, including the Song of Aton and tales from the Canaanite tradition (another layer of Babel reversal).

Assigned to the Vigil and Sunday liturgies of Pentecost, as well as the Easter Vigil, Psalm 104 brackets the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. It praises the creator of a perfect world, where right relationships and ecological harmony produce justice for all. Different selections of verses complement the different readings on these three occasions. Though we never hear the whole text at liturgy, I encourage you to claim your own share of springtime beauty by exploring the poetry of this entire psalm.

Verses 1–2 (common to both Vigils), sing of God “clothed with majesty” and “robed in light,” yet this One does not remain in the heavens. This God stoops to the earth, to give breath and take it, to send forth the Spirit and renew the earth.

© 2013 OCP. All rights reserved.

The Nativity of the Lord: Vigil
One of the premier texts that initiated me into the lifelong study of liturgy resided in the five Sarum blue paperback volumes of Pius Parsch’s The Church’s Year of Grace. Among my enduring treasury of quotes, this one stands out: “We must see the entire winter cycle as a unit, as one grand feast beginning with dawn on the first Sunday of Advent, growing in brilliance like the sun at Christmas, reaching its zenith at Epiphany, and finally setting at Candlemas.” In the same spirit, and even more so, the liturgies of the Nativity of the Lord must surely be prayed and appreciated as one feast.

The devout minds that assembled the Lectionary texts for the four feasts of the Nativity of the Lord created a marvelous plan. In our time, however, this rich assortment of texts is hardly ever proclaimed in its entirety. Instead, seeking to simplify the reading assignments and satisfy the hunger of occasional attendees for the most familiar selections, pastors and parishes exercise their option to choose a handful of readings from the Christmas collection and use them throughout the Christmas Eve-Day marathon.

Since I generally arrive early for liturgy, I make it a habit to carry along reading material whenever I head out to church. I encourage you to do the same and take full advantage of your accidental reading opportunities this Christmas season. Do yourself a great favor, a real mitzvah: Bring along Today’s Missal or Breaking Bread (with readings) and explore the texts for all the Christmas liturgies.

The Nativity of the Lord: Night
This nighttime liturgy keeps alive the mystique of its precursor “Midnight Mass.”

As a cantor of a certain age, I harbor a cautionary attitude regarding liturgies full of smells, bells, and shiny objects. Surely, they stun the senses with their beauty, but the over-the-top aspects tend to distract me from an active interior attention. Although I attempt full participation (interior and exterior), the sheer sensory overload makes this difficult, and I find I must work harder to remain engaged in the prayer.

Anticipating the challenges of this liturgy, I like to go in knowing as much as possible about the scriptural texts and the musical structure of the psalm. For example: tonight’s Isaiah reading connects with the story we read last Sunday. The images of “darkness” and “gloom,” “battle” and “blood,” in verses 1–4 refer to the marauding Assyrians, while verses 5–6 welcome the promised son, who will confirm the presence of God-with-the-people (Emmanuel) and fulfill all hopes and dreams. Tonight’s psalm consists of a two-verse call to worship, a third verse inviting all of creation to praise, and a fourth citing the reason—the justice brought about by the coming of the Lord.

When all else fails, a bit of poetry helps: “Break forth, O beauteous heavn’ly light, / And usher in the morning; / Ye shepherds, shrink not with affright, / But hear the angel’s warning. / This child, this little helpless boy, / Shall be our confidence and joy, / The powers of hell o’er throwing, / At last our peace bestowing” (Johann Rist, 1607–1667).

The Nativity of the Lord: Dawn
The psalm refrain for this Mass fits like a cozy glove: “A light will shine on this day: the Lord is born for us.” Imagine folks arriving in the dark and settling into their favorite pews (no competition from Christmas visitors at this hour). Picture the sun peeping over the horizon as Mass begins and blazing through the back window as you step up to sing the psalm. Feel your breath rise and give life to the text from Psalm 97.

After all the nighttime excitement, this Mass celebrates the Savior’s birth in splendid simplicity. Like the shepherds who visit the stable after the angelic hosts depart, and Mary, who ponders their message in her heart, we rest in the afterglow of wonder.

If the cantor work belongs to you this morning, I hope that you did not also sing far into the night. Whether you did or did not, your best friend at this early hour goes by the initials H20. In general, two hours before you warm up to sing, two glasses of water (16–24 ounces) should pass your lips, slide down your throat, and land sloshing in your stomach. (It takes two hours to get that moisture into your vocal instrument and to eliminate the excess.)

In this case, you wisely set an extra alarm for the wee hours, got up, hydrated excessively, and went back to bed. By the time you woke up and hit the steamy shower, your voice was nearly ready for this morning’s gentle festivities.

The Nativity of the Lord: Day
Christmas Day Mass comes with a gift for weary cantors—Psalm 98. This classic, common psalm for the Christmas season, sung in its most familiar (visitor-friendly) version, makes the cantor’s job a bit easier on the morning after Christmas Eve. Even if folks visit once a year, this refrain sticks with them, ready to be called forth by your generous invitation. Combined with a lively selection of carols, Psalm 98 helps to bring our sisters and brothers home for Christmas.

This mighty gift comes wrapped in the words of Isaiah. Indeed, the first reading sets up the response so dramatically, it nearly sings itself. Listen to the prophet’s consoling words, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one bringing good news,” and look down at your own tired feet. Hear the command, “Break out together in song, O ruins of Jerusalem,” and summon the Spirit’s joy from the ruins of your own exhausted body. Take your cue from the final lines of the reading, “All the ends of the earth can see the salvation of our God,” and open your own weary eyes. Like the sentinels of Jerusalem, see the saving power of God at work: in your own person, in your family, in your parish, in this assembly; and let others see that power in you. Finally, let the Spirit sing.

I encourage you to take some time later today to put those beautiful feet up and enjoy a well-earned Christmas nap.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our old nemesis, Tilglath-pileser (see Fourth Sunday of Advent), who seized lands belonging to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali during the reign of King Ahaz, makes a shadow appearance today, as Isaiah exults in the people’s release from great distress inflicted by the Assyrian bully. Hezekiah, the promised heir of Ahaz, will emerge as the instrument of God’s salvation. Thus will darkness give way to great light, and gloom to great rejoicing, as the “yoke,” the “pole,” and the “rod” of Assyrian domination shatter in the Lord’s strong hand.

As Jesus leaves Nazareth bound for “Capernaum by the sea” and begins his preaching “in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,” Saint Matthew quotes this passage from Isaiah, proclaiming Jesus as the great light and the true fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Thus for Matthew’s Jewish audience, the very ground under the feet of Jesus resonates with prophetic meaning as he walks along the shore and calls his first disciples from among the ordinary fisher folk.

Today’s psalm refrain, “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” binds these two stories together, connecting Jesus with an earlier descendent of David, Hezekiah, who obeyed God and put his people on the right road, at least for a little while. Thus Hezekiah functions as a precursor or “type” of the one to come.

The psalmist seeks God’s face in the temple. Similarly, we come to “gaze” and “contemplate,” and with clear eyes “see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living.”

The Presentation of the Lord
This year, February 2 falls on a Sunday, so the feast of the Presentation of the Lord replaces the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The story that gives this feast its name comes from the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Luke. In this episode, Mary and Joseph journey to the temple to fulfill the requirements of the law of Moses.

Following the prescription in Leviticus 12:2–8, they first offer sacrifice for her purification after birth, then present Jesus according to Exodus 13:2, “Consecrate to me every firstborn; whatever opens the womb among the Israelites, whether of human being or beast, belongs to me.” To take Jesus home again, Joseph must offer a second sacrifice to “redeem” the child. The consecration of firstborn males and the necessity of redemption in the form of temple sacrifice reminded Israel of her own deliverance from Egypt, recalling the sacrifice of the lamb which shielded the people from the final plague, death of the firstborn. Luke weaves these two moments of sacrifice together, seeming to cover all requirements with “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Leviticus 12:8).

Given the expectation created by the first reading from Malachi and the clamor of Psalm 24, the first entrance of Jesus into the temple in the arms of his mother (Joseph being busy with the birds) seems positively unremarkable. Fortunately for us, two local characters, Simeon and Anna, emerge from their respective corners, and give Spirit-inspired witness to the arrival of “the king of glory.”

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
This Sunday, “light” links the first reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel, and in this case “light” symbolizes “justice.”

Isaiah admonishes the exiles, now returned, to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and take care of kin, enacting their commitment to justice (and holding up their end of the covenant). Only then shall their light “break forth like the dawn,” bringing swift healing and enduring protection. In other words, if the people want to reap the benefits of covenant partnership with God, they must do the work of justice. Like any virtue, justice requires practice. It is a discipline of right relationship, with others and God, that goes beyond rules and rituals.

A similar interpretation of “light” as “justice” applies to the Gospel. Jesus calls his disciples “salt of the earth” and “light of the world,” reminds them of the common sense of putting a light on a stand rather than under a basket, then makes the connection with, “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Note: Deeds done in the name of the Lord ought to be good and just, lest they dishonor the Lord’s name.

Today’s selection from Psalm 112 paints a portrait of a just person, spelling out the many advantages of practicing this holy virtue. One phrase in verse two stands out: “His heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” This short sentence provides the key to just living: trust in God.

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s first reading from Sirach features parallelism, the same poetic structure that we find in the psalms. In parallelism, thought-rhyme from line to line and verse to verse reinforces and deepens the meaning, which in this case concerns free will and its consequences. This Sunday’s selection of verses from Psalm 119 follows the reading from Sirach in both structure and content. I encourage you to lay them out, side by side; examine them, line by line; and identify the main points (those reinforced by repetition).

Wake up, cantors! We now stand just two months out from Holy Week. Folks like me, with responsibility for planning the music for liturgy, look at the calendar with rehearsal in mind. Right about now, we realize that we have already fallen behind in our preparation for the Three Days.

I once worked in a church where planning for the Great Vigil began on the previous Easter Tuesday. This extreme approach rightly recognizes the Easter Vigil as the primary celebration of the liturgical year. Yet the whole of Holy Week lies at the heart of our ritual practice. It constitutes us as Church.

For cantors and choirs, Holy Week means a great deal of music, most of it used once and set aside until next year. Familiar selections sung often easily take on a polished and confident quality. Occasional pieces performed rarely plead for extra rehearsal to reach this level of preparation. All of this calls for early planning.

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s first reading, psalm, and gospel fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The reading from Leviticus begins with, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy,” and concludes with, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In Psalm 103 we find a familiar formula, drawn from the very mouth of God: “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” This language refers back to a theophany in Exodus 34, when Moses experiences the presence of the Lord and comes down the mountain glowing. On that occasion the Lord speaks in clear self-reference: “The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity….” This gives us a clue to the meaning of “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”

Jesus contrasts “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (a popular distortion of Leviticus) with “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” His reason, “that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust,” connects back to the “merciful and gracious God” of Exodus 34 and Psalm 103. The final line, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” echoes Leviticus (“Be holy…”). Thus, we are called to be perfect as our God is perfect—in compassion.

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s first reading from Isaiah consists of just two verses. Discouraged Israel cannot even bring its anguish to prayer, “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me,” yet the Lord overhears this forlorn whining and responds with reassurance. Evoking the people’s experience of the strongest and most intimate of human bonds, the Lord God compares his own devotion to Israel to the tenderness that a mother feels for the child of her womb.

Our Hebrew ancestors did not separate body, mind, and spirit as we do, and they expressed their understanding of reality in concrete terms, based on tangible experience. Here we have the Lord God, speaking to them in their own language. The bond established between mother and child by the bodily sharing of life in pregnancy and nursing was known to be the strongest in society. Only direct and traumatic intervention, say between mother and son at puberty, could sever this tie. Even then, the pain of this tearing away remained acute. Thus, the mother could never forget her child, though her son might learn to ignore the pain of loss over a period of time.

The Lord God takes this feminine image of devotion one step further: “Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” This places the possibility of the Lord’s abandonment of Israel out beyond the most unlikely, unnatural, and unthinkable disruption of human relations. No matter what, the Lord remains devoted to Israel. Ponder this as you proclaim, “Rest in God, my soul.”

In my reminder about early planning of Holy Week, I neglected to mention a primary cantorial responsibility for the Great Vigil: The Exsultet.

First, imagine … that in any other venue this piece would be called a major work, requiring the coordination of an individual cantor or set of alternating cantors, a deacon or priest, a choir, a singing assembly, and accompaniment; that as the first common prayer of the Great Vigil, the Exsultet sets the tone and pace for all that follows and influences participation by the assembly for the rest of the night; that a choice of settings exists, by composers you already know and trust, settings marked by liturgical appropriateness and accessibility for all participants.

Now examine the Exsultets by Paul Hillebrand (, Tom Kendzia (, Pedro Rubalcava (bilingual,, and Christopher Walker ( You will find that each reflects the particular style and flair of the writer. You will also encounter impressive artistic achievement, as I did. As you consider a setting for your parish, remember that this music is critical to the Great Vigil and that the cantor is a major player.

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