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Cantor Avenue 2016 Archives

All Saints
For many of us, the massing flocks of starlings, the crackle of dry leaves underfoot, and the advent of morning chill accompany the annual observance of death and life-after that begins today with the symphony chorus of All Saints. These living ones bear no resemblance to the “undead” of pop culture. Poet Stephen Spender calls them “the more living—the dead!” (“The Alphabet Tree,” Stephen Spender, [1909–1995]) as he plays in Daniel’s dark sky, where the wise shine brightly (see Daniel 12:3).

Those who have lost someone dear in the past year might be especially prepared to answer the question poised in the final section of today’s first reading from Revelation: “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” Instead of imagining the saints as haloed icons suspended around our altars, those wiping such fresh tears might have a livelier vision of loved ones clad in heavenly raiment and of earthly folks as saints in the process of becoming.

The first lector would do well to adopt an animated story-telling style. This dreamscape must be seen in the imagination of the reader, before it can be pictured by the listeners. Our belief in the communion of saints rests on such stories. For our lives as they are today, including our role in this liturgy, are a rehearsal for that “day of the starlings.”

I personally feel that Psalm 24 (a high-functioning liturgical piece) enhances the Hollywood-style crowd scene of 144,000 white-robed, seal-marked, palm-waving, over-the-top witnesses. It’s a lot to ask from one cantor.

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Despite the powerful influence of its foreign neighbors (Egypt in the forefront), Israel endured a long history of ambiguity regarding the belief in life after death. Harried by the prospect of an unknown final destination, and particularly hounded by its premature appearance, our Mediterranean ancestors lived haunted lives in the shadow of death. This sense of unfathomable mystery led Israel to a reliance on story and myth, which danced around the issues of death and the afterlife.

While Israel believed in ghosts and spirits (rendered positively palpable by the pitch dark of night), among the many unconvinced of actual life after death, two avenues of thought were common. One, poignantly expressed in 2 Samuel 14:14, states: “We must indeed die; we are then like water which is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up.” The other, especially in the event of premature demise, saw death as the consequence of someone’s sin.

Troubled times bring new insights. Belief in an afterlife began to emerge in the face of persecution and untimely death at the hands of the unrighteous. Today’s first pericope (see 28th Sunday) presents this conviction in story form.

Psalm 17 brings us into the Temple, where one might behold God’s face. Imagine the prayer, “Hide me in the shadow of your wings,” on the lips of desperate folk who cling to life in the looming shadow of death, then and now. Surely, “on waking I shall be content in your presence,” rings with overtones of afterlife.

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
As the closing chords of this church year sound in our ears and judgment day approaches, we continue to respond to our call, carrying through our daily (and Sunday to Sunday) tasks with active perseverance. (Think thorough preparation and rehearsal.)

The horror and foreboding of end-times scenarios has been around since day one and never in short supply. Signs of earthly travail abound today: natural disasters, exacerbated by global warming; persistent violence and endless war; terrors from out of the sky; the threat of pandemic disease or attack with a biological agent; even the possibility of a substantial piece of the continent breaking away with incalculable results. What have we come to when the thought of a nuclear event falls this far down the list?

Now we have the right to seek a lector willing to gather the peril suggested above into the brief but dangerous phrases of Malachi, the “messenger.” And, dear cantor, you too must be bathed in the same “sun of justice,” if you are to sing the verses from Psalm 98, matching and then releasing the restrained power of the word from Malachi. Verses 1 and 2 build from the start and bring verse 3 crashing through onto the beach of this last week in Ordinary Time.

Today’s Gospel verse (Luke 21:28) sounds a direct and immediate response to all this. I suggest that you begin rehearsing this splendid one-liner early in the week, using the psalm tone provided but developing your own rhythm to expose the text more meaningfully. Share the results with the accompanist and agree on performance notes. Then, “Stand erect and raise your heads.”

Christ the King
Hebron, a city rich in history and the setting of today’s pericope from 2 Samuel, lies a couple dozen miles south of Jerusalem. Nearby is Mamre, one of the haunts of Abraham and Jacob; and not far from there is Machpelah, where Abraham, for a piece of land with a cave in which to bury his beloved Sarah, was taken for a ride by the locals. At the time of this story, already venerable Hebron bore the traces of previous occupation by Hittites, Amorites, and Canaanites.

Today we find David there, in the act of making a covenant with the elders of Israel, who agree to support him as the new king. His success in uniting the tribes and leading their forces out and back provides the evidence to back up his claim of acting under the Lord’s directive: “You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander in Israel.” Convinced of the legitimacy of the popular, thirty-year-old strongman, the elders anoint David king.

While Saul had been primarily a military-style ruler, David retained a strong measure of the scrappy junkyard dog. He attracted admirers for his political acumen, uncommon leadership qualities, and nobility of character, and over time, became a larger-than-life, archetypal figure that endured in the imagination of Israel down through the ages. With David, the rule of the king became intertwined with the covenant. As the divinely appointed shepherd of God’s people, King David (and his progeny) bore responsibility for the security and comfort of the people and for the flowering of justice from the seeds of the covenant.

Thanksgiving Day
You’ve heard it before: “Catholic means—Here comes everybody.” James Joyce gets credit for saying it first, in a literary sketch that later expanded into the novel Finnegan’s Wake (reportedly one of the most difficult works in the English language). Such an evocative image could not be confined to its original context, however. Prophetic voices of the early liturgical movement adopted it, and like a meme on the web, it spread from person to person, shaping the vision of liturgy that coalesced in the first document of Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Coming together at the two ends of midlife, my spouse and I puzzled over holiday traditions. I had long since quit cooking big meals, an inevitable result of multiple liturgies and the ensuing fatigue. Our children were grown or away on holidays. Even gathering with friends proved a strain for two introverts recovering from the press of choir folk and crowded assemblies. So, I confess, we started going out to eat, and eventually, it became our tradition.

Here in southwest Virginia, we have discovered the glories of the Golden Corral; and not just any example of the franchise, the one at Exit 7, off of I-81, in Bristol. This place of hospitality, presided over by the best of managers, welcomes all comers: older folks, babies, toddlers, kids, teens, adults; families of all sizes and shapes; persons of various colors, ethnicities, and origins; and odd couples like us. With careful choreography and communication (think walkie-talkies, point people, beckoning gestures), this restaurant feeds thousands on Thanksgiving, and its staff, from the top down, sets a tone of gracious good will that draws the best of behavior from patrons.

We go for the food, which is fine; but mostly, we go to watch the people and learn more about liturgy—Here comes everybody!

© 2015 OCP. All rights reserved.

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our people place great stock in the practice of vigil, waiting for the Lord the whole night long. As early as the second century, Christians in Asia Minor observed a fast on the day of crucifixion, followed by a vigil (sunset to dawn) and the early morning celebration of Eucharist (The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, Peter E. Fink, Liturgical Press, 1990, p. 154). Thus, they carried on the traditio handed on to Saint Paul, in effect, proclaiming the death of the Lord until his return (see 1 Corinthians 11:26). This rings a bell for us vigil veterans, but really most of us learned about the power and wonder of vigil darkness as children, when all time, and life itself, hung in the balance every Christmas Eve.

The refrain of today’s selection from Psalms 33 comes from verse 12 of the biblical text. Without a trace of doubt, the whole room proclaims in song, “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Our Lectionary verses begin with the call to praise that opens the entire psalm, “Exult, you just, in the LORD; praise from the upright is fitting.” They go on to describe God’s attentive care (with subtle reference to the Exodus story) and conclude with vigil language (“Our soul waits for the LORD”) and a plea for God’s kindness for this people.

We, too, can sing these words with depth and feeling, trusting in the stories handed on to us. Today’s Wisdom reading retells part of the birth story of our people. It starts in the middle of the night.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Mad,” “bad,” “sad,” and “glad” appear in the title of a memorable book about the psalms. Obviously chosen for its arresting effect, this quartet of vivid descriptors remains a key reference and is often reached for when people discuss the widely varied praying voices in the Book of Psalms. With study, one soon discovers that while some psalms fall readily into one or the other of these categories, others include two or more of these elements. Such is the case with today’s selection from Psalm 40.

The verses begin with vigil language: “I have waited, waited for the LORD.” (The repetition emphasizes the duration of the “Wait, take your time!” sentiment.) This waiting takes place in the land of Sad—“the pit of destruction,” “the mud of the swamp.” Which of us has not felt worn down, defeated, or exhausted at some point? Lament (Sad) envisions us descending into Sheol (the underworld) or sinking into mire. Can we find a way to connect with these ancient metaphors?

This journey story brightens a bit, for God draws the psalmist out of the above-mentioned mire, providing a firm foothold high above the muck (“upon a crag”) and placing a song of praise (Glad) in the mouth of the grateful singer. God’s rescue of the one expands into the faith of the many. Others will see the deliverance that God has accomplished, hear the story told, and join in the praise.

Today’s final verse tips us back into the pit, but our trust in God remains firm.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Vigil
On Sunday, we generally find some relationship between the psalm and the reading that precedes it (and between the two together and the Gospel reading). These connections can be obvious or more subtle, sometimes turning on a word or an image. Today’s encounter between psalm and reading, reading and psalm, goes beyond connection or conversation. Collision perhaps comes closer.

The selection from Psalm 132 places us directly in the center of the activity described in 1 Chronicles 15. King David presides over the relocation of the ark of the covenant from a safe house (that of Obed-odom the Gittite and his family) to its new home in Jerusalem. The first few verses sound like a report from the scene (complete with color commentary regarding a previous capture of the ark by the Philistines and its eventual abandonment and recovery in a field. See 1 Samuel 4–6). “Let your faithful ones shout merrily for joy” refers to the throng that accompanied the procession of the ark into the city. David himself joined in the dancing, much to the chagrin his wife (and Saul’s daughter), Michal, who watched from her window.

In the psalm refrain, the word “rest” does not indicate slumber but residence, referring to the tent and the throne (or footstool) where the ark (and God’s presence) will reside. Also in the refrain, “go up” has more force in the Hebrew, sounding, perhaps, like an alarm. The older NAB translation captures this wakeup call with “Arise, Lord.”

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Day
One might ask how the ark stories of 1 Chronicles and Psalm 132 find their way into the Lectionary selections for a Marian feast. Mary and the ark both bear the presence of the living God and their stories resonate in interesting ways. Let me elaborate with an example or two. (I once explored this resonance in a song called “Ballad of the Ark,” included in the OCP collection Advent of Our God [].)

Upon hearing the word of the angel Gabriel regarding her impending pregnancy, Mary hightails it to the hill country, to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth, miraculously pregnant in old age. Thus, she seeks safe shelter with the one person most likely to believe her tale. When Mary crosses the threshold and greets her cousin, the baby leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, echoing the dance of King David at the gates of Jerusalem. Mary stays three months in her chosen safe house, the same length of time that the ark of the covenant resides in the home of Obed-odom the Gittite.

Circling back to today’s first reading from Revelation, we find yet another ark and Mary pairing. It begins, “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple.” A verse later, the story of the woman and the dragon unfolds, ending with her child “caught up to God and his throne” and the woman herself whisked away to “a place prepared by God.” Today’s psalm celebrates Mary’s glorious reception in heaven.

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
An erstwhile slice of wisdom goes like this: we don’t usually see things the way they are; we see them the way we are.

Our forebears of the Hebrew testament, like other members of communal, honor and shame cultures, placed great value on personal reputation. Honor meant recognition of one’s worth (and the worth of one’s family) within the community, not fame necessarily, but esteem. It was understood to be limited in quantity; thus, preserving one’s portion of honor (and the honor belonging to one’s family) was a lifetime obsession. Shame was the public effect of guilt, the result of dishonorable behavior manifested in the community, and there was plenty of it to go around.

In today’s reading from Isaiah 66, we hear the Lord God speaking about the divine reputation (“my glory,” “my fame”) and God’s plan for spreading it among the nations. This kind of honor talk made perfect sense to our ancestors in faith. But notice the difference: whereas humans strove to keep their limited portion of honor intact, no one dared put a limit on divine honor and glory. From the beginning, the Lord God made plans to get the word out among the nations, and those plans included Israel: “the people I formed for myself that they might announce my praise” (Isaiah 43:21).

Now it seems the Lord will deal directly with the nations and choose messengers from among them to proclaim God’s glory. Even so, God’s chosen will not be forsaken but gathered from all the nations and brought home as an offering to the Lord.

© 2015 OCP. All rights reserved.

Second Sunday of Easter (or Sunday of Divine Mercy)
First, a resurrection recap. Last Sunday’s Gospel (John 20:1–9) recounts the discovery of the empty tomb in layers: Mary of Magdala announcing the news, Peter dashing off to examine the details, and, finally, the beloved disciple seeing and believing. Luke’s version (Luke 24:1–12, also an option for Easter Sunday) provides Mary Magdalene with companions, Joanna and Mary, the mother of James, along with a couple of dazzlers at the tomb, but the tale of the women seems too far-fetched to be credible. Still Peter runs to the tomb, takes a look, and returns “amazed.” The Emmaus story, designated for the Easter Evening Prayer (bringing the Three Days officially to a close), features two disciples talking over the tragic happenings in Jerusalem (while high-tailing it home). They encounter the risen Jesus, first as a stranger on the road, then as a guest at the table, and finally see the truth. Thomas takes his turn this Sunday making the awkward journey from fear to faith and finally proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

In today’s first reading, Luke (also author of Acts) tells of “signs and wonders…done among the people at the hands of the apostles,” motivating folks to bring their sick friends and relatives out into the street in the hope that Peter’s shadow might touch and heal them. We can imagine their reasoning: Hadn't Jesus been known to heal? Wouldn't those close to him share the same inclination and power? Remember Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah, close to God and renowned healers all!

Third Sunday of Easter
A peculiar mark of Roman policy toward subjugated territories was an allowance for limited self-government. It appears that the aims of the conqueror were equally attainable without a complete surrender of local independence on the part of the conquered. The local governing body in Jerusalem, called the Sanhedrin and composed mainly of priests and Levites, met in a dedicated building near the temple. Thus, this high court gained a mystique of sanctity and utter authority.

In the Roman world, Jewish territory sat dangerously close to the Tigris-Euphrates frontier and to the empire around Antioch. Either one could threaten Roman rule of the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt enjoyed greater autonomy due to its role as Rome’s grain silo (without it, the empire could not maintain its armies or feed its urban populations). Some room for negotiation with Rome existed in much of the Middle East but none in Judah. Its location at the tipping point of the eastern Mediterranean demanded that Rome keep a close eye. The Jewish leaders knew of this fault line and assumed a greater sense of self-importance. They already believed that their land was God’s gift to his people, regardless of occupying armies. Now, through its strategic importance to Rome, Jerusalem could shape the fate of the world.

In today’s courtroom drama from Acts 5, Peter and the apostles retrace the steps of Jesus, appearing before the same Sanhedrin that condemned him. Flogged, warned, and dismissed, they rejoice to have suffered “for the sake of the name.”

Fourth Sunday of Easter
In today’s episode from Acts 13, the Jewish leaders incite prominent local women to persecute Paul and Barnabas and drive them out of the territory. What sort of influence did women possess?

Women stood on the fringe in temple worship. Men occupied a closer court. Priests and Levites (all male) enjoyed the highest degree of cult status, performing the central ritual roles of temple service. (This limited-access arrangement eventually applied to women in society as well.) Still, models of women in Scripture (e.g., Miriam, Huldah, Esther) implied a more central role for women in Jewish religious life. Jacob Neusner suggests that the early pagan tradition of women as “sacred prostitutes” influenced those who formed the Jewish liturgical code to remove women from the temple altogether (Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity, Fortress Press, 1984).

Philo, a philosopher in Alexandria, held women to be selfish, jealous, seductive, unfaithful, and immoral. The Talmud, a collection of Rabbinic writings, considered a woman an “illusory treasure” that must be watched constantly. At birth, boys were more treasured than girls, since sons generally earned more and cost less. Yet, now and again, women worked their way to prominence in Jewish society.

The new Christian order did not focus primarily on revising social structures, though the Christian spirit could not long leave these untouched. We can imagine how the words and actions of Paul and Barnabas, in elevating the status of Gentiles, might have threatened Jewish women who had achieved peculiar (and fragile) prominence in the community, making them willing participants in an effort to maintain the status quo.

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Imagine the final days of the first missionary journey as Paul and his companion, Barnabas, swing back to reinforce earlier visits before taking a ship to Antioch. Such long-distance travel would have been unusual for the time. Merchants moved about, but most people stayed close to home, within the boundaries of their extended family or village, finding there all they needed for daily life. If one traveled, one did not do so alone. Solitary travelers made easy targets for bandits and wild beasts. For safety, Paul needed Barnabas and others as travel mates.

They probably walked aided by a staff in difficult terrain. (A strong and even-tempered donkey to carry supplies would have been a welcome addition.) Moving by day to avoid the risk of ambush (though resting for a time in the midday heat), they likely carried dried fruit, bread, and water to last about two days. Roads were somewhat scarce and often hard to recognize, but the Persians (pioneers of Middle Eastern road construction) had begun a network of connectors between present-day Turkey and Iran. Some of these roads would have been known to Paul since maps of the time show them crossing near his home city of Tarsus.

Paul and Barnabas made this roundabout return journey to encourage the fledgling communities they had previously founded. This encouragement took the form of a kind of tough-love, come-to-Jesus message: “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships.” Translation: We never said it would be easy.

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Today’s first reading deals with a conflict in the early church. At that time, the majority of believers were Jews and continued to practice their ancestral religion. Some of these took to the road without a mandate and insisted that Gentile converts first adopt a Jewish identity. Paul felt strongly that requiring circumcision and adherence to the law would drive away the very people the Holy Spirit had drawn close. Yet he had to find a way to forge a good relationship between the Jewish majority and the growing minority of Gentile believers. It took travel, testimony, debate, a letter, emissaries, and more travel to create and communicate a shortlist of requirements acceptable to all parties. Psalm 67 radiates to reach all nations, all peoples, and the ends of the earth. It mirrors the broadening gaze of the Jerusalem council of elders, looking with the eyes of Christ to the Gentiles and the world at large.

The Ascension of the Lord
In today’s first reading, we hear a pointed question: “why are you standing there looking at the sky?” Two white-clad messengers deliver this wake-up call to the disciples, who are still staring at the spot where they last saw Jesus. We can well imagine the hollow feeling in their hearts, the numbness in their limbs, at the sudden disappearance of one so dearly loved. Yet the story hinges not on the absence of Jesus, but on his enduring presence through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Luke and Acts evangelist makes this point throughout the reading, first mentioning the Holy Spirit in his opening line: “In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” “First book” refers to the Gospel of Luke, volume one in his two-volume work. Theophilus (beloved of God) invites all who read Luke’s account to take it to heart.

Emphasis on the Spirit continues with a promise from Jesus himself: “John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Finally, just before being taken up, Jesus says, “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.” Clearly, the Ascension points forward, heralding Christ’s presence through the Spirit even as the tangible presence of Jesus slips away.

Seventh Sunday of Easter
The verb “gaze” (to look intently) occurs often in the Christian Scriptures, almost a dozen times in Acts alone. It seems to indicate someone spellbound, deep in prayer, in a trance, or, in the case of Stephen, looking through a hole in the sky. It clearly means more than mere sight; it means some altered state of consciousness. (I like to think it signifies something similar to what our great Vatican II teacher Sulpician Father Eugene Walsh meant when he promoted the faith practice of paying attention.)

“Filled with faith and the holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), Stephen appears first in the list of those chosen to serve the poor, handling the daily distribution so that all the widows get a fair share. A gifted multitasker, his wonders and signs draw him into debate with synagogue officials, who find they cannot tolerate the “wisdom and the spirit” (6:10) with which he speaks. Dragged before the Sanhedrin, he proves a masterful storyteller, holding his audience spellbound (yes, he “looked intently”) through the whole history of Israel (7:2–50). His long discourse ends in a diatribe, however, and his listeners, yanked suddenly from the pleasant trance of a long and familiar story, grind their teeth at him. All this leads up to today’s passage.

Gazing up to heaven, Stephen sees God’s glory and Jesus at God’s right hand. “Behold,” he says, announcing his vision. Fury erupts. They rush him, drag him away, and stone him to death. Saul looks on, blind to the evil he has incited in the name of righteousness.

Pentecost Sunday: At the Vigil Mass
Pentecost concludes the fifty-day celebration of Easter. Tomorrow’s feast features the familiar story of the gathered community confirmed in the signs of the Spirit, but today we participate in a different sort of celebration, a vigil. All four choices for the first reading come from the Hebrew Testament (rather than the book of Acts) and look back to Babel and Sinai and the visions of Ezekiel and Joel. Psalm 104 expresses our longing for the Spirit to renew the earth we inhabit. Saint Paul speaks of creation groaning and of us groaning and of the Spirit groaning in the in between, the already-and-not-yet that anticipates the fulfillment of God’s reign. He says, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.” Similarly, the reading from John’s Gospel leaves us longing for living water (the Spirit) to flow from within.

On such a day, at such a moment, our own breath must be ready to bear this liturgy of waiting with endurance, our vocal apparatus hydrated, stretched, and supple, ready to bring to expression the hope of all present as we prepare together for the feast to come.

Our own vigil of preparation begins with the psalm text from the Lectionary, prayed aloud and pondered without the notes. It expands to include studying the entire text from the Bible as well as footnotes and commentaries available to us. We peruse the first reading and Gospel for obvious and more subtle connections. Only then do we address the tune, taking it in and memorizing its shape without words. Putting the two together, we bring our delivery of the text to the tempo of speech and let the spoken word be our guide for natural vowel sounds, phrasing, and syllabic stress. Finally, we work with the accompanist and collaborate on the instrumental support needed to communicate the meaning we have discovered through prayer, study, and rehearsal.

Pentecost Sunday: At the Mass during the Day
Today’s readings give us the settings of Luke (Acts 2) and John 20 through which to consider the arrival of the Spirit of God as the gathered communities remembered and described it. What they saw, what they heard, and what they felt about the presence manifest in the mighty acts of God indicates how powerfully they were moved. Scholars suggest that certain elements of these narratives receive help from tradition. In Luke, the eruption of foreign languages sounds like a reversal of the Babel scenario, just as the plagues turned backward the creation account (Genesis 1). In John, the risen Christ shares the breath of new life with his followers, just as the creator breathed life into Adam’s frame. These experiences join other trance-like moments in Israelite history, revealing a source other-than-human.

This Sunday’s selection from Psalm 104 echoes that of yesterday’s vigil, but with a tone more celebratory than anticipatory. New life in the Spirit bursts forth in this incomparable hymn of creation. It falls to us to incite this joyful riot of praise and thanks to God. The second verse stands out from the others with reality-based insight. To paraphrase: We get it now! Your breath, your Spirit, makes the difference between life and death, and we need more of it! The whole earth needs it!

The Russian mystic and monk Saint Seraphim of Sarov (born about the time of the American Revolution) leaves us with this particular version of the meaning of life: “the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God,” the one eternal treasure that will never pass away (On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit,

© 2015 OCP. All rights reserved.

Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
When the Gospel writers sought models on which to base their infancy narratives, they must have thought a great deal about Hannah and her spouse, Elkanah (see 1 Samuel 1–2). Members of the tribe of Ephraim, they lived in Ramah, about five miles north of Jerusalem. This interesting couple shared a common ancestry with Joshua, and the birth of their son, Samuel, represents a dramatic high point of biblical tradition. Their hometown of Ramah (or Ramathaim) would come to be known as Arimathea, the home of a certain Joseph who famously owned a tomb outside Jerusalem.

Hannah’s surrender of her weaned child to the keeping of Eli the priest forms the link between the first reading and Psalm 84. Young Samuel will live in the temple, the very dwelling place of God. There he will hear the voice of the Lord in the night and become the servant who listens and acts according to God’s word.

Today’s responsorial psalm, “Blessed are they who dwell in your house, O Lord,” comes from Psalm 84:5. In Lectionary verse 2 “happy” replaces “blessed” (as in the Beatitudes). Psalm 84:4, compares this happy at-home-ness to the birds of the air (sparrow, swallow) finding nests to settle their young. “How lovely is your dwelling place” (familiar thanks to Johannes Brahms, among others) begins both the biblical Psalm 84 and Lectionary verse 1. Robert Alter says the term “lovely” “is associated with lover and lovemaking, conveying a virtually erotic intensity” as the psalmist longs for that home.

Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God
For some two hundred years following the Exodus, the people lived divided into tribes and ruled by military strongmen called Judges (and one woman, Deborah). They envied the success of their neighbors and yearned to imitate the prevailing governmental structure: monarchy. Warned of the imperfections of this system, they nonetheless talked the Lord into a trial run and accepted his king-designee, Saul. The tall, handsome monarch, anointed and confirmed both by the people and their God, seemed to be exactly what they sought, a brilliant general and popular leader. But Saul disappointed the Lord; his disobedience brought on divine disfavor. Samuel then anointed the Lord's new choice, David, the young son of Jesse.

Over time, the persistent Philistines began to reclaim their earlier victories. Saul sank slowly into depression, realizing that he had lost the Lord’s support. He called for a musician to temper his troubled mind. Not being a party to ongoing negotiations, he did not know that the shepherd-singer, David, was also the new king-in-waiting. Under the youth’s musical spell the disturbed monarch revived. From that time, whenever the black dog hounded the king, he called for his singer of soothing song.

We have no authentic, verifiable version of David’s song(s), but certain poems, revered by many, came to be collected in the Book of Psalms. A few of these might be the work of the young singer in Saul’s court. Most are more likely written by others in homage or imitation, with the hero David as inspiration.

The Epiphany of the Lord
Two Sundays ago we gave thought to the Gospel writers as they crafted their birth narratives out of the spun gold of earlier Scriptures (e.g., Hannah’s tale from 1 Samuel). Similarly, it seems likely that Saint Matthew made a study of Isaiah’s poetry before weaving the great story of sages bearing gifts.

In today’s first reading, the prophet-poet’s musical vocabulary accompanies the exiles out of Babylon and into a restored city of Zion, together with royal visitors from Midian (a gathering center for nomadic traders in Sinai), Ephah (a Midianite tribe), and Sheba (the wealthy and exotic southwest corner of Arabia, later known as Yemen). The procession winds its way through “thick clouds” by the light emanating from the city. (So today, Christmas lights attract all to draw close and share, albeit unknowingly, in the glory of God’s love.)

No other psalm could be more appropriate for this solemnity of the Epiphany than the one provided. As Tom Conry says in The Fire within the Night (, “Psalm 72 argues that the object of political power is simply to do justice, and that ‘justice’ means a redistribution of the world’s wealth in favor of those who now cannot command justice on their own behalf” (56). The king of Psalm 72 will cultivate justice and peace over the whole of Israel, from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean (from sea to shining sea). This one will not only hear the cry of the poor, but will also respond with compassion, moving decisively to rescue and save.

The Baptism of the Lord
Our Jewish ancestors emerged as a religious community from a wilderness of arid lands where the angle of exposure to the sun brought extreme heat and light and only moderate seasonal variations. In such places, water became the key element of life. Some would argue that a certain temperament and disposition developed from this desert experience, contributing to a culture that insisted (some might say obsessively) on a degree of ritual purity impossible to achieve due to the lack of water for cleansing. The Torah contrasts pure and impure animals and lists acts that render a person unclean (e.g., Leviticus 11; Numbers 19:11–22). For every act of legal impurity, there existed a corresponding act of purification, often some variation of washing with water. Members of the Qumran community (from whom John the Baptist may have emerged) as well as more typical first-century Jews put great store in washings and purifications.

Psalm 104 fills the earth, the sky, and the sea with the praise of a grateful creation. I urge you to embrace the psalm fully by reading aloud, not only the Lectionary version, but the entire text from the Book of Psalms. Pay special attention to the “water music” throughout and try to connect the watery images to what you understand about baptism. Then explore the Lectionary version with that sensibility. Some call Psalm 104 the “Pearl of the Psalter.” Consult your favorite commentary and find out what makes this a tour de force of descriptive praise.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scholars suggest that one of Isaiah’s followers wrote the section of the book today’s first reading comes from, offering this word of the Lord sometime after Cyrus of Persia’s release of the exiles and as the restoration of Jerusalem was getting underway. Discouraged by the vast ruins and endless heaps of rubble and disappointed in the slow progress of rebuilding, the people hang on the prophet’s hopeful words. He reminds them of God’s regard, employing the glorious images of a royal wedding. Calling their beloved city “a glorious crown” and “a royal diadem” held by God, the prophet speaks of marriage between God and God’s people; the old designations of “forsaken” and “desolate” give way to new names reflecting God’s delight and desire for intimacy.

How fitting that this Sunday’s selection from Psalm 96 calls forth a “new song” from our people in response to this reversal of fortune! How fitting that the Gospel reading tells of stone water jars, prescribed for ceremonial washings (see last week’s reflection), now filled to overflowing with the wine of the Messiah’s wedding feast! How might we connect with this imagery? In what way do we experience God’s love brimming over in our lives?

Several weeks back, we proclaimed a selection from Psalm 96 at the Christmas Mass during the Night. Similar psalms graced other celebrations in the Christmas season. Though we now enter Ordinary Time, we keep the wonder of Incarnation alive in our hearts.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
A prequel to today’s reading from Nehemiah 8: About 150 years before the Babylonian exile, certain officials in Israel became aware of Aramaic, a sister language of Hebrew spoken by the people of neighboring Aram. Like other languages of neighboring nations (e.g., Dutch and German, Spanish and Portuguese), Hebrew and Aramaic shared common roots and featured similar sounds and expressions.

Arameans lived to the north of Israel along the Mediterranean Sea (in what later would become known as Syria) in a nation made up of small city states and with a power center at Damascus. In the time of Tiglath-Pileser III (around 730 BC) and Assyria’s domination of the Mediterranean world, Aramaic emerged as the principal means of communication between prisoners of war. Escaped or released prisoners returned home to Jerusalem, bringing along their prison language, Aramaic. Residents of Jerusalem gradually adopted Aramaic, alongside Hebrew, as a kind of useful slang. Over time, it developed into popular speech, with Hebrew reserved for more serious pursuits. While Aramaic dominated the day-to-day dealings of ordinary folk, Hebrew lent itself well to ritual worship and scholarly study of the law. Near the end of the fifth century BC, when Ezra returned to Jerusalem after the exile bringing with him the full book of the law, those who listened as he read (men, women, and children old enough to understand) needed to have the law “interpreted” (Nehemiah 8:8) because, by this time, few people understood Hebrew, the language of the ancestors.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Was there a precise moment, a day, a month, or a season of the year when you recognized your call? Was there a defining time when the years of experience, study and rehearsal, liturgy and prayer brought you some self-awareness of ministerial identity? (I guess... I think... Oh, yes, this is what it feels like… I really am a cantor!) What were the symptoms? What signs led you to that realization? Did you arrive at it on your own, or did others accompany you?

Call stories abound. Some, like those of Abraham (and Sarah), Isaac (and Rebecca), and Jacob (and Rachel and Leah) come early in the sacred history of God’s people. With the dawn of monarchy in Israel, we enter upon an age of prophets, eccentric characters called from hither and yon, who spill the beans of divine direction nearly non-stop. (From the first, the Lord wisely places a prophet at the king’s side or, more often, in his face so that timely course correction can be communicated.) Prophetic calls run the gamut: Samuel in restless sleep, Elijah on a mountaintop, Elisha behind a plow, Ezekiel and Isaiah in ecstatic visions, Amos among sheep and sycamores, and today’s Jeremiah, dedicated in the womb yet well known for his protests: “I am too young” and “You duped me, O Lord.”

Distinct prophetic personalities bring forth “the word of the Lord,” each in their time, and call forth a response from God’s people (and their earthly rulers). Sound familiar?

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
You might recall a few Sundays past when we celebrated the Lord’s baptism by John in the midst of wilderness. The desert setting, both of Isaiah’s oracle and Luke’s account of the sacred plunge, made way for the poetry of endless sky, primitive rock formations, and visions of starry brilliance, which become our gateway to Ordinary Time. In a similar way, today’s first reading (again from Isaiah) sets the stage for Psalm 138.

Isaiah’s call comes in a heavenly vision. He cannot tear his eyes away, though he knows that doom awaits him for daring to look upon the Lord of Hosts. Apparently the Almighty has other plans, for a six-winged seraphim flies down with a burning ember to cleanse Isaiah’s unclean lips. When the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah can now answer boldly, “Here I am … send me!” This lofty scene marks the prophet’s solemn initiation into a new stage of relationship and the conferral of a new (and weighty) responsibility. Take a few minutes to read aloud the beginning of Isaiah chapter six in the tones of an inaugural vision.

Today’s psalm refrain takes us right back to the divine throne room: “In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord.” The verse texts keep us there, worshipping in the midst of the heavenly throng.

Try this: Open the Bible to Psalm 138. Working with biblical text, improvise a simple chant tone and sing it aloud. Try it again with emphasis on the verbs, making them a bit louder or longer or both. A third try might include a repetition of the last phrase of each couplet, for emphasis. Finally, add an alleluia to the end of each verse, bidding the sacred shout farewell. Perhaps you could also gather some cantor friends for a cantor Shrovetide celebration with some light food and good wine as each cantor improvises this psalm from his or her point of view after a reading of the Isaiah 6 excerpt (with help from your best reader) as it appears this Sunday. Alleluia.

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