Re-learning mortality as gift

Last year, my father died on the day before Ash Wednesday. He was 85 years old, and he’d lived a wonderful, respectable Christian life, full of charity toward others, including prison ministry in his retirement. He’d enjoyed a fulfilling professional career, been a good friend to many, and was happily married for over 50 years to a wonderful woman with whom he’d raised a big, happy family. Letting go of this kind, funny, intelligent and loving man was hard and sad, but something about it also felt right. It was Dad’s time, and we’ll all have our time.

Ash Wednesday invites us all to reflect on “our time” – to remember that indeed our time approaches, even if still far off. We wear ashes on our foreheads to symbolize, as a recent NPR article put it, that we are all “dust-creatures”. There is an impermanence to our earthly lives that we must never forget, lest we fail to live lives of charity and love with every breath. Psalm 95 says, “If today you hear God’s voice/harden not your hearts,” for tomorrow, you may be gone. On Ash Wednesday we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

image source: University of Dayton

This isn’t meant to be a downer, or a macabre fixation on death. Admittedly, life is good, but you can have too much of a good thing. And then the good thing becomes less good. J.R.R. Tolkien, in his Middle-Earth mythology, portrayed the immortal Elves as distinctly sad in character, because their immortality dooms them to watch their numinous race “dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” (Fellowship of the Ring, 356) But “Men” (that is, humans) in Middle-Earth have been given a special gift by Illúvatar (the God of all in Tolkien’s mythology), which the Elves have not:

“It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not. Whereas the Elves remain until the end of days, and their love of the Earth and all the world is more single and more poignant therefore, and as the years lengthen ever more sorrowful. For the Elves die not till the world dies […] But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers. Death is their fate, the gift of Illúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor [Tolkien’s Satan figure] has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope.” (Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 42)

The above passage is a great example of an important aspect of fantasy literature: it helps us recover realities that grow distorted in our vision over time. Tolkien said stories help us “to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity – from possessiveness.” (“On Fairy-Stories,” 373) The Melkors of the world have cast their shadow upon the fact that we’re all going to die someday – have confounded “our time” of passing with darkness, causing us to fear it as something evil. But Tolkien’s mythology helps us re-learn our mortality as a gift from God, as a chance to live heroically in this life while we can, rather than linger indefinitely, watching ages come and go like the lugubrious Elves. Life, it reminds us, is a limited-time offer – a chance at which we must jump.

When one has lived in this way – jumping at every chance life gives to follow Christ – then we are able to make a good end, when it is our time. Another fantasy author, J.K. Rowling, presents three options for how we might face death in “The Tale of the Three Brothers” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, chapter 21), recovering, in the example of the third brother, the notion of death as friend instead of as enemy. The oldest brother tries to “conquer” Death; his lust for power is his downfall, and Death takes him “for his own.” The second brother lives in unending longing for one he has lost to Death; his sorrow is his own undoing, and Death takes him as well. But the third brother wears a cloak which hides him from Death – not unlike that cloak of grace with which we are clothed in Christ. This cloak hides the third brother from death until he is old. When his time comes, he passes the cloak to his son, “And he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly.” (409)

image source: Carol’s Notebook

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent by reminding us that one day, death with come for us. With this reminder comes an invitation to live, clothed in Christ, so that we may one day greet death like a friend.

An offering of what? Re-assessing the song “Ashes”

We rise again from ashes,

from the good we’ve failed to do.

We rise again from ashes,

to create ourselves anew.

If all our world is ashes,

then must our lives be true,

An offering of ashes,

an offering to you.

(lyrics from the song “Ashes” by Tom Conry c. 1978 New Dawn Music)

Catholics have been singing the song “Ashes” at Ash Wednesday Masses in English-speaking North America since the late 1970s. Many Catholics view it as the inevitable choice for the occasion; I have heard more than one person claim “it’s not really Ash Wednesday” if we don’t sing “Ashes.” Thus in preparing the Ash Wednesday liturgy, “Ashes” gets a free ride; its popularity means it is not subjected to the usual scrutiny. “Ashes” on Ash Wednesday is a fait accompli.

image source: University of Dayton

But what if we put “Ashes” to the test? What if we re-evaluated the song’s worthiness as we do with other music employed in the service of liturgical celebrations? Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, the US Catholic Bishops’ authoritative instruction on liturgical music, says “In judging the appropriateness of music for the Liturgy, one will examine its liturgical, pastoral, and musical qualities. […] All three judgments must be considered together, and no individual judgment can be applied in isolation from the other two.” (¶126) What if we applied this one, three-fold judgment to “Ashes”? How would we go about it?

When considering a new song for use in liturgy, start with the text. Ignore the musical features of the song for a moment and investigate first how the text fares on its own. With the glut of music published for use in Catholic liturgy these days, we must whittle down the options, lest we drown in their sheer volume. Text provides a more objective starting point than music, as a powerful melody can persuade, even beguile, leading us to overlook textual weaknesses. There’s a reason the US Bishops list the liturgical judgment first in Sing to the Lord. And if the song in question doesn’t pass the textual test, if it isn’t able to “support the liturgical text and to convey meaning faithful to the teaching of the Church,” (STL ¶128) then one is free to continue the search for a song that will, without entering into the perhaps murkier work of discerning the song’s pastoral and musical value.

In this initial text-only screening, I often find liturgical songs with lyrics that are overwhelmingly “horizontal,” wherein the singer addresses only the self or the gathered assembly. In effect, such lyrics have us singing to ourselves, not God, prompting the question “whom do we worship?” – the only acceptable answer to which (“God!”) our liturgical songs should not wittingly or unwittingly obfuscate. Other songs contain “theology bombs,” where, in the midst of an otherwise lovely piece, a renegade lyric runs contrary to clear-cut Catholic doctrine. (Yes, this even happens in hymnals published for Catholic use; the reference to Jesus’ death satisfying the “wrath of God” in Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend’s popular song “In Christ Alone” (in Breaking Bread (Oregon Catholic Press), etc.) is a perfect example.)

Alan Hommerding’s insightful little book Words that Work for Worship (World Library, 2007) says musicians should look for the creedal qualities of “one, holy, catholic [ie. “universal”] and apostolic” in liturgical texts. “What we look for and strive for,” he says, “are texts that are worthy of a church that bears these marks, and texts that pray in harmony with them. Conversely, we are wary of texts that may disrupt our prayer inheritance or in some way depart from these characteristics of the church.” (9)

So what about “Ashes”? How does it fare when we isolate its text? Turns out, not so well. Although the lyrics address God in a vertical, “we-Thou” orientation, that orientation is weak, only clearly addressing God in the one-line refrain (“an offering to you”), in portions of verse two, and in the doxological verse four. And it’s not simply the song’s point of view which weakens its “we-Thou” orientation; its lyrics contradict orthodox Christian understandings of how God’s grace works to recreate us in the Holy Spirit (should we choose to cooperate with it) during Lent. Departing from Psalm 104’s vertical supplication to God for renewal (“Send forth your spirit, they are created/and you renew the face of the earth”), “Ashes” claims: “We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew” (emphasis mine). Although by verse four the song brings itself into alignment with Catholic teaching, finally pinning praise on the Spirit “who creates the world anew,” the more prominent lyric has done its damage. The song’s emphasis on our own personal agency in making change in our lives, with no (or weak, or inconsistent) reference to God, smacks more of the self-help pop psychology of the mid-twentieth century than of the enduring inheritance of our Judeo-Christian tradition. This overly self-referential character is a common flaw in modern North American liturgical music texts – one to watch out for.

Sadly, that is not “Ashes’” only textual problem, or arguably its worst. Besides some unintelligibility of insight in lines five and six above, the song hinges on a repeated refrain (“An offering of ashes, an offering to you”) which gives a confused and inaccurate explanation of why we wear ashes on our head this first day of Lent. To understand its failings, one must know just a little about the symbolic use of ashes in the Catholic tradition. It is a practice carried over from Hebrew scripture and pagan antiquity as an expression of sorrow for sin (Adolf Adam, The Liturgical Year, 97). Ashes, however, are not employed as an offering to God in Christianity. We offer bread and wine as symbols of our own transformation into the Body and Blood of Christ. (These are sometimes accompanied by incense, which symbolizes our offerings and prayers rising up to God, but is also not, in itself, an “offering”.) Christ offers himself as an unblemished, eternal, Paschal sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. But we don’t offer ashes to God. (What a paltry offering that would be! God gives us his only begotten Son, and in turn we give him… last year’s burnt palm fronds? Yuck.)

Worse, this “offering” lyric, especially in its emphasis through repetition, obscures the actual, coherent, meaningful symbolism in our tradition of wearing ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. As Hommerding says above, it “disrupts” a particular deposit of our prayer inheritance as Catholics. To accurately understand the symbolism of ashes on Ash Wednesday, turn instead to the second option for the prayer of blessing (not offering!) over the ashes:

O God, who desire not the death of sinners,

but their conversion,

mercifully hear our prayers

and in your kindness be pleased to bless + these ashes,

which we intend to receive upon our heads,

that we, who acknowledge we are but ashes

and shall return to dust,

may, through a steadfast observance of Lent,

gain pardon for sins and newness of life

after the likeness of your Risen Son.

(Roman Missal, Third Edition, 210; emphasis mine)

The second of the two provided versicles which the minister says to each penitent while administering ashes conveys their symbolic meaning even more accessibly: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (RM3, 211) And we wear this symbol of our mortality on our foreheads, a part of the body long associated with spiritual consciousness. What better inspiration to be faithful to our Lenten promise to strive for greater holiness in this life than this physical sign – which we are bold enough to wear, all day, in public! – that our time in this world is limited, that we must become spiritual rather than merely physical beings, while we can. Ashes on our foreheads are not an offering to God, though this interpretation may feel more comfortable. Rather, ashes challenge and remind us that the time for discipleship is now, that as Jesus says, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1:15)

I have presented these objections to the song “Ashes” to catechists, pastoral liturgists and musicians many times, sometimes as an example of how one can apply theological training in a practical way. But I admit to doing so also in the hope that church musicians will discontinue their use of this song in favor of another piece from a growing canon of alternatives (some personal favorites are Schutte’s “Ashes to Ashes” and Haas’ “Dust and Ashes,” in that order). Even as musicians appreciate the chance to re-assess the song, some choose to keep “Ashes” on the hymn board. “It’s the only time we sing it all year,” they argue, as if knowingly failing to observe best practices is excusable as long as infrequent (try that in a healthcare setting).

But I’ve heard another, more insidious reason for not deleting “Ashes” from the Ash Wednesday playlist, and it represents, to some, the importance of the pastoral aspect of evaluating liturgical music. “People love that song! They all sing along!” While it is true that well-loved liturgical songs engender participation, this does not mean that within the texts of such songs, anything goes. As Sing to the Lord advises, we may not judge the pastoral qualities of the song in isolation from its liturgical value. And as it happens, with “Ashes,” the so-called pastoral value of the song is more complicated than how well it gets people to sing. True confession: as an undergraduate music minister, I really wanted to program “Let It Be” by the Beatles on a Marian feast day. I thought it would be so relevant – that people would sing it, because they already knew it! Thankfully, my Newman Center director would not permit it. He knew – as I do now – that music for liturgy must do more than engender participation. It must form us not into any “body,” but into the Body of Christ.

image source: Emily Strand, copyright 2012

How does “Ashes” form us? There is an ancient liturgical axiom, lex orandi, lex credendi, which means “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It served as a reminder in the Patristic era to look toward the Church’s ancient, apostolic prayer tradition as a source of orthodoxy. Even today, the phrase bespeaks ritual’s particular, anthropological power to inform and norm the beliefs of those who routinely participate in it. The phrase means that I can teach and blog all day about what those ashes on our foreheads mean, but you’ll learn more about them, and at a deeper level of consciousness, through what is said (and sung) about them in a ritual context.

Ironically, this means “Ashes” fails the pastoral judgment as well, because its very popularity and beloved, fait accompli status in some communities threatens to unintentionally assimilate the faithful to a self-obsessed dominant culture which values symbols that bring comfort (even unintelligibly) over those which challenge. In programming it year after year without reflection or re-assessment, we ingrain in Catholics two false ideas: 1. that they themselves effect their own spiritual renewal in Lent, and 2. that our ashes are an “offering” to God. This is perhaps its worst flaw, for ashes are a powerful sacramental sign which, properly understood, reorients us – reminds us to repent while there is time.            

Feel free to share your own thoughts about “Ashes” in the comments. Do you still hear it every Ash Wednesday where you worship? Why or why not, do you suppose?

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019. My prayers and blessings are with you and yours for a transformational Lenten season!

Harry Potter and the Christ-Child

As Christians in the West celebrate the great feast of Christmas (and our Eastern friends make their preparations), let’s take a look at some ways in which the Harry Potter books draw upon Christmas traditions – and especially that of the Christ-Child –  to shape and inform their titular character: Harry Potter, The Boy Who Lived.

First we must examine young Harry’s name. While J.K. Rowling often claims she chose the name simply because she liked it, Harry is a nickname for Henry, which means “estate ruler,” and fittingly holds royal, even divine associations (there’s a reason Princess Diana and Prince Charles chose the name Henry for their son (aka Prince Harry), as opposed to, you know, Neville).

Of course, another divinely-associated title for “estate ruler” is “Lord.” Jesus’ name means “the Lord saves/helps”, and besides “Christ” or “Messiah”, “Lord” was one of the earliest titles associated with Jesus; the phrase “Jesus is Lord” was the most succinct of early Christian creedal affirmations, used to identify Christians from non-Christians in times of persecution. For as St. Paul says to the Romans, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (10:9) Even aside from Harry’s surname “Potter” (a metaphor for the way God in which God shapes and molds our lives in Isaiah 64:8), Harry’s given name is our first pointer to the Messianic quality of his character in the story.

But we must also look to Harry’s mother’s name: Lily, a flower bearing strong associations with Mary, as it symbolizes purity. (See Beatrice Groves’ writings at The Leaky Cauldron for more on plant lore in Harry Potter.) For this reason, in many depictions of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel is often shown, as in this John William Waterhouse painting, handing Mary a lily as he greets her: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Just as Mary bears the looked-for “Lord”, or leader who will save Israel from sin and death, so Lily Evans Potter bears Harry, who will save his people from death at the hands of the wizarding world’s great enemy, Voldemort.

But Harry’s Christ-Child similarities don’t stop there. Just as Jesus’ birth was surrounded by prophecies, oracles and angelic pronouncements, Harry’s birth was also foretold in prophetic fashion. In the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus is born, some “wise men” (also called “magi” – that is, ancient magicians and astrologers) “came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” (2: 1b-2) This frightened King Herod, who saw the infant Jesus as a threat to his power and sought to destroy him. Like the wise men’s pronouncement, the prophecy about Harry (“Born to those who have thrice defied him, born as the seventh month dies…” (OOTP, 841)) proved a threat to Voldemort, who then attempted to murder the child to prevent his rise to power. Consequently, the prophecies surrounding their children put both Jesus’ and Harry’s parents on the run from the enemy.

But maybe it’s a coincidence. After all, Joseph Campbell and others have pointed out that prophecies and oracles surrounding a hero’s birth, making him a “despised child” who has enemies from his start, are common features of various heroes in many of the world’s folkoric tales.

But Harry’s story bears another striking resemblance to that of the Christ-Child, this one more subtle, in the narrative presence of Neville Longbottom. Trelawney’s first prophecy, as it happens, could have pertained to two children, both born “as the seventh month dies”: Harry or Neville. For reasons that are not clear, Voldemort decides to go after Harry, but Neville plays a key role as one who both mirrors Harry’s life and prompts and supports Harry’s life-long mission against evil: from losing his Remembrall (which Harry must heroically retrieve from Malfoy) in Book 1 to his role in Book 7 as “substitute Harry,” leading Dumbledore’s Army in Harry’s absence from Hogwarts, to killing Nagini at Harry’s request while Harry is presumed dead. The Christ-Child also has a “twin,” as it were, in his cousin, John the Baptist, the only Biblical figure besides Jesus and Mary with his own solemnity in the Church’s liturgical calendar. John’s birth six months prior to Jesus’ acts as an important forerunner to the coming of the Christ. Thus it is significant that Neville’s birth also precedes Harry’s, even if by only one day. And like Neville, John is never the focus of the story, but hovers on the margins of the narrative, pointing with great faithfulness to the one who will save his people.

(And if you’re really interested in Neville, check out this piece I wrote for Hogwarts Professor on other Biblical ways of interpreting his character and actions.)

But our pay off, in terms of Harry’s Christ-Child connections, comes when Harry is a no longer a baby. At age 11, he steps into Mr. Ollivander’s wand shop to select and purchase his first wand, which as we all know, actually “chooses” him. Interestingly, Mr. Ollivander doesn’t say much about the type of wood – holly – out of which Harry’s new wand is made, only that the Phoenix feather inside it connects Harry to Voldemort. He also reveals that Voldemort’s wand is made of yew, and this sets up a symbolic foil. While Harry’s wand is made of wood from the holly tree, a plant long associated with Christmas, Voldemort’s wand casing is of yew, another tree with red berries. Unlike holly, yew trees are extremely long-lived and toxic, giving them a folkloric association with death.

photo via West Fargo Pioneer

The symbolic key becomes the divergent wand woods, which symbolize the different approaches Harry and his nemesis take to the problem of mortality. Voldemort’s approach to the problem of mortality, symbolized by his yew wand, is toxicity to others – killing and controlling in the hopes of extending his own life. But Harry’s holly wand, with its Christmas associations, points to the Incarnation, in which God comes down to us. In the Christ-Child, God takes our own fragility onto himself, identifying with us in our every human experience (except sin), showing us through his self-sacrificing love what it really means to be human: not to strive for physical immortality, but to live well in this world so as to live forever, through God’s grace, in the next.

Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s catch-all website for Potter backstory and lore, says “holly wands often choose owners who are engaged in some dangerous and often spiritual quest.” Both are true for Harry Potter, who is what Campbell calls one of those “universal heroes” like Jesus, who bring a message for all the world. At Christmas, that message is peace.

A very Happy Christmas to you and yours!

Literally, stop saying “literally”

I just stopped reading a blog piece I was interested in because the author used the word “literally” twice, both superfluously, before the third paragraph had ended. I mean, I literally stopped reading. Literally. Stopped.

But how else can I stop, besides literally? If I had done anything but actually stop reading, then I would use another word or phrase, such as “slowed down”, “took a break from” or “read with less interest”. But I stopped reading, which means my reading ceased, it came to an end.

Friends, we have a problem with the word “literally”. We have become utterly addicted to throwing it into sentences. Its overuse knows few bounds. I hear my college students overusing it, I hear adults overusing it, I hear second-graders overusing it. I went to an academic conference last month where it was so overused that at one point during a mid-afternoon breakout, I had the following text exchange with my colleague who sat next to me: Continue reading “Literally, stop saying “literally””

Pop Culture in the Classroom: Rogue One and the Gospel of Mark

One of the challenges of reading scripture in a college course in North America is the perceived saturation of any Christian text in a society in which Christianity dominates the religious landscape. When my students see the Gospel of Mark listed on the syllabus, they assume encountering the text will be a matter of review. “I mean, obviously, I’m a Christian, so I’ve read it before.” I hear this frequently, yet in teaching the text, I find many students have never read the Gospel the way they have read other assigned literary texts such as The Odyssey or Jane Eyre. They’ve heard the Gospel, but then only in snippets (or thematic extracts called pericopes). We can thank the various churches (mine included) for this; in proclaiming and studying scripture bit-by-bit (even, in some churches, phrase-by-phrase), we’ve created a “snippet” Christian scriptural culture, whose members struggle to put the whole story together and think critically about what it means, especially as members of the dominant culture. Continue reading “Pop Culture in the Classroom: Rogue One and the Gospel of Mark”

First (really third) thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story

With me, when a new Star Wars movie comes out on DVD/streaming, the question is not whether I will purchase it, but when. Though it became available Saturday night, I had to wait until last night to purchase access to Solo: A Star Wars Story due to conflicts (which included my eager interest in the current offering from PBS Masterpiece on Sunday night: part 2 of The Miniaturist – very unexpected and highly recommended!).

I saw Solo only twice in the cinema, not because I didn’t love it (I did!) but because of timing, and the annoying lack of people as excited about it as I was. So last night I had my third viewing, managing to watch about a third of the film and wanted to share these thoughts.  Continue reading “First (really third) thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story”

Now Is the Time

“Brothers and sisters: In this instruction I do not praise the fact that your meetings are doing more harm than good.” (1 Cor. 11:17)

I have always loved the first reading for Mass today, from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. First, it demonstrates Paul’s fiery spirit; one can hear the passion of the Apostle to the Gentiles coming through clearly (maybe a little too clearly for those whose behavior he speaks against).

Secondly, and more importantly for me, he’s fired up about the liturgy, about getting the way we do liturgy right. I think of this passage, and hope I’m standing with St. Paul when I advocate for or against some seemingly insignificant liturgical observance or practice. Too often, eyes glaze in response. “Surely it doesn’t matter that much,” many argue. “If our hearts are in the right place, if we’re participating with gusto, who cares about the details?”

This is an argument I’ve heard a lot lately with regard to the music we use in liturgy. Why can’t we sing more songs from this or that Christian radio station, or from this or than experience of charismatic youth camp? The young folks love them! And isn’t that the point, to evangelize? To engage the youth, to get them excited about Mass? Continue reading “Now Is the Time”

Welcome to Liturgy and Life!

I’m thrilled to write the first post of this long-dreamed-of blog, Liturgy and Life. I hope and pray it will lend needed insight to both Church and world and foster fruitful dialogue. So what will this blog be about? That question reminds me of another question I find it difficult to answer quickly: “what do you do?” Well, I do a lot of things, and at first glance they may not all seem related. I teach catechetical courses for my Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus, Ohio and for the University of Dayton’s Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation. I teach first-year nursing students at Mt. Carmel College of Nursing how to be culturally competent in caring for patients of diverse religious backgrounds. I serve my parish, Immaculate Conception in Columbus, as a pastoral musician. I write about liturgy. And I speak, write and talk (especially on podcasts such as Mugglenet Academia and Reading, Writing, Rowling) about the symbolism in Harry Potter, Star Wars and other fictional works. Hence the title of the blog: Liturgy and Life. There is so much to say about the current state of liturgical practice here in the United States more than 50 years after the changes of Vatican Council II. I plan to use this space to reflect on liturgical theology and practice, emphasizing the Paschal Mystery of Christ –  the life, death and resurrection to which we are all called as members of his Body, and into which we ourselves enter boldly whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist – as central to any experience of Catholic worship. And I hope this blog can be a space where we recognize our liturgical experience of the Paschal Mystery more broadly – not just in liturgy, but in life. Because the Paschal Mystery can be found not just in stories from the Scriptures, but in those which entertain us and in the everyday experiences of human life. In this thorough-going approach to the Paschal Mystery, we lend its privileged expression in the liturgy more power, more meaning, and we find ourselves, as the Mystical Body of Christ, better equipped to live the liturgy we celebrate, “that we may draw from so great a mystery, the fullness of charity and of life.” (Roman Missal, Third Edition, Collect of Holy Thursday)