Presents, gifts and Christmas

Arrival of the Kings

The Magi have just arrived (with their presents) to see the baby. Matthew’s account of their arrival is careful and circumstantial. It’s a little while on from the actual birth (although we think of the kings as queueing up behind the shepherds,  as that’s what happens in Nativity plays and at our cribs, it’s not exactly what the narrative suggests).

Here they are, queuing patiently, presents at the ready
First in Jerusalem…

The wise men arrive in Jerusalem, seeking information, after Jesus has been born in Bethlehem. All that the wise men know is that there is an infant king, born for the nation whose capital is in Jerusalem, so they go and ask if anyone knows any more about it than they do. They have seen a new and significant star which indicates the baby king’s arrival, but the implication is that the star is taking a pause, because otherwise they would have continued to follow it. Maybe it’s too cloudy; or maybe they are travelling through Jerusalem anyway, replenishing their supplies or something (we know they have come quite some distance), and a big town is a good place to ask for news.

…and on to Bethlehem

Herod’s informants get wind of this and report it to him. He is worried (his position is difficult anyway, because of the Romans), so very sensibly he tries to find out more. (He is the first person officially to worry about this baby being the Messiah.)  First he checks up on the prophecies. then he summons the Magi ‘privately’, to avoid any fuss being made, elicits as much information as he can from them, and sends them on to Bethlehem, as being their probable destination. He even encourages them to come back and tell him all about it, a charm offensive which they luckily do not fall for.

the angel warning the Magi not to go back and tell Herod anything

They set off from Jerusalem, and you can feel the lift of their hearts as Matthew says,’And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising’, which leads them directly to where they want to be, ‘right over the place where Jesus lay’, as the carol says .

Presents for a new baby

They are filled with joy and delight, they greet the little family, they fall to their knees and pay homage to the child. And only after this do they produce the presents, even though crib figures mean that we all grow up with the idea of them solemnly processing with their gifts clasped in front of them.

the star marking the spot, and presents for the baby king

This is a very encouraging moment, because they burrow in their saddlebags and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are gifts of wealth, honour, and luxury. Although Jesus has been born in a barn with no facilities or any arrangements for his arrival apart from what Mary and Joseph have managed to bring with them, these are not gifts to relieve abject poverty.  The Magi don’t hand over anything like a robe to be used as a blanket, for example.   They don’t offer food.  The gold is ceremonial, not part of a whipround.  ‘Opening their treasuries’,  they give things appropriate to another person of wealth and status, so I think we can assume that the Holy Family has managed to make itself comfortable and is not in dire need.  That’s a relief.

Everyone likes giving presents

Giving presents is a deep human instinct, and a very endearing one.  Everyone loves to give presents, and most of us are better at giving them than receiving them graciously (certainly I am).  We seize any occasion to give presents : a new house, a new job, birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, saints’ days,  anniversaries, or just for love (the ‘unbirthday’ present).   New babies are a wonderful opportunity to give a gift, which nearly everyone takes advantage of.

Presents from the shepherds

I am sure that the shepherds would have brought something with them when they came to see the baby which the Angel had announced to them.   At that stage, Mary and Joseph were on their uppers and the baby was lying in the animals’ feeding trough.  So I think they would have given gifts of comfort and necessity : a fleece, maybe even some milk and cheese for Mary, perhaps a bundle of firewood or something.  That’s like the collections that we have for refugees nowadays.  You wouldn’t give them perfume and spices, you provide for urgent need : clothes, shoes, blankets. (The shepherds also seem to have brought their instruments, so presumably they play the baby a lullaby.  Shepherds are famous musicians, as we have seen before.)

I never travel without my bagpipes
giving what you can
Worth and value

Everybody loves to give.  Children present you with pictures just as soon as they learn to hold a pencil.  If you go for a walk, they give you conkers or acorns.  If you are by the sea, it’s shells or an attractive pebble.  Surely this is part of the point of a kiss.  It is something you give.  People may kiss you against your will (especially in families at Christmas or New Year, for example), but a kiss is only worthwhile if it is given.  It is a gift with no actual substance other than the act of giving.  Gifts don’t need to be worth anything.  Gifts that are worth nothing can be valued more than any other possession, because of the giver or the occasion.  A gift is valid all by itself.  The Magi’s gifts were probably less immediately useful than the shepherds’, however much they were worth, but everyone has to give what he can, like the Christina Rossetti poem In the bleak midwinter.

The Magi’s gifts in the Psalms

There is no textual evidence for the shepherds’gifts, however likely they seem to be, however many pictures of them there are.  Why do we hear about the Wise Men’s presents and not the shepherds?  Because they are mentioned in the psalms. ‘The kings of Tarshish and the sea coasts shall pay him tribute.  The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts’ (Psalm 71/72).   Matthew is concerned while writing his Gospel to show how all of the birth narrative has been foretold, so whenever there’s a chance to make the point specifically, he does so. Isaiah  in the first reading last Sunday foretells even the gold and the incense (and the camels).  This is all evidence of the divine plan, reassuring for those who know the Jewish prophecies already, as well as for those who start from the figure of Jesus and then look back.

Jesus and presents

Look at Jesus’ attitude to giving.  He doesn’t often have anything material to give, but when he does, he does not just fulfil the need, he is lavish (the wedding at Cana).  He talks about generosity, and tells us that God will not be outdone.  He’s not interested in the value of what we give, but in the giving.  Mark and Luke both tell the story of the poor widow who gives a measly tuppence to the Temple treasury, and of Jesus’ words of respect and commendation.  This is not a parable, it is an event, and the woman is real.  You give what you can, and God supplies the rest.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Women’s voices in the Bible : few but worth listening to

Women’s words and women’s voices

We have two big Marian feasts coming up as we move into the second week of Advent : the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. Then on the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (this year) we have Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat, instead of a Responsorial Psalm.  So I’m thinking about women and their prayer and singing.

Women’s words are a tiny proportion  of Scripture.  We have lots of chants, songs and canticles (which simply means ‘little songs’) in the Bible, but they are nearly all by men.  I read a fascinating account of the case for considering the author of at least part of the Song of Solomon to be female, a few years ago, but I don’t think it has met with widespread acceptance.

Women’s songs and prayers

There are a few precious references to women’s songs in the Bible.  When I was considering lullabies,  I said that because they are seen as ‘women’s work’, they don’t have the same esteem as poems by men, and oral literature is not taken as seriously as written.  This impacts directly on the preservation of women’s words as far fewer women traditionally have been literate than men (and schools set up ‘for the children of the poor’ have usually been kept only for the male version).   Women don’t even talk much in the narratives of the Old Testament, which presumably pleased St Paul, when he was studying it as a young Pharisee;  but this does mean that we treasure what we have.

Miriam, a prophet with no prophecies

Miriam the prophetess is allowed to lead the women singing the chorus in the song of victory after the Red Sea roars back and swallows up Pharaoh and his horses and his chariots, but although the male prophets declaim at length (a whole book of the Bible each), we don’t hear any of Miriam’s words.  It is only through her label that we know she is a prophetess at all.

There are very few books of the Bible named after women (and they are so short, it is easy to overlook them while leafing through).  We have Ruth, Esther and Judith (personally I would add Wisdom, as she is so often personified, and I called my daughter Sophia after her, but I do know she is an abstraction).

Ruth’s words : a tender poem

Ruth is a refugee with all the cards stacked against her : a childless, foreign widow, with a dependent mother-in-law. The Book of Ruth tells how by hard work, patience, obedience and love, she ends up married to Boaz, and is the mother of kings.  She has one piece of speech written out in verse, and it is the lovely invocation to her mother-in-law, ‘wherever you go, I shall go’.   It was adapted and given a tune a while ago (I remember singing it as a student), but the words have been changed and the tune has so many long pauses that it’s difficult to sing.  I think it’s interesting that it’s been used as a hymn, when it does not occur in any Sunday reading.  People would clearly like to use it.  Maybe I should do a more upbeat setting.

Esther’s prayer for courage before the lion king

The Book of Esther is in a bit of a mess; there is a Greek version which contains many parts not present in the Hebrew version, including not only Mordecai’s prayer, but also one by Esther.

Esther is a member of the king’s harem,  but no-one knows that she is a Jew, except her uncle Mordecai, who is an astute civil servant.  The king’s right hand man, Haman, takes against the Jews because they are a stiff-necked people, and Mordecai won’t bow to him.

Keep calm and be like Queen Esther
purple for the queen

Esther’s influence with the King is the only way to save the whole Jewish nation.   She adorns herself beautifully for the King and finds favour in his eye, which she uses to save her people (after three banquets, in the best story tradition).  It’s a wonderful, dramatic story, which has been turned into novels and plays, and I remember a haunting little poem by Eleanor Farjeon which starts, ‘Put on your purple, Esther, Esther’.   Most of us know the bones of the story.  But Esther’s own words are unfamiliar.

Judith, a great heroine, but don’t quote her

Judith is a corking story, longer than the other two, but I recommend it as a good read.   She is another widow (very low down in the pecking order, that’s why God has to look out for them especially), very virtuous, very sensible and forthright, and (critically) extremely beautiful.

Judith holding a sword
Giorgione’s Judith

Both her prose (when she’s giving advice to the elders and generals, which astonishingly they accept) and her prayers are worth reading.  And we have a really authentic voice here.  ‘You must not ask what I intend to do; I will not tell you until I have done it’ (Judith 8 33).   She is the only person I can think of in the Bible who says please : ‘Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Master of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of your whole creation, hear my prayer’ (Jud 9 12).  It would take too long to tell the story but (spoiler alert) she beheads the enemy’s general and saves the day with her virtue intact.  Her words are powerful (she has a couple of other short prayers and a great victory song) but the only song out of the book of Judith that we use in the liturgy (for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is actually the words of the High Priest as he blesses her for saving Israel.

I should mention at this point that Esther and Judith don’t even appear in many Bibles, as their pedigree and style are different from the other canonical books.

Are any psalms by women?

What else have we got?  Of course we don’t know who wrote almost any of the psalms, but I would be surprised if many of them were women’s prayers, though some of the yearning psalms might be.  As I said when I was looking at inclusive language, the Psalms are more inclusive than other bits of the Bible because so much of them is direct conversation between two interlocutors, and ‘I’ and ‘you’ are gender-neutral on the page.   This is possibly one reason why the Psalms are so widely beloved: because they feel relevant to each reader and he or she can pray them as his or her own words.

Hannah the mother of Samuel

I’m sure there are some  other examples of women’s words that I have omitted, because the Bible is too long for me to be able to do a quick check through.  I make no claim for this list being exhaustive.  There is a great prayer by Hannah, the noble mother of Samuel, after she gives her son, her only son, to God (I Samuel 2).

Hannah hands over Samuel
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

In it she quotes the psalms, and she also uses many of the ideas that we find in the Magnificat. God humbles and he exalts (v7).  He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes, and to assign them a seat of honour (v 8ff).  These are ideas that we often find in the psalms, but they have peculiar force when the person talking about God’s turning the established order upside down, is someone who is right at the bottom.  Like Judith, she reminds God that men do not win by their own strength, but by his.  The inference is clear : with his help ‘women can do much’, as Mary Ward says.

Deborah, a prophetess with more of a voice

Another prophetess is Deborah, in the book of Judges, and she is another strong and sensible woman whose advice is heeded.  Like Joan of Arc, she puts fire into the belly of the soldiers.  Barak refuses to go and fight Sisera if she does not go with him, and again I think we hear a real person speaking in her answer :’I will go with you then, but the way you are going about it, the glory will not be yours; for God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’ (Judges 4 9, Jerusalem version). They march out to battle together. Later, Sisera is horribly staked by Jael, and then there is the triumph song described as being by Deborah and Barak.  I hope it’s mostly by Deborah; to me, it certainly reads that way (there is even a little joke in it about men holding long debates by the stream while others are rushing into battle with Barak and Deborah).  It has some wonderful lines: ‘From high in heaven fought the stars, fought from their orbits against Sisera……Through her window she leans and looks, Sisera’s mother, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot long in coming? Why are the harnessed horses slow?” (Judges 5 2off).  It is really exciting,  a fine piece of writing.

The New Testament

Although there’s not much in the Old Testament, there is surprisingly even less in the New.  There are many women about in the narrative (Jesus seems to have felt comfortable in their company), but their words are rarely recorded, and never at length.   When they speak, it tends to be brief questions, requests, comments – not prayers or songs, with the exception of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary incorporated into the Hail Mary, and of course, Mary’s own Magnificat.

Anna and the song we don’t have

There is a sad but very telling moment in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is presented in the temple.  Simeon, an old and very holy man is there, and we have the words of what he said. The first part is the Nunc Dimittis, another beautiful prayer which the Church uses every day.  He also prophesies Mary’s future sorrow.  Then the narrative describes the arrival of Anna, an elderly and very holy widow. ‘And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2 38, RSV).  And that’s it.  The narrative moves on, and we do not have Anna’s words.  This upsets me every time I read it.

Suppressing women’s voices

Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular has a real problem with letting women’s voices be heard.  Adult women are the one group still barred from Catholic Cathedral choirs. During the Middle Ages, nuns were not even allowed to sing Gregorian chant in convents, they were restricted to intoning on a single note, in case people might come and listen to the beauty of their singing.  This seems to me to be a fine example of both missing the point and blaming the victim : if you are singing beautifully, you are doing it for God, not for an audience, which is usually not there anyway.

Nowadays we can read poems and prayers by women (not ‘for’, those are often less helpful) and they are often very useful and beautiful.  I have heard calls for a separate ‘theology of women’, but I don’t think we need one.  What we need is for the men who run the Church to realise that women are human too, and that their experience and its expression are equally valid with men’s.

‘Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, declaim a song!’ (Judges 5 12).  ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!’ (Zechariah 9 9).   Alas, there are no New Testament equivalents of this encouragement.   We have been waiting too long to hear women’s voices.



For us and for our salvation : inclusive language

Inclusive language

I have been ducking writing this blog because I know it’s an issue which creates heat and not much light. But with the All Saints psalm coming up, that feels cowardly, so I’m going to try and explain why I think the Church has got this wrong.

Unlike some people whom I respect, I do follow the official line on non-inclusive language as given when I am writing tunes for the Psalms and Gospel Acclamations.  For the website to be reliable and useful, I have to follow exactly the words as given in the relevant Missal.  I do not change things, or leave words out; but I do wince quite often.  If I am reading at my church, I check with the parish priest whether he is happy for me to add ‘and sisters’ to the exhortations made to ‘brothers’.  Mostly it’s not a problem, although a couple of years ago one priest said to me that there were far more important things to be concerned with in the readings.

Why does it matter?

And of course he was right.  The substance is what matters.  What he didn’t understand though, and what I think the authorities in the Church have equally failed to grasp, is that if you deliberately exclude what is usually the majority of the congregation, this is a stumbling block for many of them, and they can’t engage with the substance because they feel as if they have been told that it is not meant for them.

Women as a small minority in the past

When I went to university, women were a relatively small minority.  I remember being addressed, at lectures and seminars, as ‘gentlemen’.  One didn’t react.  Politer and more aware (maybe less myopic) lecturers gradually became the majority, though it took some time.  When I was doing postgrad research my supervisor consulted me about what to do with a new (female) student who burst into tears whenever criticised.  I suggested sending her to a female don, which completely nonplussed my supervisor, as the college he belonged to, though it had female undergraduates, did not have any women on the teaching staff.

This isn’t me; but maybe this is what I should have done

That’s a while ago now, and thank goodness the situation has improved.  But the issue of inclusive language (or rather of non-inclusive language) is still a painful one for (most) women Catholics.  Even more damagingly, a wholly male hierarchy does not even notice that half the body of Christ is being excluded, because the language actively misrepresents the reality.

Awareness of language, inclusive or not

I am very language-aware, I always have been.  It’s like having an acute sense of smell, something you are born with.  Because of writing music to go with a fixed set of words, I think I have probably become even more sensitised.  I look up pronunciation on-line to check whether the US ‘toward’ is one or two syllables (it’s one, and there’s a man who spends seventeen minutes explaining it). I understand how the UK psalm can have ‘power’ or ‘heaven’ on one note, but you need two for the US – and I’m still trying to find out which side of the fence Canada and Australia come down on.  I have to arrange the melody so that ‘tormented’ is stressed on the first syllable for the US and Philippines, but on the second syllable for UK, Ireland and OZ.  (The same is true for ‘frustrated’, but luckily that’s not a word that comes up in the psalms, only in Saint Paul’s Letters.)  I look at the words really carefully, and work on them for some time.  It is an enormous privilege to be able to do this, and I love it; but shoddy translation makes me cross.

It’s not Latin’s fault

I’m lucky enough to be also comfortable with Latin.  I grew up with it, partly because our parish was a very old-fashioned one, so even after Mass in the vernacular had been introduced, we were still having a lot of it in Latin.  I studied it at school.  I can sing chant, I can do Credo III and Salve Regina without book.  I’m not trying to boast or show off here, just explain where I’m coming from.  Crucially, I know that ‘homines’ is not the Latin for ‘men’.  It means ‘people’.  In French, it’s the difference between ‘les hommes’ and ‘les gens’.  So ‘for us men and our salvation’ , to go back to my headline example, is simply wrong.  You might well not want to use the word ‘people’ because it has two syllables, and disturbs the rhythm.   You could just leave it out.  This should offend no-one.  It includes all of us.  Because there is time for a tiny break after it, it actually helps to make you think about what you are saying.  ‘For us men’ is quite deliberately excluding.   And in Latin it would be ‘propter nos viros’.

The Church isn’t even consistent on this.  If ‘men’ means ‘men and women’, why do the advertisements for vocations to the priesthood always invite ‘men’?   Any woman aspirant would be rebuffed at a very early stage and told it did not mean ‘and women’ at all.  ‘Man’ is slightly more tricky, because we don’t have (unlike Czech, Serbian and no doubt some other languages) a genderless noun for a human being except for ‘person’, which has a special weight of its own.  ‘Homo’ and ‘vir’ both translate as ‘man’.  I am a ‘homo’ but I am not a ‘vir’.   For those who get agitated about in persona Christi, Jesus was made man: ‘homo factus est’.  He happens to be a ‘vir’.  I have no problem with that.  We are both ‘homines’.  As the hymn City of God says, ‘we are sons of the morning, we are daughters of day’, a very fine example of inclusive translation (Cf. ‘You are all sons of light and sons of the day’, 1 Thess 5.5).

(Non-)inclusive language in the Psalms

Moving on to the Psalms, the situation becomes clearer, because there, our translations distinguish between ‘man’ (‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him,’ (Ps 8/9) and ‘a man’ or ‘the man’, but a lot of the time, the psalms are so direct that it isn’t a problem: we are using ‘I’ and ‘you’.  When the discussion is between God and the psalmist, we can all use the words of the psalm without any obstacle.  When, however, the psalmist discusses other people in general terms, we do have a problem, as he tends to talk only about ‘the just man’ and ‘the wicked man’.  As soon as the word ‘man’ has an article, definite or indefinite, it seems to be talking to only half the human race and ignoring the other half.

Here’s another one, better than the real thing
But these are the words in the Bible

Some of the translations I set are aware of the problem and try to work around it.  ‘Man’ is a single syllable which can be difficult to replace.  ‘The just one’ (occasional, US) is a bit clumsy, as is the use of ‘their’ for a singular subject (occasional, CAN) to avoid ‘his’ (but probably better than ‘one’s’, unless you are the Queen of England).  The recommended wedding psalms nearly all focus on the joys of the just man, with his wife as an occasional desirable add-on, and this is why I would myself choose a different sort of psalm, one which speaks to both central figures.  (Have a look at my earlier discussion on wedding psalms, if you are interested.) Here is where the psalms’ directness is very helpful : ‘May the Lord give you your heart’s desire’ excludes no-one and is highly appropriate (Pss 19/20 and 36/37).

The Canada translations vary wildly, sometimes trying really hard to be inclusive and sometimes seeming deliberately to avoid doing so.  The UK/Ireland translations, being closest to the original Grail versions, are of their time, as of course are the Psalms.  Now, changing the Grail versions is difficult, because they were ‘Englished’ (and that’s her word) by a genius woman, Philippa Craig, who understood not just her own language but also that the psalms were meant to be sung, so the rhythms are good;  and if you upset them, you must produce something at least as good (this is why a lot of nineteenth-century hymn word revision is poor).  And the psalms are really old; Christianity has been around for two thousand years, but the psalms were already old when it started.  They are the product of their time, their culture, their context…….

So can we change them for the Lectionary?

…….but they are also new for us every time we sing them. So a bit of careful alteration can be justified, I think, and determined non-alteration is wearing on the ear of (some) female listeners.  All Saints always brings this topic to the front of my attention.  The Responses for the All Saints psalm are interesting. US and OZ (sorry, technical term for ‘Australia and New Zealand’) have ‘Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face’, which is OK.  The UK/Ireland version is taken directly from the text: ‘Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord’, which is not good. The Canadian one is inspired: ‘Lord, this is the company of those who seek your face’ – good rhythm, arresting, leaves no-one out, neat allusion both to the Church Militant and the eucharistic community; but then, sadly, subsides into the same verse words as OZ and UK, ‘the man’ and ‘he’. The US has ‘the one’ and ‘he’, but substitutes ‘race’ for ‘men’ in the last verse (which is where the UK Response is from).  I respect the effort, but that’s not a good alternative.  All four Lectionaries do adapt the psalm words quite freely when they choose, including the UK one, so keeping it exact is not a justification for exclusionary language.  I think it is justified to change the words slightly for a psalm that is designed to be sung by the whole congregation, especially in the Response because it is repeated.

I want to walk in Jerusalem just like John
Other writings more problematic

The Psalms are not (usually) the problem at Mass for those of us with sensitive ears, though I reserve the right to point out where alterations could easily have been made (I need a good picture, like my mediaeval Yoda for when the US psalm words are too inverted, but I haven’t found one yet).  So much of the language of the psalms is simple, direct and uses ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than the third person, which is where the problem usually arises.  We could make better use of adjectives, which are gender-neutral in English : ‘the poor’, ‘the just’ etc.  The bigger problem is paradoxically in the more modern translations of prayers where non-inclusive language has been retained or even put back.  When you see translations of Vatican documents or Papal sermons or prayers in Morning and Evening Prayer (one of the worst offenders) which use the word ‘men’ (or sometimes ‘sons’ or ‘brothers’),  it is rarely necessary.  It could just be ineptitude or shoddy translation, but it often seems to be part of an agenda.

I have been at many Masses where the congregation was almost exclusively female, or even where it was all nuns except me and the priest.  ‘For us and for our salvation’ is a better version of the words, and not just in those situations.  It is what I say.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Music for the Queen of Heaven : setting the Assumption psalms

Two services, two psalms

Because it’s such a big feast, the Assumption has two psalms, one for the Vigil Mass (night before), one for on the day, and they are very different. The first one is Psalm 131/132 and the second Psalm 44/45.

Vigil Psalm : The Ark of the Covenant

It takes a minute to work out the relevance of the Psalm 131/132, because it is overtly about the Ark in which Moses placed the stone tablets upon which God had written the Ten Commandments.  It explains that ‘we’ have found the Ark, we are bringing it to God’s house, everyone should rejoice, and above all we rejoice because God has chosen Zion, our holy mountain, as the place where he chooses to live from now on.  Practically speaking, the Response is very long (two lines-worth instead of the usual one); and in the first verse there are proper names, which are always slightly tricky unless they are well-known.  What the US translation calls ‘Jaar’ is called ‘Yearim’ in the other versions, so you have to decide how many syllables to give it.  The other proper name is Ephrathah, which is at least consistent, if difficult to pronounce.  I gave Ja-ar two syllables, because they must have doubled the ‘a’ for a reason, and three for ‘Ye-a-rim’ because if it’s pronounced like that, you can see why it might mutate to Ja-ar.  But I’m always happy to be corrected on this, and to change the settings for later years if anyone knows better than I do!

Our Lady as the Ark

So the Ark which we are so happy to greet is here representing the mother of God, as she too ‘contains’ the Word of God.  It makes sense, though I feel a little uncomfortable, as though I am thinking of Mary as a walking box rather than as an individual. However, the psalm is there as a reaction to the first reading (David leading the Ark into a special tent pitched for it, so that God can dwell with his people).  It is a great psalm, which we reserve for this feast, and it has beautiful shape and movement.  The direct speech in the first verse is balanced by God’s own words in the third verse, and the middle verse has a wonderful vision of the Church with the priests ‘clothed in holiness’ and the faithful all shouting out their joy.  As a nomad by marriage rather than by conviction, I especially like God’s words in the last two lines : ‘This is my resting-place for ever, /here have I chosen to live’, and the rhythm of that was what controlled the verse tune for me (UK/OZ/CAN) and meant that it came out with a swing as 3/4 instead of the balanced 4/4 for the US version.

The Vigil Gospel

On the whole the Vigil readings are fairly calm and low-key, culminating in the slightly odd choice of Gospel (when you think that this is the feast of the Assumption), where Jesus says that people who hear the word of God and obey it are more blessed than the person who just happened to be his mother (Luke 11,27-28).  I feel it is significant that his mother is not actually present at this encounter (it comes from a period when Jesus is on tour with the disciples), and Jesus is making a point about the obedience of faith rather than anything else.  One of our sons does stand-up comedy, and he talks about a stock character called ‘my Dad’, who is not actually anything to do with his father (or so he says).  The point of what Jesus says is for those who are listening, it’s not actually anything about Our Lady.

The Assumption : Day Mass

Now let’s move on to the Mass on the day itself, and the picture is wholly different.  Here the readings are gorgeous, opulent, exotic, mythic, terrifying, transcendental, and I could go on.  The heavens are open, showing the divine Holy of holies (think how the earthly one was always kept screened and only seen by only the High Priest only once a year), there is a ‘huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns’ (I’ve always thought that the fact the numbers don’t match only adds to the overwhelmingness of the spectacle), there is a woman ‘clothed with the sun’ (how?), standing on the moon (always shown as a sickle moon, so she’s not stable), crowned with twelve stars (think of the scale here)…and she’s in labour, and not just in labour but at the crowning moment (in all senses).  The dragon is waiting to seize and gobble up the baby, but God is also waiting (as he does for Mary’s assent, at the Annunciation), and he rescues them both as soon as the baby is born.  And that’s only the first reading.

Day Psalm : the Queen takes her place

We respond to this first reading with Psalm 44/45, which describes a queen dressed in gorgeous robes leaving her father’s house and coming to take her place on the king’s right hand.   She is beautiful, arrayed in gold and jewels, and she fits with the woman in the first reading.  And we are celebrating the Assumption of Mary into heaven, so that is who the Queen is: she leaves the earth and takes her place as Queen of heaven.

I think of this as ‘the Klimt psalm’ because it is so rich and exotic, and I wanted to make the music a little strange, without putting the congregation off.  The verses are short and irregular, and the different countries divide them up differently : the US version has four verses, which are basically two (more or less) matching pairs, where the other Lectionaries (UK and OZ) have standardised the lines into two verses of four lines.  The CAN one is completely sui generis : it lulls you into a false sense of security because it starts the same as UK and OZ but then branches out into five lines for v2 (including three which no-one else has included), and a third verse of only two lines (second half of v2 for UK and OZ).  This turned out to be completely un-compactable, sorry about that; you will need someone to help turn the pages.  So all the settings had to be different.

The music isn’t difficult, just strange and slightly alien (I hope), emphasizing the exotic.  Where I’m usually wishing for trumpets, double basses, saxophones or drums, in this psalm I’m trying to suggest a gong or cymbals, maybe gamelan or those little Indian finger-cymbals. It’s modal, to keep everyone slightly on the alert and aware.  In the whole idea of the Assumption, there is meant to be a creative mismatch between Mary, the woman from Galilee who accepted a job which God offered to her, and the mighty Queen, and I’m trying to pick up the strangeness of the whole thing.

The feast of the Assumption

I have to admit that I have problems with the two Mary feasts of the Assumption and (even more) the Immaculate Conception, because they seem to me to deny what they are meant to stand for.  If Jesus was not born of a real human being, the Incarnation is not real; if Mary was set apart by the Immaculate Conception from birth (not to mention conceived by a kiss between Joachim and Anna in some versions of her life), then she is not a real human being.  For the Annunciation and the Incarnation to work, Mary needs to be an ordinary person, a person like us. Similarly, if Mary was old and full of years and carried up to heaven in that old, maybe ill body (we have to die of something, even if it’s just anno Domini), why is she not allowed the new body which all the rest of us will have?  I know this is very heretical, and no-one will speak to me again, but I have to say I rather like the (not just) Eastern tradition of the Dormition, where Christ comes down to the body of his mother lying on her deathbed and takes her soul, usually pictured as a little girl, sometimes small enough to sit on Christ’s hand,  back up to heaven with him, instead of the mature woman’s body just disappearing.

The Assumption means taking one’s correct place

It seems to me that the feast of the Assumption is actually the celebration of something slightly different.  It is the moment when a human being becomes fully what God created him to be.  It is Tennyson’s moment of crossing the bar, or Hopkins’ moment when the poor potsherd becomes immortal diamond.

God made us to be like him.  That is actually a terrifying statement to make.  We find it difficult to see God in ourselves, and even more so to see him in the other people walking around with us.  But if we could see what God can see, if we can come to fulfil the potential he has given us, we are genuinely a royal priesthood, a kingly nation, a nation made up of kings and queens, all of us.

The Gospel for the Day Mass is the section of Luke’s Gospel that contains Our Lady’s Magnificat (chapter 1, vv 39 to 56), the only piece of extended speech of hers that we have.  This is her human apotheosis, when she grasps God’s plan being fulfilled through all history and takes her place in it willingly and joyfully.  Indeed from this day forward all generations have called her blessed.  Her suffering in later life must have been terrible, but at least she understood that God’s mercy would prevail.

At the end of her life, the Assumption is a way to explain what happens when a simple human being fulfils God’s plan and realises her potential.  It seems strange and exotic to us, we find it difficult even to put it into words, but it is what we are born for; and at least we can appreciate its beauty even now.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Music for your wedding : things worth considering

Congratulations! Once you decide to get married, there are lots of things you want to do but I’m only going to talk about planning the music at your wedding service, specifically the bits with words.  Your going in and coming out music you need to discuss with your organist, and if you want the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Widor’s Toccata, just ask; organists love a challenge!  Only one point: it’s actually quite difficult to walk sedately to a 3/4 rhythm, so however much you love it, keep the Blue Danube for the reception, or you may find yourself waltzing out.

Planning for the personal

I’ve only had one wedding, but I’ve sung at a lot of them, and watched the planning of several others (big family), so I now feel that if I did get married again, I have a clearer idea of how to make the wedding service as personal as possible (although, reassuringly, I wouldn’t change anything about mine).  Some of the service is fixed, but there are plenty of places where you have to choose between alternatives.  What mood do you want to create?  What story do you want to tell?  These are in fact liturgical questions, and the words and music you choose are very important.

The psalm for your wedding : the official options by country

We have special requests for wedding psalms all through the year, but they tend to peak in the summer, so this year the Webmaster and I decided to think ahead, and we’ve put together a full set of the psalms listed in the UK and Ireland (one set) and the US and Philippines (another set)  Lectionaries for Weddings. I haven’t been able to track down the OZ or Canada equivalents on line, so I would be really grateful if anyone else could send me the list, as experience shows it may well not be the same.  It is actually quite funny to compare the different national missals in my possession.  The US one has a set of three possible wedding services at the back (and doesn’t include the words of the Hail Mary at any point).   The UK one has lots of Penitential Rites, and Evening Prayer out of the Divine Office.  The OZ one just has room for a selection of prayers because it’s in slightly bigger print (for which I am grateful).   The Canada one is based on the US version but unhelpfully takes out the wedding section, and has an Overview of the Catechism.  As they say, go figure.

Several to choose from

There is a choice of wedding psalms and alleluia verses, at least seven different psalms, and even more to choose from because there are often alternative Responses for the same psalm (none of this is me, by the way, this is all straight out of the Lectionary.)  The main thing I would say is make this an active choice.  Choose a psalm where the words mean something to you, ideally to both of you, personally.  If you have a favourite psalm and it’s not listed, have a word with your priest and ask if you may substitute it.  If I haven’t already set it (or you don’t like the tune), e-mail me.  Shortest turn-round time ever was a couple of days, but I’m pleased to say I got it done, and delighted to say that they liked it, but more notice is a help!

And the chance to go off-piste if you want to

The psalm selection isn’t always the ones I would choose, but there are some good happy psalms to choose from (though inclusive language is in short supply).  There are several which are basically just hooray for God psalms, and there are some which are hooray for the just man.  There is only one which speaks specifically about the family, and that from the man’s viewpoint (127/128); overall, there is definitely an emphasis on only the male half of this pairing, and this might encourage you to consider other options.   (All the psalm settings are listed on the website , so you can listen to the tunes.)  Invite all the angels as witnesses to your wedding with Psalm 137/138.   Consider Psalm 19/20, which asks God to protect you (both), to give you your heart’s desire and fulfil every one of your plans;  or Psalm 36/37, which says ‘if you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant you your heart’s desire’ with the Response ‘May the Lord always hold us by the hand’.  I set both these as graduation psalms for two of my daughters, and the words have the excitement of a new beginning as well as the reassurance of God’s love.   And if you really want Psalm 22/23 (The Lord is my shepherd), ask for it; it does not have to be kept for funerals!

Be careful of the message

Above all – and this goes for your choice of hymns too – check the words.  If you are choosing an anthem or something for the signing of the register, check the words.  Even if it’s in a foreign language, check the words.  There will be some smartiebreeks there who understands them.  I remember being in the choir at a wedding where the bride’s best friend sang ‘Lascia ch’io pianga‘ from Handel’s Rinaldo.  It is a beautiful tune.  But the words say ‘Let me weep for my cruel fate, and sigh for my liberty’, not a good choice for a wedding.  If it was a mistake, it was embarrassing; if it was deliberate, it was in very poor taste.  Check the words.

Choosing the wedding hymns

Here I would just say, try to mix it up a little, as this increases the chance of your congregation knowing at least one of them.  Maybe adapt the old rhyme.  Something old (trad Catholic) – eg Soul of my Saviour;  something new (but not too new) – something like City of God ;  something borrowed (one of the great Anglican or Methodist hymns – enormous choice here but eg Now thank we all our God);  something blues-y- eg  Gentle as silence.   Leave out any category you hate, but don’t let them all be out of the same box (unless it’s the borrowed box, because that has so many different sorts of options in it).

Choosing the wedding readings

I know I said I was only going to talk about the music, but I can’t not include picking your readings here.  There’s a good reason why most people stick with the Bible readings : they are relevant and not embarrassing.  Choose something you like by all means, even not biblical if your priest is happy, but check the words.  A younger brother is an excellent sounding board on this.  If he snorts with laughter, yawns or goes bright pink, think of choosing something else.  You have the rest of your life together to read The Owl and the Pussycat or Pigling Bland.

Don’t forget to choose the Alleluia verse

There are a few options available in the Lectionaries as the Alleluia verse, so don’t forget to make a choice here also.  Funnily enough, these are different from ordinary Sunday Alleluias, so they are mostly new settings of the verse words.  I have kept them all nice and simple.  There are various standard Alleluia top and tails, and I used the Jacob Alleluia for one of the US options because he’s a good model for persistence even if he behaves badly later on.  Remember there may well be people at the wedding who don’t know their way around, but they will want to join in if you make it easy for them.

It’s always wonderful and heartwarming to see how much goodwill there is at a wedding service, all focussed on the two people at front and centre.  They will listen to your readings.  They will sing the music you have chosen.  It’s your wedding.  Make it special.  The choices are all yours.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The bittersweetness of the Ascension

Getting the mood music right

The mood for Ascension is tricky, especially when you are writing a tune for the psalm. It is not straightforward, even though the words seem to be. The emotions for this feast – for it is a great feast – are unusually mixed.

A triumphant psalm

The psalm words are full of joy and excitement, and it’s another of the psalms where it’s difficult to think of it in a context other than a Christian one, although of course it was not written to be about Jesus and the Ascension. The trumpets, which sound repeatedly because they are in the Response,  are an irresistible setter of the mood of the psalm as we sing it.  It has to be triumphant.  Like all Responsorial Psalms, it is meant to give shape to our response to the first reading.

The Ascension narrative

This first reading is the very beginning of Acts (chapter 1, vv1-11), so it’s the first piece of narrative after the end of the Gospels.  It describes very simply how the Lord tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming of the Holy Spirit. They gather together, and they ask him yet again whether now is the time for him to sort out the current political situation. I am sure he must have sighed at this point. He tells them not to concern themselves with God’s timing, but to wait.  They will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes, and become Jesus’ witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, throughout Judaea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’. It’s like a panning shot in a film as the camera moves further and further out. Then it says; ‘When he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight’, and you feel that no-one actually noticed when he left the ground, the way that a train or a ship can start travelling without you noticing.

Interrupted by messengers

But they are looking ‘intently’ at the sky as he is going, when they are interrupted: ‘suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them.’ We have met these two before, or someone very like them, at the empty tomb. John calls them two angels in white. Matthew and Mark each have only one; Matthew’s is an angel of the Lord, with an appearance like lightning and raiment white as snow, whereas Mark has a less intimidating young man sitting, dressed in white. Luke has two men (and whoever wrote Luke, we think, wrote Acts), and he makes the parallels with the earlier appearance very clear: the women go to the tomb and they can’t find the body. Then ‘while they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel’ (Luke 24 v4).  Either God’s messengers are there already or you don’t see them arrive, because your attention is distracted (how true).

The message

Even if these messengers from God had been wearing different clothes the second time, I think you would recognise them by what they say and their style.  They are so down-to-earth (surprisingly) and practical. ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.’  And this time, ‘Why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go’, (which might well be a reason to keep an eye on the sky, except the Lord said it is not up to us to know when).  What they say is non-judgmental but definitely carries a note of encouragement not to hang around but to start getting on with the job.

The feelings of those left behind: from triumph…

So this is the mood we find at Ascension.  We rejoice in the Lord’s going, because he is going to his father;  but we are left behind.  It’s like seeing somebody off,  – you celebrate, you hold them tightly, you talk about keeping in contact, but the painful moment comes when you have to let go, wave, turn round, go back home and carry on.  The psalm has to be triumphant, because that is the seeing-off part; then the mood shifts towards the promises, the waiting,  and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

…to determination and anticipation

But we do have the promises that Jesus will indeed keep in contact, that he is always there, and we know that we are waiting for the Great Comforter, ‘of all Consolers best’, as the Holy Spirit has been called for so long.  He needs to be, because it is always sad when someone leaves, even if it is to a good place.  You look forward, optimistically, to another meeting, but it is normal to feel sad.  Thank goodness I don’t have to get all these complex emotions into the palm setting.  According to my children, I am the only person who cries at the end of the last Harry Potter film (when the next generation goes off to Hogwarts), but I always hate it when they go away, because I love them.  After we put them on aeroplanes, we have to pause in the carpark to recover before we drive home and carry on. We long for the time when they will return.

Waiting in the upper room again (but differently)

If you celebrate Ascension on Thursday, you will see on (Seventh) Sunday that the narratives almost take a pause and tread water for a little while.  We are all waiting for the Comforter, but we don’t know anything else about him yet.  It is as if the group is holding its collective breath until the arrival of the Breath of God.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Trying to understand the Scriptures : Emmaus

Events unroll very quickly in the last few chapters of the Gospels.  The Sunday readings are going backwards slightly, as the Emmaus story happens about a week before Jesus’ reappearance in the upper room and his discussion with Thomas, but it’s worth looking closely at this story.

Two men journeying to a village called Emmaus

We have two unnamed disciples (we learn later that one is called Cleopas, but he’s not someone we have come across before), heading out of Jerusalem. They are talking sadly about recent events.  It’s so easy to imagine this conversation, just going round and round in miserable circles, the sort of conversation you can’t seem to stop having after someone has died, especially if it has been traumatic.

Encounter with a stranger

Jesus, unrecognised, draws near and falls into step with them, and asks an open question: what are they talking about?  They are so startled that they stop walking and just stand there looking sad. Then they ask him how come he doesn’t know what the whole city has been buzzing with the last few days, and they give him a pretty good summary of events (including the women’s testimony, still being discounted). Then Jesus says,’O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe,’ but he must have said it very gently, because there are two of them and they don’t just push him over and walk off, they listen as he explains to them how it was foretold ‘in all the scriptures’.

Explaining the Scriptures

And here I have a confession to make. For years I thought this meant that he showed them, using something like the blue RSV New Testament that we used in RE classes at school, how it all made sense, and I was very envious of anyone who had the main character of the story there to explain it all. Then ‘the scales fell from my eyes’, and I realised that the New Testament had not been written at this point, not any of it.  Anyway, people didn’t walk around in those days carrying handy one-volume Bibles. Maybe this is totally obvious to everyone else, but it wasn’t to me. Jesus explains the relevant bits of the Scriptures to them, and he does it by talking about the passages which they are all familiar with (and much of it will have been out of the Psalms).  And it will all have been Old Testament.

Messiah libretto from the same Scriptures

The comparable experience for us is listening to Handel’s Messiah, I think.  It is exactly what Handel’s librettist did, but of course he also had the New Testament to choose from. Charles Jennens took different bits out of (both parts of) our sacred Scriptures, and put them together to shed light on the story of Jesus.  We Catholics tend not to be as well-versed in the OT as our Protestant friends, so we often don’t know where the bits come from, but their relevance is shocking and immediate.  They are so poignantly relevant  (‘All they that see him laugh him to scorn’‘He was despised’,Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows) that we assume that it is Jesus they were written about.  Of course, they were; but not directly, not while it was going on, although that is how it feels, like a live commentary on the Passion.  Any decent score of Messiah will give you the references, and Wikipedia helpfully also lists them.  What is striking is how much is out of only two books: Isaiah, and the Psalms.

Recognition at the breaking of the bread

To finish the story: they all reach the inn together and go in to have supper (after a seven-mile walk), and they recognise him ‘in the breaking of the bread’.  Then he vanishes.  Why did they not recognise him before?  There are various possible factors: they are part of a very loose group and may not have known him too well by sight, since they aren’t in the inner circle;  they are too tired and sad to be paying very much attention; they aren’t expecting him;  he must look totally different from the last time they saw him, if they were in Jerusalem until today; he chooses not to be recognised  — but none of these reasons is at all significant.  The point is that eventually they realise; and then, although the day is now even farther spent than it was when they used that as an excuse to keep him with them, they get up and walk all the way back to tell the apostles.

Enough witnesses, and a more informed group

Their testimony is added to that of others, the weight of evidence is growing and everyone begins to feel that it is true and they can perhaps let themselves believe it.  Then the Lord appears again and lets everyone touch him (this may or not be the same event as when Thomas meets the Lord), and now ‘they still disbelieved for joy’, but everything has changed and life is transformed.  The Lord explains the Scriptures all over again, and he actually refers specifically to the psalms (Luke 24, v44), which pleases me very much.  Just as we use the Psalms as a rich source of prayers and solace, so did he.  You are never the first person to find a psalm illuminating, apt, or comforting; and one of the people who has done so before you is Jesus himself.