Josh Messner is founding director of the Elm Ensemble. He studied music and theology at Valparaiso University and Islamic Studies at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. In his youth, he was a member of the American Boychoir. He works at the University of Michigan as communications manager in the Center for Global Health Equity.
Saturday 29 October 3:00pm Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Livonia
Luther’s September Bible—a translation of the New Testament from Greek into German—was published in 1522 and disseminated broadly. This text put the most important texts of the Christian faith into the hands of the general public.
Join us on Saturday, October 29 at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Livonia for a hymn festival with congregational singing, a festival choir, German organ works, and brief reflections on Martin Luther’s approach to education and his labors to translate the Bible. Compositions by Luther, Cruciger, Schütz, Bach, Mendelssohn, Manz, Briehl, and more.
This event is free and open to the public. Reception to follow.
Composer and Lutheran cantor Robert Buckley Farlee has been a friend and collaborator of the Elm Ensemble’s for years.
We recently had the privilege of offering the premiere performance of Farlee’s new motet during the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University this April.
We invited Pastor Farlee to comment on some musical aspects of “All Shall Be Well” and what drew him to these powerful texts from Julian of Norwich.
“All Shall Be Well” was commissioned from me by the advisory council of the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University. They wished to honor the Rev. Brian Johnson as he ended his term of service at the university, where he had been assistant vice president for mission and ministry. Brian continues to serve as co-director of the Institute.
Knowing of my long friendship with Brian and our various collaborations over the years, they asked if I would take on this challenge. I was delighted to accept.
The council requested a choral piece but left the text up to me. After giving it much thought, I chose to compile a text from the writings of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich (1343–after 1416).
Listen to “All Shall Be Well”
I have long been fascinated by her writings, especially so in these pandemic times.
We have all struggled to find our way through these long years, and I am one among many who have relied on the phrase that functions as the title and refrain of this composition: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It has consoled me many a night.
But I knew there was more to Julian’s writings than just that—among other things, she is known as the first woman to write a book in the English language.
So I purchased that book, The Revelations of Divine Love, and started reading it. That was a profound journey, and the biggest challenge was making a selection from that treasure chest.
As a mystic, Julian had what feels like a personal—at times intimate—relationship with the Holy Trinity, and I was deeply moved by what I read. I hope my musical setting helps lead more people to an appreciation of Julian’s work.
Julian’s Revelations may have been among the early writings in English, but it is far from primitive! She was obviously a well-educated woman.
An example of this comes at the beginning of the piece, where we hear Julian’s presentation of one of several trinities in her writings (in addition to the triune God). “Truth, wisdom, delight” all lead us to “God, who is love.”
After the first statement of the refrain, we begin to learn who this God is. Again, Julian points to three aspects in lovely alliteration: life, love, and light. She then briefly “unpacks” each of those properties. (It should be noted that, in context, she expands much further on these.) Who but Julian would think of life as homely, love as courteous, and light as kindness?
As the refrain—or perhaps better, antiphon—recurs, it is similar but not identical each time.
This could be said to reflect how the words affect us differently each time we encounter them.
The refrain divides the episodes I selected from Julian’s writings, and the text I use for the refrain is a passage from Julian’s writings that struck me more than most others.
Revealing that “all shall be well” doesn’t mean that life will be trouble-free but—simply and profoundly—that, whatever may afflict us, we shall not be overcome by it.
The piece ends—before a final statement of the antiphon—with the wonderful passage in which Julian presents God as using a variety of modal verbs. God may, can, will, and shall make all things well. I have tried to reflect this marvelous intensification through the music.
I hope the work can accomplish what Martin Luther said music can do so well—take the word of God and the theological insights found in scripture and bring them into our hearts. If that happens, then indeed all shall be well.
About the Author
Robert Buckley Farlee is cantor—with his colleague Martin Seltz—at Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis, where he has served as a pastor and cantor for over forty years. Farlee is a graduate of Christ Seminary-Seminex, Saint Louis, and is retired from Augsburg Fortress Publishers, where he was senior worship editor and involved with the publication of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. In addition to publishing many works for choir, organ, assembly, and instruments, Farlee has received the Distinguished Alumni award from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and the Christus Rex Award from the Institute of Liturgical Studies, Valparaiso University.
Many of us receive the Lord’s Supper every week. Most of us struggle to talk about why and how it’s so important to us. It is important, though. How many other things do we do with such regularity, year-round, for a lifetime?
So it’s refreshing to meet someone who can talk about Holy Communion in plain language while also leaving us wanting to learn more about the extensive conversations Christians have had for millennia about the Eucharist.
That’s the third different term we’ve used for this meal thing Jesus tells us to do. What’s up with that? In The Hunger Inside: How the Meal Jesus Gave Transforms Lives, Brad Roth reminds us that the Lord’s Supper changes us. It transforms our lives and expands our communities. Pastor Roth knows we’re all hungry, and he knows who can feed us.
What first got you interested in theology and pastoring as professional pursuits?
I grew up on a farm in small-town central Illinois. We were in church every Sunday, and I believed what I was taught. Jesus used my childhood church to get a hold of me at a young age. I studied religion in college and New Testament/early Christianity in graduate school. I had some idea of becoming an academic, but more than anything I just wanted to study and know the Bible and history and theology.
My vocation to ministry dawned on me slowly. It was kind of a migratory instinct, and it took me across the territory of my abiding love for Jesus, a fascination with the Scriptures, and a commitment to living out my faith in the community of the church. After a few years of living in big city Boston and serving in different lay capacities in our little congregation, I headed off to the Mennonite seminary in Indiana. I’ve since served rural congregations in Washington State, the mountains of Peru, and now Kansas. It’s been a sixteen-year run so far. I keep relearning that though I chose my pastoral vocation, Jesus chose it for me first.
What was your experience of the Lord’s Supper as a child and adolescent, and how formative was that for you?
I grew up in the Evangelical Mennonite Church, one flavor of Mennonite that had been on a long arc out of the Mennonite world. I treasure that church. They taught me to love Jesus and love the Bible. But communion just didn’t factor very highly in the faith we practiced. At sparse intervals, we partook of little grains of sacred hardtack and a thimble full of red juice, and it was all “just a symbol.” Jesus said “do this,” and we did. ‘Nuff said.
In graduate school, reading folks like Ignatius of Antioch and other church fathers, I realized just how central the Eucharist was to most Christians through the ages. I was peering in at a kind of alien culture, and it fascinated me. To adapt John Henry Newman’s quip: “to be deep in history is to cease to be” Evangelical Mennonite. That proved true for me, at least on communion, though I would later go on to join and become a minister in the mainstream Mennonite church where I still am today.
I began reading the New Testament with new eyes and seeing communion all over the place in ways that are no doubt pedestrian to folks raised in more liturgically-minded traditions—stories like the Emmaus road in Luke 24 or Jesus feeding the 5,000. Without having the language to describe it, I developed a sense of the real presence of Christ. Once the possibility of really encountering Christ in the bread and cup took hold of me, all sorts of things opened up in my heart and got called into question. I’ve been on a journey ever since, trying to figure out what all of that means.
The Hunger Inside is my communion memoir. I draw on powerful deep sources from across the history of both the Eastern and Western churches but as someone who has had to find his way without a prescribed path. I’ve got a kind of kid-in-a-bread-shop eye that lets me draw generously on diverse Really Big Thinkers and Saints.
We take Jesus at his word, especially when he says “given for you.” Yet none of us are invited to the table in all worship settings. Do you have hope for a more ecumenical communion across traditions?
My ambitions are small: I just want to spark the next Reformation. If the first Reformation was about reclaiming the centrality of the word, then maybe now it’s time to put the table back where it belongs.
The beautiful thing is that there are signs of this happening in some quarters. Professor Winfield Bevins has talked about “neo-liturgical churches” cropping up. It’s the ancient-future “convergence” Robert Webber predicted. I can’t say if any of this will lead to changes to official policy about who’s admitted to the Eurcharist in some churches, but it seems to me that this shared love for the table that’s developing will take us to places of unity where our doctrine will have to catch up.
Already one hears of Catholic priests exercising pastoral sensitivity to allow non-Catholic Christians to receive the Eucharist. This a possibility permitted in canon law under circumstances of “grave and pressing need.” There are leaders recognizing just how grave and pressing our common hunger for Christ is.
Some claims you make in the book will please folks from certain traditions while provoking others. Do you say anything that might impassion all of us?
Can’t we just all get along? I’m a Mennonite, ya know!
My fear is that because of the way “communion-speak” is so denominationally siloed, everyone will find something in the book to dislike. I’m especially biting my nails about how the pros will treat it—historians might pick at my inattention to their special niche, theologians might object to me working synthetically across traditions.
If I had to point to something that can get a bunch of folks riled up, I would say it’s my deep dive into the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist. That discussion is certain to get under the skin of dyed-in-the-wool Protestants. Sacrifice is one of those live-wire topics. The Reformers reserved their pointiest diatribes for it. And free-church types who don’t see much of anything of substance taking place in the Eucharist balk most at sacrifice.
Without trying to make the case here, I’ll just say that I think sacrifice is a gap in a lot of our theologies. I can’t grasp how the Lord’s Supper would work if not by re-presenting the timeless power of Jesus’ blood poured out for us on the cross. The meal mediates what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed. Biblical worship was sacrificial worship. Jesus didn’t change that when he gave us the Eucharist.
The book description says you take a narrative-driven approach to understanding communion?
Yes. I live and breathe Scripture, so the Bible’s on every page of this book. And I’ve used stories—my own and those of others—as doorways into understanding communion. I’m a preacher after all. I’ve always got my ear to the ground for a good story! Partly, this is a strategic choice: I want the book to be engaging. Just like most others, stacks of theology footnotes make my eyes glaze. More importantly, I’m convinced that shared stories can take us places doctrinal subtleties can’t. What Jesus nurtures at his table is a relationship, and stories are relational in ways that doctrine is not necessarily.
It’s not only ancient Romans who find it odd that Christians eat and drink the body and blood of their God. What does it mean that we masticate and consume Jesus?
It wasn’t just backbench disciples in Capernaum who have gotten thrown off by Jesus’ words in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. Take 6:53: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus even shifts in that chapter from the usual word for “eat” to the more evocative Greek word trogo, which means “chew.” What’s Jesus getting at?
There’s long been a vein in Christian thought that has taken Jesus’ statement in a crudely realistic way. Thomas Aquinas sometimes gets painted by Protestants as the literalist poster boy, but in developing the doctrine of transubstantiation, Aquinas was actually seeking to square the literal-symbolical circle. He wrote that we do not receive Christ’s body and blood as meat “torn from a carcass or sold in a butcher’s stall.” At its best, the church has not understood Jesus to be saying that the bread and wine turn into flesh and blood in the sense that you could spot the cells under a microscope. Something more subtle is afoot.
In Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, I think he’s making a gloss on the Passover (John 6:4). In a symbolic sense, Jesus has become the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sin of the world, and this reality is signed through the bread and cup. But it’s more than just a symbol. Jesus truly communicates his total and personal self—his flesh and blood—to his people at the table. But it’s his self as the wondrously real bedrock of creation. Christ ascended to “fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). “In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). “Flesh” and “blood” are the best words for describing the symbolic, real, personal, and total encounter with Jesus we are offered at the table, and “chew” points to the ordinary, earthy, and desperately human way we meet him. It’s the mystery of the Incarnation in three words.
We’ve been talking about the hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, which has eucharistic overtones but also discusses Christ’s descent to “demand homage” as well as two verses filled with heavenly visions. How do you describe the connection between our regular receiving of communion and the eternal life that awaits us?
Pondering this hymn gives us a clue into the power of the Lord’s table to hold together Incarnation and Consummation and bring us into Christ’s presence here and now. The word I go to is “foretaste.” The Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of eternity. In the Supper, we experience in an immediate and refractive way what we will know wholly and clearly in eternity. The movement in the Bible also runs the other way—God has reached definitively toward us in Christ. “Look, God’s home is now among his people!” (Revelation 21:3 NLT).
The Lord’s table shows us that God is with us here. But it also summons us on toward a further horizon. Heaven and earth kiss at the Lord’s table.
About the Author
Brad Roth lives in rural Moundridge, Kansas, with his wife and three sons, where he serves as pastor of the West Zion Mennonite Church. Brad is a graduate of Augustana College, Harvard Divinity School, and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He blogs on seeing God in the everyday at DoxologyProject.com.
It is universally acknowledged that the images we hear, speak, and sing in church shape how we understand God. Metaphors are the best we have to describe how we relate to the unfathomable God of All. Father, mother, friend, or ruler are only metaphors, not statements of fact. Yet they are the ones we use to mold our imaginations.
For example, Christianity has for many centuries leaned so heavily on the metaphor of God as father—which Jesus uses in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere—that the default picture of God in the imaginations of many Christians is an older man with the propensity to act as judge or disciplinarian and who remains at some emotional and physical distance from us. Whether or not that describes your father or the father you are trying to be, the cultural assumptions of such roles are deeply ingrained.
But is God only like a father—and only in the ways we recognize?
Like a Mother
To pigeon-hole God does a disservice not only to God—whose reality is beyond all genders and human roles—but also to us, who tend to value more the people who resemble the roles and characteristics we associate with God.
For a long time in many branches of Christianity, the ordained office of ministry was not open to women. If the phrases “mothering God” or “God our mother” were repeated often in scripture, the trends in church leadership were different.
Yet the Bible—and Christian art and music—are not bereft of descriptions of God behaving as mother, even if the explicit word or phrase is not prevalent.
One way to correct our course from facing so far in one direction is to listen to and truly see what those who mother do and recognize those behaviors in God’s actions. I know that all who are intimately involved caregivers changed by the experience—my definition of “mothering”—reflect God’s commitment to humanity.
Who can be a case study for us? Whom are we already scrutinizing for their relative oddity among us?
Clergy mothers, of course. Our concepts of God and the clergy are already enmeshed, so perhaps we can embrace that for a moment and see God through the lives of clergy women.
As frequent targets of congregants’ transference of emotions about their own mothering figures or lack thereof, clergy women also find ourselves poised to address a favorite metaphor of insular congregations: “this church is like a family.”
That might be so. But claiming that without examining it prevents us from realizing what unhealthy family behaviors we have been passing down too. Clergy mothers are uniquely positioned to call a “family meeting” and reframe how we choose to portray ourselves in the world. What a gift this self-examination can be to the church!
Developing Our Imaginations
Now imagine a generation growing up in congregations where God is referred to regularly with both feminine and masculine images and pronouns. People hear and call upon an expansive God from the pulpit and in classrooms, in small groups and in songs. The value of equity among leadership becomes embedded in our metaphors.
Our view of God expands as well. As I unpack how much give-and-take there is in a mothering relationship—so that the parent as well as the child is changed by it—then we must ask this.
Is God also changeable? Is God also transformed by relationship with us?
If so, the incarnation means something different than satisfying a debt to a disciplinarian God. There are also—most certainly—the cringe-worthy illustrations of intimate caregiving in my life and in God’s behaviors that must be uncovered. Anger flares up so quickly and powerfully when the same children into whom we have poured ourselves then disobey us. Might we develop empathy for God as we acknowledge our shared experiences?
Now comes the moment when we take these metaphors of a mothering God—and our commitment as mothering church leaders—out into the world. In the final chapter in my book I note that, “I am convinced that the skills and passions honed by raising children are not meant to stay within our narrow definitions of family.” Nor can a more expansive, vulnerable, transformed image of God stay within the church.
If we trust that this is how God relates with humanity, then it will change how we are willing to interact with and be changed by our siblings—all children of God—far and wide.
About the Author
Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an ELCA pastor, mother, and author. She currently works as an editor for Luther Seminary’s digital resources—Faith+Lead, Working Preacher, and Enter the Bible—and hosts Faith+Lead’s Book Hub events. Her first book is Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, Inc, 2020). She lives in northwest Ohio with her husband and two daughters, blogging occasionally at leeannpomrenke.com.
Photo. The image at the top of the post if from the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives, across from Old City of Jerusalem. At the foot of the altar is this mosaic of a mother hen gathering her chicks. The image recalls Christ’s words in Luke 13.
If you can, join us in the Chapel of the Resurrection for the program, which is free and open to the public. You can also watch and listen free online. The program will be live-streamed on the Institute’s YouTube channel.
In April, the Elm Ensemble will present “In Deepest Night: A Festival of Psalms” for Valparaiso University’s Institute of Liturgical Studies. Since 1949, the Institute has served as a source of renewal for the church’s liturgy and life through ecumenical engagement with scholarship and practical applications of creative worship planning in parish settings.
The “In Deepest Night” program explores the gamut of emotions voiced by the psalmists while modeling the many ways in which the psalms can be sung in worship—a program that will explore the rich, thin, and deep spaces between exquisite and practical, between liturgy and life.
We will offer psalm settings by Abbie Betinis, Heinrich Schütz, Bobby McFerrin, I-to Loh, and others and will lead the assembly in singing many more hymns and psalms.
We will also sing a world premiere by Robert Buckley Farlee called “All Shall Be Well,” a setting of a text by Julian of Norwich. The program’s name is taken from Susan Palo Cherwien’s hymn text “In Deepest Night.”
Elm is offering this psalm festival as the David G. Truemper Memorial Concert, an annual part of the Liturgical Institute named after long-time institute director and beloved Valpo professor Dr. David Truemper. We are honored to be invited to Valpo—alma mater to many Elm Ensemble members—for this occasion and are excited to be singing in person again after more than two years.
If you’re able, please join us on Tuesday, April 26 at 8pm in the Chapel of the Resurrection in Valparaiso, Indiana, for the program. If you’re not able to be there, please support us with prayers for safe travels, good fellowship, and insightful conversations. And stay tuned for new recordings from the event.
At the small urban congregation I serve, we concluded Transfiguration Sunday by singing “All of Us Go Down to the Dust,” ELW 223. The repeated Alleluias helped us confront the grave and the dust: the terrible news of war, the housing crisis in our city, the strained relationships among family and friends at this point in the pandemic.
A little Alleluia goes a long way.
We will bury this Alleluia now. But on Sunday it aided our fellowship and led us to the Eucharist, since we now share the meal following the dismissal in our gymnasium where we can take off our masks more safely and keep physical distance. Ah, the ashen reminders that are our COVID protocols. Mask, vaccination, abundant hand sanitizer. Everyone here is mortal, fragile.
Like several stanzas of a well-written hymn text, there’s a lot going on in these ashes. What will you sing this Lent to explore the layers of meaning here?
There is ash that evokes the dirt of the earth. Ash that is the good soil, the nutritive source, the garden compost. Ashen dirt that will yet yield life. Turn it over, encounter the lively bacteria. Smell summer’s produce waiting to grow.
Then there is ash that evokes burning, annihilation, and destruction. Ash that coats the windows in a city being bombed. Choking ash in the throats of refugee mothers who cannot find food or a safe place to sleep for their children. Homes, schools, sanctuaries, hospitals, train stations and art museums all burned to ash because of greed, power plays, and waste.
All this is here in these ashes. The little clay dish of ash that the presider holds, maybe with a smidge of oil, contains these many realities in a simple sign. Garden nutrition and terrible chokehold are both present here. Life-giving hope and death-dealing fear are entwined in these ashes. And still, we bend to put them on our bodies, singing, “Remember.”
Maybe the music of this Ash Wednesday needs to be a bridge between consoling prayers for peace and cries for change in the streets that our throats also long to raise. We grieve the costs of our unjust systems while also lamenting their existence. Maybe the way we sing can help us find the energy to organize change. I’m feeling that the voice of Joel (call a solemn fast) and the voice Isaiah (away with your dumb rituals) need to be side by side in one Lenten songbook this year.
Today, we will sing ELW 712, “Lord Whose Love in Humble Service,” at our evening Ash Wednesday service. It moves beautifully between our need to call for a moment of reflection—a fast of our attention—and our need to center our focus on the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. It points to all kinds of human suffering, “still your children wander homeless, still the hungry cry for bread; still the captives long for freedom, still in grief we mourn our dead.”
Consecrating the move from devotion to Jesus to action in community, the hymn meets me where I am this Lent. Three of the four stanzas use the word “love.” Theologian and good-trouble-maker Cornel West teaches that “justice is what love looks in public.” The love sung of here points to our buried Alleluias acting seed-like, going underground in us to bear fruitful living in due time.
Singing and music-making are essential to helping those seeds germinating in ourselves, our congregations, and our communities. Malkia Devich Cyril writes that to give our hands to the work of freedom and social change, we must first give our bodies to the work of grief.
Now is not the time for numbness or forgetting—we don’t sing to escape. Now is the day of salvation. And because there is so much suffering to grieve, we fast. But even in our fasting we keep singing. We sing to deepen our encounter with pain and suffering so that it can become good soil within and between us. “Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go.”
About the Author
Liv Larson Andrews is the pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Spokane, Washington. She lives about two blocks from the Spokane River with her spouse and two sons. She serves on the board of directors at the Grünewald Guild and on the advisory council for the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University. She participated in the Collegeville Institute program Writing to Change the World with Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove in fall 2017.
The Elm Ensemble has recorded a few of these remarkable hymns and shares them here, intermixed with the interview.
Few hymns in mainline hymnals are attributed to Black hymnwriters. Who and where are the Black hymnwriters?
The anonymity of Black spirituals is the first thing we should discuss. These songs tend to be known best in their choral or concert versions, as they are arranged and performed broadly in the US and elsewhere. But they are profoundly congregational in their native states and are sung by all manner of Christian congregations. So the complexity of the question leads us inevitably beyond anonymity and Black hymnwriters.
As Black music experts have explained to me, some Black hymn-singers think that some hymns and tunes by white writers are by Black ones, just as some Lutherans think all the hymns in a Lutheran hymnal are by Lutherans. The nature of congregational song is not restricted to one ethnicity or construction of race but is a reality where everything recedes into the communal.
The short answer to your question, for Evangelical Lutheran Worship, is David Hurd. Hurd—a celebrated composer and concert organist and improviser—has three hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship and a dozen in Hymnal 1982. The fact that we can count on one hand the number of living Black composers in most mainline hymnals is another matter.
What is Jeremiah asking in chapter 8 and why is this hymn such a compelling response?
I think Jeremiah is uttering a lament. It’s a rhetorical question in response to some bleak circumstance. I think the hymn is a compelling response because Black folks faced such a bleak landscape but simultaneously knew there was hope in the Holy Spirit and in the love of Jesus who, unlike those who controlled them, was and is their friend.
The verses seem especially preoccupied with the inability to preach the Word effectively. What’s going on here?
I think this is simply a matter of vocation. Not everyone is called to preach like Peter or to pray like Paul. Those who are not—most of the singers—are called to speak the truth in simple declarations that do not require the knowledge some vocations require.
The text here is in the first person singular. How is this communal? Who’s singing this text, and for whom?
I have to be autobiographical to respond to this question. My best friend in high school was Black. He was a fine pianist who went to Juilliard. We sat together in our high school choir where we began a perpetual repartee about music and theology, and we visited each other’s churches and homes.
When I visited his church, I was struck by the language of the hymns and the preaching. In my white church, the first-person singular pronoun in a hymn meant me, one person—and it was sentimental. In my friend’s Black church, the first-person singular pronoun seemed vigorously communal and was not sentimental at all. I began to realize what was confirmed later in visits I made to other Black churches and in my own reading, including this important passage in Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, edited by James Abbington: “the first-person singular personal pronoun ‘I’ was traditionally considered ‘communal’ in Black culture” (62). Everybody is singing this text for everybody before God, in community. The whole body—every member—of a Black church leaves worship to face police brutality and other horrors of racism. In white churches, individuals leave with no concern that they will be attacked because they are white. Singing embodies this reality.
SOJOURNER has a lot going for it as a tune. It ranges from low to high and back again but is also straightforward in many ways. What about this tune, for you, makes it so musically engaging?
This is an interesting example of successful melodic engineering. The tune is triadic minor with the contrasting triadic major second line. It’s almost pentatonic, without the fourth or sixth degrees of the scale and with one alteration of the seventh degree to the leading tone. That tonal arrangement is joined to a rhythmic one that walks along smoothly until the pilgrim journey gets a syncopated bump that is replicated in the repetition of the first line’s cry, now syncopated in the last line. That analysis may help to explain why the tune is engaging, and I’d say the syncopated bump is critical. But you could probably devise a tune with these components that would not be engaging. The tune is not explained solely by analysis.
How does an Isaac Watts text paired with a Robert Lowry tune become so closely associated with Black Christian musical traditions?
I learned from Melva Costen that hymns of this sort are regarded by many African Americans as theirs, even as coming from African Americans themselves. I can only assume that the sense of liberation and deliverance they perceive in hymns like this—a characteristic of Christian hymnody generally, in spite of what white Americans have done to it—resonated with them.
What’s this fascination with Zion? It’s mentioned a lot in hymnody, but Mount Zion seems to be just a big barren rock outside of Jerusalem.
The word Zion has a pretty complicated history, but its use in hymns seems to refer to the “city of God”—via its biblical reference to the temple of Jerusalem, the place where Yahweh dwells and the heavenly Jerusalem to come. That’s probably way too simple, but I think something like that is what is in the mind of most singers and writers of hymns.
All journeys come to an end, but this text gets in a detailed request for guidance into the kingdom. Do African American spirituals often have explicit references to Christ’s return?
I’ve always thought of this hymn as God’s guidance throughout life, which leads to God’s guidance in death. As to Christ’s return, you’d have to make a pretty complete study of African American spirituals to find out if it’s absent. References might be couched in imagery like “don’t that look like my Jesus” or the chariot rider who’s “getting ready for the judgment day.” In Deep River, I/we “want to cross over into campground”—likely a reference to camp revival meetings but maybe also to the freedom of eternal life in Christ. And the trumpet sound in Steal Away could certainly be the biblical trumpets of Revelation and Paul’s letters declaring the beginning of Christ’s reign.
My suspicion is that Jesus’ presence now in suffering is so strong that it poetically encompasses the second coming without mentioning it as often as it might be mentioned in other traditions. But that’s just a guess, and further work would need to be done.
That opening chromatic lick is just so cool, and so jazzy. Is there any chance this tune doesn’t have its roots in early jazz?
It’s hard to imagine it doesn’t have those roots, but I don’t know of any evidence other than the sonic suggestion.
The fact that we have to speculate about so much of the history and the stories behind these songs takes us back to the anonymity we started with. Details of human life always get lost in the past, but this is particularly so for individuals and communities who are oppressed, enslaved, and otherwise silenced. It is a grace and blessing to all of us that some of those voices—oppressed yet faithful—have survived in song and continue to preach God’s word to us today.
Above. Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life, 1973. From the Jesus Mafa project, a response to New Testament readings by a Christian community in Cameroon.
Thanks to Dr. Frederick Niedner, Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University, for sharing with us this Lenten sermon about Lazarus and Jesus. We share it now, during the Three Days leading from Good Friday to Easter, because it proclaims the radical forgiveness and new life Jesus promises us and the community of love that promise creates for us anew every day.
You can listen and sing with us using the YouTube links you find throughout the blog post, which loosely follow the trajectory of Holy Week and the Triduum—from Maundy Thursday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
Of all the stories John could have included in his Gospel, he was sure to include this one because John’s first readers could see themselves so clearly in this story.
They found themselves in the cemetery burying those they loved. But they had clung to words of Jesus like, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death” (John 8:51). And the promise we heard in the Gospel lesson itself: “Whoever believes in me will never die.”
They struggled to understand how death could invade the community of eternal life, the family of the risen Christ. Death, after all, had been conquered, right? But we’re still dying! How can this be?
Those early believers lived with the promise that Jesus would return very soon to take them to himself. There they would live forever. But one by one they were dying off. And the way John tells the story of Lazarus and his family, the members of the community of eternal life can see themselves in the story, and it helps them make sense of what they’re experiencing.
I think I can see many of us in the story, too, or at least I can see myself, at several places in this Gospel lesson. I hear myself in Martha’s words as she went out to meet Jesus, when he finally came, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21). And I hear myself in the words of the bystanders who asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v. 37).
How many of our prayers, if we really think about them, aren’t really pleas that God would keep us from dying. “Keep us safe,” we pray. “Heal us of our diseases. Give us food. Make peace in our world.” Every one of them really means, “Keep us, or at least our children, from dying.” And when one of us dies, especially a younger one struck down suddenly or tragically, we hear ourselves asking, “Lord, where were you? Where are you? Lord, if you had been here, our brother, our sister, would not have died.”
And think how much of what we do has the same theme. I think of my health plan and the other money I spend on medical care. I think of my constant dieting, my exercise plan. I think of how I teach and watch over the safety of my children. I think of the causes I support that have to do with drunk drivers and cystic fibrosis and cancer.
I’m working on one thing—to keep from dying. That’s what we’re up to in this world, isn’t it? Survival. We spend our lives trying to keep from dying.
Which makes for a couple sad things. For one, we are so busy keeping from dying that many of us never get around to living. And there’s a difference between the two.
Living, real living, is full of risks and vulnerability and giving things away just for the joy of it. Keeping from dying has room for very little of those things. Those are often rather sure ways to die, you know.
Second, if all we need God for is to keep us from dying, we’ve got a pretty small relationship with God. God is merely the administrator of our health care plan, not our partner in the dream of what the world could be, not our friend in the dance of life’s uncertainties and surprises. And that’s what God wants to be for us.
And so, by coming late, and raising Lazarus from the dead instead of keeping him from dying, Jesus did something much more to further God’s glory than merely playing along with the survival game.
Now we come to the great and surprising irony of what Jesus was up to in John’s Gospel. Jesus promises Mary and Martha that now they will see the glory of God. So what does Jesus do? He calls into the tomb and Lazarus comes out. Lazarus comes out. He lives! The dead are raised!
Is that the glory of God? I don’t see any celebrating in the story, not even a party like folks have after a funeral, much less a resurrection.
Instead, here is where the plot begins against Jesus’ own life. And the same ones who plot against Jesus decide they must do away with Lazarus, too, because people are beginning to take Jesus seriously on account of Lazarus.
In other words, Jesus calls Lazarus from death and the tomb, but he doesn’t say, “Come with me to a care-free, death-proof life.” No, as John’s Gospel plays out, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb to follow him to Jerusalem and ultimately to Golgatha. That’s where Jesus was headed—to his death. And that’s the moment of his great glory as John’s Gospel tells the story. It’s as though Jesus shouted into that tomb, “Heads up in there! I’m coming in!” or at least something like, “Come out of that tomb, Lazarus. We’ve got things to do. We’ll never settle for an ordinary death. No, let’s go together and die a death that really counts for something! Let’s go where we can give our lives away!”
That is central to the Christian gospel, that we are free to bear life’s crosses, take the kinds of risks that go with the Christ-life within us, open ourselves to the same sorts of vulnerability Christ took on, because God is playing a bigger game than a survival game.
We are not merely today’s angry, heartbroken Mary or Martha in this story. We’re also Lazarus, called from our ordinary, mundane kinds of dying to something new and different—to a death that reveals the glory of God. John’s ancient readers, as well as we his modern readers, have gone through Lazarus’ experience in baptism. In our baptisms we, too, have been wrapped in grave clothes and then called to new life. We’ve been summoned from ordinary graves and called to the road of cross-bearing that leads to Jerusalem and Golgatha as those places exist right here in our community.
We are also like Lazarus, who had a hard time walking what with all those 30 or more feet of linen cloths tightly wrapped around him. It was hard to follow Jesus very well in that condition, hard to go die a glorious death of giving his life away. We, too, still have those grave clothes on, all of our old death-related habits and beliefs, so our movements are restricted. We walk haltingly, not freely, still trapped and hampered by the death-worries that cling to us.
But the good news is, Jesus still has agents to whom he can say, “Unbind him, and let her go!” It’s this community. Those verbs, by the way are the verbs of forgiveness in John 20:23 and Matt. 18—that gives a clue as to how we do this work.
And we don’t ever have to do any of this alone. We have each other to share in the work of stripping off our grave clothes and putting behind us the sins and the symbols of the graves that haunt us throughout our lives.
This is part of the great death-march practice in Lent. We strip off the grave clothes, partly through the discipline of looking death in the eye. “Dust you are,” we hear again at the beginning of our journey, as we get our passport stamped with the sign of the cross of our foreheads.
If you feel yourself walking a bit stiffly in the days ahead, because your fears and your weaknesses tell you that the grave and its terrors still grip you like strips of heavy linen around your heart, say to one of us, “Unbind me, let me loose.” And we will listen, and we will give ourselves to you, and you can leave those grave clothes behind, and live.
As I said, there was no party after Lazarus’ resurrection, oddly enough. That celebration awaits. But we shall have a taste of it even today, as shortly we will come to the table to share in the body and blood of our Lord and in so doing take his life into us. And if we have his life in us, no grave could ever hold us, no grave clothes bind us. And life for us will be much more than just a matter of seeing how long we can keep from dying.
Frederick Niedner Immanuel, Michigan City, Indiana 9 March 2008
Fred Niedner taught Biblical Studies and Hebrew language in Valparaiso University’s Department of Theology from 1973 to 2014. At various times during his active teaching years he also served terms as coordinator of the Chapel’s Morning Prayer worship, Director of Freshman Seminars, Teaching Resources Center Director, Department Chair, and Associate Director of the Institute of Liturgical Studies. His doctoral work focused on the Hebrew Bible, and he was a founding member of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Tradition History of the Pentateuch Seminar. Much of his teaching and research also centered on the New Testament, and particularly on the Gospels.
For me it’s hard to hear these great stories about mountains and not think of some the mountains I’ve experienced in my own life. I wonder if it’s the same for you, too?
Once, in college, I joined a group of friends on a backpacking trip in the Beartooth mountains of Montana, not so far from where I grew up in the town of Billings. We spent one day hiking up a forested valley, then another crossing what they call scree—loose rock on the face of a mountainside. Then just above the tree line we passed Froze to Death Lake. (That’s it’s real name!) And from there we headed on up toward a gap in a ridge. Near the top there was a small herd of big-horned sheep, who were astonishingly beautiful creatures, and to my great relief, left us entirely alone.
Then, finally, we made it to the top of that ridge. . . . And I wonder if many of you haven’t had something like this same experience: approaching the top of a ridge or a mountain range, you get there, and all of a sudden there are whole new worlds in front of you. You go from the single valley you’ve been in and looking at for, in our case, the last day and a half . . . and then suddenly you’re on top of the world. And there are valleys and lakes and mountains (whole worlds!) that you’ve never seen before. It feels revelatory. Holy.
It’s not hard to see why, throughout human history, mountains have been experienced as holy places—places of encounter and revelation, of transfiguration.
Consider the significance of mountains in even just this one religious tradition: our own.
At the heart of what the Jewish people call the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, stands the story of Moses being called up to the heights of Mount Sinai to receive the gift of the law. This is the holy Word of the Lord, that will guide the people in justice and in truth.
And the details of the story are simply fantastic. The mountain is covered with a mysterious cloud, which is the very presence of the glory of God. It’s a glory that, at the very same time, is like a devouring fire. Fire in a cloud! And Moses enters this glory—this cloud and fire—for forty days and forty nights. Which is biblical code for “a very long time.”
And when Moses finally comes down, bearing the gift of this law, his face is shining so brightly he’s forced to put on a veil so as not to terrify the people.
This is what happens on the holy mountain. Moses enters into the glory of God, and the whole of Israel gets a glimpse of God’s majesty.
But that’s not the only mountain story in scripture. The great prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life, also makes a pilgrimage to the mountain—the holy mountain, Sinai, where he hides in a cave as the glory of the Lord passes by. We’re told there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks into pieces. And after that an earthquake, and after that a fire, and after that a sound of sheer silence. And in that silence, Elijah hears the still, small voice of God, encouraging him on.
Another great mountain in scripture is Zion—Jerusalem, the city on a hill. And in the tradition, Mount Zion becomes a symbol for all of Israel’s hopes and dreams: of restoration, healing, and life. The tradition even dreams of all the nations streaming to Jerusalem, finding there their heart’s desire.
The prophet Isaiah also speaks of a mountain. In the twenty-fifth chapter, Isaiah has this vision of a mountain on which the Lord of hosts makes for all peoples a feast, a feast of rich food and well-aged wine. And on that mountain death is destroyed, and tears are wiped away. Elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah the Lord says, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
In scripture, the mountain is this holy place where we meet God face to face—where we encounter the awesome and transformative glory of God. The mountain—the holy mountain—is a symbol, too, of our highest hopes. A symbol of God’s redemption and healing of this whole broken, broken, beloved world.
And so then, it should come as no surprise that the story of Jesus includes some mountains, too.
For the past three Sundays we’ve been hearing portions of Jesus’ Sermon . . . on the Mount. It’s surely no coincidence that Jesus’ most profound teaching takes place on a mountain. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the new law-giver, summing up the law and the prophets in his commands to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s like this new clarity of revelation descending from the heavens and shaking the foundations…transforming the way we see the world.
We get another glimpse of that mountain in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus is suddenly transfigured. All of sudden his face is shining like the sun, and his body is wrapped in a garment of light. Moses and Elijah are there, talking with him. It’s as if these mountain-goers of old are right there with Jesus—not in opposition, but standing right alongside.
And then, as if that weren’t enough, a bright cloud overshadows them all. And I absolutely love that . . . a bright cloud! Maybe it’s like the cloud of old that’s paradoxically filled with fire!
And out of that bright, flaming cloud a voice declares Jesus beloved.
Some consider this story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop to be a kind of image of resurrection—one that occurs in the middle of the story rather than at the end. The transfiguration of Jesus is this revelatory moment where it becomes clear who Jesus really is . . . that this one is the beloved Son of God. That this is the one who heals and saves. This is the one whom we are to follow. That this is the one to whom we must listen. The transfiguration is an image of the resurrected Christ in all Christ’s beauty and glory.
In fact, Jesus says as much when he tells Peter and James and John that this experience on the mountain can only be comprehended—and thus shared—in the light of the resurrection, after he has risen from the dead.
Which means also, that this experience on the mountaintop can only be comprehended in light of something else that takes place in Matthew’s gospel: namely, what happens “at the place where Jesus had no garments, and, in darkness on a different sort of mountain, talked [not with Moses and Elijah, but] with a couple of bandits.”1 When, on Golgotha, he hung on a cross.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once called Christianity a “downward ascent.” A downward ascent. To follow Jesus into his resurrected, transfigured glory is at the very same time to follow him in his humility, in his solidarity with and love for this whole suffering creation. In Christ, God’s glory and God’s self-giving are one and the same. A downward ascent. That’s the way of Jesus, and that’s the way he calls us to follow.
And this means that our true mountaintop experiences are not likely going to be in the places we expect. In fact, our true mountaintop experiences are not likely to be on mountaintops. It’s not likely to be in the midst of those rare experiences we crave and spend so much money to have. Or in those great accomplishments that we think will somehow make us our full selves. Or in those great barns of wealth we all seem to be scrambling to build.
No, that is not where God’s glory is to be found. There is no hope of transfiguration or resurrection there.
But the path of Jesus…now that’s another story. His is a path that invites us to sink into our creatureliness…into our full humanity…into the bonds that link us with each other and the earth and our siblings everywhere. The path of Christ is one of humility, and of resistance to the oppressive powers of his day…and of ours. The way of Christ is a descent…into love for each other…into love even for those whom we call our enemies.
But here’s the thing: this downward journey is in fact the way on high. It’s where resurrection happens—along the way as well as at the end. This way of Jesus is itself the mountaintop—the place where whole worlds of beauty unfold before us.
It is Christ’s downward ascent that lifts us up on high. It is the downward streaming love of God that heals and transfigures us—our broken, weary spirits—and set us on this path of love in Jesus’ name.
It is on this downward ascent that we find ourselves face to face with Christ, the great morning star, the crucified One, who shines with God’s own truth and light.
We hope our joyous singing and playing of this traditional carol lifts your spirits as we move toward a happier and healthier new year.
Gathered around the Christmas tree in the painting is the Elm Ensemble—singers and players of accordion, virginal, tin whistle, xylophone, and guitar. Listen for violin, viola, comb, and the voices and instrumentals of children as well. Thanks to Johnny Dismal for the wonderful art!
Christina Rossetti’s gripping text—”In the Bleak Midwinter”—with music Gustav Holst composed for this poem. The meditative viola da gamba solo and the artwork—Richard Kathmann‘s “February”—resonate with the austere realities of winter and the ironic warmth such wintry sights and sounds bring to mind.
From the Trinity Carol Roll—a 15th century English manuscript that is our earliest known source of English polyphonic carols—There Is No Rose of Such Virtue is an anonymous Marian hymn with delicately beautiful sonorities and a poetic text meditating on the wonder of the incarnation.
Other Christmas and Advent hymns we recorded remotely this year.