Music at Mass Review: 1st Sunday of Lent 2018

Up at Lake Tahoe for our annual President’s Day weekend snow trip with friends from Diablo Valley School. ‘Snow’ being pretty much nominal this year, unlike the 10′ high drifts last year.  So off to the striking church of St. Theresa’s Parish in downtown South Lake Tahoe for the 8:00 Mass. A lovely group of people with a good, humble priest.

One amazing thing happened. This building has a large window behind the altar through which one sees forest and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra – very striking, especially on a windy winter’s day when clouds whipped by, sunlight dappling the sanctuary as they flew past.

At the Elevation, the altar was in shade. As the priest lifted the Host, It was brilliantly back-lit while all else remained in shadow. Very beautiful and appropriate.

In previous years, I found the amateur woodworking on the pews distracting, as discussed in the post linked above. I think I’m finally over that particular temptation. The music, however…

Again, some sweet people are doing their best. A young woman with a lovely light voice lead the singing. But if all you know is Ripple, good red wine will be spit out of your mouth.

Theory: contemporary church songs are particularly bad in Lent, because contemporary writers have no concept of repentance. How could they, when, at least in the West, the whole project since V-II seems to be to get everybody to accept everybody (themselves included) as, essentially OK as they are. Repent from what? in other words. Hurting Gaia’s feelings, I suppose?

That Desert Father and Counter-Reformation Jesuit recognition that we’ve screwed up both individually and as a Church and could not possible do enough to correct it (we need a Redeemer, after all – another thought conspicuously absent from 99% of modern songs) is completely foreign to enlightened sensibilities. The idea that it is meet and just and ESSENTIAL TO OUR SALVATION that we throw ourselves weeping on the Mercy of God, despairing of our own strength and trusting solely in grace of Christ’s Holy Sacrifice as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world – not so popular. Am I saying we’re not OK? How dare me!

Pick any Catholic Lenten hymn more than 75 years old, and it’s easy to see St. Francis fasting and lying on the cold ground while praying those thoughts, or St. Catherine of Sienna weeping her eyes dry. It works. Now, imagine St. Teresa of Avila, in her stern humor, or Mother Theresa or even Dorthy Day reading over ‘Ashes’ and – I think some anathemas might be forthcoming.

Speaking of which – Entrance: the bafflingly stupid and infantile Ashes. If one’s goal were to undermine everything positive about Lent so that it’s just another testimony to how perfectly wonderful we all already are, how all that old art and beauty and thought and other dreary stuff can just be ignored, you’d hardly write anything different.

We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
An offering of ashes,
An offering to You. –> –>

We offer You our failures,
we offer You attempts;
The gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
An offering of ashes,
An offering to You. –> –>

Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain;
Though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew,
From an offering of ashes,
An offering to You. –> –>

… Thanks be to the Father,
who made us like Himself.
… Thanks be to His Son,
who saved us by His death.
… Thanks be to the Spirit,
who creates the world anew,
From an offering of ashes,
An offering to You.

I note that this version I grabbed off the web does capitalize pronouns for God. The execrable OCP hymnal did not. Hmmm. Regardless, there’s no direct mention of that God person until 3 entire verses in which we joyously proclaim how we don’t actually need Him: “We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew.” What happened to the One God we mention at the beginning of the Creed, Who is ‘Creator of Heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible’? No, no, no – we in our profound OK-ness can take care of creating *ourselves*. Sound like any political rhetoric you’ve run across recently? It is the absolute opposite of the spirit of Lent as understood by the Church for 2000 years, and of repentance by the Jews for a couple thousand more.

Then there’s the merely meaningless: “If all our world is ashes, then must our lives be true.” I think we’ve mashed up Shakespeare and 007 here – Tom Conry has granted himself a poetic license to kill.

Conry is said to be influenced by Bernard Huijbers, who, as Dutch Wikipedia says, was a ‘retired Jesuit’. While that felicitous phrase is perhaps an artifact of Google translate, I think it captures something. He would be a retired Catholic in the same sense.

Verse 4, which along with verse 3 we of course and perhaps mercifully didn’t get to, seems tacked on. Like a CNN headline proved false within minutes but only retracted days later in the dead of night, verse 4 can be pointed to even if rarely sung and never used to contradict the first 3. See? We’re not heretics! If terminal muddleheadedness were heresy, their last defense would fall.

The music is infantile. The directionless, forgettable tune goes nowhere. I’m sure the people love this song. People love lots of things that aren’t good for us. This drivel should be banished from catholic liturgy. It should never have been used in the first place.

Next – and I need to mention here that we did in fact sing the commons and some of the responses, so at least we weren’t doing the 4 Hymns version of the liturgy – we did a Jebbie Offertory, Only This I Want:

Only this I want:
but to know the Lord,
and to bear his cross,
so to wear the crown he wore.

1. All but this is loss,
worthless refuse to me,
for to gain the Lord
is to gain all I need.

2. I will run the race;
I will fight the good fight,
so to win the prize
of the kingdom of my Lord.
3. Let your heart be glad,
always glad in the Lord,
so to shine like stars
in the darkness of the night.

As is sometimes the case, here is a Dan Schutte tune with very scriptural lyrics, a practice which is much to be praised. They follow the pattern common is penitential psalms, where you start with the bad stuff, and praise the Lord and His mercy toward the end.

There is even a little hard-core bit in the refrain – “to bear his cross, so to wear the crown he wore.”   Wow. Do people realize what they’re singing here, what they’re asking for? That’s a crown of thorns, not a crown of glory – you only get the latter when you embrace the former. There’s some Lenten spirit!

I could nit-pick, but – nah. Lyrically this is OK. The music is typically lame, but this song falls under songs I can sing at mass even if the music is childish, because the words are OK.

Next up: Hosea.

Come back to me with all your heart
Don’t let fear keep us apart
Trees do bend though straight and tall
So must we to others call

Long have I waited for
Your coming home to me
And living deeply our new life

The wilderness will lead you
To the place where I will speak
Integrity and justice
With tenderness
You shall know.

This song is essentially nonsense. Read that first stanza, and tell me what it means. We’re speaking in God’s voice, right? Or not? We must bend like trees – to…? Who, exactly, are the others who are calling us? To what are they calling us?

And so on. It’s a theological Mad-lib – just fill in whatever you want into the lacunas! Ponder, laugh, cry – It’s all good! Constructed to engender a vaguely melancholy feeling, this is the sort of trash that has driven off people for 3 generations now. What this proclaims: We stand for nothing, as long as it feels OK.  That’s thin gruel for the broken-hearted.

Finally, for no good reason, we ended with what qualifies these days as a chestnut: Blest be the Lord.

Blest Be The Lord, Blest Be The Lord
The God of mercy, the God who saves.
I shall not fear the dark of night,
Nor the arrow that files by day.

He will release me from the nets of sinful ones,
He will release me from their wicked hands.
Beneath the shadow of this wings, I will rejoice,
To find a dwelling place secure.

I need not shrink before the terrors of the night,
Nor stand alone before the light of day.
No harm shall come to me, no arrow strike me down.
No evil settle in my soul.

Although a thousand ones have fallen at my side,
I’ll not be shaken with the Lord at hand.
His faithful Love is all the armour that I need
To wage the battle with my foe.

Another early Dan Schutte work, and again very scriptural. No complaints, there. However, this ditty demonstrates the fundamental disconnect between composer and people that is persistent feature of contemporary church music. It’s all but unsingable.

What? you may be saying, We sing this all the time! All. The. Time.

Right. And it’s a battle of Congregation versus written music. Consider:

blest be the lord A


blest be the lord B

And so on. If you are a musician, this sort of makes sense, although there’s always (for me at least) a hiccup or three as I move through the lines and the rhythmic patterns changes each line. Ol’ Danny could hear, to his credit, how lame this ‘tune’ sounded as straight quarter notes, so he puts in some syncopation. But those syncopations don’t really work the second time around, so he goes back to straight quarters – except when he doesn’t and instead adds the eight notes where it used to be straight quarters.  Then look at verse 2. Well? straight quarters? Or, what? How about that trailing eight note – make sense? Roll right off the tongue?

You are a fairly elite musician if you could read that on the fly with no hesitation. Your average pew-sitter has no chance.

There’s a reason 90%+ of the people in the pews sit this one out. There’s a reason old hymns get sung with twice the volume and 10 times the vigor of this sort of musical tripe. We can do so much better.



Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Music at Mass Review: 1st Sunday of Lent 2018”

    1. This morning, this lovely Polish priest assigned to a local parish sang 40 Days and 40 Nights, many of the responses and the commons including a the simple Kyrie and Latin Agnus Dei and ended with America in honor of President’s Day. This, at a 6:30 a.m. mass with 16 people attending.

      We could have drowned out the congregation at Sunday’s mass discussed above on any of those tunes.

  1. An anecdote for you: as I was looking over the music for Ash Wednesday, the organist told me that he’d been to seminary with Tom Conry. “He was always walking around strumming his guitar, and we told him, ‘Yeah, once you learn how to actually make music, you can join the choir.'”

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