Thursday, June 21, 2018

John the Baptist: Live for Christ!

My middle name is Juan and I was named after my grandfather in the Philippines whom I never met. Over the years, I have adopted a number of holy men named “John” as my patron saint: John the Evangelist. John of the Cross. John Vianney. John of Capistrano. Juan Diego. Lately, on the cusp my senior years, I have turned to Saint John the Baptist. 

He is a biblical saint with no body of writing and no religious community that has preserved his wisdom and traditions.  Our only source on the Baptizer are the four gospels which each have unique and contradictory accounts. All four evangelists speak, in various degrees, of Jesus’ baptism by John. They each speak of John’s ministry as the forerunner or herald of the Christ, citing the Isaiah passage of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3) Luke tells the story of John’s miraculous birth by elderly parents, of family kinship with Jesus, and how John pointed the way to Jesus even from his mother’s womb. Mark and Matthew give detailed accounts of John’s death by beheading at the hands of Herod.

In the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is described as the man “sent by God to bear witness to the light,” i.e., the light of Jesus Christ. Indeed, John the Evangelist attributes three quotes to John the Baptist that can be seen as his mission statements. These quotes speak so deeply to me at this time in my life. One grows accustomed to disappointment and unfulfilled expectations as the years unfold. It is so easy to succumb to bitterness and depression, to withdraw into a tiny shell, away from hurt and betrayal. John the Baptist shows me another way: Live for Christ! 

“Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)
Life is full of regrets, of second thoughts for decisions made in haste or under duress, of words said in anger that can’t be taken back. Unfortunately, these regrets can last a lifetime and affect relationships and mental health. John the Baptist points us to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Paschal sacrifice, whose death upon the Cross brought about the forgiveness of our sins. If God forgives us, why can’t we forgive ourselves? 

“I am not the Messiah but I have been sent ahead of him…” (John 3:28) 
This is something my pastor is fond of reminding us in his homilies: I AM NOT GOD. I do not have the power or the wherewithal to fix everything, to solve all problems, and to make everything perfect. That’s God’s job, in God’s time. Instead of thinking of myself as the Messiah, I can lead others to him by word and example. That’s a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders! 

“He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) 
This does not mean putting myself down. I see this quote as the great secret of Christianity. Let Christ be the central influence in my life, the One who motivates my choices and lifestyle. Let Christ shine through me in what I say and do, even when little things irritate and annoy me, or when the big issues in today’s world anger me. Christ must increase. 

By extension, this means the Christ who lives in others. Can I see Christ in the downtown homeless person who is asking for a handout? Can I see Jesus in the face of the co-worker who constantly complains, or in the relative or friend who has seemingly become invisible with each passing year? 

According to the gospels, John the Baptist had a good thing going. His fiery preaching and his baptism of repentance attracted commoners and Pharisees, who flocked to him in sizeable numbers at the Jordan River. We know he had disciples because he sent them to Jesus. In fact, despite his success as an itinerant preacher, he willingly passed on the mantle to his cousin, whose sandal straps he “was not worthy to unfasten.” And then he withdrew from the scene as Jesus’ ministry soared. 

John points the way to Christ even to this day. Consider that his birthday, June 24, falls shortly after the summer solstice, when the days begin to gradually get shorter. Through the ingenuous poetry of the liturgical calendar, on his nativity John the Baptist is pointing toward the nativity of Jesus Christ six months later. December 25 is shortly after the winter solstice, when the days begin to get longer. Thus, through the growing darkness that begins on his birthday, John the Baptist points once again to Jesus Christ, the light of the world who conquers the darkness of sin.

“He must increase but I must decrease.” Amen. 

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"John the Baptist" is a very early song by my friend Bob Hurd, recorded in 1974 for his first album, O Let Him In. Not a liturgical song, this is a Christian folk song on the cult that surely surrounded John the Baptist back in the day.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Robert F. Kennedy: The Dreamer Who Said Why Not

May I ask your indulgence as I quote myself? For historical context, these are the opening paragraphs from Chapter Ten of my book, Keep the Fire Burning: The Folk Mass Revolution (Pastoral Press: 2009). 

In a decade already on overload, 1968 went over the top.  This was the year when the issues, ideals and frustrations of the entire decade exploded into Gotterdammerung.  Nothing was safe from 1968’s unrelenting wave of confrontation and change.

The decade that started out with such bright promise was marching steadily into darkness, and the road was marked with a murdered President, an escalating and unpopular war, racial conflict, urban unrest, college campus demonstrations, and a challenged morality.  America needed light.

As the year began, two beacons of hope were shining brightly.  Martin Luther King, Jr. still had a dream that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Senator Robert Kennedy, still hurting from his brother’s assassination, had his own dream to fulfill: to help make America great by inspiring its people, especially its young people, to look honestly and compassionately at the problems of the day and work together to build the future.

One of these lights was extinguished on April 4, when King was brutally gunned down while laboring in support of better working conditions for the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee.  On June 5, the other light died when Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles on the night of a victorious California primary election that solidified his position as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President.  With sad irony, his last words, spoken from the podium to his exuberant supporters, were: “I think we can end the divisions within America . . .  the violence.”

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It was the final day of school and we were going home for summer. I was a Freshman at Queen of Angels High School Seminary in San Fernando, California, and 1968 – only half over in June – had already been the most memorable year of my life. Queen of Angels was a boarding school. Underclassmen went home every weekend but my time away was significant enough to alter my family dynamics and move me in a more independent direction than I had anticipated when I first set foot on campus last September. 

Friendships are important for survival in any new school, and this year I made a good friend in Phill Signey. We had in common a love for the Beatles and for comic books, as well as a shared wry sense of humor. We also saw eye to eye on politics, and the Democratic party had given us young liberals more than enough to talk about during this tumultuous year. We both agreed the war in Vietnam sucked and held President Johnson responsible for the thousands of US soldiers who had given their lives for a questionable cause. Many in our generation wanted Johnson out of the White House. When he announced in March that he was not seeking re-election, we were singing, “Ding! Dong! The witch is dead!” 

But now the Democratic nomination was suddenly up for grabs. Senator Eugene McCarthy was capturing the imagination of young liberals but when Senator Robert Kennedy threw his hat into the ring that liberal voting bloc became divided. 

I was a diehard for Bobby. The idyllic memory of his brother, President John Kennedy, was still fresh in my mind and Bobby’s message resonated with so many young Americans. 

“We can move toward further polarization,” Kennedy said in a speech shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination. “Or we can make an effort, as Dr. King did, to reconcile ourselves, and to love… Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.” 

We had no television privileges at the seminary. Tuesday, June 4, was the California primary election, and we seminarians went to bed believing that Bobby had a lock on victory. The following morning, as we gathered in our chapel for the final Mass of the school year, Father Persil, Dean of Students, stood in front of the altar and gave a stunning announcement. 

“I’m sorry to inform you that Senator Robert Kennedy was shot last night at the Ambassador Hotel after he won the California primary. He is hospitalized and is in critical condition. Let us pray for him and his family.” 

I looked at Phill, who was sitting next to me near the back of the chapel. Our glorious pipe organ swelled out the introduction to the Entrance Song and, as the student body rose to its feet to sing “God’s Holy Mountain We Ascend,” my friend sadly removed his Kennedy campaign button from his dark blazer. I hung my head in glum disbelief. 

I was in fifth grade when President Kennedy was murdered in 1963, and I remember crying when I heard the news. After his brother was killed, I didn’t cry – I was too “old” for that – but I was definitely numbed. I was a fairly optimistic teenager and Bobby had awakened such hope in my generation. I didn’t know what to feel that day when Bobby was so rudely taken from us but his death may have been my first taste of the cynicism that would eventually come to cast a shadow on much of my adult life. 

Much has been written about Robert F. Kennedy on this 50thanniversary of his assassination. Many commentators cite Bobby’s murder as the death of hope for the Boomer generation. That’s hyperbolic but I believe there is a grain of truth in that viewpoint. For my generation, the 1960s had been awash in optimism. Anything was possible, and Bobby inspired us to get involved and make a difference right when we were coming of age. His death unfortunately paved the way for the election of President Richard Nixon, for the escalation of the Vietnam War, for Watergate, and for deepening distrust in the political process. That cynicism has, unfortunately, seized control of politics today. 

At one time, public service was considered a noble calling. I cling to the hope that better days are ahead. Can one person make a difference? Robert Kennedy tried. God rest his soul. 

Senator Ted Kennedy spoke eloquently and touched many hearts in his moving eulogy during his brother’s Funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. 

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

Some men see things as they are and say why. 
I dream things that never were and say why not.

Thursday, April 12, 2018



I have two Facebook pages and at times they seem like the handiwork of two different people. There’s my Composer/Author page that has regularly scheduled posts centered around daily Scripture; Catholic news of the day; a liturgical song composed either by me or one of my fellow composers; and a daily quote from Laudato Sí,Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on our call to care for God’s creation. 

And then there’s my personal page, which is my forum for outrageous groan-inducing puns, head-scratching abstract art, Godzilla, pop culture, a healthy dose of rock music, and occasional wry slices of soliloquy that may or may not have some kind of spiritual meaning. I actually have a growing constituency of like-minded people who “get” me. Thank you, friends! 

Bottom line: My work and ministry are important and are very much a part of who I am. But I just don’t take myself all that seriously. Hence, my seemingly random non-sequitur postings on my personal page. 

There is an apparent duality in my social media content. Who am I? A Catholic composer/author? Or a secular rock musician who is very much in synch with pop culture? Why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t I be both? 

I am sometimes accused of being off-message at both ends of the spectrum. My Catholic friends are puzzled when I post things about punk rock or Kurt Cobain. My followers who enjoy my jokes and puns scratch their heads when I occasionally post something spiritual or overtly Catholic. 

Re: my seemingly incongruous blending of sacred and secular – I am a committed Roman Catholic but I’m not going to hit my friends on their heads with all things religious. I prefer to share my faith by example. If friends ask me about my faith, I am happy to talk about it but I won’t force it on them. And I enjoy finding the sacred in the non-sacred, even in punk rock. 

(I played bass guitar in punk bands in the 1990s. One of the marvelous mysteries in my life is how I transformed from being a punker to a pastoral musician and composer of sacred music. Another blog for another day.) 

So that’s why I write about contemporary Catholic music, that strange and wonderful experiment of blending the sacred with the secular. It’s a fascinating 60-year history. Read all about it in my books,  Keep the Fire Burning and From Mountains High (to be released in May 2018). 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Some Thoughts on Jesus Christ Superstar: Live TV Concert

Putting aside the theological questions for a moment, let me first say that I think the original record album of Jesus Christ Superstar is a stunning musical achievement. Andrew Lloyd Webber was only 22 years old when he composed the work with lyricist Tim Rice, who was equally young at age 26. The 1970 rock opera was a ground breaker in the way it seamlessly blended such disparate genres as rock, pop, folk, Broadway and classical into a pastiche that transformed musical theatre for years to come. And for maximum impact, the composers chose as their subject matter nothing less than the Greatest Story Ever Told.

I devote a few pages to Jesus Christ Superstar in my new book, From Mountains High, in which I acknowledge the rock opera as part of the “perfect storm” in the early 1970s that had an impact on the Catholic liturgical music that emerged in that seminal decade. Other influences included Jesus rock (“My Sweet Lord, “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” and other secular radio hits), the Charismatic Renewal, and the Jesus movement championed by earnest young Christians who were sometimes known as “Jesus Freaks.” You can read more about this in my book when it’s released this summer. It helps give a cultural perspective that I feel is helpful to understand the emotional impact that Jesus Christ Superstar Live TV Concert had on my generation when it was broadcast on the evening of Easter Sunday 2018.

Jesus Christ Superstar is very definitely a work of its times. Emerging at the crossroads between the protesting social consciousness of the 1960s and the Me Decade focus of the 1970s, the opera managed to somehow make a connection between the excessive popularity of rock music and the celebrity status that Jesus endured, as portrayed in all four Gospels. In the Seventies, the music industry devoured itself with records that went platinum before they were even released (c.f., Elton John’s 1975 album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy), and bestowed godlike status on emerging artists who had yet to prove themselves (c.f., Bruce Springsteen’s simultaneous TIME and Newsweek covers in October 1975). How different was that from the trajectory of an itinerant miracle-working preacher in first century Palestine who eventually got himself killed at the height of his popularity? There is a reason why the composers attached “Superstar” to the revered name of Jesus Christ.

The young singers and dancers who starred in the NBC television special performed excellently and injected new life into the 48-year-old musical. They also most likely have no idea of the controversy that Superstar generated upon its first release. I was a Catholic high school senior at the time and I remember the priests and nuns who chastised me when I confessed how much I enjoyed the recording. Charges of blasphemy were commonplace, and the weekly Catholic newspaper of my archdiocese ran a series of apologetic articles that outlined the biblical errors of the rock opera, line by line.

Christian leaders of all denominations lambasted Superstar for its sympathetic treatment of Judas, and the irreverent way it portrayed Jesus as an insecure leader of rabble rousing revolutionaries. Most insidious of all was the fact that the rock opera has no Resurrection scene! (Never mind that the Stations of the Cross devotion also does not end with the Resurrection.)

These criticisms missed the point. Webber and Rice merely wanted to pose the question of the place of Jesus Christ in 1970s society. They succeeded. Young people were talking about Jesus like never before. How well I remember the deep discussions on Jesus with friends and classmates. Is he God? Is he just a man? Is he both? I went to Charismatic prayer meetings, prayed in tongues, and witnessed faith healings. I listened to and performed Jesus rock. I eventually studied liberation theology and considered ways that Jesus’ message could change the world.

All this is probably lost on today’s young people who enjoyed the Easter Sunday telecast and respect Superstar as a venerable and proven theatre piece. I have to wonder if they asked themselves the questions that Judas posed in his signature song:

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you're who they say you are?

I can only answer those questions for myself and pray that my witness might inspire others.

Who is Jesus Christ? For me, he is the Son of God. As I slowly but surely advance into old age, I am more convinced of that than ever before. Jesus is my Lord and Savior who gives meaning to my life.

What has he sacrificed? Jesus gave his very life on the Cross, in obedience to his Father’s will. He restored the intimate relationship between God and humanity that was destroyed by sin. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, I look forward to joining him in eternal life when my time on Earth is through.

As for the final question of the song, I do not think it matters to Jesus what HE thinks other people say of him. As he did with his apostles in Mark 8:29, he prefers to turn the question around to the person asking.

“Who do YOU say that I am?”

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From Mountains High: Contemporary Catholic Music 1970 -1985 by Ken Canedo will be released in Summer 2018 by Pastoral Press. It will be available on and on Amazon.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Good Friday “Radio Silence”

It is very strange and, at the same time, surprisingly liberating. Since college days, I have observed personal “radio silence” on Good Friday as a way to remove myself from the distractions of the world and focus on what this day is about: the passion and death the Lord Jesus Christ. Back then that meant no radio or television. As technology has progressed over the years, this silence began to include email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. This year I took another step: I silenced all the alerts that my iPhone constantly sends my way.

For twenty-four hours I had no idea what was going in the world. Accustomed to the non-stop bombardment of modern society’s 24/7 news cycle, I found myself restless at first and very disconcerted. Have I become so numb to the cacophony of political bickering, crime stories, terrorist assaults and celebrity gossip that I actually crave that relentless input? I shook my head and laughed lightly as I fought off the impulse to check my phone or my computer for Facebook posts or CNN alerts. Alone in my house for most of the day, I had nothing better to do than pray.

I turned to the Liturgy of the Hours and decided to pray the Office of Readings, which aren’t exactly my favorite part. I do have a breviary app but forsook that in favor of the old-school bound volume of the Lent-Easter edition of the Hours that has been gathering dust in my library. The heavy red-covered book felt good in my hands as I reflected on today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.

Scripture scholars long ago agreed that this particular letter from the New Testament was not written by Saint Paul. The literary style and approach to the subject matter are markedly different from the Pauline letters. There is a unique wisdom in this sacred author’s point of view on the question of Jesus the Christ. Today’s selection from chapter 9 focuses, appropriately enough, on soteriology — theological jargon for the understanding of redemption, our need to be “saved.”

When Christ came as high priest of the good things which have come to be, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation. He entered, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood and achieved eternal redemption.

Our understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is predicated on a familiarity with the notion of sacrifice among the cultures from which the Hebrew people emerged. The burned sacrifice of animals and the first fruits of a bountiful harvest on an altar was revered as a way to placate the gods in the hope of divine favor. As an example, Moses would sprinkle the people with the blood of goats and calves and say, “This is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you.” Saint John Chrysostom, in the second reading from today’s Office of Readings, focuses on this point.

If we were to ask him [Moses] what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possibly save men [sic] endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood.

We moderns are far removed from the idea of “sacrificing” something to please our gods. Or are we? What are we willing to give up in order to achieve our personal goals? Ask any athlete who undergoes months of grueling personal and team training in order to achieve a championship. Ask anyone who tries a new strict regimen of diet and exercise in order to lose weight. Ask any student who may devote four to eight years in college and graduate school to obtain a degree. These are all admirable earthly goals that are worth the sacrifice but what do they amount to when our time on Earth is done? Beyond death, Jesus promises eternal life.

Eternal life was the blessing of paradise in the creation story from Genesis, but sin obscured that divine blessing. Humanity chose the distraction of personal pleasure and sin was the easiest gateway. Or so we thought. After centuries of this delusion, God sent his Son to lead us back toward the blessing of eternal life. Jesus proved this point with his own blood.

I can’t begin to understand why Jesus had to die the horrific bloody death of Roman crucifixion. I cannot comprehend how that death somehow patched things up between humanity and God. My faith tells me that Jesus was obedient to the will of his Father and because of that obedience the gateway to eternal life was re-opened.

Jesus’ sacrifice challenges me to ask myself: “What am I willing to give up in order to achieve union with God?” It’s a question I will ponder as I pray tonight the beautiful and impressive liturgy of the Easter Vigil. And yes, I must “unplug” from the distractions of social media more often!

Happy Easter!