Thursday, August 23, 2012

Come, Luke . . .

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the Star Wars movies and want to be surprised if you do, please read no further. This blog reveals a major plot twist. You have been warned.*

And now for something completely different! The temperature hit 100 degrees in Portland last week. As per my custom when the summer heat gets unbearable, I pop The Empire Strikes Back into my DVD player and am instantly cooled off by the awesome opening scenes on the ice planet Hoth.

There has been much discussion on which of the six Star Wars movies is the best one. Let me weigh in on that now, to get it out of the way: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back towers over the others, hands down. Let me tell you why.

First, it was not directed by George Lucas but by Irvin Kershner, a serious movie director noted for his fine work on spy thrillers and quirky independent films. Empire was his first foray into science-fiction, and his selection as director for the sequel of Star Wars, the most popular movie of all-time (at least back in the 1970s), was surprising. But, as audiences quickly learned from the opening scenes, Kershner was the perfect choice because of his focus on character development. That leads to my second point.

Empire was an actor’s movie, not just a special effects blamorama. In Episode V, the characters and the actors playing them really shined in a way that is sorely lacking in the other five Star Wars movies.** Empire is the movie in which Harrison Ford became a star. Even the non-human characters like Yoda possessed a humanity that very few subsequent science-fiction movies have been able to duplicate successfully.

Thirdly, Empire is my favorite Star Wars film because of the plot twist that would forever change the saga. I will never forget the audience reaction in that Westwood theatre in Los Angeles when the shocker was revealed. My friend and I had waited in line for several hours to see the first showing. This was in 1980. As the movie unfolded spectacularly, we felt our long wait was more than justified. Now we were at that iconic scene on the ledge in the cloud city of Bespin, with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker locked in mortal combat with their lightsabers.

Vader: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

Luke (slowly backing off, with right hand severed): He told me enough! He told me you killed him!

Vader: No. I am your father . . .

The audience reeled! You could hear a collective gasp! I covered my open mouth in disbelief. This is probably the single most shocking audience moment in cinematic history. It will never happen again, for there will probably never be another universally acclaimed pop culture saga like Star Wars.

That first-showing audience walked out of the theatre in silence! I have never seen that happen before or since except, perhaps, at a funeral. We were down the block before my friend and I started to talk.

“What did we just see?” I asked.

“I don’t know, man,” my friend replied. “I wasn’t expecting that at all! I wanted a happy ending, like in the first movie.”

“Well, life is not just a happy ending,” I said. “This changes everything.”

“You’re telling me! And you know what really sucks? We have to wait three more years to find out what happens next!”

We laughed and both agreed that Empire outdid the first movie in almost every aspect: acting, special effects and, most importantly, story development. This wasn’t just a retread of the original Star Wars. For the next three years, it seems like a whole generation of fans was debating the ambiguity of good and evil.

In the first movie, the characters were drawn in broad brushstrokes of black and white. Luke Skywalker was the good guy; Darth Vader was the bad guy. Simple, easy to follow. Now, in the sequel, we find out that Luke is the son of this monster who routinely crushes and kills enemies and allies like so many flies at a family picnic. Say what? I remember well the discussions my friends and I had about this. Even Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist and writer, chimed in:

The monster masks that are put on people in Star Wars represent the real monster-force in the modern world. When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself, but in terms of an imposed system…

- from The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, page 144, 1988 edition

All this came flooding back to me as I watched The Empire Strikes Back on that hot August night. I miss those long philosophical discussions with my old friends. The Star Wars saga was a fun romp that gave many people a chance to think about morality and mythology. It’s too bad that George Lucas’ later attempts to revisit his universe were not as successful. But that is another discussion for another blog.

More reading: Mythology of Star Wars

* It is difficult to think that there might actually be people out there who have never seen Star Wars but, as the years go by, the series has certainly diminished in its pop culture influence. It had a good run. Hopefully, a new generation will discover it — or, better, create their own contemporary mythology.

** By the way, am I the only one who finds it tedious to have a discussion about the confusing order of the Star Wars movies? Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi are numbered as Episodes IV, V and VI, but are really movies 1, 2 and 3. Meanwhile the prequels — The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith — are numbered as I, II, and III but are really movies 4, 5 and 6. Pass the aspirin, please.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Panis Angelicus: The Eucharist through the Ages

The Sunday Gospel during August 2012 is from John 6, Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse. It provides an excellent opportunity for homilists to preach on the Eucharist. On August 12, in support of the theme of his homily, my pastor, Father Dave Gutmann, requested “Panis Angelicus,” composed by Cesar Franck in 1872.

Franck was a 19th century musician and composer who was a contemporary of Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saens. Renowned for his influence in France on the development and performance of the pipe organ, Franck’s compositions are considered classics that laid the foundation for the French symphonic organ style. Although his body of work is considerable, Franck is perhaps best known today for his motet setting of “Panis Angelicus,” a text originally composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas as part of his Corpus Christi hymn, “Sacris Solemniis.”

“Panis Angelicus,” was a popular hymn for the World War II generation and, during the 1940s and 1950s, it could be heard at almost every wedding. As this generation has aged, the hymn has made a resurgence as a devotional song for funeral liturgies. Its stirring melody and harmonization perfectly capture the heart of Cesar Franck’s devout Catholic faith. Here is a duet performance by the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, and rock star Sting — of all people!

Several generations have been inspired by “Panis Angelicus” but, because of the Latin text, they might not be fully aware of its meaning. There are many loose English translations but few that match the nuances of the melody. This translation attempts to do just that:

O Bread of Heaven*
To mortals given,
Come fill our hungry souls,
Give strength and make us whole.

O Most Miraculous,
You have come down to us,
Lowly, lowly,
Though we your servants be;
Lowly, lowly,
Though we your servants be.

*Although “Panis Angelicus” literally means “Bread of Angels,” it is translated here as “Bread of Heaven” to preserve the rhyme scheme.

My parish, Holy Trinity Church in Beaverton, Oregon, is known for its leanings toward contemporary liturgical music, but we do take care to respect and incorporate the music of all eras in the Church’s history. For example, our choirs (both adult and youth) sing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Our Desiring” and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” during the Easter season. We also sing the chant “Agnus Dei” during Lent and “Pange Lingua Gloriosi” on Holy Thursday, among other such traditional pieces.

I am a firm believer that the richness of the Church’s repertoire needs to be handed on to the next generation. If young people think that liturgical music only consists of the current contemporary style, then we have done them a great disservice. I also believe that traditional music can coexist beautifully with contemporary music at the liturgy. I know that might be an awkward pairing for people who prefer one style or the other. But why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t it be both/and? For a great model of that, just look at Pavarotti and Sting!

On the weekend of August 11-12, for the Presentation and Preparation of the Gifts, Mark Nieves, our parish Director of Music Ministry, sang “Panis Angelicus” as a solo while I accompanied on piano. Mark is a brilliant tenor, and his moving realization touched the hearts of all who were at our liturgies. I felt privileged to accompany him on the performance of this song.

There is a theory in music that a performer or composer taps into a deep well and draws sweet water for the audience to drink. In sacred music, I believe this is the deep well of the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday, as I played “Panis Angelicus,” that water was very sweet indeed. I became prayerfully engaged in the struggles and devotion of Cesar Franck. I thought about the poetry of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and how he so eloquently expressed the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. I thought about Jesus who, in his humility, became human and accepted death that we might live. And, in an amazing act of divine imagination, he humbled himself again in the signs of bread and wine to become the nourishment of our souls.

As I performed the exquisite final outro to “Panis Angelicus,” I felt a deep connection with the Eucharist through the ages. It was an emotional and prayerful experience, and it awakened in me a deeper appreciation for God’s love. The Bread of Angels has nourished humanity for over two millennia. O res mirabilis!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Word of the Lord

Before you start reading, here's a caveat. The news link below is from the New York Post, a publication owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The Post “enjoys” a reputation as a tabloid oriented newspaper that bends and stretches the truth for the sake of sensationalism.

This story caught my eye today. Alec Baldwin, star of the television series 30 Rock and well known for his all-too-public encounters with the paparazzi, is a practicing Catholic who serves as Lector at his parish, Most Holy Trinity in East Hampton, New York. Apparently, some of his fellow parishioners are taking issue with Mr. Baldwin’s proclamation of the Word.*

Catholic Parishioners Protest Alec Baldwin as Lector

It is not my intention to pass judgment on Mr. Baldwin for his admittedly colorful public persona. Certainly, there are two sides to every story, and I have no idea what the parishioners of Most Holy Trinity Parish actually experience when Mr. Baldwin proclaims the readings at Mass. That said, there are two issues here that I feel compelled to address.

First, ANY baptized Catholic, with the proper ministry training, has a right to serve as Lector: prince or pauper, saint or sinner, actor or average citizen. Unless Mr. Baldwin has publicly violated Church law or policy, there is no reason why he can't proclaim God's Word at Mass.

Secondly, those parishioners who “turned their backs” on Mr. Baldwin as he proclaimed the readings are in the wrong for creating a scene at the sacred liturgy. Their actions are drawing attention to themselves and distracting their fellow worshippers from hearing the Word of God. What exactly are they protesting? According to the Post, it might be a disagreement with Mr. Baldwin’s politics, something which has no place at Mass. Or, worse, it might be simply because they don’t like him, which flies in the face of being a Christian.

Jesus said it best in John 8:7 —

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone . . .

* Be forewarned: Some of the comments after the news article are on the “salty” side, which is typical for Internet comments.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Few Words

I have been involved in funeral ministry for over 35 years, mostly as a pastoral musician. This is a solemn and holy time for any family, and it is an honor to be of service.

One aspect of funeral ministry is listening to eulogies. Yes, as a liturgical minister, I am fully aware that eulogies are not officially a part of Catholic liturgy. The documents are quite clear on this.

A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.
- Revised Order of Catholic Funerals (27)
(Published by the Vatican for the United States in 1989)

And before my non-Catholic readers cite this guideline as yet another reason to despise the Catholic Church, please take a moment to read a bishop’s explanation:

Sincerely in the Lord
A pastoral letter by Archbishop John Myers of the Archdiocese of Newark

With that out of the way, let me get back to eulogies. Just about every parish I have been associated with allows them in one form or another, calling them “reflections,” “memorials,” or simply, “a few words.” I am making no judgment on the pastors and pastoral staffs with whom I have served. In fact, I admire the way they compassionately balance the guidelines with pastoral reality.

Over the years, I have witnessed the following funeral reflections:

The Scolder
I think the speaker was a brother of the deceased, who apparently suffered a very long illness. Said speaker spent ten minutes scolding his relatives for their alleged thoughtlessness during his sister’s illness, asking “Where were you when (insert name here) needed you?” Relatives either stared straight ahead or cast their eyes downward.

But wait! There’s more! Said speaker then went to the piano to play and sing an uplifting song. What a finish!

The Salty Storyteller
It was a beautiful Rosary service in the mortuary, led by the son of the deceased. I was asked to play his mother’s favorite hymn as part of the service. He then asked mourners to feel free to come up to the lectern and share a few words. His brother accepted the impromptu invitation and proceeded to tell stories about their mother’s off-kilter sense of humor. I don’t want to repeat what he said in this family-oriented blog but “salty” would be a polite way to describe it. Relatives gasped and one older lady looked like she was going to faint. Thankfully, this was not at Mass, but still . . .

The Long-Winded Hagiographer
The deceased was a beloved matriarch, with many children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. She lived a long and fulfilling life, and the speaker, one of her adult grandchildren, kept hammering that point home.

The reflection began with the grandmother’s childhood, during which she rose above her family’s financial hardship and excelled academically. Five minutes later, the speaker went on: “During high school . . .”

After ten minutes, the story was just warming up. “Grandma’s college years were a time of fun and fulfillment . . .” People in the pews were glancing at their watches. I was trying to fight the urge to check the email on my cell phone.

Twenty minutes later, when the speaker said “In conclusion,” the look of relief from the assembly was palpable.

The Emotionally Overcome Relative
Oh, the poor man. He obviously had all the best intentions but just three minutes into his reflection, he became so overcome with emotion that he could no longer continue. Compassionately, an older relative walked up to the ambo, put his arm around his sobbing brother, and said into the microphone, “Mom was the best! Thank you all for coming. See you at the reception.”

These are extreme but typical examples that many of us have witnessed at one time or another. But, for the most part, the funeral reflections I have experienced are touching memorials that truly shine when then they don’t canonize the deceased as a saint (that’s the responsibility of the Church) but, rather, share a story on how their dearly departed was an example of God’s love for their family. The best reflections make me think, “I wish I had known this person when he/she was alive.” And it is my privilege to be a part of the prayer for that person’s soul.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May their souls, and all the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.