During this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, it seems appropriate to quote the Rabbi of “radical amazement,” Abraham Joshua Heschel, but the words that are ringing in my ears aren’t ones we necessarily want to hear. On the NPR program, On Being, this past Sunday a Heschel scholar addressed the
concern expressed by so many who believe that religion does have something to say for our times, despite so much evidence to the contrary:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.
Ouch. Yet, how many people would indeed describe church as irrelevant, dull, oppressive and insipid? Perhaps not the people who actually go to church (oh, I hope not), but all too often they are true words for those who don’t go to church, and aren’t those the very people the church wants to reach?
When I was asked by the Rector of St. John’s about my vision for the music, my response was “to never be boring.” I want music in the church to be the opposite of irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid. I think a lot about how to make music a meaningful part of people’s worship. The combination of music, text, liturgy, and all the individual needs, gifts and hopes that people bring to the table is a powerful one. If I think about it, celebration is at the heart of all my musical endeavors. To celebrate this incredible gift of music from God and the musical gifts given to us by great composers and musical traditions of many cultures, to celebrate the talents and new-found skills of those who participate in choirs, as well as the wisdom found in the great poetry of the psalms and hymn texts. To celebrate the beauty of all those things expressed in the impressionistic hymn text Now:
Now the silence Now the peace Now the empty hands uplifted Now the kneeling Now the plea Now the Father’s arms in welcome Now the hearing Now the pow’r Now the vessel brimmed for pouring Now the body Now the blood Now the joyful celebration (The Hymnal 1982, #333)
Rabbi Heschel had something to say about celebration too:
People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…. Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.
We can celebrate by simply paying attention. Now. How could a celebration like that be anything other than relevant, astonishing, compassionate, and exhilarating?