This coming Sunday, I will be leading a hymn festival at the little parish where I am serving as the interim pastor. October 31 is traditionally set aside as Reformation Day on the liturgical calendar of the Lutheran church; in ordinary practice, it is transferred to the last Sunday in October. Thus, music and liturgy are much on my mind, both looking back at the 16th century and looking ahead to the 21st. Our conversations here around the 50th anniversary of Vatican II are echoing in my head as well, as I hear much in them that resonates with the readings appointed for the day. With the 50th anniversary of Vatican II much on the minds of the church — not simply the Roman Catholic church, mind you — Psalm 46 seems like an appropriate text on which to meditate.
[A meditation like this seems to require musical accompaniment. Right-click the link to open it in another tab, hit play, then come back here to read on.]
God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in distress. Thus we do not fear, though earth be shaken and mountains quake to the depths of the sea, Though its waters rage and foam and mountains totter at its surging. The LORD of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Thus, we do not fear . . . though the prayers of the mass be shaken and presiders quake to the bottoms of their shoes, though the liturgists rage and foam and bishops totter at the tumult. Yes, we do not fear, for the Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Hmmm . . . the God of Jacob, you say? The Jacob who fought with his brother from the moment he was born and tricked his father into giving Jacob his blessing? The Jacob whose father-in-law tricked him into marrying not one but two of his daughters, the Jacob whose two wives competed with each other for his progeny and his favor, whose favorite son brought a sparkle to his eye until his older boys told him that this favorite had been killed by a wild beast, whose land was wracked with famine, who feared for his family as his sons traveled back and forth to Egypt seeking food to keep them alive, and who saw at last that his favorite son had not been killed after all but had become the minister of agriculture in a foreign land that would be the salvation of his people? The God of the Jacob whose life was filled with ups and downs, tears of sorrow and tears of grief?
Yes, says the psalmist. That Jacob and that Jacob’s God.
Streams of the river gladden the city of God, the holy dwelling of the Most High. God is in its midst; it shall not be shaken; God will help it at break of day. Though nations rage and kingdoms totter, God’s voice thunders and the earth trembles. The LORD of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
Ah, the streams . . . the water streaming from the ewer as it flows into the bowl, the water bubbling from a fountain, coursing down its path, flowing into the pool. Ah, the streams of living, life-giving, brother-and-sister-embracing baptismal water. By this water we know — not just in our minds, but on our skin — that God is in our midst. Though there is grumbling and rage and conflict among and within committees (Vox Clara), commissions (ICEL), conferences (USCCB), and congregations (CDW), God’s voice cuts through it all.
Yes, even in the midst of such upheaval, says the psalmist, the Lord of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
It’s no wonder this psalm inspired Martin Luther to craft his hymn “A Mighty Fortress”. When everything is being shaken and stirred, beaten and broken, sifted and sorted, formed and reformed and reformed yet again, the psalmist’s words are a comforting reminder. God is with us, providing true comfort in the midst of conflict and division.
Maybe this is why, even as the Council Fathers were gathered for Vatican II, “A Mighty Fortress” was making its presence felt in Roman Catholic circles in the United States. In 1964, the closing mass of the National Liturgical Conference in St. Louis concluded with “A Mighty Fortress,” and The People’s Mass Book surprised many by including Luther’s hymn within its covers. The next year, The English Liturgy Hymnal did the same, as did the Liturgical Conference’s The Book of Catholic Worship in 1966. In this time of liturgical ferment, creativity, and conflict, Catholic musicians and publishers turned to the fortress made famous by Luther for a bit of perspective. If we’re looking for a sanctuary in the midst of conflict or a fortress in the midst of warfare, thought the musicians and publishers, perhaps a reminder of the mighty fortress of God would be in order.
Come and see the works of the LORD, who has done fearsome deeds on earth; Who stops wars to the ends of the earth, breaks the bow, splinters the spear, and burns the shields with fire; Who says: “Be still and confess that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth.” The LORD of hosts is with us; our stronghold is the God of Jacob.
“Be still . . .”
Is this God holding a crying child on the Divine Shoulder, whispering words of comfort in the poor child’s ear and wiping the tears from the poor child’s eyes? “It’s OK, it’s OK, I’m here . . . Stop your crying, for the monsters under the bed and hiding in the closet have no power over you. Shhhhhh . . . it’s OK. Be still, for I am with you.” And the crying slowly stops, the tear-streaked face begins to dry, and the breathing slows and returns to normal. “Be still . . .” says God, the one who is with us in our pain and fear.
Or . . . is this God shouting into a crowd of angry adults, demanding they stop their fighting and arguing and shouting and killing? “Be still!” This is God who speaks, the God whose power puts into perspective and brings to a stop fights over the placement of the altar and orientation of the priest.* This is God, who breaks the books with which we liturgical scholars hit one another, who splinters the pews and kneelers and altar rails and musical instruments over which we fight, who burns the vestments and arguments with which we surround ourselves as if we are the ones with power. Be still, you bishops and liturgical professionals; be still, you bickering bloggers and commenters; be still, you my self-righteous people; you my battered, bruised, and broken people.
Or, if we are honest . . . both. Be still, all of you, and trust in my power. Not your power, not their power, but my power. Be still, and know in the depths of your being that I am God. I am God — not you, not them, but me.
“Be still . . .” They are words of comfort to the frightened and words of challenge to those who all too often cause the fright.
Be still, for the Lord of hosts is with us, our stronghold is the God of Jacob. Even — or especially — when we talk liturgy.
* This battle, I note with amusement, is one that Luther said in his treatise on the German Mass that he didn’t particularly have time for — “But let that await its own time.” Lutherans have continued to fight about it nonetheless, off and on for the last 500 years. Indeed, the last parish I served had an altar against the wall which Shall Not Be Moved (it had been built by a sainted former member), but wanted the presider to face the people. But that’s another story . . .