Each Thursday at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary, we have ecumenical Midday Prayer. It is a half-hour service based loosely on the ecumenical consensus on the structure of the Liturgy of the Hours, as seen in the reformed Roman office as well as the major Protestant hymnals of recent decades. So: opening verse, hymn, psalms, reading, short homily, perhaps a hymn or choral piece, intercessions, Lord’s Prayer, collect, exchange of peace – more or less. We use RitualSong 2 and Psalms for All Seasons, and Worship 4 is on hand if we need it. Andre Heywood conducts the Chapel Choir in which all Liturgical Music students participate and do lab conducting.
Asian New Year is February 16, this year, and the idea came from three of our Vietnamese Trappist monks (Br. Andrew, Br. Thomas, and Br. Emmanuel) to celebrate it on Thursday, February 15. But that is the first Thursday in Lent, so I suggested we schedule it for February 8, in “carnival” season, which was this past Thursday.
Planner Janice Kristanti, who is Indonesian, did a masterful job at integrating uniquely Asian elements into a larger framework that was welcoming to the entire community and made possible their participation. Janice said, “We hoped that we would show our authentic culture to the community because the celebration of Asian New Year means so much to us. We hoped that everyone in the community would be drawn in.”
We began with the song “We Are Many Parts” by Marty Haugen which, as Janice notes, “highlights diversity in the Body of Christ.”
Then Janice sang a psalm refrain from Indonesia, first in Indonesian and then in English, and all repeated in either language. Janice sang Indonesian psalm verses, with the leaflet indicating where to find the translation in Psalms for All Seasons. Then Psalm 23 to BROTHER JAMES AIR, stanzas 1 and 3 from PFAS sung in Korean by a Benedictine monk from Korea, stanzas 2 and 4 sung by all in English. Reading read in Vietnamese by a Vietnamese Trappist monk, English translation printed in the leaflet. Homily by another Vietnamese Trappist – impressively, in English. Then several Vietnamese students sang a song from their homeland, “The Way of Love,” while all processed to take a Scriptural “word of blessing” from a tree. Intercessions read in Indonesian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean, with translation in leaflet. Lord’s Prayer from PFAS to the Orthodox-style tone we’ve learned this year by Rimsky-Korsakov. (Ecumenical revised translation, by the way – “save us from the time of trial.”) Exchange of Peace, and on to the Convivium meal prepared by Asian students.
This is the key: both commonality and diversity. The liturgy, with its given structure, is our friend. It makes it possible for the community to own and claim the celebration as their own, while allowing the familiar framework to stretch so as to bring out a particular character. As Janice puts it,
“We want that people in the community to hear our languages and see the cultures (from traditional clothes, and Asian ornaments in the prayer) while at the same time acknowledging the culture of the English-speaking community. This intercultural experience is a form of hospitality in itself.”
Edwin Chr. Van Driel of Pittsburg Theological Seminary, in “A Theology of Seminary Worship” (Worship 91, May 2017), takes up the challenge of worshiping in a way that unites, enriches, and has theological integrity. He argues that worship should not be about expressing who we are, in all our diversity or whatever, but who God is and what God is doing for us. He writes,
“Its motivation is not democratic but theocratic. The goal is not to bring as many voices as possible to the table but to hear from as many other traditions what they are learning about God.”
I suppose a Catholic might want to put that just a bit differently, with a less dialectical relationship between God and humanity. The frequent statement of the 20th-century popes comes to mind, that worship is for the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful. But Van Driel’s larger point is a good one: it is God who raises up diverse gifts within the unity of his people. It is on us to recognize and honor that.
Van Driel writes about the recent revitalization and reform of worship at Pittsburgh Theological School,
“[W]e did not want to suggest that worship is conducted on behalf of a particular group or for the sake of a certain cause. It is a fine line to walk, but by being explicit about this policy we underscored that worship is conducted for God’s sake, and as we drew on a great diversity of resources we did so for the sake of the richness that is in God.”
I think Janice and the other Asian planners succeeded admirably at doing just this for our grad school community this week. This Midday Prayer was the entire community’s worship, not simply the Asian community’s. But the entire community rejoiced to see its common worship, and some of its familiar repertoire, enriched by particularly Asian gifts.
As Janice says,
“ I was amazed and humbled by people’s positive reaction both in liturgy and at the convivium meal. They all seem to have a great experience by both learning our culture and worship together as one community in Christ. Overall, I think this prayer experience was a testament of how faith intersects with the culture, and this interconnection bears so much fruits to us and the community.”