I sang a liturgical sandwich this past Sunday, but discovered the Bread was much more satisfying than the filler.
Let me explain. As a multiple-church musician, I usually sing at more than one Catholic parish in a single weekend, and sometimes in a single day. Despite a few architectural and homiletic differences, I feel at home no matter where I participate in the Mass.
But this past Sunday morning would be different. Our director of music from my urban Catholic parish had asked me and a few others to join him at his second working parish: a Reformed Christian, Presbyterian church. We were to join his choir in an old spiritual, Ride the Chariot, at their morning service; his group would sing in the loft at the front of the worship space in full view of the congregation, and would wear robes, not our usual street clothes. I was a little apprehensive at first, but since my unofficial motto is “Have vocal cords, will travel”, I assented.
After my usual early-morning Mass at my urban parish, I drove past the state university and into the suburbs to arrive at the Presbyterian church. The choir welcomed the four of us Catholics warmly and prepared us for the service. Once I donned the scarlet robe and white sash, I felt anonymous and thought I might as well take advantage of the situation. (Okay, I realize God knows all, but I like to think He heard my all-too-familiar soprano voice and thought, “Hmm, don’t I know her from the Catholic churches? What’s with that robe and the different religion today?”) I jumped on our Creator’s millisecond-length of doubt and prayed incognito, feeling as if I had cut in line at the bakery to gleefully snatch up the last loaf of marble rye.
The Presbyterian service held much beauty and showed respect for God in its Old Testament and Gospel readings, meditation, and free-form silent and spoken prayer. The church’s young reverend (who reminded me of a young Phil Donahue-esque talk show host, except with darker hair and more verve) strode around the sanctuary, microphone in hand, and exhorted his congregation to know God, to love Him, and praise him. The stained glass windows depicted no saints, but still allowed for the sun to sweep over the heads of the church’s rapt parishioners. But despite the service’s reverence, something truly was missing: the Bread. Their rite did not fill me with the same joy that our Mass, our Eucharist-centered celebration, does each time it is celebrated.
But music is the universal language, and I knew what to do as soon as our director first slid onto the organ bench, then raised his hand for our cue. We sang the old spiritual with faith and fervor, but since the eyes of the congregation were upon us, I reluctantly restrained myself from rocking back and forth and doing my Boppy / Groovy Head Bounce of Joy. (I glanced over at the covers of the well-thumbed music scores my fellow choir members held. Nowadays an octavo costs between two and three dollars; the price stamped on the covers the Presbyterian choir used read 95 cents. My own ancient copy from my college choir days read 60 cents, so in strict musical terms, that made me 35 cents older than these people.)
“Ride the chariot in the morning, Lord / I’m getting ready for the judgment day”, we sang in four-part harmony, recalling the heavenly carriage and steeds which brought Elijah up to the heavens in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). The congregation smiled; the Biblical message was clear despite its being proclaimed in a different religion’s house of worship: God is great, all powerful, all loving.
After the service I jumped into my earthly chariot with four tires and flamed out of the parking lot to sing the noon Mass back at my urban parish and complete the liturgical sandwich. On my 5.2-mile trek along a typical central Jersey roadway, I passed two Methodist churches, a Lutheran church, a Jewish community center, another Catholic church, a Baptist church, and an Apostolic church (and a few secular sites of worship: the great central Jersey strip mall).
“How fortunate I am to live in this country, in this state,” I thought. “We have the freedom people around the world envy: to praise God freely in the style we see fit.” Thought the Presbyterian service I had just attended did not offer the spiritual Bread of the Lamb, I could still appreciate the beauty and value of this alternate route to God’s ultimate reward and feel grateful I had participated.
Today, as the Church kicks off the holy season of Lent, I’ll be back at my Catholic church, proudly sporting an ashen cross on my forehead and breathing a prayer of tripartite thanks:
- To Jesus for the sacrifice of his earthly life for all of us,
- To my parents for instilling in me the love for His Catholic Church, and
- To St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, for enabling me to sing God’s praises wherever my travels take me.
I won’t go all Dorothy Gale / Wizard of Oz on you, clicking my ruby red shoe heels together (mostly because you know I hate wearing fancy shoes), but I have to paraphrase her refrain nonetheless:
Despite it being fun to sing a liturgical sandwich, there’s truly no place like home.