why we are sharing Missa Gaia in our community...

Reflections on Missa Gaia:  First Church in Mission

In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
Isaiah 30: 15

In three weeks - Sunday, November 22, 2015 @ 3 pm - we will present the Berkshire premiere of Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia/Earth Mass in Honor of Mother Nature" at First Church of Christ on Park Square. This contemporary composition was commissioned in 1981 by the Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, The Reverend James Parks Morton, after the Paul Winter Consort had become artists-in-residence. The goal was to create a 20th century setting for the Mass that honored the “whole Earth as a sacred place.” (Paul Winter, Missa Gaia liner notes)

The title, Missa Gaia, fuses Latin (Missa – Mass) with Greek (Gaia – Mother Earth) to evoke a holistic song of the spirit. Incorporating ancient liturgical texts with the melodies and dynamic rhythms of Africa, Brazil and American gospel music, Missa Gaia also treats the songs of the tundra wolf and humpback whale as equal in beauty and integrity to traditional sacred choral song. It is an authentic environmental liturgy that bends genres with creativity and compassion.

The opening of the Missa unites a prayer attributed to St. Francis – “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” – with a text from the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job as well as Plainsong from the 13th century. The “Kyrie” – one of the oldest Greek prayers in Christianity meaning, “Lord, have mercy” – uses the natural chant of an Alaskan Tundra wolf to form the foundation of a choral cry for forgiveness. The “Beatitudes” infuses the Sermon on the Mount with syncopation and improvisation. The Latin “Sanctus and Benedictus” – the Eucharistic songs of thanksgiving and gratitude – take their cue from the music of the humpback whale; while the “Agnus Dei” – Lamb of God – evokes the prayers of nature alongside our own ancient liturgical prayers. The composition concludes with “The Blue Green Hills of Earth” – a vision of Mother Earth as seen from a space craft – and “Let Us Depart in Peace” – a reprise of the opening call to praise as our invitation to go forward and treat all of creation with sacred reverence. It is simultaneously a work of art, a call to action and an act of prayer.

The Missa Gaia is an original, compelling, challenging and unique musical offering that includes soloists and choir, jazz instrumentalists as well as organ, piano and percussion. Our Berkshire premier will also include dancers, guest performers as well as a reception following the performance.  We are hosting the Missa in support of BEAT (Berkshire Environmental Action Team) and will take a free will offering to strengthen their work in our community.

In addition to the sheer beauty of this composition, however, there are other reasons why we are putting in the time, resources and talent to present Missa Gaia.

·         First, we believe in the work of BEAT.  Eight years ago, our faith community made a decision to focus our often diverse interests into four broad areas:  eco-justice, peace-making, food security and local justice organizing work. This shift allowed us to invest time and resources, talent and treasure, into partnerships with local mission activists already doing good work in our community rather than trying to re-invent the wheel.

Cooperation and servanthood is always at the heart of the Cross where our horizontal human connections embrace our vertical yearnings for the holy so that "heaven and earth embrace, compassion and justice kiss." (Psalm 85)

Over time a deeper truth was revealed beyond our initial inspiration for greater efficiency: we began to see the eternal pattern of Christ made flesh among us through working in solidarity with our mission partners. Wendell Berry put it like this, "I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement [at-one-ment] with God." There is a love deeper than our imagination at work in the world that binds us together in unity. It includes not only human beings, but animals, the elements and the entire cosmos. Fr. Richard Rohr recently observed that since the beginning of time, God has been calling us to live as one:

The Greek word used for Word in John's prologue is Logos. Philosophy has often defined Logos as the rational principle that governs and develops the universe. Christian theology would say it is the Divine reason, logic, or plan that was revealed in the life course of Jesus. The early sermons in Acts tried to "demonstrate that Jesus was the [Eternal] Christ" (2:36, 9:22) and therefore the deepest pattern for everything that preceded and followed him…  I like to use the word blueprint to make the point here. Every time you read "the Word" in John's prologue, just substitute the word "blueprint," and it all makes much more sense to the contemporary mind… Christ is the Archetype and we are the Type… As the Book of Revelation puts it, the Christ is "the Alpha and the Omega" of all history and of all creation (1:8, 21:6,22:13). With this perspective, Christianity need not compete with other religions; rather, authentic Christians can see and respect the Christ Mystery wherever and however it is trying to reveal itself – which is all the time and everywhere, and not just in my group. This is far beyond tribal religion; in fact, it makes all tribalism impossible. 

In collaboration, we have come to celebrate that we are in this world  together. The greater our alliances with those beyond the ghetto that has become  the Church, the stronger our social order becomes and the common good is fortified.

·         Second, we made a commitment to the wider community to share the work of our common sabbatical - the congregation's and the minister’s - during this first year A.S. (after sabbatical.) In our grant application, we were clear that not only did we want a season of sabbatical rest for ourselves - clergy and congregation - but we wanted to share the wealth of God's blessings with our wider community, too. Consequently, we built into our funding request resources for some benefit concerts that would integrate jazz and reunite the arts with social transformation and prayer.

In a deep way we have come to realize that it would be antithetical to the heart of Christ to want to keep everything to ourselves.  As we sometimes proclaim in our opening Eucharistic Prayer:  "We bless you, O God, for the beauty and bounty of the earth and for the vision of the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none." Indeed, we have a long history of using our gifts to enrich the well-being of our wider community. During our 250th anniversary, it was pointed out that in addition to our first pastor's involvement in the Revolutionary War (at the battle of Bennington), our congregation also advocated and helped create the region's first hospital - and hospice – as well as our region’s first counseling center, too. We were founding members of Habitat for Humanity and on the ground floor of organizing both the CROP Walk to Fight Hunger as well as BIO (Berkshire Interfaith Organizing.) 

This concert (and others to follow) is part of our sabbatical commitment. It gives shape and form to the counter-cultural notion that "beauty can save the world" as we use our unique gifts and talents to care for one another. And it utilizes the experiences and insights discerned over the summer by both clergy and congregation. Specifically, the Missa Gaia concert integrates our Sunday morning choir with a variety of musicians from the wider region under the leadership of Carlton Maaia II.  Carlton played a pivotal role in shepherding the congregational events during the sabbatical. The Missa honors and celebrates his skill, spiritual wisdom and commitment to the nurture of both First Church and wider Pittsfield.  Like the music of Paul Winter’s composition, this event blends some of the old with some of the new to create something unique in support of our ministries.

·         Third, this is a kairos moment when more and more of the Western world is realizing a powerful shift in both our understanding and locus of the Sacred. In Christian theology there are at least two notions of time - chronos and kairos - and both have their place. Chronos time is, as you might guess, chronological time. It is linear, rational, sequential and the way most of us think about time most of the time. Kairos time, however, is sacred time - time that awakens us to our deepest loving potential - where the very purpose of creation is revealed and realized – it is an opportune time for tenderness, compassion and justice to become flesh.

Pope Francis spoke of this moment in Laudato Si – the Papal encyclical on environmental justice that means “Praise be to you, O Lord” – which calls for a new way of living based on new truths.  Church historian Diana Butler Bass addresses this shift in her best-selling book, Grounded: Finding God in the World. “People still believe,” she observes, “but they believe differently than they once did. The theological ground is moving: a spiritual revolution is afoot. And there is a gap between that revolution and the institutions of religious faith.” (Bass, Grounded) Richard Rohr explained this gap with penetrating clarity:

We're living in a truly amazing time. The ever broader shape of the cosmos is becoming an ever broader shape for theology itself. Our sun is nothing more than a minor star in one small part of a single galaxy. We used to believe our universe was static, but it is still expanding outward. When I was growing up, the common perception was that science and religion were definitely at odds. Now that we are coming to understand the magnificent nature of the cosmos, we're finding that many of the intuitions of the mystics of all religions are being paralleled by scientific theories and explanations. If truth is one (which it has to somehow be, if it is truth), then all disciplines are just approaching that truth from different angles and levels and questions...

In fact, our whole plan of salvation was largely about getting away from this earth! Today, we know that the universe is old, large, dynamic, and interconnected. It is about 13.8 billion years old, and some scientists think it could still exist for 100 trillion years. The universe has been expanding since its birth. Our home planet, Earth, far from being the center of the universe, revolves around the Sun, a medium sized star in a medium sized galaxy, the Milky Way, which contains about 200 billion stars. The Milky Way is about 100,000 light years in diameter. Furthermore, it is one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe. We do not appear to be the center of anything. And yet our faith tells us that we still are. This cosmic shock is still trying to sink into our psyches.

In 2015 more and more of us know that we are one people - one earth - one love. Our hearts have become more inclusive.  And the more we fortify these compassion connections, the more faithfully we live into this unique and sacred moment in history.

We are offering Missa Gaia, therefore, as an act of praise, as partial payment in beauty to our community for our shared sabbatical blessings, as an act of solidarity with our friends and allies in the eco-justice movement and as a time for collective rest and renewal. If we learned nothing else during our sabbatical it was this:  nothing of value can be accomplished if we are exhausted.

Composer and artist Paul Winter offers a closing insight that rings true among us, too:

There is a Gaia hypothesis articulated by scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis who propose that the entire range of living matter on Earth, from a whales to viruses, from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and power far beyond its constituent parts. If this hypothesis is about synergy, then the creation of Missa Gaia – and its performance – is truly a manifestation of Gaia. For what developed is an interweaving of creative ideas… where no one of us knew all the threads which we would weave into the Earth Mass, but together we found that we did know.

The ancient wisdom of the prophet Isaiah spoke poetically to our current condition 500 years before Christ was born: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.  This is why we gratefully offer the Missa Gaia/Earth Mass.

James Lumsden
All Souls Day 2015


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