Hello. It feels wrong not to begin with a word of acknowledgment and gratitude. To be invited to join this company of women – these preachers of the Word – is a privilege, an honor, and, if I may say so, a little bit unnerving. But I’ll give it a go.
Today’s Gospel about the wedding feast at Cana is also unnerving, particularly that part where Jesus seems to disrespect his mother. We all remember the story – the hosts of the wedding feast are running low on wine. Jesus’ mother suggests that he should do something about it.
And Jesus says, according to the translation many of us hear in church: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”
Those of us who are the mothers of sons – I have five, plus one daughter – might share with a knowing look what our reaction would be if one of our sons addressed us as “Woman.” But what if we read this passage, not with the male adolescent patois of righteous indignation, inevitably accompanied by an air of superiority, and exaggerated sighs of impatience. (Can you tell I live with teenaged men?)
It’s about tone, isn’t it? I’m reminded of a recent conversation with my youngest son, age fourteen. I had heard from his sister that there was a problem with a girl. I asked him about it and he responded, “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it with you; it’s just that I don’t want to talk about it with anyone.” Well, I was astonished by his tact and I praised him for it.
Jesus would certainly be tactful at the very least. So maybe we can read, “Woman” more like the respectful southern “Ma’am.” After all he used this same term when addressing other women, including the persistent woman from Cana, the woman he healed on the Sabbath, the Samaritan woman, and, of course, his final words from the cross to his mother. So not so much the harsh sounding, “Woman,” but the gentler, “Ma’am.”
But what about the question? In the Greek, it reads, “What to me and to you?” We tend to read it like, “So what? What’s it to me?” It’s possible that Jesus’ response is more like a gentle . . . “Ma’am, you and I are thinking about different matters.” And then, “My time hasn’t come for me to reveal who I am.”
But after that exchange he no doubt pleases his mother as he quietly and without fanfare, provides more than enough wine for the festivities, illustrating yet again that with God there is not just enough, but abundance.
In the second reading today, Paul is writing to his beloved Christians in Corinth, assuring them that all the necessary gifts will be provided, that they will not go wanting for the abilities and talents needed, that there will be more than enough.
This reading reminds me of a little fantasy I had twenty years ago . . . A fantasy about the Holy Spirit as a Composer. Perhaps working with liturgical music for most of my adult life is part of what prompted this fantasy. It goes like:
A Composer, known for creating divine music, arrives at the great hall in the city where his latest composition is to be performed before a vast audience. The Composer meets with the Master of the Hall and begins to describe the demands of the piece, but the Master of the Hall interrupts.
"No violins are allowed here; no violas, no cellos. We have all the brass instruments, but no woodwinds, except for bassoons; piano and percussion, but no harp. The chorus includes tenors, baritones and basses, but no altos; and no sopranos except for the unchanged voices of young boys."
The Composer is stunned: "But my music must be played on the instruments for which it is written. How can it be that the sweet sound of the flute is not permitted? No oboes or cellos or violins? No rich alto voices or mature and soaring sopranos, but only the voices of men and little boys?"
The Master of the Hall stands firm in his conviction that these instruments do not belong in his fine Hall. He invokes tradition. It has always been this way. He thinks about the wealthy patrons who might be offended.
And yet, it is against the nature of the Composer to write music other than that which is complete and beautiful and true.
And so this glorious music is played with the flute and string parts missing, the oboe line performed awkwardly on the trumpet, the alto parts simply omitted, the soprano aria sung by a chirpy little boy.
The audience reaction is mixed. Most have never heard the missing instruments and voices and so they leave the Hall with their minimal expectations met: uninspired, unchallenged, thinking about their grocery shopping or plans for the week.
A few with gifted ears can hear the missing lines and supply them in their own minds, filling in that which is lost. These gifted ones long to hear the fullness of the music and weep for those around them who are missing it.
And some (no one knows how many) leave empty, wondering at the tedious, repetitive sameness of the music. All those baritones! All that brass! These unsatisfied ones may not return, seeking to be filled elsewhere.
Like the overflowing abundance of wine at Cana,
there is an abundance of gifts, of voices, of vocations.
The poverty we live with is not necessary,
and I dare say, is not from God.
Pray for the Masters of the Hall.
Pray for the voices that are silenced.
Pray for the people who are permitted to hear only
a part of the great music written for them.
Pray for all of us.
Author’s note: This “fantasy” was published as “A Prayer for the Missing Instruments” in the National Catholic Reporter, September 2002
Paige Byrne Shortal
Paige Byrne Shortal
My name is Paige Byrne Shortal and I am enjoying semi-retirement after forty years in pastoral ministry for two parishes and assisting various organizations with their regional and national worship services. I’ve had a privileged education, including a BA in Theology from Saint Louis University, an MA in Pastoral Studies from Aquinas Institute of Theology, and opportunities to witness, and maybe help promote, the liturgical renewal of the 70s and 80s, singing with the Saint Louis Jesuits and others. I’ve written regular columns for various Catholic publications, including the National Catholic Reporter, Liguorian, Ministry & Liturgy, National Pastoral Music, and others. I continue to serve the archdiocese as an advocate for those seeking an annulment and my husband, Pat, and I still sing with our parish choir. (I step in as director when needed.) We live in a small country house in rural Missouri with three of our six children, two dogs, a cat, and a dozen chickens. Much of my time now is serving as “academic coach” to our three teens as they study online, perusing subjects that, in the past, just didn’t interest me: civics, astronomy, even algebra! I agree with Merlin in TH White’s The Once and Future King: “The best thing for being sad (or anxious or bored or angry) is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails.” I am pleased to have the opportunity to join, and learn from, this impressive company of women preachers.
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