This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.
The year was 1971 and the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. was about to have its grand opening celebration. The late president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, commissioned the famed composer Leonard Bernstein to create a new work that would be performed as part of the dedication festivities. Bernstein had already established himself as one of the greatest American musicians of all time, heading up the New York Philharmonic and writing the music for West Side Story and On the Waterfront. However, for this particular occasion, he chose to do something rather unconventional: he wanted to create a Catholic Mass.
Masses intended for performance were nothing new. Both Mozart and Verdi had reached the pinnacles of their careers by writing a Requiem Mass, though Mozart was famously unable to complete his before dying young. Those who went for a more general Mass, as opposed to one for the dead, included Puccini, Liszt, Schubert, Haydn, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, Schubert, Rossini, and Dvořák. The reason for this is obvious: the Mass was always meant to be sung, and it serves as the focal point of Catholic life. Even some Protestants have gotten in on the fun, including a few of the names on that list.
But why should Bernstein wish to compose a Mass? He was, it must be noted, not a Catholic. If anything, he seems to have been a rather secular Jew. He was also homosexual (despite not revealing that publicly and being married for many years) and held some views that were not in complete harmony with Catholic teaching. Yet, the Kennedys were well-known for their Catholicism. Bernstein no doubt wanted to honor this aspect of his friends’ lives, and according to his daughter, Nina Bernstein, he “had always been intrigued and awed by the Roman Catholic Mass, finding it (in Latin) moving, mysterious, and eminently theatrical.”
Thus, Bernstein set to work on his version of the Mass, which would take the standard Latin text as its basis. Both the Broadway veteran Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, later Wicked) and the pop icon Paul Simon (half of Simon & Garfunkel) helped him to add English lyrics to the piece, and this would prove to be the truly controversial aspect of the whole thing. Before it was ever performed, MASS was labelled a piece of anti-war propaganda, the product of a liberal agenda. This was when the nation was still in the throes of the Vietnam War, and it was almost certainly due to these political considerations that President Nixon decided not to attend the premiere, stating as his excuse that the night must belong to Mrs. Kennedy. In any case, the composition was panned by critics from The New York Times and other publications.
Nevertheless, there is something more to Bernstein’s MASS than what was seen in that tense political hour. For all the hoopla, it contains some poignant spiritual truths. It is actually a piece of musical theater, with a Celebrant (i.e. a priest) as the main character, attempting to lead his congregation in worship. He is backed not only by the orchestra and choir, but also by a “street chorus” of church members who grow more restless and complaining with every song. The Celebrant attempts to proceed with the Latin text, but they keep interrupting him, citing their doubts, their unholy thoughts, and their complaints against the establishment. What began with the Celebrant urging his flock to sing “a simple song” to the Lord grows more complicated and dissonant. See for example the lyrical contribution of Paul Simon: “Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election / Half the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.”
As the piece nears its climax, the Celebrant is blessing the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist when this complaining and disunity finally becomes too much. In a rage, he throws it to the ground and proceeds into a musical diatribe lasting nearly fifteen minutes in most versions, in which he despairs and questions what it was all for. Around him lie the members of his congregation, motionless on the floor. Between them lie the shattered pieces of glass, the bits of bread and wine smeared in an act of sacrilege. Faced with the utter destruction of his ministry, the Celebrant cries, “How easily things get broken! What are you staring at? Haven’t you ever seen an accident before?” Having spent himself, he too lies down upon the floor.
What Bernstein has presented us with here is the utter fragility of human religion. It is the application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the unavoidability of entropy – to the realm of human behavior. Things get broken. People doubt. They turn against one another. The church becomes unsustainable. The ministry collapses. We share in the Celebrant’s despair as he seems to ask, “For what did I give my life?”
It is at this moment, very near the end of the Mass, that a single flute plays a tune that mimics the song of a bird as it flies to and fro. This is usually interpreted as representing the Holy Spirit, which makes sense. The Spirit is compared with the wind in scripture (John 3:8), and when Christ is baptized, it descends on him as a dove. (Matthew 3:16) At this point, a lone boy begins to urge the members of the congregation awake, touching them and proclaiming, “Lauda, Lauda, Laude,” which simply means, “Praise, praise, praise…”
One by one, the congregants seem to come to life. They rise and join in the chorus. “Laudate Deum! Laudate Eum!” (“Praise God! Praise him!”) Little by little, the instruments begin to play, and the massive choir begins to sing, until the song of praise fills the hall. Then come the whispered words: “Pax tecum”. (“Peace be with you.”) The last one to be restored is the Celebrant himself, who sings a quiet duet with the boy.
Unfortunately, the only videos of this piece available online are not of a theatrical production, but simply a concert performance of the music. Thus, the imagery is somewhat lost. Yet, if you watch the clip above, taken from a performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2012, you will still see much of the emotion present in this piece. It should begin right at the start of that final song.
What really gets me about this is that Bernstein, who was neither a Catholic nor apparently a Christian, who may well have meant this production as more of a protest statement, hit upon an essential spiritual truth. The Church of Jesus Christ, with all its many flaws, is not sustained by human endeavor. It is sustained by the Holy Spirit. Without that Spirit, we are dead – we have failed. We need an awakening. We need restoration.
Consider what happened with the people of Israel when they were given the Old Covenant through Moses. They broke the Law so many times and continued for so long in unrepentance that they fell under the curses associated with that Law: they lost their land, they lost their privileged place, many of them were killed, and most of the rest were sent to live under an oppressive foreign regime. The prophet Ezekiel was one of those who was sent to live under the Babylonians. It was at that time that he started receiving visions from God.
We discussed earlier one of the most famous of these visions: the valley of dry bones. This would have been one of the valleys right by Jerusalem – possibly the same one in which the people had sinfully offered their children as sacrifices to the god Molech. (Jeremiah 32:25) Wherever Ezekiel looked, he saw only dried up bones, i.e. bones that had been there a very long time. This was the antithesis of life, but as Ezekiel watched, the Lord breathed into those bones long dead and they stood on their feet.
Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.” Therefore prophesy and say to them, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it,’ declares the Lord.”’
Though I already mentioned this passage, I wanted to draw your attention to the fact that it is God Himself who brings His people back to life, and more importantly, He attributes this to the presence of the Spirit, which will be placed “within” the people.
A generation later, the prophet Zechariah had the chance the return with many of the Exiles to the land of Judea, but there were substantial difficulties in reconstructing their society, particularly in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple. Zechariah received visions from the Lord, including a very odd one involving a lampstand, a bowl, and two olive trees. When Zechariah inquired as to the meaning of this vision, an angel told him to give a message to Zerubbabel, the leader of the Jews at that time. “Then he said to me, ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel saying, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,” says the Lord of hosts.’” (Zechariah 4:6)
As in Ezekiel’s vision, the power that is to restore the nation is that of the Spirit. Now, it must be said that of all the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the least understood. The Father is fairly well known as a result of the numerous things He has to say in the Old Testament. That is a clear enough testimony to His character. The Son, of course, came and lived among us. He provided us with as clear a picture of God as we are ever going to get in this life. But the Holy Spirit seems to us to be a largely silent force, always working but never speaking. (Never mind that He speaks through the prophets and others…2 Peter 1:21)
As a result, many Christians over the years have tended to forget about the Holy Spirit, or at least to spend very little time focusing on Him. The earliest Christians were certainly concerned with the Spirit – just read the book of Acts and you’ll see what I mean – but by the time that first apostolic generation had passed away and the miracles seemed less frequent, most of the focus had shifted to the person of Christ, His relationship with the Father, His divine and human natures, His atonement for sin, etc.
The Apostle’s Creed, codified in the first few centuries of Christianity, devotes two lines to the Father, ten lines to the Son, and only one measly line to the Holy Spirit. In fact, the one line that the Spirit is granted says nothing about His powers or character, but is a simple statement that He exists: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” (To be fair, it also mentions that Christ was “conceived by the Holy Spirit”.) The Nicene Creed devotes a bit more time to the third person of the Trinity, but it is also a source of controversy between Eastern and Western Christians over whether the Spirit proceeds simply “from the Father” or “from the Father and the Son”. Perhaps there is a lesson here: when we start talking about the Spirit, we create conflict, so it’s easier not to talk about it.
Further complicating our notions about the Holy Spirit is the debate over whether or not certain gifts of the Spirit – in particular, speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, and prophecy – are still granted to this day, or whether they ceased at the end of the Apostolic Age. Modern Protestantism has seen some major breaches over this question with the rise of the Charismatic or Pentecostal movement. It seems that the controversy has created extremes on either side: those who talk about virtually nothing but the Spirit, and those who are almost afraid to mention it. Conferences have been held. Books have been written. Too little has actually been accomplished.
In light of all this confusion, perhaps it is best to get back to basics. Any language concerning the Trinity can be problematic, because it is somewhat beyond the bounds of human comprehension, but I think I do not err if I say that the Holy Spirit is of the same substance as the Father and the Son, is united with the Father and Son in will, and possesses the same character qualities, e.g. holiness, immutability, omniscience, and omnipotence. Thus, to know the Father and the Son is to already know a great deal about who the Holy Spirit is and how He acts. They are one in purpose, existing in eternal communion, equal partners in the narrative of salvation history.
What is particularly important for our purposes is that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the primary way in which we as Christians experience God on a daily basis. The night before His death, Christ told His disciples,
I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you…These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.
John 14:16-17, 25-26
We do see the Spirit at certain points prior to the formation of the Church. We hear of Him even coming upon people (Exodus 35:31; Micah 3:8; Luke 1:41, 67), but this does not seem to be quite the same as the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers that began at Pentecost. I could go into detail about the numerous benefits that the Spirit provides to believers, but for right now, what I want to focus on is the regenerative powers of the Spirit.
Scripture describes the Spirit as a source of life and power. Christ said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing,” (John 6:63a) and told His disciples before ascending into heaven, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”. (Acts 1:8a)
The first and most important work of regeneration that the Spirit performs in believers is to deliver us from the bondage of sin. In the writings of the Apostle Paul, we see the clearest divide between the flesh (sinful nature) and the Spirit. However, it must be noted that Paul did not come up with this idea, as it was already preached by Christ Himself.
Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Paul says clearly enough, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” (Ephesians 2:1) then continues on to say, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ…” (2:4-5a) He also wrote to the Romans,
If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.
The English theologian John Owen wrote his most famous treatise on this very passage and noted that without the power of the Spirit, we are so dead in the flesh as to have no possibility of escaping sin. “How shall he, then, mortify sin that hath not the Spirit? A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.” (“Mortify” was the word used in the King James Version of the Bible rather than “put to death”.) This was the rallying cry of Martin Luther in the early days of the Protestant Reformation: the one who has not been filled with the Spirit is not simply in error, not simply in need of a tune up, but thoroughly dead. Yes, if you are of the flesh, you are dead. You do not need to be revamped: you need to be resurrected.
Note how, in the preceding passage, the Apostle Paul linked the Spirit’s work in raising Christ from the dead with the work He performs in the human soul, restoring us to life and enabling us to seek the things of God. This is the “washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5b) by which we are “strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”. (Ephesians 3:16b-17a)
This is the initial work of regeneration that the Spirit performs in us, by which we are made sons (and daughters) of God and become part of the Church. Yet, the renewing work of the Spirit does not stop there. We need Him to renew us every single day. In our own strength, we will fail. We will turn against one another. We will end up like that congregation in Bernstein’s MASS.
Friends, have you ever seen a dead church: either one that was physically empty, or one that despite being in operation seemed to just be going through the motions? Have you seen a church that forsook the truth of the gospel and ignored the convicting power of the Spirit? Have you seen a church that was no representative of Jesus Christ, but merely a product of human invention? There are many ways for a church to die, but we must admit that all around us, there are dead churches. Even more frightening is the fact that any church that is currently alive may end up dead if it does not cling to the gospel and make Christ the center. Every church is full of sinners, and sinners tend to sin. Thus, unity breaks down and reconciliation becomes difficult, if not wholly impossible.
The book of Revelation provides us with the cautionary tale of the church in Sardis. Christ sent a message to them through the Apostle John.
I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.
That kind of warning ought to make us sit up and take notice, for it is truly frightening. Some dead churches are easy to spot, but Christ says of Sardis, “…you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead”. This means that the Christians of Sardis had probably not committed big, visible sins, but rather had slumped into a kind of slow death. There are many ways for a church to die, but only one way for it to live: the Spirit of God. Therefore, Christ urges them to “wake up”, “repent”, and “strengthen the things that remain”. One of the most famous theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, elaborated on this topic.
Preservation, and therefore renewal, and therefore reformation of the Church…can come only from its living Lord. The congregation threatened with death can be protected from death only by Him. The congregation which is already dead can be awakened from the dead to new life and be rescued only by Him….No sure hope can be placed in good will, religious sincerity, or in Christian ideals. All this is exposed to temptation and already fallen. All this is the completely human realm of the Church and needs renewal. It can never be the source of its renewal. He, Jesus Christ, who stands under no threat needs no renewal. He, the Lord is the hope of the Church. He – He alone – is its hope.
Let us not be confused by the fact that Barth talks about Christ rather than the Holy Spirit, for they are one, and as Christ Himself said before His death, the Spirit was the one who would come after Him and teach His followers. It was the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead, and He is the one who renews us day by day. Therefore, the Church has reason both for despair and hope: despair that we will never achieve the kind of unity that Christ commands and will never sustain the Church under our own power, and hope that it is not up to us to do so, for everything depends on the Spirit.
John Calvin described the Holy Spirit as “the bond by which Christ effectively binds us to himself”. It is also the thing that binds us to each other. As the Apostle Paul wrote,
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.
The Spirit awakens and preserves. It allows us to have true fellowship with one another (2 Corinthians 13:14) and not to carry out the desires of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16) It grants to us a spiritual wisdom that is greater than that of this world. (1 Corinthians 2:10-13) Paul says that “the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6), once again linking the Spirit with peace. He also lists among the fruits of the Spirit in our lives “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. (Galatians 5:22b-23a) When we are awakened by the power of the Spirit, it will lead us into the things of reconciliation.
All of us know a church of which we lament with the prophet, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people!” (Lamentations 1:1) All of us know a person – or two, or three, or twenty – who seems so hardened and so tied to the pride of the flesh that they simply cannot be moved. They have chosen their own will over that of God. How then is reconciliation possible? How can something so obviously dead be brought back to life? “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6b)
We must remember the words of Christ when He was speaking to His disciples. “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) He said that to people who would believe in Him – the very apostles who would lay the foundation for the Church. He told them that they could do absolutely nothing absent the power of God. It may be easier to move a mountain than restore a human heart, but the Holy Spirit makes the impossible His business. As the angel told Mary after announcing that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, “…nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37b)
Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the restoration that comes with our justification, we can become His instruments in a world that is dead. He can work mighty things in us. However, we must never confuse that with our own human abilities. When Jesus was preparing His disciples to endure persecution and preach the gospel to authorities, He told them, “Say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11b) Our words profit nothing and contain no real wisdom if they do not come from the Spirit. “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)
We cannot by our own power save or restore anyone. We cannot by our own power maintain the bond of unity and bring about reconciliation in the Church. We must listen for that calling of the Spirit. “Awaken!” He calls to us. “Be restored! Be renewed!” As the Apostle Paul quoted from what must have been an early hymn, “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14b) But let us make no mistake: we cannot wake ourselves up by our own power. It is that Spirit who gave life to the body of Christ who can restore our souls and overcome our intransigence.
Remember those whispered words near the end of Bernstein’s Mass? “Pax tecum” – peace be with you. If we are to have peace with one another, it must come about by that power of the Spirit: there is no other way. Like those congregants lying on the floor, utterly despairing of the Church, we need the Spirit to touch us and draw our hearts out of darkness back to the light of life. We cannot raise ourselves up, but must be raised under the power of the Spirit. And one day, when the time is right, the Lord will restore His Church completely, and we will all stand together proclaiming with the heavenly host, “Praise, praise, praise! Praise God! Praise Him!”
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.
 John Owen. The Mortification of Sin. Create Space Edition. Copyright 2013. Page 47.
 Karl Barth. “The Church: The Living Congregation of the Living Lord Jesus Christ” in God Here and Now. Translated by Paul M. van Buren (London: Routledge Classics, 2003), page 93.
 John Calvin. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986), page 143.
Other articles in this series:
#2 – Discord
#4 – The Cross of Hate
#5 – The Age of Sacrifice
#6 – The First Step
#7 – Impossible Questions
#8 – True Love
#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’
#11 – Christ is All in All
#14 – Humble Rebellion