Agnus Dei — Perseverence

Agnus Dei

This year, as the organizing theme for Music Sunday, the Worship Committee chose perseverance – especially in the face of transitions. Certainly our congregation is in transition. And we have persevered, continuing the work of our church in our changed and challenging circumstances.

Here is a story about music and perseverance. In my years of choral singing, I have sung a number of Masses. Listening to the ways different composers set the words of the Catholic Mass to music drew me into a deeper understanding and appreciation of the beauty, passion, and meaning of the Christian story.

My favorite movement in each Mass is usually the last one, the Agnus Dei, which always has two distinct parts: The first is set to these words: Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserera nobis – Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. The music is usually set in a minor key and is filled with anguish.

But then, after the music builds to a crescendo, it radically alters, becoming gentle and sweet with the introduction of the second part, set to these words: Dona nobis pacem: Give us peace. I love that moment of transition from a cry for mercy to a prayer for peace most of all. For me, the juxtaposition of anguish and peace brings me to tears – a challenge when I am trying to sing!

For me, perseverance feels deeply connected to both mercy and peace. When I listen to the Agnus Dei of almost any Mass, I am transported to grindingly difficult times in my life – times when I have mustered the will to keep on going, nonetheless. In the years when I sang Masses on a regular basis, I was suffering one major loss after another. Death after death after death brought the searing pain of seemingly unrelenting loss.

The music of the Agnus Dei spoke right to my heart. I knew about anguish, and I yearned for mercy – for some measure of compassion and kindness. The thought I might receive the gift of some larger mercy brought me great comfort. So did the endless small mercies of people reaching out to me because they knew my path was so hard.

Who among us has never suffered? Never lost someone they loved to severed relationship or death? Never felt pain or fear or loneliness? Who has never longed for mercy at some point? I wonder if it’s possible to endure periods of stark difficulty without some sense that relief and mercy will eventually come around? Certainly the possibility of mercy helps me to persevere in shadow times and move toward the light.

“We are suffering, miserera nobis, have mercy on us.”

“Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

Those words, of course, point to another kind of mercy. The wail of anguish is for the mercy or forgiveness, benevolence, and kindly forbearance offered even in the face of sin, in the face of falling so short of the mark. Sometimes perseverance requires that kind of mercy, too. Humans stumble, again and again, on the path through life. We cause pain by the things we do and the things we don’t do. We heap up mistake upon mistake. Perseverance asks us to pick ourselves up from the dust heap of failure and march on.

For me, mercy helps me to be more than the accumulation of my failures – mercy calls me back to my better self. Miserera nobis: Have mercy on us.

Human beings have corporate failings, too. When, through carelessness, indifference, and greed, we waste earth resources that can never replaced, have mercy on us.

When we put young people into military uniforms, and place weapons in their hands, and they then murder innocent civilians, have mercy on us.

When we cannot protect people in our own communities from hunger or homelessness, have mercy on us.

When the United States, land of freedom, operates the largest prison system in the world, have mercy on us.

When our culture produces public figures who conduct a war on women, have mercy on us.

Our failings, as individuals and as a culture, are legion. Colossal effort is sometimes required to climb out of the morass of failings. Mercy can help to override the feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and despair that regret can generate. Mercy can help to propel us forward – even to attain peace.

Dona nobis pacem, grant us peace” is the prayer that ends the Agnus Dei – and the Mass itself. In my own story, walking through those grievous days and eventually making it to the other side, brought wisdom and understanding, and, yes, a treasured measure of peace.

The language of peace is deeply connected to that of loss and suffering. In hard times, we hope “to make our peace.” At end of life, we hope “to die in peace.” Of our departed loved ones, we often derive comfort from the notion that “they are now at peace.” With peace as a prize we earn at the end of a struggle, perseverance becomes all the more possible.

Peace leads the way. Dona nobis pacem: Grant us peace.

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