Shepherds and Singing Sheep

Speaking of music, a reader commented on an older post I wrote on the subject of music. In it, I complained – amongst other things – of the tendency for modern songs to have us singing as God. To my knowledge, you won’t find any Christian songs from more than a few decades ago which do this. That’s not accidental. Anyways, s/he asks:

What exactly is the criteria for singing as/replacing God in church music? Take the song “Take and Eat”, which I’ve always liked as a Communion hymn. While, yes, WE are the ones singing it, we are echoing (almost) verbatim the words of Christ. I guess I don’t see how its different than when a priest or a lector reads a passage from Scripture which directly quotes God or Christ. Would “Take and Eat” be acceptable if the only songwriters had worked in the line “Jesus said Take and Eat……)? Seems like its all but implied to me.

The offending lyrics involve us singing:

Take and eat; take and eat:
This is my body given up for you.
Take and drink; take and drink:
This is my blood given up for you.

Here’s why that’s so problematic.

I. He the Shepherd, We the Sheep
The Bible clearly establishes that Christ is the Shepherd, and we are the sheep. 1 Peter 2:25 says, “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” So before we were like sheep going astray. And afterwards, we’re still sheep, but taken care of by our Good Shepherd, the same Christ Jesus who Hebrews 13:20 refers to as “that Great Shepherd of the sheep.” For His part, Jesus says of Himself in John 10:14-15, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

That’s an easy enough relationship to understand. Christ is the leader, and we are the followers. But the priest serves a strange role in between: he is both a sheep (to Christ) and a shepherd (to us).

II. The Strange Role of Priests as Sheep-herding Sheep
Jeremiah 23:1-4 says,

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the LORD. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the LORD.

Maybe we’re so used to calling our priests “pastors” (which is Old English for “shepherds”; so, in the old Douay-Rheims Bible, Jeremiah 23:4 says “I will set up pastors over them”) that we forget how strange this concept is. We just established that Christ is the Good Shepherd, and we Christians are the sheep. Priests are Christians, followers of Christ, and thus, sheep under His care. But they’re called also to be shepherds. This seems like an unnecessary middle step: certainly, it seemed that way to the Reformers (although many Protestants continue to use the term “pastors”). And it means that priests have a dual function: they are to be as sheep, obediently following Christ, and they are to be as pastors, tending the flock.

In this second function, they serve as Christ. Let me be clear. Christ places shepherds over us, we don’t get to choose them. Romans 10:15 says of the missionaries to the Gentiles, “And how can they preach unless they are sent?” The answer (as with all of the rhetorical questions in Romans 10:14-15) is “they can’t.” In Acts 15:23-24, the hierarchical Church (the “apostles and elders”) write lamenting “that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you.” So from the earliest days of the Church, there was order and structure, and sending. This is a vital, often overlooked aspect of Biblical faith.

Christ is sent by God the Father, and has the authority to send the Apostles, which He does. The Apostles, in turn, send others, and were clearly disturbed in Acts 15:24 that this structure was being violated and ignored, leading to dissension. This sending and re-sending continues on for all of Christian history: it’s Apostolic Succession, passed on through Holy Orders. And only through the re-sending does one get the authority to act in persona Christi. But with that sending comes the full weight of Christ’s authority (but not the full extent of Christ’s powers, of course). So Christ sends the 72 (Luke 10:1), and promises them in Luke 10:16, “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” That’s an enormous amount of authority: the sent shepherd speaks for the Good Shepherd. Christ sends the Apostles in John 13:14-16, and then explains everything I’ve said quite succinctly in John 13:20: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.

This is the Biblical basis for in persona Christi, the idea that when the priest is operating within certain capacities as a priest, he acts as Christ: Jesus Christ works through him, so it is not the priest forgiving sins, or consecrating the Eucharist, etc., but Christ through the priest. In other words, as a man, Fr. Andrew is simply another of Christ’s sheep. But as a priest, he acts as the shepherd to the sheep: that is, as Christ. For this reason, Paul praises the Galatians in Galatians 4:14, “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” By his own merits, Paul is “the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10). By the priests’ own merits, he’s necessarily unworthy for his vocation (as we all are). But by the graces of God, through Holy Orders, he is able to act in persona Christi, and serve as a shepherd to the sheep.

III. The Pope as Shepherd
(This part is related to what I just said, but not as much to the original question, so if you want to, feel free to skip it). Shortly before He calls Himself the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), Jesus uses another metaphor with a very different meaning. He says in John 10:1-5,

“I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

This sounds like Jesus is calling Himself the shepherd. But He’s not. In John 10:7, He says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” So He’s prophesying a separate shepherd – a shepherd subservient to “the Good Shepherd,” Himself (v. 14), and one who enters “by the Gate,” that is, is called specifically by Christ. This prophesy is fulfilled eleven chapters later, in John 21:15-17,

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

There is a lot going on in that passage. Recall Jesus’ earlier words from Luke 22:31-32 “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” So Jesus is clearly signalling that Peter has “turned back,” and is in position to strengthen his brothers, the other Ten.

So Jesus is drawing Peter apart from the other Ten, putting him in position of strengthening them, and asking him, “do you truly love Me more than these?” when the “these” in question are the other Ten Disciples… who were present at the time. John, who refers to himself throughout his Gospel as “the Disciple whom Jesus loved,” doesn’t object to the (seemingly awkward) question or to Peter’s answer, and is fact, the only Gospel writer to mention the conversation. This is all in keeping with Jesus’ core message, expressed well in John 13:14-15, where authority is expressed through love: the Master serves the Disciples, washing their feet, and He commissions these same Disciples to follow His example, loving and serving those who He’s entrusted to them. It’s all very much tied into the notion of sending: priests are sent to minister, and to save souls, not just to have power. So in John 13, we see Christ commissioning the Disciples to lead the Church by loving and serving the flock; and in Luke 22, we see Christ commissioning Peter, whose love for Christ surpasses the others, to strengthen the other Disciples. But in John 21, Jesus goes further, and instructs Peter – singularly, uniquely, and by name – to “Feed my lambs,” “Take care of my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep. ” In other words, the prophesied shepherd of John 10 who would pass through Jesus the Gate was Peter, the first pope.

IV. The Singing Sheep
All of what I’ve said so far should set up the distinction.

The reader’s original question remarked,

While, yes, WE are the ones singing it, we are echoing (almost) verbatim the words of Christ. I guess I don’t see how its different than when a priest or a lector reads a passage from Scripture which directly quotes God or Christ.

But this is the entire distinction. When the priest absolves you in confession, he isn’t just telling you about how God is forgiving, he’s actually forgiving you on behalf of God. Likewise, the words of consecration, “this is My Body” and “this is the Cup of My Blood” said by the priest at Mass aren’t simply a recitation of Scripture. They’re actually consecrating the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So that gets me to the part of the song in question. It’s us, as the sheep, singing the words of consecration. And it doesn’t make any sense. Who are we singing to? Are we telling the priest about what he just did? Are we telling God? It’s senseless. Of course, there are times (lots of times) where we sing something to ourselves as a statement of faith. But here, we’re not saying “this is the Body of Christ,” or “this is Your Body, Christ.” We’re saying “this is my body.” So if this were a sung proclaimation of Faith, it would be in the second- or third-person, either to or about Christ: never, never as Christ. Search the annals of early Christian music until the 20th century, and see if you see any exceptions to this, any time where we laity play-acted as Jesus Christ in Mass.

Only those who have Holy Orders, only those who have been sent by the Church as shepherds, have the authority to speak on behalf of Christ. That’s the system Scripture sets up, and it’s the constant understanding which the Church has had. Fr. Scalia addresses “Take and Eat,” by Fr. Joncas in an article called Ritus Narcissus, which I linked to in the original post. Fr. Scalia says of this,

More than any others, these lyrics eliminate the dialogue of the Mass by having us speak God’s lines. The words of Consecration comprise God’s final act of love for man: by them Christ gave Himself definitively to the Church; by them Christ continues to renew His sacrifice; by them Christ the Bridegroom presents Himself to His Bride. Priests have special reverence for these words, because in saying them they stand in the person of Christ and speak with the voice of Christ. The Consecration holds pride of place at Mass precisely because at that moment a man dares to speak the words of God the Son to God the Father.

Unfortunately, what should be regarded as sacred and exceptional is now common domain. We all sing — to whom? — what we should hear only from Christ. So how can we really understand its significance?

These and similar lyrics do not simply confuse the situation, they distort the Mass itself. By usurping God’s role we abolish any sense of conversation and in effect deny the presence of Christ at Mass. We elevate ourselves to God’s level and lower the Mass to a mere moment of remembrance.

Finally, the reader asked for “the criteria for singing as/replacing God in church music.” It’s simple enough. When we collectively read the Passion on Good Friday or Palm Sunday, the role of speaking as Christ is reserved for the priest. There’s a deeply-rooted Biblical reason for that. You and I weren’t sent by Christ and His Church, we don’t speak with the authority of Christ, and other churches aren’t expected to receive us as if we “were an angel of God, as if [we] were Christ Jesus himself.” It’s just not appropriate for us in the context of Mass to be speaking on behalf of Christ.

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