Service will be lead by Director of Music, Donald Milton III.
Service Times: 9:30 am & 11:00 am,
Our Tree House Choir will present a new Unitarian Universalist Mass called “Missa Brevis Pro Serveto.” Director of Music, Donald Milton III, will reflect on singing masses and the joy of a beautiful Latin Mass with an accepting and inclusive theology.
Watch the Performance
The first mass I ever sang was Franz Schubert’s Mass in G. I was 15 or 16 years old. The Schubert Mass in G is wonderful. The music is beautiful and accessible so even amatuer choirs singing it sound fanastic. Even more noteworthy is Schubert wrote this piece that is still performed regularly all over the world when he was 17. And he wrote it in a week.
I was singing in a high school choir that met at the University of Michigan so there was no religious affiliation. We just sang the mass because it’s a great piece. There may have been a translation provided but we didn’t spend time digging into the meaning of each movement. Just great music and a whole lotta Latin.
My life was changed singing in choirs as a teenager. Music opened me up to a whole new world of emotions and connection.
As I went deeper into studying choral music there’s an unfortunate truth for any non-Christians like myself. Almost all great western choral masterworks are on Christian texts. The prevalence of christianisy specifically can drive people away from choral music. When I meet a great singers and ask them about singing in the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, which I conduct, they’ll often tell me it’s “too churchy.” Right now most of our repertoire is Queen with a smattering of Elton John and Madonna. But that stigma persists.
If you’re into choral music and I’m REALLY into choral music, you can’t escape religious texts. So what do you do? You do what a lot of us here in this room do all of the time. You translate.
Now, most of us are pretty used to this. We choose to be in a multi-religious UU community and we do our best to respect and embrace theological differences. That means sometimes we hear things that fit like a glove for some of us, while others of us need to translate a little in our heads to make it work, to make it meaningful, to press the right spiritual buttons. Sometimes that’s translating “god” and “spirit” to “love” and “connection” or vica versa, taking beauty and emotion and calling it god.
This came pretty naturally to me in Unitarian Universalism because I’d been doing it for years as a young atheist signing a lot of choral music. I sang in temples and churches but, as aforementioned, even in secular spaces the majority of the choral music we sang was religious.
So you can imagine my excitement learning about this UU mass. We’ve done other masses here before. The Missa Gaia that we sang a few years ago and the Brahms Requiem, sometimes called the Humanist Requiem. They were both more theologically UU than most catholic masses but the texts were still Christian. But here, Missa Brevis Pro Serveto. Dedicated to Miguel Serveto (a name anglicised to Michael Servetus), who was a UU martyr, literally burned at the stake for rejecting the trinity.
As I said earlier, the mass nods to the Christian roots of Unitarian Universalism through the form of the mass and many of the movement names. But it’s a special treat for me and hopefully for the choir and you to engage with a piece in Latin that has a diverse theology.
You see, when singing an ordinary mass, of which I’ve sung dozens, there are some things that are easy to translate. A Kyrie movement is all about mercy. I like mercy. Gloria and Sanctus movements, those are about praise. Lots of things deserve praise so that’s easy. Some of the movements are harder, especially Credos. The credo in the catholic mass is a laundry list of beliefs that I don’t share. The Credo is the longest movement. It opens with “I believe in the one god, the father almighty” then goes on to list many more things to believe in but always in “I” statements including Jesus Christ, the one apostolic catholic church, crucifixion, confession, baptism, the coming judgement. A lot of things that I don’t believe in and it’s quite a lot to translate. So even when the music is beautiful I have to turn off that part of my brain that connects the text I’m singing. Which is easier to do in Latin than in English.
Now, when I was told about this UU mass I was sceptical. Why would you write lyrics then translate them into Latin? If it’s a UU mass, why are we using Kyries and Credos? But when I dug into the text I was very moved by the juxtaposition of UU theology into the mass, in no movement more than the Credo. Instead of a big statement of “I believe in…” it begins with, “What do I know of the world? What does a fish know of water? What knows a bird of the air?” How refreshing. How unifying for a group of seekers. The movement does end with some I believe statements: “I believe in lovingkindness. I believe in life.”
The use of these movements in a new context makes me think of religious words that atheists and humanists can sometimes feel a little allergic to. Not like, I need an epi-pen allergic but like makes the inside of your mouth itchy allergic or gives you a mild rash. Words or statements that make you feel like you don’t belong in the room. Like you’re the odd one out, not welcome. Some of those allergy words might always be hard – God, Lord, Father in a certain context; but there are other words that I love and want to be more prevalent in humanist circles. Last week we talked about Humanist prayer. I’m into group prayer. I’m into words like mercy, and grace. Words like holy, blessing, praise, sacrement, divinity. I’m even into words like amen and hallelujah. Oh yeah.
To echo what Rev Strauss said last Sunday, we can have it all. In a theologically diverse space our theists are going to find God in humanist readings and poetry. Our atheists are going to find human connection and inspiration in theist texts and stories. It’s how we make it work. It is a holy thing we do together. It is a blessing we bestow upon each other. This translating, this understanding, it isn’t easy, but it does draw a wider circle, it breaks down some walls that must fall. May we continue to find deeper understanding in our own ways and together, knowing there are so many different right answers. I’m grateful we create this space together. May it be so.