He Came Down

This Sunday, March 23, at 10 a.m., the walls of our church will resonate with the sounds of singing, country fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and double bass. Those of you who are familiar with this combination of musicians will immediately recognize it as a Bluegrass ensemble. What is unusual is that the folk music style known as Bluegrass is paired with sacred texts.

Even more unique is that of taking texts from the traditional mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) and interspersing them with verses of a folk ballad, a Gloria praising God for “feather, fur, for scale and fin”, and a Credo that affirms “Oh, I do believe a place awaits us far across the Jordan!”

To bring the solemnity of the classical choir-based mass together with the down home sparkle of bluegrass—that was the assignment for composer Carol Barnett and librettist Marisha Chamberlin. Carol Barnett had this to say, “My highest hope is that listeners coming from one tradition—classical or bluegrass—and perhaps dubious about the other, might discover something new and wonderful in the combination, as I have. Composing the music for The World Beloved has given me the chance to write cheery sacred music— all too rare in a medium rife with staid and even lugubrious settings. And it’s brought me back to memories of music heard while visiting my grandparents, country music with a church flavor that told stories and came out of a scratchy old record player. Grandma would not have allowed dancing, but under the table I tapped my toes.”

Marisha Chamberlin sums it up this way, “Bluegrass is more than a sound. The lyrics of so many Bluegrass songs display an unpretentious, earthy philosophy that is easy to sing and easy to understand: Adam lives just up the street and Eve’s the girl next door. Love is the major theme—frustrated yearning love, secret, satisfied love or boldly proclaimed love. And although romantic love between two people is huge in Bluegrass, so is love of God, the Gospel tradition. In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us, says John in the Gospel, which launches the Bluegrass Mass as an earthy, immediate story of love between Creator and creation.”

As sparkling as this music is, these recurring words remind us of which season we inhabit: “But they say God loved the World so dear He set aside His crown and cloaked Himself in human shape; They say that He came down And dwelt awhile among us here. He came on down.”