By Jonathan Jameson
I’ve spent a large portion of the last eighteen years of my life traveling from town to town and playing songs to groups of people gathered in dimly-lit clubs. Somewhere along the way I began to develop a practice of kneeling down on stage in the shadows during the moments in my band’s set where I, the bass player, don’t have anything to play — a long intro maybe, or an acoustic song. I found that it allows me to slip out of the direct attention of the concert-goers and offers me a moment to take in the gritty beauty of the strange act that is live music.
Most of these gathered people already have our albums to listen to whenever they want — or, more likely, a subscription to Spotify — and it would be easy for them to just hop on YouTube and see (likely) hundreds of shows that we have played over the years for free. But, for whatever reason, they have spent their money to stand in a crowd for a few hours, uncomfortably elbow-to-elbow, and sing some songs that they know, performed in real time. They have made a sacrifice of their time and money to be participants in the communal action of live music.
The last time that I was able to kneel down on stage and think about all this was at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on March 11 of this year. It was my band Delta Spirit’s first show of our first tour in five years. (Yeah, I know, deeply unfortunate timing.) A few days before that I was in Carlsbad, CA, at St Michael’s by-the-Sea — a beloved church where my wife and I were married — kneeling at the last Mass that I have been able to attend since the advent of Coronatide. The night before, I had read an article on Covenant that shook me — it was the first time that I had faced just what this impending virus meant for our daily life, and even more, for our ecclesial life.
So, there, in those two drastically different settings, I knelt and soaked in the embodied and communal actions that were taking place knowing that, in both cases, this might be the last time for a while that I’d be able to participate (though I hadn’t imagined this long).
I am a sacramental, Catholic Christian, and regular participation in, and reception of, the Eucharist has for many years been a core element of my rule of life. While on tour with my band I would often wake up early and, with the help of my folding bike, dash off to attend Mass in whatever town we found ourselves that day. This desire to participate in the daily offering of our Lord’s sacrifice, whenever possible, as well as the joy of saying the Office with others was part of what began to give me a sense of call to the priesthood — a process still unfolding. Yet, though these two settings that I have sketched out above may at first seem like strange bedfellows, you might be able to sense a certain practical correlation — that of corporate, physical presence and participation.
As I found myself back home in Montréal on the morning of March 13 — only a day and a half after kneeling on that San Francisco stage in a crowded venue — self-isolating in my basement for 14 days and beginning to observe the flood of live-streamed liturgies that Coronatide brought with it, I could sense acutely that a profound disruption had come upon us, but it’s taken me a while to work through how it has affected me as a sacramental Christian.
Enough time has passed that I now have few thoughts to offer.
First, I have not been tempted to break into the francophone Catholic Church that I can see from my office window and rob the tabernacle — maybe in the same way that I am not tempted to kidnap Bono or Kendrick Lamar so that I can have some live music. I desire — deeply — to receive our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. But I have also had to face, if I’m to be honest, a certain amount of presumption that I have exercised in my practice of sacramental reception, occasionally bordering on entitlement.
Next, though many have challenged — particularly in our Anglican context — the practice of private Masses in closed churches, I am thankful that many faithful priests around the world have continued to offer the Mass daily, whether live-streamed or not. This is a great comfort to the faithful in a similar way that IDIOT PRAYER: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandria Palace is to music fans. I am not tempted to tell anyone that I was at a Nick Cave concert because I’ve watched this taped performance. Likewise, I am not at church while watching a live stream or even participating in a Zoom service. But they may both, like Cave’s performance, stir my heart towards a desire for the real thing and offer some genuine and efficacious sustenance.
Finally, though I admit that early on I threw out a more-than-half-serious line to a priest requesting that he might consider saying a private Mass for my family at our home, I have come to see that that too is not my deep desire. Not to say that it would be in any sense a bad thing. And I wouldn’t refuse if today he finally accepted my request! But I’ve come to see that what I desire is more than a private Mass.
In Book 10 of The City of God, St. Augustine offers a profound meditation on the nature of “sacrifice” in worship. He notes that in some senses “works of mercy” are sacrifices, as well as “every act which is referred to the final good,” and, echoing St. Paul, that “our body is a sacrifice when we discipline it with temperance.” But then, almost out of nowhere, he makes a cosmic claim, writing, “it obviously follows that the whole redeemed city, that is, the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered to God as a universal sacrifice through the great high priest who, in his passion, offered himself to us in the form of a servant, to the end that we might be the body of such a great head.” He suggests that it is participation in this corporate, people-making action of “universal sacrifice,” offered by the gathered faithful in union with the sacrifice of Christ, and through Christ, that truly makes the Church what it is. And this, for Augustine, is not abstracted from the particular. He continues, “This is the sacrifice of Christians: although many, one body in Christ. And this is the sacrifice that the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar (which is well known to the faithful), where it is made plain to her that, in the offering she makes, she herself is offered.”
I’ve come to see that this is really what I desire, what I mourn being separated from. It’s what I can’t really participate in by stealing a consecrated host, or by watching a liturgy on YouTube, or even — at least not in its fullness — by begging a priest to come say a private Mass for my family. What I desire is to get my ass off my couch, to deal with the mundane frustration of wrangling my family into the car, to sit/stand/kneel uncomfortably in a pew with all the other members of the body of Christ in my parish — people I would likely never be friends with otherwise — and to make the corporate, corporeal offering of ourselves to the Father in union with the sacrifice of Christ, made perpetually present in our action by the Holy Spirit, and in that action to be reminded of what I am by grace: a member of “the body of such a great head.”
My band just released our fifth album, but this time is different. Instead of the whirlwind of tour dates that would normally accompany an album release, our tours have all been postponed. The songs that we crafted in a studio on a pecan farm in in El Paso, TX, have not yet been played live. There is a longing for a certain type of communal consummation.
For sacramental Christians, the active participation in the sign that makes us who we are is still, for many of us, similarly on hold, yet our ontological identity is not jeopardized by this. As opposed to an album of recorded music, a temporal capturing of “the real thing,” that needs to be communally re-realized in concert, the true action that Christians participate in in the Eucharist is always Christ’s and, being Christ’s, is perfect and eternal. So, while there is a similar longing for a participatory consummation, the “music,” we might say, has not been paused. Augustine writes, “Our heart, when lifted up to him, is his altar.” We really participate in this eternal sacrifice by our longings and intentions. And we are contingent participants in this eternal action by our very identity as members of the body of Christ, whose head “lives to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25).
So, while we may long to be back in a dimly lit building, surrounded by strangers with a common love, singing our favorite song — the song that the six-winged freaks are always singing, the show goes on.
Jonathan Jameson received his Master Theological Studies degree from Nashotah House in 2019 and is currently in the Master of Divinity program at Montreal Diocesan Theological College. His is in the ordination process for the priesthood through the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. He is also a musician, husband, and father of two.
Thank you, Jonathan, for a reflection that is at once theologically rich, deeply felt, and beautiful.