By Peter Oliver, Olive Branch Marriage and Family Ministry
“Jesus’ Blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, there’s one thing I know, for he loves me so…” These are the lilting words of a homeless man that Gavin Bryars transformed into an astounding piece of classical music. With the celebration of the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ this Sunday, we might ask what Bryars’ inventive music could teach us about the reception of Eucharist by people who are not currently welcome at the table.
There is much that is astounding about Bryars’ composition but one of the things that struck me was the visage of an entire orchestra poised to begin playing while a recording of the homeless man’s words fills the concert hall. What is astounding about this is that they remain so poised for a full four minutes while the words quoted above loop over and over. Jesus’ blood has never failed me yet, repeated over and over and over and over for a full four minutes, by a homeless man, and a full orchestra together with the audience, completely mesmerized!!!
Now that’s extraordinary! But it doesn’t stop there.
Consider this comment from the YouTube site which features the full hour and fifteen minute concert: “I’m not religious and my dad’s the most atheist person I know, but whenever we put this song on, we just go back to the past, driving along amidst the woods in a foggy morning to get to our country house which took more than an hour to get to. This song played during the whole trip. I used to tell my dad “It’s enough already don’t you think? The song should be shorter” I’ve never been so wrong in my life. Thank you for showing me this masterpiece dad.”
Seriously! Wow! What homilist could hope to hold the attention of “the most atheistic person I know” for more than an hour and with only a repeated reference to Jesus’ blood not failing us? And this is only one of many similar comments.
Wow! Wow! And wow!
So… what is the application to pastoral questions concerning those who are not welcome at the Eucharistic table? The story connected with Bryars music is instructive. The homeless man’s song was captured on tape when Bryars was working on a film about people in the rougher part of London. The recording was not used in the film but Bryars was intrigued by a slight irregularity and the way it harmonized with his piano, so he decided to record a loop of the song on a continuous real tape. Bryars goes on to say, “The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back, I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual, and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping (Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Wikipedia).” And that’s “the something” we can learn.
Bryars was alert to the power of the song and its effect on the people who encountered it. Now if a homeless man’s song about Jesus’ blood can mesmerize and transform such a wide array of people, surely the Eucharist, the actual encounter with Jesus’ Body and Blood, must have the power to mesmerize and transform those who are baptized into the paschal mystery. It strikes me that a conviction such as this is behind Pope Francis’ words in Amoris Laetitia when he says, “I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak (ibid., 47: 1039)” (note: 351)”. But then again, what do I know?
“…there is one thing I know; Jesus’ blood has never failed me yet.”