SINGING THE FAITH: I AM FOR YOU
1992 was our second trip to the Big Island Liturgical Arts Conference (BILAC), but that year was especially wonder- ful because Joe Camacho and Fr. George DaCosta had asked me to write the theme song. I was more than a little intimidated by the task of writing a song for this conference, held in those years in the Hawaiian homelands outside of Hilo, at Malia Puka o Kalani (Mary Star of the Sea) Catholic Community. Mostly, it was the usual self-doubt – what could a bourgeois white boy write that might even be mildly appropriate for a community like this to sing? I couldn’t really think about that; I just had to do something.
One of the tasks I set for myself with a commission like this was to write a song that would be useful beyond the days of the conference. The conference was at the end of a Luke year, early November 1992, so Matthew was hover- ing a month away. Could I include some major Matthean theme in the lyric that might make it serviceable in the following year? I’m sure that the conference also sent me some notes on the theme of the conference itself, which I incorporated into my preparation. This became part of one of two trips I made to the “wilderness” to write, and during which a lot of songs that became part of the Vision CD (and later, Gary’s Praise the Maker’s Love) werewritten.
One of the things I was trying to do was incorporate some overarching theme from the gospel of Matthew, and for me, this theme is the presence of Christ to the Church notwithstanding his beyondness in God. In Matthew, there are at least four explicit indications of this. The first is Mt 1: 23, in the story of Joseph’s dream, in which Jesus is called “Emmanuel – which means ‘God is with us.'” The second is the Ascension account (Mt. 28:20), in which Jesus says, as he is taken up to heaven at the end of the gospel, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” These two texts, I think, form an important inclusio for the whole gospel, that is, set at the beginning and the end of the text, they teach us to read what falls between with eyes looking for the presence of God-in-Christ among us. The other two clear examples are in the community discourse, Mt 18:20, in which Jesus, instructing the community on how to act as a group, tells them “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” So there’s an indication of his presence in the community, acting as community. And the other is in the last of the great parables of Matthew 25, the story of the king, the sheep, and the goats. It’s only necessary to remember the shocking response the king makes to those who are surprised to be counted among the blessed because they had ministered to the king. Their king says, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Again, a statement of presence, this time identification of the Lord with those who are in greatest need. This matrix within the gospel of Matthew was the core out of which I was hoping to write.
Then I came across this footnote in the New Jerusalem Bible, in which the editors say that one of the ways the teachers of the late royal period, and possibly later, had translated the name of God as spoken to Moses, the name we represent by the tetragrammaton (YHWH) and generally translate something like “I am who am,” was something like “Who I am, I am for you.” The idea of “I am for you” started to work on me. I began to see, in all of scripture, a sense that “I am for you” describes God’s relationship with humanity in creation and the Holy Spirit, Jesus’s relation to God, and therefore our relation to one another. It is a way of simply expressing agape and kenosis, that is, a way of expressing the paschal mystery: life given on behalf of others, in God’s case, perfectly and utterly.
So I chose specific images/events to wrap the text around. First, the creation, using words which I hoped would resound in my Hawaiian patrons’ consciousness: mountain, sea, wind, strength, fire. Then I chose Mary, whose “Let it be done to me according to your word” seemed like a beautiful human echo of “I am for you.” Jesus, the man who “walked in the storm/caught in between the waves and the lightning,” is the fulcrum of the song, with those words from the last verse of Matthew ringing out in the last line of the stanza. Verses four and five attempt to infuse the life of the church with those words and that sentiment, “Let us be the word of the Lord: ‘I am for you.'” In verse 5, there is an eschatological hope against the sin that threatens to overwhelm the little ones of the reign of God unless the community keeps the fire alive.
IAmforYouisoneofmyfavoritesongs,anditalwaysplayswellinourconcerts(andIhopeinourliturgies!) Itappearsonour 1992 recording Vision, and can be found on YouTube, as well as streaming services like iTunes Music and Amazon Music.