Brubeck’s Wilderness

Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), the great jazz musician and composer, also wrote many religious works. This weekend, I’d like to invite you to rediscover with me one of his rarely performed works, the Oratorio The Light in the Wilderness. written in 1968. It’s based in part on today’s Gospel reading of Jesus’ forty days in the desert, tempted by Satan, in the company of wild beasts, and ministered to by angels. Here are some excerpts from a 1983 concert in which Brubeck plays the piano:

Brubeck became a Catholic in 1980, culminating a lifelong Christian religious journey. He famously said in a PBS interview, “I didn’t convert to Catholicism, because I wasn’t anything to convert from. I just joined the Catholic Church.” Here are very informative program notes for a recent performance of The Light in the Wilderness. I would be great to have a modern recording.

In preparing for today’s Mass, I reflected on the meaning of the word “Gospel.” It’s a very familiar word – perhaps familiarity breeds indifference – but a close look leads us in some unexpected, interesting, and perhaps important directions.  Stay with me on this.

Gospel is usually translated “good news.” While not wrong, I think it’s inadequate. “Gospel” is from Old English “god-spell,” and ultimately from Germanic roots. “God” here means good, and actually has no etymological connection with “god.” “Spell” means a story or a message. To routinely translate it as “news” I think conveys the connotation of stuff we get in newspapers or on CNN or Fox. “News” always implies something new, doesn’t it? Nobody wants old news.

“Good message” is a much better understanding of “gospel,” in turn translates the New Testament Greek word  “ev-angelion” – good message.  (An “angel” is a messenger.)

More on “gospel” to come, including a recording of my homily today.  (I started this late Saturday night, and am finishing up late Sunday night.  I want to get this posted while the the Brubeck piece is still relevant to the Gospel reading of today. Now only 45 minutes left of today. G’nite!)

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