The Beautiful Cross

Fernando Ortega
Thursday, March 1st 2018
Mar/Apr 2018

“Christians exist in an alternative chronology. The church has its own time.”

— Tish Harrison Warren,
Liturgy of the Ordinary

Once upon a time, the Christian community did not orient its life around the seasonal calendar of winter, spring, summer, and fall. Of course, daily labors were rightly organized around the planting and harvest times, but the goal of those labors was the week’s beginning (the Sabbath), not the weekend. The first thing you see when you open the Book of Common Prayer (1662) is not (as you might reasonably expect) prayers, but a table telling you how to determine the high holy days (Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Advent, and so on). While most contemporary books of prayers are composed according to specific needs (prayers for children, illness, or suffering), the Book of Common Prayer is organized around the liturgical calendar, which emphasizes key events in redemptive history: the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles (Epiphany); the forty-day trial of Christ in the wilderness (Lent); the week leading up to the crucifixion and the day of the crucifixion itself, culminating in the resurrection (Passiontide and Easter Sunday).

The wisdom of that focus—and the need to orient ourselves as the people of God around our place in redemptive history instead of our location as busy twenty-first-century technophiles—is something we discussed with singer and songwriter Fernando Ortega, whose recently released album, The Crucifixion of Jesus, examines through Scripture, prayers, and song the magnitude and beauty of Christ’s death.

MR: Having been through Pentecostalism, evangelicalism, and now the Evangelical Free Church, how has your theology developed over the past twenty-five years, and how has that development influenced your music?

FO: Actually, my church experience includes several more excursions into different denominations, including the Presbyterian Church, RCA, Congregational, and most recently the Anglican Church. It’s almost embarrassing, really, that I’ve been such a church hopper. But all those experiences have shaped me, some in negative ways (I’m all for the way God uses negativity to mold us) and others in a more positive way.

Pentecostalism certainly showed me how to worship with my body—dancing, shouting, raising my hands, weeping, etc. I don’t worship God that way anymore, but I’m not totally closed to it. I spent a good deal of time years ago as a worship leader in a huge seeker-driven church, devoid of any liturgy, and ill-defined in terms of its mission to the world. After a couple of years at that church, I began to long for some kind of connection to the historical church—creeds, prayers, hymns, the sacraments, etc.—so I started searching on my own.

Once I found a church where a creed was recited weekly, scripted prayers were offered up, the lectionary was followed, and historic hymns were sung, I felt myself somehow joined together with generations of believers who’ve gone before. I felt as though there was a focus to my worship that I had longed for. It was very freeing, actually. The seeker church helped me hone my theology by forcing me to figure out what things I didn’t believe about God, if that makes sense. There was a real stripping away of theological falsehoods that were deeply embedded. As I began to ponder the truths of the five solas, my view of God’s immensity and transcendence expanded. The very narrowness of those principles allowed me to think of God much more expansively.

MR: What inspired this album particularly?

FO: There are several things that inspired me to write and record The Crucifixion of Jesus. It began with a collection of sacred art images I’ve amassed for my church here in Albuquerque, Hope Evangelical Free Church. The architecture of the sanctuary at Hope is such that the primary feature, visually, is a huge screen used to project song lyrics and Scripture passages. When not in use, the screen remains blank. I decided to start projecting some of the great classic sacred paintings as a way of bringing visual beauty to our services.

Over the course of the past five years, I found some real art treasures I’d never seen before. Staring at and editing these images week after week inspired me to make a record that featured those beautiful paintings. When I called my musician friend Bernard Chadwick (who is also a professor of art at Providence Christian College) to see if he might be interested in helping me, he was very enthusiastic. Another inspiration for the record goes all the way back to my college days in the late ’70s, where the college choir I was enrolled in studied and performed Bach’s St. John Passion with the Orchestra of Santa Fe. The experience was a turning point for me, musically and spiritually. Living in that narration for all those weeks and then performing it in front of an audience was an experience I’ve never forgotten.

MR: We particularly appreciate the interspersion of readings from the Psalms and Gospels. The album seems to follow the sort of pattern one sees in the liturgies of high holy days, such as the Lessons and Carols at Christmas Eve. What prompted the decision to arrange it that way?

FO: This record is the first installment of something larger that I aim to write based on the church calendar. Though it may not be recorded in order, the final project will comprise the following titles: The Advent of Jesus, the Birth of Jesus, Epiphany, Lent, the Crucifixion of Jesus, the Resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and (perhaps) Ordinary Time. One down and seven to go!

My favorite two services of the year at Hope Church are the Christmas Lessons and Carols, and the Tenebrae service we hold on Good Friday. I love the narrative aspect of both, so I hope to present the narrative arc of the church calendar in an eight-volume collection of albums. Bach’s St. John Passion also loosely served as a template. I love both of Bach’s passions, and what I find particularly inspiring is the fact that they focus so intently and for so long on the passion of Christ, the suffering he endured, and his agony on the cross. This particular subject is rarely emphasized in modern worship music. I would go so far as to say it’s even avoided in favor of so-called positive Christian music.

MR: Was the reading “Holy Living” your own composition, or was it inspired by Jeremy Taylor’s work?

FO: The “Holy Living” reading was adapted from Taylor’s piece by a pastor I work with named Gary Villa, who was the one who suggested the use of this passage. He was a big help in compiling and editing the narrative flow of Crucifixion.

MR: You have said that “every aspect of our lives should be measured out by the narrative of Christ’s life. Year after year, through the journey of this holy season, Christ’s ministry starts again and again.” Rod Dreher, the author of The Benedict Option, has encouraged the church to return to the practice of following the church calendar, orienting their year around the significant events of Christ’s earthly ministry. As a part-time worship director, is this something you look to implement in the church you serve?

FO: Definitely. It’s actually what I was hired to do by my pastor, Josh Swanson. We’ve come a long way at Hope Church toward implementing a consistent liturgy in our weekly worship. We seek to pattern our worship service after the narrative arc of the gospel: God in His Glory, Man in His Need, and Christ in His Mercy. In light of that, we respond with our service to the church and to the community, our giving, our singing, etc. As far as following the church calendar goes, we’ve been less successful. Evangelicals react quite strongly to anything in which they perceive even a hint of Catholicism—confession of sin, absolution, passing of the peace, weekly Eucharist—which can cause hives to break out on the faces of evangelicals. I think there’s even more resistance to the rhythms and tones of each season of the church calendar and the patience required to enter into such a commitment, so progress has been slow. But when it comes to accomplishing that goal, I often quote Nietzsche by way of Eugene Peterson: “A long obedience in the same direction…”

MR: Your work has often been praised for incorporating a wide range of musical influences—folk, spiritual, Celtic, and Latin American. It has been argued that the music of the American church has been shaped entirely by Western European tradition, which lends itself to a style of liturgy that can make non-Anglos feel somewhat isolated. What do you, as an American of Mexican heritage (and a Christian who has lived abroad in Latin America and the Caribbean), think of that? Do you feel the church is too monolithic in its liturgical style?

FO: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, though I don’t know if I’ve reached a decent conclusion. First, I’m a highly acculturated Mexican American, so I don’t necessarily have the most insightful point of view. I wouldn’t be able to truly empathize with a first-generation Mexican American who’s walking into a Presbyterian Church in Peoria for the first time. Second, it should be pointed out that within Western European tradition, there is a huge variety of musical styles and a great deal of diversity to draw from. I believe the indictment that the American church is too stylistically exclusive is misleading, because it starts with a broad generalization, although I understand the concern.

When I first came to the Anglican Church, I was blown away by the beauty of the service—the rich symbolism in each aspect of the Mass, the deep theology of the hymns, the high view of the sacraments. But then I was curious as to why 99 percent of the congregation was composed of somewhat well-to-do white people, even though that particular church was located in a multiethnic neighborhood near the local college. Granted, Anglicanism may be the wrong example to use, seeing as how the hymnody is overwhelmingly British and not necessarily typical of other mainline and evangelical denominations, but the example is broadly repeated in all kinds of settings. At the same time, I’ve attended other mainline denominational churches where the hymnal is full of multiethnic songs from Africa, Mexico, China, etc. I’ve never seen that music pulled off in a very credible manner—where the congregation starts off singing in English, then winds up in Swahili or Korean on the refrains. It always comes across as contrived and self-conscious to me, and it’s painful to watch the people struggle through it. God bless the church for her centuries-old desire/struggle to maintain her relevance in the world, to be all things to all people. It has sometimes been a jewel in her crown and other times a wart on her complexion!

To answer the question: A church congregation needs to be true to itself and to the people in the community it’s called to serve. The challenge to worship leaders and music directors, as I see it, is to incorporate songs that are artful, poetic, and ennobling with theologically sound lyrics. These criteria will more easily speak across cultural boundaries than a not-so-great Latin rhythm section or a choir full of white Texans trying to lead the congregation in a Cantonese folk hymn. I’ve heard Os Guinness say that our worship music should span the centuries. I like the idea that within the worship service, we should sing texts that were written in the apostolic era, along with modern-day worship songs (and everything in between). The only criterion is that it be good writing and sound theology. I think that’s the more important point of emphasis.

Thursday, March 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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