Gaiety Lost, My Mother, and Ave Maria – The Difference Between Now and Then, by Pr. Rossow

My mother is in town for Christmas and I got to hear her retell a story about standing up for Confessional doctrine. It is all about her operatic voice and the singing of Ave Maria.

Ave Maria is not a Christmas song per se but it gets a lot of air time during the season. It is basically a prayer asking the mother Mary to care for her followers.

My mother gave up any hope of using her voice professionally in order to have children and care for them, a choice for which I am greatly appreciative. She gave up singing professionally but did not lose the voice but I must confess that I was often embarrassed sitting in the church pew with people looking at us as she sang the only way her voice would come out – with a big, operatic, soprano sound. To me it sounded shrill, but that is the way it is with a little boy growing up in rural Iowa who would die over each Iowa Hawkeye football loss yet had no idea who Caruso was let alone Lilly Pons. It was only within the last few years that I have come to appreciate an operatic voice. (We have two of them at our church that make me melt each time I hear them.)

Here is the story. When she was a young single Lutheran teacher in Fort Dodge, Iowa she sang a bit in the local music scene. One year she was asked to sing a solo with the Men’s Glee Club. She even toured with them in their bus to tiny little towns in central Iowa. The director’s claim to fame was that he was Fred Waring’s pianist for a stint.

Her principal from St. Paul’s Lutheran School was not really fond of the fact that she was touring with the boys and singing light opera no less. One year the director was so pleased with her solo that he planned on having her sing two solos at the coming year’s Christmas concert. One of those songs was Ave Maria. Being a dutiful Lutheran school teacher she figured it was best to check with her pastor before singing such a “catholic” song. The pastor, who was the pastor who would eventually baptize me, simply asked her if she believed those lyrics. She said “no.” He then quietly said “I guess you have your answer then.” It was a clever way of getting her to the right answer without forcing it on her. So she told the director she could not sing the song. She was never asked to sing a solo again for the Glee Club. That was gaiety lost I guess. But it was a gain for confessional and evangelical gumption.

I asked her if the pastor was conservative. She told me they didn’t even have to worry about such things back then (the early 1950’s).

My mother finished the story by saying “It’s probably different now.” She looked at her pastor son and said “Most pastors now would probably say it’s OK for artistic reasons.” I think that was a test. In many cases I fear she is right and that speaks volumes about Lutheranism today. The old days had their faults, but my mother’s pastor represents a time that was certainly better in many ways, having a good, evangelical Lutheran conscience was one of them.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Gaiety Lost, My Mother, and Ave Maria – The Difference Between Now and Then, by Pr. Rossow — 19 Comments

  1. Pr. Rossow, your story resonates with me. In the late ’80s while I was attending Northwestern College in Watertown, WI on my way to becoming a WELS pastor, I sang in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Chorus. My WELS pastor dad asked me after the Christmas-time concert at the Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee how I could in good conscience contribute to a choral setting of Ave Maria. What was I to do? Not sing along with that piece, but sing along with the others? Drop out of the chorus for confessional reasons? While I appreciated my father’s advice, I sang along for “artistic” reasons. To all involved, it was a secular concert, not the Divine Service. And instead of pursuing a singing career in opera, I continued on my path to becoming a confessional Lutheran pastor where I could combine my love of singing with my love of proclaiming the gospel in the Divine Service. Unfortunately, in the WELS I ran into quite a bit of flak for chanting the psalms.

  2. The same goes for “The Old Rugged Cross”. I’ve heard it too many times in Lutheran churches.

    Next time (hopefully there will not be one) but I will say something.

  3. My mother was Roman Catholic for many years but converted to Lutheranism (LCMS) in her early 40s. She was a wonderful Christian mother and devout Lutheran. When she passed away, her Lutheran pastor graciously traveled from the south to Michigan to bury her. The funeral service was held at the funeral home. They provided recorded music of various Christian songs and hymns. My sister and I were asked by her Lutheran pastor if my mother had any music favorites. As we scanned the list of songs provided by the funeral home, we both noted Ave Maria and proclaimed that our mother loved this song. The pastor was clearly uncomfortable with our choice and asked if we understood the lyrics. We honestly said no. But we knew it was a song about the Virgin Mary. He tried to briefly describe the song but time was short and emotions were running high. I told pastor that I really doubted if my mother understood all the detailed content of Ave Maria. I knew she loved the music and she was aware it was a song about the Virgin Mary. Her pastor allowed the song to be played. (There were Lutheran hymns as well.) Maybe he allowed Ave Maria for artistic reasons. Maybe he was showing mercy to a grieving family. I don’t know. I didn’t ask. But I felt he made the right decision given the circumstances.

  4. There is a way to use the music of Ave Maria with more theologically accurate words. The choir of my congregation sang “Come Blessed Promised One” during Advent this year – a beautiful piece which when combined with the different words placed in front of each listener can help “redeem” the tune.

  5. I found some lyrics which instead of Ave Maria, are Ave Redemptor. the lyrics go like this. Ave redemptor, Domine Jesus:
    Cuius ob opus
    Superatur mors, enim salvatio
    Nunc inundavit super universam terram.

    Sancte redemptor, reputata
    Fides est nobis peccatoribus,
    Nunc et in morte, ad iustitiam. The english translation is this.
    Hail the Redeemer, Lord Jesus,
    By whose work
    Death is defeated, for salvation
    Has now overflowed upon all of the world.

    Holy redeemer, our faith
    Is reckoned to us sinners,
    Now and in death, as righteousness. @Pastor Joshua Scheer #4

  6. This is a good story. I’ve never heard it sung in any Lutheran setting. I used to think there would be a predictable difference in how a “conservative” pastor would view this versus a “liberal” but now I’m not so sure. The usual tune used with it is beautiful. The devil certainly stinks things up everywhere he goes. I love the tune but would never want anyone to get the wrong idea by its use. If the tune is used, an explanation of the main issue should probably be given.

  7. I’m not inclined to think Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria can be salvaged from its text and context for use in a Lutheran setting. Besides, the tune is intended more for performance than for congregational use in the Divine Service. Better to encourage talented, confessional, liturgically oriented Lutheran poets and musicians to come up with something better.

  8. I consider the first part of the Ave Maria to be perfectly appropriate (it is just the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary and announcement to her that she will give birth to the Christ; I suppose that’s the connection with Christmas). The problem comes in the second half, which is the prayer asking the Virgin Mary to intercede for us poor sinners. I’ve seen 2 different ways to “Lutheranize” the Ave Maria: at CURF they wrote a new version of the second part which did not ask Mary to intercede for us (I think it asked Jesus to, instead); at Sem (and at my vicarage church) they just left the second half of the song out.

  9. Personal witness of conviction can make a difference.

    My daughter is a professional horn player and, with others, agreed to play background music for the “gay men’s chorus”. I know some of you will disagree with that decision, but she felt that if their lifestyle was left at home, perhaps her presence could be a witness that the supposed “hatred” toward individual homosexuals by “all” Christians wasn’t exactly true.

    Anyway, she played for the group a few times, and knew the director quite well, since the musician circle is pretty close. To her surprise at the first rehearsal of a new concert, the men all came in dressed as pastors and bishops and ridiculing the Christian faith. I’m proud of the fact that my daughter approached her director friend and said that she would not be able to play anymore if this was the type of “concert” planned, because it greatly offended her as a Christian.

    The director actually apologized, told her that this was the first time a Christian had talked to him about a problem without yelling. The offending piece was removed from the performance. The director took a job in NY shortly thereafter and my daughter did not play for the group again. However—at least one homosexual in New York has a memory of a Christian that was willing to reason with him. With God’s urging, perhaps that memory will grow into a God-given change in this young man’s life.

  10. Just sing the first stanza. If you have problems with the beginning of Luke’s Gospel (which is where the text is from) then I suppose you have a problem…

  11. Peter, I have the same problem with singing the first stanza of Franz Schubert’s setting of Ave Maria as I do singing the first stanza (or any stanza) of Amazing Grace set to tune of the TV series Gilligan’s Island theme song. The problem is context, not text.

  12. @sue wilson #10 Sue- Good for your daughter. I am convinced that the constant labeling of Christians as “hateful toward gays” is due to the fact that so often they (we) do not put our position in a rational, caring light that is rooted in Scripture. Instead it is delivered in a hateful way, diluting the instruction to “love one another.” Thanks for sharing her story.

  13. Of course, a lot of that labeling of Christians as hateful comes from homosexuals hating that God’s Word condemns sodomy — and Christians believe Him.

  14. @Ted Crandall #14 I would suggest that, overwhelmingly, the labeling comes from the heterosexual community. I would also suggest that the delivery is ofter very hateful speech. Without thoughtful articulation, how could someone watching it on TV or reading it on the internet come to any other conclusion? Example: Westboro Baptist Church.

  15. Only those who are already biased against Christians as hateful would mistake Westboro Baptist Church for a typical Christian community. Much more typical are the many mainstream Christian denominations that embrace sodomy. There aren’t many of us left who still respect what God says. Overwhelmingly, “Christians” are encouraging active homosexuals to continue in their unrepentant sin.

    Not that it justifies any hateful “Christian” attacks, but the homosexual lobby is typically judgmental, even hateful, toward those who support God’s condemnation of sodomy, even when Christians do it winsomely. I have to wonder how the director would have treated Sue’s daughter if she had explained to him her (and God’s) opposition to sodomy…

  16. @ Ted,
    I agree with you. Many homosexuals hate Christians and assume the reverse is also true. Off-Broadway productions, books, speeches, demonstrations, are unbelievably hate-filled (btw: it would be interesting if they did the same when it comes to the “prophet Mohammud”). And, of course there is our culture encouraging the animosity by condemning us as “homophobic” because we beieve that homosexuality is a sin.

    I think what my daughter did was meet her friend where he was at, to use an overused phrase. I’m reminded of Jesus’ interaction with many who were doubtless suspicious of this new teacher–for instance the Samaritans and Roman officials and tax collectors. He met most of them with quiet reason and avoided the commonly held stereotypes concerning these groups, whether the stereotypes were true or not.

    Like you, I am very disappointed when congregations like Westboro are cited as Christian by the news media, with no disclaimer for the vast majority of congregations that work through love and not hate. There are a number of “pastors” in this land who need to be exposed as false (or at least non-Christly) teachers who are encouraging the growing persecution of our faith.

  17. @David Moseley #5
    The only problem with *this* version is that in the context of overwhelming Arminian/American Protestantism, “Our Faith is credited to us as righteousness” becomes “Our Faith is the one good work that makes God happy with us.” Still uncomfortable with it.

    As for the *music*–it has always struck me as a bit syrupy–at least how it’s almost always performed.

    Rev. Grinch Mueller

  18. @Rev. David Mueller #18
    A good reminder to refresh our memory about what faith is:

    “Faith is that my whole heart takes to itself this treasure. It is not my doing, not my presenting or giving, not my work or preparation, but that a heart comforts itself, and is perfectly confident with respect to this, namely, that God makes a present and gift to us, and not we to Him, that He sheds upon us every treasure of grace in Christ.” – The Defense of the Augsburg Confession, Of Justification, IV:48

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.