Codification, Development, and Freedom: Completing Part 2, Dialogue with a Living Tradition: ch 5, 6, &7 of #FOGAP

fogap_coverIn these three chapters, Johnson meticulously engages with Christian tradition to trace the early origins, later development, and contemporary teaching on the saints, particularly but not exclusively with Catholic tradition. She sees evidence of both the companionship and patronage models, with the patronage model dominating from the early Middle Ages through the Council of Trent and the post-Tridentine Catholic church, while the companionship model was briefly recovered by the Protestant Reformers, and re-emerges during Vatican 2 as part of a re-orientation of the theology of the church in Lumen Gentium, which suggests a sacramental understanding of the communion of saints. Finally, she demonstrates that Catholics are not now and never have been required by the Church to practice private veneration of the saints according to traditional patronage forms, although it is now and long has been commended to the faithful as a good and useful practice of great spiritual benefit. The absence of any such requirement provides the freedom to re-imagine how the communion of saints can be fruitfully understood and practiced by Christians today.

Chapter 5 (“Institutional Settling”) briskly reviews the treatment of saints in the Apostle’s Creed, the liturgical calendar, and the institutional process of canonization. I was most surprised that the communion of saints had been added to the Apostle’s Creed relatively late, circa 400 CE, after the Nicene Creed has been finalized by the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (351, parts 1&2) and Constantinople (389, part 3): I had naively assumed that the Apostles Creed in its entirety had preceded the Nicene!

I was fascinated to learn that the Feast of All Saints (my very favorite feastday outside the major feasts of Easter Triduum & Christmas) had originally been placed on Easter Friday, for its closeness to Christ’s suffering and resurrection; or on the Sunday after Pentecost, as evidence of the fruits of the Spirit. Both placements are more clearly connected to the central mysteries of the faith than the Nov 1 placement in the West. The final section, on centralization of the canonization process and the resulting elitification of officially approved saints, mostly served to reinforce points she had made in the previous chapter.

In Chapter 6 (“Movements for Reform”), I was most interested in the writings of the Protestant Reformers that discuss the proper ways in which the saints may be honored, while repudiating invocation under the patronage model: thanking God for their lives, allowing their stories to strengthen our faith in God’s mercy, and imitating them (109). I particularly liked Wainwright’s suggestion that hymns in the Methodist tradition constitute “a kind of musical iconography” (112): this is quite consistent with my experience of hymnody in church. (Especially in the relatively young and bare Catholic churches in which I’ve worshiped most of my life!)

As a Catholic ecclesiologist, though, I was most engaged by her careful mining of Lumen Gentium for a vision of the church that incorporated the communion of sants, and vice versa. LG7, which is devoted to the communion of saints, teaches that our response to the saints is to love them, thank God for them, imitate them, and (“quoting Trent”) ask for their intercession: not so different from the understanding of the Protestant Reformers. Writing out of the deeply sacramental worldview that distinguishes Catholics from Protestants, LG goes further, describing the saints as “especially successful images of Christ,” or as Johnson puts it, “living parables” (119). LG entirely avoids “the term or idea of patronage, except in references to Trent” (120).

The church remembers [the saints’] bright patterns of holiness. They are a sign of our joy. (118)

In Chapter 7 (“Serenely Free”), Johnson goes to some effort to show that, even though private devotion to the saints (generally according to the patronage model) and particularly to Mary has been a Catholic badge of identity, there is actually no requirement that Catholics engage in these practices. This (mostly) didn’t surprise me, because I had always been taught that the majority of the Church’s great treasury of spiritual practices was allowed but not required: it was laid before us that we might have many choices, so everyone might find some things that appealed to them. (The one exception is the rosary: so much emphasis has been placed on praying the rosary in my lifetime that I was surprised by that one.)

The distinction between private & public devotion was interesting but not surprising to me, and the relatively minor elements of public devotion (which is required by Catholics who participate in the liturgies of the church) in the Eucharistic Prayers and the Litany of the Saints was interesting by comparison.


There was a video not too long ago that was pretty popular in Catholic circles; it purported to be a “Catholic Throwdown” between Stephen Colbert and Patricia Heaton, a guest actress. (Fastforward to about 1:50 to get to the Catholic stuff.) I love this video, because it’s all about Catholic identity: two Catholics bonding in public over a variety of Catholic badges of identity and tradition. A lot of it is about the saints, and mostly in the patronage or even folk superstition model that both Trent and Vatican 2 attempted to rein in. But the content is almost beside the point: Stephen and Patricia are having a fabulous time just being Catholic together. In light of what we read in these chapters, it’s not surprising that they were being Catholic together by means of the communion of saints — communion is just another word for togetherness, after all!




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“Releasing Religious Energy” – #FOGAP

In the twitterchat on chapter 3, we had a bit of discussion of what exactly Johnson meant by saying that the remembrance of the saints can “release religious energy,” so I figured I’d pull out the paragraph or so in which she unpacks that phrase:

The local community, meanwhile, honors [the saints] by keeping festival in their memory; it is remembrance that affects the nature of the communion. Once we listen to their story, our response wells up in various ways. We sing in gratitude to God for them, or praise God for the beauty of their lives, or rejoice in their victory, or draw hope from their witness in our despair, or commend ourselves to their prayers, or simply love them. Most important of all, we are inspired to follow in the footsteps of their example.

I could go with “releasing religious energy” for that, sure.

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Dialogue with a Living Tradition: Patterns in the Age of Martyrs – Part 2, Ch 4 of #FOGAP

fogap_coverIn this straightforward chapter, Johnson first reviews how the cult of the saints emerged from the remembrance of the martyrs in living memory, and then contrasts two paradigms of the communion of saints: the companionship of friends evident in the early church, and the patronage model that emerged as the Christian church was assimilated to the Roman culture that was dominated by patron-client relationships.

She begins by presenting evidence that asceticism functioned as preparation for martyrdom in the early church, and that martyrs were seen as “icons of Christ” and their courage and bold speeches as evidence of anointing by the Holy Spirit. (73) She quotes excerpts from several primary sources on martyrdom (one of which I have previously blogged about, Perpetua & Felicity). Christian martyrs were remembered on the anniversaries of their deaths, which were celebrated at their tombs as their birthday into heaven. Spontaneously and informally, people began to leave written prayers at those tombs: “Vincent, you are in Christ; pray for Phoebe.” Fascinatingly, Mary the mother of Jesus received no public veneration during this period, “since she was not a martyr.” (78)

After the age of persecution, those venerated as saints came to include confessors (those who were not killed, but were tortured for the faith), ascetics, and others who were considered by their community to exemplify Christian values in daily life.

These early Christians were in no way confused about whether they were worshiping the martyrs rather than Christ. She quotes from a primary source rebutting just this accusation from the church of Smyrna, whose bishop Polycarp had been martyred:

For [Christ] we worship as the Son of God. But the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, and rightly so because of their matchless affection for their own king and teacher. May we too become their comrades and fellow disciples. (80)

This evidences the “companions and friends” model that was operative in the early church. But by the late fifth century, the dominant model had become one of patronage, for sociological, spiritual and theological reasons. Sociologically, Christianity was now the official religion of the Empire, which meant that Christian clergy were increasingly assimilated to the Roman patronage system. Spiritually, the emphasis on asceticism as a superior form of Christian life was eroding the radical equality of all the baptized: some were closer to God than others. Theologically — and I think this is the most interesting point — the fight against Aryanism (which denied the full divinity of Christ) had been fought with such intensity and for so long that Jesus’ full humanity had receded from consciousness. My favorite example of this is the Nicene Creed: it wasn’t until I was in graduate school studying Christology that I noticed the Creed affirms that he is consubstantial with the Father… but does not affirm that he is also consubstantial with humans, which is equally an article of faith.

All this led to a spiritual cosmology that resembled earthly aristocracy, shaped by a patronage system: God was king, surrounded by the highest-status patrons as his courtiers; and his mother, who outranked them all (and was the only woman in this elite circle). No one among the ordinary citizenry went straight to persons who had direct access to the local lord; chains of intermediary patrons were the norm. This also led to an emphasis on saints as those who could provide miraculous help, rather than those whose stories inspired and encouraged us; typically your patron was the person you turned to when you needed practical or financial help, and in return you gave them your loyalty and honored them. I was very interested to read that the turn to miracles as evidence of sainthood for non-martyrs emerged at the same time, on the grounds that there’s no use in having a patron who can’t do things for you! This suggests that a turn to the companions&friends model might allow us to move away from the criterion of miracles, which is intensely problematic for many people today & has already been waived or softened in recent years.

It’s very easy to see how the cult of the saints became shaped this way in such a social and spiritual environment. Yet, it is increasingly alien to the contemporary worldview, at least in the West; and it is certainly a source of scandal to our Protestant sisters and brothers. As Johnson notes, if we can see how something emerged in response to concrete historical circumstances, we can also imagine that it might change in response to different historical circumstances. The “companions and friends” model is both less problematic for believers today, and more deeply rooted in the history of the church.


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Dialogue with a Living Tradition: A Holy Nation, a People Belonging to God – Part 2, Ch 3 of #FOGAP

Turning to scripture, Johnson begins by exploring the biblical understanding of God’s holiness in the Shared Scriptures, which presents God’s nature both as profoundly transcendent mystery and as “a profoundly relational term that refers to God’s involvement with the world in creative and redeeming care.” (51) Holiness is linked with justice, truth, and glory, and glory is connected with hope for those who are oppressed: “divine beauty flashing out in the world and in particular bent over brokenness and anguish, moving to heal, redeem, and liberate.” (54) In the Christian scriptures, these themes are taken up and applied also to Christ and to the Holy Spirit.

A holy people, then, is a people who participate in that holiness, and thus relate to the world as God does. This is contrasted with an understanding of holiness that emphasizes purity, separation, and hierarchy. This patriarchal strand in the Shared Scriptures cannot be denied, but the previously developed understanding of holiness linked with justice and relationship de-emphasizes it in favor of a more inclusive understanding of holiness in th community.

The Greek term koinonia, communion or community or participation, is the word with which the early Christian communities expressed their self-understanding as a holy people in Christ by the power of the Spirit. “All members are considered participants in the holy life of God . . . because of the gift of the Spirit who is given to them all.” (59-60) The koinonia of Christians called themselves “the saints”, a word which means “holy people,” and has an additional eschatological connotation from its use in Jewish apocolyptic literature. The community is centered on God, and has a responsibility to share God’s care for the world.

The association of the term “saints” particularly with exemplary individuals who have died is in continuity with the remembrance and honoring of such persons in postexilic Judaism, especially martyrs who suffered for the faith. The Christian understanding of Christ’s resurrection, and of the koinonia as participation in the life of God, leads to an understanding of a persistent bond among all Christians, whether living or dead. Paul’s well-known passage beginning “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” not only encourages persecuted Christians with God’s unfailing presence, but joyfully proclaims the communion of all the saints, living and dead.

The beautiful image of the great cloud of witnesses from the letter to the Hebrews recalls the community’s history of holiness and faithfulness under persecution as inspiration and encouragement. The saints who have died and now live in Christ are seen not as persons to be venerated or imitated, but as forebears and cheerleaders! “If they could do it, we can do it,” I imagine the living encouraging themselves and each other; while the saints cheer on the living: “If we could do it, you can do it!”

Baptism, which incorporates people into the communion of saints, incorporates them as equal in dignity and status. A patriarchal interpretation transforms this radical equality into hierarchy by spiritualizing it, which allows the church to co-operate with injustice without quite noticing that it has done so. Footnote 41 relates a stunning modern example of this, comparing two versions of Joseph Fitzmeyer’s commentary on Gal 3:28. The 1968 edition of the Jerome Biblical Commentary states that “secondary differences vanish through the effects of this incorporation of Christians into Christ’s body through ‘one Spirit…’ This verse is really the climax of Paul’s letter.” Twenty years later, the 1988 edition omits that last sentence, replacing it with the assertion that “Such unity in Christ does not imply political equality in church or society.”

Retrieving the inclusive, egalitarian understanding of the communion of saints positions it as a prophetic symbol. “Equality of the saints before God has social implications.” (63) If we look at the communion of saints in this way, and then look at the church and Christian communities today, we cannot but be moved to tears, and to anger, and to work.


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Framing the Question: Christian Feminism – Part 1, Ch 2 of #FOGAP

women-in-circleIn this second chapter, Johnson argues that the methods and results of feminist research can reinterpret the symbol of the communion of saints to life-giving effect, and begins to explore “Friends of God and Prophets” (Wis 7:27) as a beautiful, inspiring, and relevant guiding metaphor.

After a brief but devastating critique of the erasure and distortion of women’s holiness under the current system of sainthood, she summarizes the results of a number of scholars who have retrieved stories of women’s holiness throughout church history, not incidentally correcting a number of common misperceptions along the way, and emphasizes that the goal of feminist research is “a critical revision of the overarching story” rather than merely adding women to the existing narrative. She observes that feminist theologies must be not only fundamental and ethical, but also pluralist: an important point given the history of first and second wave feminism. Finally, she rejoices over her guiding metaphor as grounded in scripture (not only the book of Wisdom, which is apocryphal for Protestants, but also the gospels) and thoroughly feminist in its mutuality and its devotion to justice.

Christian Feminism

Given the lamentably still-controversial nature of feminism in the ecclesial discourse of the Catholic church, I will present her discussion of this topic in a bit more detail here.

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Erased, Silenced, and Distorted: A Catholic Woman’s Lament

Women’s history of holiness has been largely erased from the collective memory of the church. Furthermore, even when they are remembered, exemplary women’s lives are interpreted as models of virtue that support the male-dominated status quo and cast women into submission.

Women’s stories are excluded from our lectionary.

Our names are optional in the one rarely-used Eucharistic Prayer in which they occur, and are therefore omitted far more often than not.

Our voices are not heard at Mass; we may not preach. We may read the words of scripture, the general intercessions, and the announcements, but these are words written by others and given to us. We are not to change them.

Mary of Nazareth is portrayed as silent, obedient, meek and mild.

Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the apostles, is remembered as a repentant prostitute.

Mary of Bethany, who confessed Jesus’ messianic identity in John’s gospel just as Peter did in the synoptics, is remembered as an overworked cook who complains that her sister won’t help her.

Therese of Lisieux, who wrote with passion I feel inside me the vocation of a PRIEST, is venerated as the diminutive Little Flower.

A deacon told a story about Teresa of Calcutta that, he said, best summed up her holiness.

The Pope heard that she was very sick, in danger of dying, and so he telephoned her. She came to the phone: “Yes, Holy Father?” The Pope said, “Teresa, you are not to die. The church needs you too much.” She responded, “Yes, Holy Father.” She hung up the phone, and promptly recovered.

One Sunday, the lector for the 2nd reading turned to the wrong page in the lectionary, and accidentally proclaimed the gospel instead. The priest didn’t stop her, and didn’t re-read it afterwards. He simply remarked on it with amusement, and added firmly but matter-of-factly, “The gospel is to be read by the priest. As Catholics, of course we all know that women can’t be priests.”

That didn’t make me cry. It made me feel sick, like a kick in the gut.

I cry when I hear the women’s names proclaimed at the altar in the Eucharistic Prayer.

Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia

I cry when I see a baby girl baptized, and anointed “priest, prophet, and king.”

I cry when I sing hymn texts that include us, as our liturgical texts so rarely do: women and men, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers.

I cry in the few precious moments when it stops hurting.


Women’s history of holiness has been neither remembered nor truthfully told; nor does relationship with the saints in heaven generally redound to the empowerment of the saints on earth in their struggle for human and religious dignity. In fact, the patriarchal structure of powerful heavenly patrons and needy petitioners, coupled with the erasure of the memory of women’s discipleship and approval of the male-defined virtue of even those women who have made it onto official lists, conspire to block women’s realization of their own sacredness, bringing about a corresponding decline in religious energy.

Amid incalculable personal, political, and spiritual suffering resulting from women’s subordination in theory and practice, Christian feminism labors to bring the community, its symbols and practices, into a closer coherence with the reign of God’s justice.

— Beginning and ending quotes by Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, Friends of God and Prophets, pages 27, 29, 35.

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Framing the Question: The Sleeping Symbol – Part 1, Ch 1 of #FOGAP

In this initial chapter, Johnson surveys communities and academic disciplines in which study or practices around the communion of saints are, and are not, flourishing today (ie, in 1998). She closes by asking the questions that this book will attempt to answer: whether and how the symbol of the communion of saints can be reconstrued and reawakened in Western industrialized cultures so that it can nurture authentic community.

After an initial presentation of the communion of saints in both living and received tradition, Johnson spends most of this first chapter presenting evidence that it is largely an ineffectual symbol in the Western industrialized culture from which she writes, while it continues to flourish in Latin America and Africa, largely among communities for whom daily life is difficult, and in Orthodox Christianity, where it is upheld by the understanding of deification as central to the pursuit of holiness. In the Catholic West, what little Vatican 2 teaching exists on the subject (Ch VII) has not been fruitful in the life of the church, while the 16th-19th century teachings about life after death and saints as intercessors no longer match the spiritual needs of many contemporary believers.

Drawing on a study on individualism and community in American life, she describes communal practices of memory, hope, and commitment that are central to authentic community, and notes their similarities with the traditional Christian understanding and practices around the lives of the saints. This suggests some ecclesiological importance to her topic: how can the church be a vital community if we have lost the ability to meaningfully engage with the stories of the saints?


I want to engage with a couple of points that she raised in this chapter: first, on the post-Vatican 2 decline of devotion to the saints.

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A Tale of Two Denials

Today we heard the story of Thomas’ refusal to believe the testimony of the other apostles that they’d seen Jesus. Concluding, no doubt, that they were out of their minds with grief, he denied that they could have seen the Lord, and avowed that he wouldn’t believe it until he could see and touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side.

The following week, Jesus appears in their midst again, this time when Thomas is present. Jesus does not reproach him, but matter-of-factly offers Thomas what he had asked for: come, put your fingers in the nail holes in my hands.

During Holy Week, we heard the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, during his Passion, as Jesus had foretold. Again Jesus did not reproach Peter, but only looked at him, with compassion I’ve always thought. Peter’s realization of what he had done caused him to leave, weeping bitterly.

But what exactly was the problem with Peter’s denial? I was thinking about this yesterday. Is it simply that he denied knowing Jesus? But later, we hear Joseph of Arimathea being spoken of approvingly as a follower of Jesus “although a secret one, for fear of the Jews.”

On the face of it, Peter was doing something very pragmatic: he was trying to stay close enough to Jesus to find out what was going on, without being arrested himself, presumably so he could share what he’d found out with the rest of the disciples. Surely this is understandable? but perhaps it is intended as a cautionary tale against the ends justifying the means, a perennial human temptation.

I think the real problem was not Peter’s denial, but his earlier, recklessly absolute, avowal that he would never deny Jesus, under any circumstances, even under threat of persecution or death, and even after Jesus tried to warn him. Peter’s impulsive heart led him into arrogance: even if others betray you, I never will.

Thomas denied the truth of something he had not seen, requiring evidence before he would believe it. Peter denied that he had anything to do with Jesus, after having sworn that nothing could cause him to do so.

Which is why it seems more than a little unfair that it’s Thomas who is stuck being forever known as “the Doubter”, while Peter is so well thought of that people bring out their sick friends and family in the hopes that even Peter’s shadow might fall on them!

But perhaps it is not only Peter’s faith, but his repeated failures and repentances, that make him the rock on which Jesus built his church. As Jesus said, he came to call sinners. Only a sinner can be forgiven; only a repeated sinner can experience the fullness of Divine Mercy by being forgiven over and over again.

Thomas demanded evidence, and was given it. Peter swore he wouldn’t need forgiveness, and was given it after he realized he needed it after all. In response to both denials, Jesus gave them what they needed.

St Thomas, pray for us
St Peter, pray for us
Lord, have mercy upon us

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(Reading Buddies and Conversation Partners and) Friends of God and Prophets

I’ve been wanting to read Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints by Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson for years. It’s not a new book (published in 1998), but I’m especially drawn to it because of the juxtaposition in the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints

Although that last stanza of the Apostle’s Creed looks like it might just be a list of “all those other things we need to get in there”, the title and scope of this book suggests that these three may be reasonably woven together. After writing my master’s thesis in ecclesiology, I had promised this book to myself as a graduation present, but haven’t had the time or energy to read it before now.

I decided it would make a great Easter season read, because during the season of Easter, our first reading, “from the Prophets”, is not from the Shared Scriptures as usual, but from the Acts of the Apostles, which is a book about the earliest days of the church. What could be a better time to read a book like this?

So I’m looking for reading buddies and conversation partners! If you are interested in any or all of feminist theology, Catholic theology, the church, the saints, and how we can retrieve and revitalize traditional symbols for contemporary church communities, maybe you would like to join me!

I’m planning to start *next* week (since I figure many of us need Bright Week to recover from Triduum, not to mention get a copy of the book), and will be happy to discuss the book here on my blog, or on Goodreads, or on Twitter — if I get interest there, I’ll see if we can pick a weekly time that works for folks & come up with a reasonable hashtag.

There are 7 weeks in Easter but we’re not starting until the 2nd week, so here is my 6 week reading plan from the Table of Contents. It works out to roughly 50 pages a week. Continue reading

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Peter’s Outrage

320px-Christ_washes_apostles'_feet_(Monreale)Peter was horrified by what he saw Jesus doing. When Jesus approached him, he had to ask, even though by this time Jesus’ intentions must have been obvious. Lord, are you going to wash my feet??!? It completely outraged his sense of what was proper, what was appropriate to the relationship between the person Peter was and the person Jesus was. He flatly refused. No. Never. You will never wash my feet. This time, Jesus had gone too far. Peter was well and truly scandalized.

Jesus didn’t rise to the bait, as so many of us would. He didn’t try to prove that Peter was wrong. He didn’t assert his own authority, his right to determine what was proper and what was not. He didn’t get hooked in to Peter’s scandal, nor did he simply ignore Peter’s refusal and proceed anyway.

Instead, he peacefully placed Peter’s outrage in conversation with Peter’s desire. Did you want to be with me, to share in my work and in my inheritance? Because if you refuse this, you refuse that.

Faced with that question, Peter realized that his desire to follow Jesus was stronger, more important, than his outrage. He retracts his refusal… but he doesn’t stop there. He asks, then, to be washed 3 times over, feet and hands and head as well.

I’ve always loved Peter’s over-enthusiasms, especially when he gets it wrong and then immediately moves over-enthusiastically to get it right without bothering with any shame or humiliation along the way.

But this time, it occurred to me, Peter’s overly enthusiastic demand for extra washing is another form of refusal. He does what so many of us so easily do: he tries to earn what he wants, instead of peacefully receiving what Jesus wants to give him.

Accepting a gift requires humility — a difficult word because it is so easily misunderstood, but it is the word that came to me tonight. The humility to accept what the other person wants to give you; to accept that they do, in fact, want to give it to you; to refrain from putting up your own desire over against theirs, and simply receive both their gift and their desire for you, letting it be what it is, neither more nor less.

Peter doesn’t seem to be too good at that. But Jesus talked him down, notably by addressing his insecurities. You are already clean. You don’t need all that extra washing. Relax. Relax into our relationship.

Then, after all that, after he’d washed the feet of all the disciples, he finally gets around to addressing the cause of Peter’s outrage, and explaining that he had quite deliberately invoked it in order to subvert it. His shocking act was intended to recolonize their imaginations about the relationship between authority and humility.

Jesus, our teacher and our Lord,
stooped to wash the feet of his disciples,
and he told them, “This is an example.
Just as I have done, so you must do.”

— Marty Haugen, “So You Must Do”

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