Contemporary Catholic composers ValLimar and Frank Jansen made the traditional spiritual “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” joyful.
Harry Belafonte, who popularized the song under the title “A Star in the East,” made his rendition introspective.
The two interpretations show the dual character of the Advent season, which scholars say is hallmarked by both quiet reflection and joyful anticipation.
Although most of Advent is focused on a quiet preparation for Christ’s return, the third Sunday of Advent, or Gaudete Sunday, is singled out as being joyful, said Father Frank Lioi, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Auburn. Gaudete, which is Latin for rejoice, was the first word of the introid — or opening antiphon — of the Mass on the third Sunday of Advent, Father Lioi said.
Rather than the penitential purple associated with the rest of the Advent season, this Sunday is most often associated with the rose color used in vestments and Advent candles, he said. However, Gaudete Sunday remains relatively subdued, he noted.
“We still want to stay in Advent motifs,” he said.
The motifs of joy and preparation also are found within the lyrics of “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” which is included in such Catholic hymnals as Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. The spiritual dates to the mid-1800s and is written in a call-and-response style, according to Jean Leicht, music director of Church of the Good Shepherd in Henrietta.
The song has had several versions, according to Cornell Catholic Community Director Father Daniel McMullin, who has a doctorate from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. The text has been modified slightly, but the refrain in “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” is the same refrain found in Luke’s Gospel, he said.
“This is a song about discipleship, and the call begins with the shepherd,” Father McMullin noted.
The fact that lowly shepherds were called is significant, he said.
“After the angels came, the first people introduced to the Messiah are the poorest of the community,” Father McMullin said, noting that the last to be made aware of Jesus’ birth were the intellectual Magi.
He also pointed out that leaving a flock of sheep, as the song calls us to do, was no small thing, as untended sheep often get into trouble.
“When (Jesus) called us sheep of the flock, it was not a great compliment,” Father McMullin remarked.
Gaynelle Wethers, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception Parish in Rochester and director of multicultural affairs at Nazareth College in Pittsford, pointed out the spiritual’s celestial lyrics. Whereas today people are surrounded by maps and global-positioning systems, stars were the primary navigational tools in Biblical times, she noted.
“Certainly, a star is a guide, or something that you look up to,” Wethers said.
She observed that the song indicates that sometimes a shepherd or leader also needs to be in prayer, meditation and a position of discernment.
“This is the time of year when we are more introspective,” Wethers said. “Who are we in our personal relationship with God, and how do I hear him?”
She said she believes the people around us deliver God’s message to us, in the same way that the angel delivered the message to the shepherds that they should follow the star.
“When you really tend to your personal relationship with God, you’ll forget these unimportant things you do,” Wethers said.
The song’s call spoke strongly to composer ValLimar Jansen.
“Our world would be completely transformed if all of us would rise up each day and follow the voice of light, love, and life that calls out to our hearts,” Jansen wrote in an artists’ reflection about the song at the music Web site www.spiritandsong.com.
The motivational nature of “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” is in keeping with the motivational qualities of many spirituals, according to music scholars.
“Black sacred song carries melodies and tonalities, rhythms and harmonies; metaphors, symbols and stories of faith that speak to our hearts; words, phrases and images that touch and move us,” observed the late Sister Thea Bowman, a member of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, who wrote the introduction to Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal.
Sister Bowman noted that African-American slaves developed spirituals from 1750 to 1875. Some were adapted from traditional European psalms and hymns that slaves sang during worship services with white slave owners, while others were original creations by legions of talented slave musicians, she wrote.
Spirituals and gospels began to be introduced into hymnals following the Second Vatican Council, said Father Cyprian Davis, author of The History of Black Catholics in the United States, who gave a recent talk at Nazareth College.
“There was much more openness to using gospel music in churches and going back to rediscovering the African drums,” he said following the talk.
Gospels and spirituals have a universal quality in that they are easy to sing and teach, Father Davis said, which has led to diversity in worship.
“(Music) is certainly one of the things that has actually made a difference in worship,” he said.