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The life of Job in the structure of the Mass

Mass for Job composer Jeff Whitmill rehearses with the choirs of St. Philip the Deacon and St. Barnabas, both of Plymouth. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

The Mass for Job is not a typical “church” composition. “It is not intended to be sung at a worship service,” explained the Rev. Wayne Peterson, pastor at St. Barnabas Lutheran Church, Plymouth, Minnesota. “It might be better described as a theater piece, along the lines of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass.”

Jeff Whitmill, composer of the Mass and director of the St. Barnabas senior choir, takes the biblical story of Job and intertwines it with the traditional parts of the Roman Catholic Mass (the “Kyrie,” “Gloria,” “Credo,” “Sanctus,” “Agnus Dei” — plus one extra section, the “Libera Nos” or “Deliver us, Lord, from every evil, and give us peace in our day.”) Like the book of Job, the composition wrestles with the questions, “Why does evil exist?,” “Does God exist?,” and “If God does exist, does God care about humankind?”

“I wrote the original score for Mass for Job over 11 years, while working in three different congregations,” Whitmill explained. “I started at a country church in Indiana with a choir of five little old church ladies, all retired and all sopranos.” That piece was finished and performed in 2009. “But, in January 2011, I dreamed of re-writing the piece to be performed by a full choir and chamber orchestra.

“Job’s issue is isolation,” explained Whitmill. “He feels alone, out of relationship with God. He is dealing with the issue of causation: ‘If I am good, why are bad things happening to me?’”

The libretto restates the biblical story of Job thusly:

Job’s life is going well, his faith in God is strong. When problems and disaster strike, he begins to doubt. His doubt turns to anger and he demands God to give an account for the pain and evil in the world. God responds out of the whirlwind, telling Job he has no standing to judge God. Job repents and acknowledges his inability to understand the mystery of God. He concludes with a quote from the biblical Job: “I have spoken of things I did not understand, things too wonderful, too wonderful for me to know. I knew of you then only by report, but now my eyes see you, and I repent in dust and ashes.”
Job 42:3-6

Peterson said, “One of my favorite parts of the Mass is in the “Credo,” where the choir has just stated the first half of the Nicene Creed.” In Whitmill’s score, Job responds:

I believe in one God, the Almighty Father, more often than not.
Sure, I know we should always believe, but why bother?
Can you say for what?
Yes, he made the mountains and rivers, the oceans and the shore.
And they say he always delivers, and who could ask for more?
But if he made the mountains, the rivers and the sea,
Where’s the sense in the conclusion that he has time for me?
Still, I pray in the hope that tomorrow will find me a little relief.
And I hope, in that spirit you really won’t mind me, or my unbelief.

Although the Biblical story is set in ancient Israel, Mass of Job has a more modern setting. The “tropes” (responses) sung by Job (tenor Dieter Bierbrauer) contain allusions to 9/11, the 2005 tsunami, and the debate over the use of torture.

The choirs of St. Barnabas and St. Philip the Deacon will be joined by several individuals from local theater groups in the presentation. The April 29 performance of Mass for Job will be held at 3:00 p.m. at St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church, 17205 County Road 6, in Plymouth. For more information, visit www.stbarnabas lutheran.org.

—Bob Hulteen

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