This year, the St. John's College Choir is audio-streaming a number of services leading up to Holy Week and Easter. This means that people all over the world can now hear their beautiful harmonies.
I have a particular appreciation for the way they combine readings with music in these meditative services; their music also ranges widely in period and style. I like this technique. Overly-similar style can put worshippers into a mental lull. By keeping a consistent theme while changing style, the service centers listeners' thoughts on the message and worship.
Now that I am learning Latin, motets such as Purcell's "Jehova, quam multi sunt" bear greater significance for me. The Poulenc pieces -- "Timor et tremor" and "Vinea mea electa" -- were also quite good. Until this point, I had only heard or played brass arrangements of his music.
From the readings:
During the Easter time, I find that there is no single attitude or response which can adequately summarize the fullness of Christ's gift of Himself, its significance to the world, and His impact on my own life. This, I think, is one reason why people have used so many creative forms and media to express a spiritual reality which cannot easily be portrayed.
If I didn't have a respect for tradition and art, I could become cynical. Certainly, the truest depiction of the life of Christ does not reside in the Broadway-style play I saw Monday night. That evening, upper middle-class Americans unveilled quality amateur skill in acting, singing, and choreography, as they depicted people who were changed by Christ --smiling, laughing, crying, and dancing for joy. I was struck by the incongruity of rich people acting the part of beggars and prisoners so they could explain the gospel to other rich people.
And yet the performance moved me, as do the recordings from St. John's. But I, not unlike Judas, sometimes wonder if our worship would be better spent among the condemned, the rejected, the poor, than in expensive buildings, with performances which demand great preparation from those who participate. As George Herbert, onetime orator of Cambridge, noted:
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention;
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell
Curling with metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.
Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off'ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much less those joyes which trample on his head.
As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
but when I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense.
Andrew Marvell expresses a similar view in "The Coronet." And yet the performances move me. And these poems themselves are also art.
This post defines a question; the answer is more involved than can be answered in a single post. But I feel compelled to describe my own working hypothesis on the topic of remembering Christ during Easter:
- We have been given one sure way to remember Christ's story. It is not elaborate, nor is it intrinsically magical. Its simplicity gives it power and universality. The Eucharist, with its emphases on death, nourishment, sharing, merriment, solemnity, personal sin, universal salvation, and new life, converges much of the theological palette into a single meal. It should be the centerpiece of our Easter celebration.
- Worship to God is never in vain, and Beauty smiles when people use their best talents for worship.
- Christ cared about the needy, condemned, and rejected. We worship Him when we care for those around us, and when we go to places where those around us need care. In fact, the best depictions of Christ go beyond detail that can be captured in skilled brushstrokes or the shivery tingle of a well-balanced Picardy third. The best depictions of Christ come from those who know and love Him so well, that we glimpse His spirit in their lives.
Can you imagine the Olympic games without ceremony? The anthems, fireworks, and flags are also for the athletes. Celebration and pomp are never culminations. They spur us onward.
This Easter season has certainly done so for me. I trust that your own reflection and rejoicing also encourage you to run the race you have been given, that you will soon find yourself among the condemned and rejected, not with the tears of desolatated hope or glances of askance, but with the tears of love, and with Christlike enthusiasm and resolve for the race ahead.