As we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple today, we contemplate the revelation of “the light [that] shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5)—the “light revealed to the nations” (Lk 2:32) that “the darkness will not overcome” (Jn 1:5).
In the world today, evidence of the darkness is not difficult to find; it can be much more difficult to discern those places where the light still gleams. Yet, as Christians, we cling in faith to the truth that Jesus Christ is the true light—the light that has come into the world; the light that conquered the darkness of death precisely by entering into it and emerged victorious in a blaze of resurrected glory; the light that remains with us today through the gift of the Holy Spirit poured forth in the Church; the light that we who bear his name are called to share.
In today’s Gospel, we hear the aged Simeon proclaim his canticle of thanksgiving, prayed each and every night at the end of Compline. Simeon, too, lived in times that seemed to be overcome with darkness, and yet he never lost hope that the Messiah was coming. In the midst of darkness, he continually sought and awaited the light, and rejoiced when at last he held that light in his arms.
Arvo Pärt’s 2001 setting of the Canticle of Simeon—the Nunc Dimittis—captures this interplay between darkness and light in the kaleidoscopic change of colors, and it captures something of the patient waiting, the yearning for the light, and ultimately, the light’s triumph over darkness, even as it somehow acknowledges that the darkness is still very much present. It is fitting that, throughout the world, candles will be blessed today that will be used in liturgical celebration throughout the coming year (hence the occasional reference to this feast as Candlemas). May we who received the light of Christ at our Baptism continue to keep that flame burning brightly, setting it on a lampstand so that it might illuminate the darkness around us and draw all people to Christ, the light of the world.
Today we celebrate an unusual feast: the conversion of St. Paul. There are countless stories of other holy men and women who experienced profound conversion: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi, and in our own day Blessed Oscar Romero and Servant of God Dorothy Day. Indeed, one does not become a saint without experiencing not simply a momentary conversion but a lifetime of conversion, a continual turning away from sin and turning toward Christ. And yet St. Paul’s is the only conversion that appears on the liturgical calendar. Why? Because when Paul left Saul behind—the one who had made it his life’s mission to wipe out Christian communities—the entire trajectory of Christianity changed. After his conversion, Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, traveling and teaching and dying for the sake of spreading the faith to all peoples in all corners of the world, and in his epistles, he continues to draw souls to Christ even to this day.
In the first reading for today’s feast, we hear Paul himself relate the story of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, a scene that has been famously depicted by many artists (twice by Caravaggio alone). In many cases, these paintings focus on the moment in which Saul falls to the ground as the catalytic moment of his conversion. This moment was indeed the beginning: Saul sees a blinding light, falls to the ground, and hears a voice he does not know asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 22:7; see also Acts 9:3ff). Yet, this moment was only the beginning. Saul did not rise from the ground as the fully-fledged Apostle to the Gentiles he would become. On the contrary, he was rendered blind and helpless by his encounter with the light of Christ, and it was only with the assistance of his companions that he was able to reach Damascus at all. Then, it was only with the help of Ananias that he regained his sight, discovered the truths of Christianity, and was initiated into the community through Baptism. In other words, Paul’s conversion that we celebrate today was not a just singular moment that could be captured in a painting or a snapshot; rather, beginning from that singular moment, his conversion encompassed a lifetime of turning away from his old ways in order to follow the way of Christ, the way of the Cross.
Felix Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of St. Paul’s conversion in his oratorio Paulus, op. 36 helps to capture this ongoing sense of conversion in a way that perhaps a painting cannot. Musical performance by its nature involves a journey through time, and as such, it can serve as a powerful metaphor for one’s journey through life. The story of St. Paul’s conversion unfolds over several movements in this oratorio, beginning in the fourteenth movement. This movement consists of two parts: in the first part, Acts 9:3–6 is proclaimed in a recitative (sung speech) by a tenor narrator, a baritone (Paul), and a three-part treble chorus (the voice of Jesus). The jagged tenor melody soars at the moment the narrator describes the blinding light. The strings create tension-filled harmonies through a technique called tremolo (literally meaning “trembling”). The hesitant baritone melody conveys the fear that must have overcome Saul. All of these elements work together to create an incredibly dramatic moment, translated from the German below:
And as he journeyed, he came near unto Damascus when suddenly there shone around him a light from Heaven: and he fell to the Earth;
and he heard a voice saying unto him: Saul! Saul! Why persecutest thou me? And he said: Lord! who art thou? and the Lord said to him:
I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutes. And he said, trembling and astonish’d:
Lord, what wilt thou have me do? The Lord said to him: Arise and go into the city,
and there thou shalt be told what thou must do.
What is perhaps most striking about this section is the way in which Mendelssohn chose to set the words of Jesus by using a three-part treble chorus, a marked departure from the model set forth by the Passion oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach (who greatly influenced Mendelssohn), where the words of Jesus were sung by a bass soloist. The effect is stunning: the drama described above melts away as Jesus speaks; the tension is dissolved and the voice of the risen Christ is heard as something utterly luminous, radiant. Whereas in Caravaggio’s paintings we see the light enveloping Saul through the beauty of chiaroscuro, in Mendelssohn’s setting of Jesus’ words, we hear this light pierce through the darkness, and its radiance penetrates the listener’s heart just as it must have penetrated Saul’s. When we hear or read Jesus’ words proclaimed in Scripture, we might interpret his question to Saul as accusatory, as judgmental; but here, these words are set in such a way that we hear Jesus genuinely questioning this lost son of his. This is the Man of Sorrows speaking, the Good Shepherd himself reaching out to a lost sheep so that he might be brought into the fold. In setting the words of Jesus this simple, vulnerable way, Mendelssohn makes a profound theological statement, calling to mind to the self-emptying love of Christ wherein power is made perfect in weakness. In a way, the unexpected vulnerability of this music hearkens back to the Incarnation itself, when the eternal Word stripped himself of glory to be born of the Virgin, as well as the Passion and Death of Jesus, when the Word made flesh emptied himself all the more for our sakes by enduring a horrific and humiliating death in order to redeem the world from sin.
It is this gentle, merciful beauty that attracts, that draws Saul in, that illuminates his heart even as his eyes are blinded; it is the beauty of his encounter with Christ that provides the catalyst to Saul’s conversion. Yet neither Saul’s story nor Mendelssohn’s oratorio ends with this moment of conversion; Saul must arise and follow the command of Jesus by proceeding into Damascus to find Ananias. Saul must become Paul. And to do this, he needs the love of Christ shown forth in the merciful witness of those around him.
It is at this point that Mendelssohn’s music itself turns, transitioning into a triumphant choral response to the narrative that has just unfolded. Throughout the oratorio, the chorus is designated in the score as Stimme der Christenheit, or the Voice of Christendom, and so it gives voice to the Christian community, encouraging Paul on the road toward Christ. The text Mendelssohn set for this movement (Is 60:1–2) also makes a theological statement by providing a beautiful complement to what has preceded it:
Arise, shine! For thy light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and gross darkness [thick clouds] the people. But shall arise upon thee, the Lord,
and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
This is the moment of Paul’s illumination; he has been visited by the very light of Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon him, and the Christian community is now exhorting him to arise (as we hear in the glorious ascending melodies) and follow that light (as we hear in the intricate imitation and echoes) so that God’s glory might be seen not only upon him, but through him as well. And for us listening, this music can provide a moment of illumination as well. Just as the Scriptures are never read as a simple story but are proclaimed so that they may take root in our hearts, so too is this music a moment meant to serve as a proclamation, reminding us that we are on our own road to Christ, that we must allow his light to heal our spiritual blindness and be converted ourselves. This music serves as a reminder that, in our Christian journey, we are both Paul and the chorus: called to lifelong conversion and called to encourage others along their path of discipleship.
As we listen to the voice of Christ and the voice of our fellow Christians represented in the chorus, may we pray for the grace of continual conversion for ourselves, and for the conversion of those who continue to persecute Christ in the members of His Body throughout the world. May we hear in this music the radiance of Christ’s light and allow it to permeate our hearts all the more deeply, so that we, like St. Paul, might continue on our journey toward Christ.
Every year, I lament the fact that there simply aren’t enough days in the Christmas season to listen to all of the incredible music that helps us enter the exultant hymn of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus. Let’s face it: there’s a reason we secretly start listening to Christmas music around the middle of Advent (or that we at least really want to). Christmas music is sacred music par excellence. Whether it’s a traditional carol like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing or Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, or a chant like Of the Father’s Love Begotten, or a more recent addition to the repertoire like Morten Lauridsen’s anthem O Magnum Mysterium, or Alfred Burt’s carol Jesu Parvule, the songs of Christmas make real the idea of “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” a phrase that comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions as he addresses God himself. Some may balk at this analogy between the earthly beauty of music and the divine beauty, but I maintain that one can indeed use Augustine’s description with reference to Christmas music, because its material beauty points beyond itself to the divine beauty present in the very mystery this music helps us celebrate.
On the one hand, Christmas music does seem ancient: we know it intimately. It has accompanied us to the manger each and every year. And yet, on the other hand, it is indeed ever new: we never seem to grow tired of it. The reason for this, I believe, is that every year, we approach this season and this music different people than we were at this time last year, and as a result, though the music remains the same, we will hear it differently. This is the gift of a set repertoire of carols and hymns and chants, and the gift of the new additions to the repertoire that have slowly and steadily found a home within this treasury over time. The music of Christmas allows us to return to it year after year after year, and, like a wellspring, it continually slakes our thirst for beauty and mystery and meaning.
So, with the vast breadth of music, how does one choose a single piece to encapsulate the Christmas season? With the understanding that there is not ever going to be one piece that does so, but with the hope that, at least for this year, this one will help unfold the mystery a little more fully. With that, I offer Egil Hovland’s The Glory of the Father. I came across this piece as an undergraduate member of the St. Isidore Catholic Student Center Choir at my alma mater, Kansas State University, and I have come back to it every Christmas since then. This piece, written in 1957 by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland, uses as its text excerpts from the stunning prologue of St. John’s Gospel. This passage is proclaimed on Christmas at the Mass during the day, which perhaps seems an unusual choice. There is no mention of a journey to Bethlehem or a manger, no angels singing or shepherds dropping in. Instead, what we have is light. The light of the human race. The light that shines in darkness. The light that no darkness can overcome. The true light which enlightens everyone. The true light that was coming into the world. And what is this light? St. John tells us.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.
This text serves as the beginning and end of Hovland’s stunning yet simple piece. In constructing the piece this way, Hovland is holding up the Incarnation—Jesus Christ Himself—as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. The music in these sections is open—hollow sounding and yet somehow also full. The first words of the piece—“The Word became flesh”—are sung with a chant-like rhythm using the interval of a perfect fifth, one of the two intervals used in the medieval period to create the first instances of harmony. The other interval was the perfect fourth, and Hovland ends the phrase “dwelt among us” on this sonority (the italics designate the syllables on which this interval occurs). Why mention this? To demonstrate that the openness of the piece comes from a compositional technique that signaled the birth of harmony as we now know it. A beauty ever ancient. On the other hand, the composer uses close harmonies and controlled dissonance (clashing notes) to create a sense of fullness, particularly when the choir sings “We beheld the glory of the Father” the second time. A beauty ever new.
At the heart of the piece, Hovland returns to the beginning of the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God.” The piece takes on more life and movement here, indicating the life and movement of the eternal Word, the second Person of the triune God. With the text “In him was life,” a stirring drama builds, and suddenly, a tension is introduced with the phrase “and the life was the light of men.” The startling chord on the word “men” indicates a new presence: darkness. Through the sin of humanity, darkness enters the world and threatens to blot out the life of the Word, “the light of men.” This darkness continues as the composer holds up for our attention a reality that we would rather forget as we celebrate Christmas: “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” This child, the Word made flesh, the true light which enlightens everyone, was rejected by those whom he called his own. Is still rejected.
And yet, immediately after this sobering, convicting statement, the composer returns to the opening section, indicating that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Moreover, the abrupt shift from the darkness back to the light indicates that the glory of the Incarnate Word—“the glory as of the Father’s only Son”—is not contingent upon our acceptance of Him. The light has come into the world. It is offered as gift for those with the eyes to see it, and “to those who did accept him”—who accept him still today—“he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). This season, as we sing the mysteries of the Incarnation, may we open our eyes to see and our hearts to welcome the light of the world, the Word made flesh, the glory of the Father.
Ask a friend to rattle off their Top 10 Christmas Carols, and you’re bound to get an instant response of the perennial favorites. For example: O Holy Night, Silent Night, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, What Child is This, Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem—this list could go on and on. Ask that same friend to rattle off their Top 10 Advent hymns, and you’re more likely to get one or two right away (maybe even four or five), and then perhaps the stymied silence of trying to come up with a few more: O Come O Come Emmanuel, On Jordan’s Bank, Creator of the Stars of Night, Wait for the Lord, My Soul in Stillness Waits, People Look East, Awake! Awake and Greet the New Morn, Wake O Wake and Sleep No Longer, O Come Divine Messiah, The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns (or, if you’re a Stephen Colbert fan, The King of Glory).
The truth is, we’re more familiar with Christmas music because we’re inundated with it 24/7 beginning the day after Thanksgiving. It’s piped over the speakers of stores and restaurants; it’s performed in children’s school concerts; it’s on the radio; it’s everywhere. In such an environment, our experience of Advent music can often become relegated to what we hear and sing at Mass, meaning that we might only spend four days of the Advent season singing of our longing for the Messiah. In many parishes, the celebration of Advent Lessons and Carols provides a way to bring the music of this season front and center but outside of that, it can be difficult to find opportunities to immerse oneself in this repertoire. There are a number of excellent recordings that feature music exclusively for the Advent season, and a recent composition that’s finding its way onto more of those recordings is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come. More than ten years ago, Minnesota Public Radio ran a profile on the composer and his wife (who compiled the lyrics to this piece from Scripture), which detailed how this composition grew out of the couple’s anguish in facing a child’s life-threatening illness, and when one listens to this piece knowing its back-story, its impact becomes all the greater. The longing expressed in this piece is not disembodied; it’s not detached from real life or written merely to tug at the heartstrings during what many people find to be an emotionally difficult time of year. This piece is an expression of one couple’s longing for the coming of Christ as an answer to their prayers during a time of great duress, and now, it has the capacity to give voice to the anguished longings of those who hear it this season and every season, whatever those longings may be.
The minor key and the dark color of this piece seem at first glance to clash with the text of the opening measures: “Peace be to you and grace from him who freed us from our sins, who loved us all and shed his blood that we might saved be.” Yet, the minor key testifies to the fact that the peace and grace of Christ are stained with his blood, shed out of pure love to save the human race. This saving work of God in Christ is the reason for the acclamation in the next section of the piece: “Sing Holy, Holy to our Lord, the Lord Almighty God, who was and is, and is to come—Sing Holy, Holy Lord.” Following this acclamation, an exhortation: “Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein; rejoice on earth, ye saints below, for Christ is coming—is coming soon! For Christ is coming soon!” This section represents the musical climax of the piece: the soaring soprano line and the noble harmonies suggest the majesty of Christ’s return in glory, but the section ends with the harmony unresolved. Christ is coming soon, but not yet.
The final section returns us to the here and now, where the coming of Christ in history has not taken away our present trials and tribulations, but insofar as we unite our sufferings to his, Christ may transfigure those sufferings and give us the grace to endure them until he returns in glory, when he will end suffering forever: “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more. They need no light, nor lamp, nor sun, for Christ will be their all.” The title lyric of this piece takes the final prayer from the book of Revelation—“Come, Lord Jesus,” and heightens it—“Lord Jesus, quickly come.” Come, quickly, Lord Jesus, delay no longer, for the night is vast and the world is in need of your light, the light in and by which we see light (Ps. 36:10), the light no darkness can overcome (Jn 1:5).
Our annual observance of Advent and Christmas doesn’t suspend the trials and sufferings we experience as human beings. As individuals, we may be facing loneliness or illness or death, and as a members of a global community, we live in a time plagued with violence and poverty and corruption, just like Jesus himself lived in a time that was plagued with violence and poverty and corruption. Nevertheless, Jesus’ coming in history, his future coming in glory, and his coming to us even now in the liturgical life of the Church provide sure footing for us in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations, and even as we lift our hearts and voices in anguished longing, we also look forward to the day “when night shall be no more,” “when Christ will be [our] all.”
Throughout the month of November, the Church has invited us to remember in a special way the souls of the faithful departed, so a few weeks ago I shared a piece by Geraint Lewis written for All Souls Day. As we near the end of November, we are also nearing the end of the liturgical year, which means that the readings in the Lectionary cycle are focused on what is often referred to as the “end time,” so it seems an appropriate moment to highlight a musical tradition that for centuries has shaped the way the Church has sung about the final things: the Requiem Mass.
Musical settings of the Requiem Mass began to emerge during the Renaissance, and even today, composers are still producing works in the Requiem tradition (though most of these are written for the concert hall rather than the liturgy).
Over the centuries, the theological focus of the Requiem Mass has shifted somewhat, particularly with Pope Pius V’s addition of the Dies Irae sequence to the Roman Missal in the late 16th century. The added sequence required new music; thus, throughout the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras of the next three centuries, numerous composers set the Dies Irae as part of their Requiem Masses. Because “text painting” was a popular compositional technique during this time (in which composers would create musical pictures of what was happening in the text), settings of the Dies Irae often included dramatic and even terrifying music that highlighted the text’s vivid and often disturbing imagery of the final judgment and the fiery punishment awaiting sinners. And yet, these same composers also drew attention to passages in the sequence expressing heartfelt prayer for the mercy of God on behalf of the deceased and on one’s own behalf by setting those texts with some of the most luminous music that has ever been written. The multi-movement setting of the Dies Irae sequence found in Mozart’s Requiem is a stunning example of music that holds these two facets of the text in fruitful tension—the somber, dark reality of death and judgment is shot through with radiant hope in God’s gracious mercy and tender love.
The Dies Irae remained part of the funeral liturgy until the Second Vatican Council, when the sequence was removed in order that “funeral rights should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §81). In the current Rite of Christian Burial, the images of judgment have given way to reassurances of the merciful love of God and exhortations to hope in the resurrection, and yet, even in the years since the Council, ensembles continue to perform the great Requiems of the past, and composers have continued to set the sequence (see Richard Danielpour’s 2001 An American Requiem), which means that on a certain level, the Requiem in general and the Dies Irae in particular still resonate with people. It seems that, while it is of course a good and holy thing to place our trust in God’s love and mercy and to entrust our beloved dead to that love and mercy, we as human beings must also acknowledge that we will eventually be confronted with the mysterious realities of death and judgment.
The music of the Church can provide us with a way in to this struggle. The settings of the Requiem Mass that have been penned by composers down through the centuries are among the most famous, the most moving (even if this movement is one of disturbance), and the most stunningly beautiful pieces in the repertoire of sacred music. They place the reality of death, the holy fear of judgment, the horror of hell, and the hope of heaven before our eyes and ears, and allow us to contemplate these realities even as we struggle with them. They invite us not only to pray for our departed brothers and sisters, but also to consider the implications of mortality, the consequences of sin, and the need for God’s mercy. In short, the Requiem Mass is an musical momento mori, an aural reminder that we, too, will die, and that we have to give an account of our lives. And yet, the Requiem Mass is also a musical reassurance that Christ has broken the chains of death, and for those who have died with him in the waters of Baptism, death will not have the last word.
While there are numerous settings of the Requiem Mass that are worth listening to on repeat, the one I would especially like to highlight is the setting by French composer Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986). Duruflé completed his Requiem in 1947 and dedicated it to the memory of his father. Musically speaking, what is so striking about Duruflé’s Requiem (as well as several of his other sacred choral works) is that its melodies are drawn from the ancient Gregorian chants of the Requiem Mass, and yet its harmonic language is crafted from twentieth-century compositional techniques. In other words, this piece utilizes contemporary musical expression and yet is also completely rooted in a centuries-old musical tradition. In this way, it can be seen as a musical form of catechesis: (re)introducing listeners to the beauty of the Gregorian chant melodies while simultaneously appropriating that tradition within an equally and uniquely beautiful contemporary musical idiom.
Like Gabriel Fauré before him, Duruflé sought to highlight the merciful love of God in his Requiem; thus, all but the last two lines of the Dies Irae have been omitted. Yet, the reality of judgment is not altogether absent: it finds a place here in the setting of the ancient Responsory text, Libera me, Domine. The trials of death and judgment are not circumvented or glossed over or skirted around; rather, they are passed through, and as the tumultuous and trembling music of the penultimate Libera me, Domine movement gives way to the utter radiance of the final movement—the In Paradisum—where all is light and peace, the “paschal character of Christian death” pierces through the darkness and gives hope to all who place their trust in God.
Today the Church observes the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, better known as All Souls Day. Indeed, the entire month of November has come to be associated with the remembrance of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and the music of the Church in no small way helps us to remember and to grieve, but ultimately, to find hope in the promise of the Resurrection.
Today’s piece is one that finds a balance between acknowledging the human struggle in the face of death and upholding faith in God as the only answer to that struggle. Welsh-born composer Geraint Lewis (b.1958) began composing his All Souls Day anthem The Souls of the Righteous in December 1991, and finished the piece in 1992, in the wake of losing his close friend and colleague—fellow composer William Mathias—to cancer. The piece testifies not only to his grief, but also to his faith in God as a source of solace and comfort even in the midst of that grief.
The text for this piece is taken from chapter three of the Book of Wisdom, which is one of the optional Old Testament readings for All Souls Day (Wis 3:1–9). It is also one of the optional Old Testament readings listed in the Rite of Christian Burial. Rather than set the entirety of the passage, Lewis distills the Wisdom text down and focuses on the texts that convey its two most essential truths: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them,” and “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.”
Musically, Lewis conveys these two truths by constructing the entire piece around two central motifs. The first of these motifs unfolds in the extended organ introduction; the second is sung by the choir at its first entrance. The first motif consists of two brief phrases followed by an extended phrase—each phrase feeds into the next, and the effect here is evocative perhaps of the shortened inhalations and exhalations of a person in the final hours of life, culminating in the breathing forth of one’s spirit in the soaring extended phrase.
The second motif, in contrast, is constructed of long, even, sustained notes as the choir sings the text, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.” The simple yet noble choral melody seems to suspend the text in mid-air as an object held up for our contemplation. Here is the consolation offered by a loving God—the truth that never wavers, that sustains both those who face their final trial and those who mourn them after they have passed from this life into the next.
The organ and the choir engage in a dialogue, each repeating and developing its own motif as though the music is trying to help the listener come to terms with these truths which are ultimately beautiful and hope-filled, yet still challenging in the midst of grief. This dialogue continues until the piece reaches a turning point and, after an extended organ interlude, everything fades away save one low sustained note. It is in this moment, suspended between time and eternity, that the choir takes over the first motif with the text, “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.” This is what the organ has been trying to tell us all along. The souls of those whom we love and mourn are at peace, and we, we are the foolish, the slow to understand, the ones who struggle against their passing in our limited human ability to perceive the truth—that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.
Even though we might assent to this profound truth intellectually and spiritually, the process of grieving is still a profound human and emotional struggle, because the experience of death remains shrouded in mystery. To gloss over this struggle or seek refuge in worn-out, shallow platitudes is to reduce the gravity of death. Yet, every moment of heart-rending grief can become a moment in which we who mourn can make an act of faith by acknowledging our devastation and, from the depths of our grief, placing our trust in God and the souls of our loved ones in his hands.
Lewis reflects this continuous struggle to seek and find consolation in God through his gentle use of dissonance in the organ accompaniment. Every so often, a chord grates against our ears as a reminder that there will always be moments in which we rail against the harsh realities of death; nevertheless, by turning to God in faith, even these moments of struggle will become moments in which we are drawn ever closer to the One who holds our beloved dead in his care.
The final phrase captures this mysterious juxtaposition beautifully: the choir sings “but they are at peace” one last time in a return to the sustained notes of their original motif, and the final chord of the organ lingers in its dissonance as a musical symbol of the fact that we who are left behind will continue to struggle with the mystery of death, a struggle that can only be ultimately resolved for us when we ourselves pass from this life, for it is only when our own souls are in the hands of God that we will truly be at peace. Nevertheless, in the meantime, we are comforted and sustained by the truths that invite us to put our faith and place our trust in God, even—and especially—when we are confronted by the mysteries of death.
Today marks the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–90), a Burgundian nun who experienced a series of visions from 1673 to 1675 that ultimately resulted in her petitioning Church authorities to institute a feast in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In addition to the feast itself, St. Margaret Mary promoted acts of devotion in honor of the Sacred Heart, chief among which was the reception of Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month, a devotion many still practice to this day. It is for her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and her untiring efforts to spread that devotion to others that Margaret Mary Alacoque is honored as a saint, and so today’s musical piece will focus not on the saint herself, but on the object of her unwavering devotion: the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart is twofold: on the one hand, we honor the physical heart of Jesus, the pulsing heart of muscle and blood with its valves and chambers whose very existence encapsulates the mystery of the Incarnation—the heart that testifies that “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14); the heart that was pierced by a lance and poured forth the precious lifeblood of Him who loved unto the end. On the other hand, we also honor what the Sacred Heart of Jesus symbolizes: the sheer, unmerited gift of God’s unsurpassable, unfathomable love and mercy, offered without reservation to all who would receive it into their own hearts.
Today’s musical piece, the motet Improperium Expectavit by 18th-century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Casali, is a setting of the Offertory text for the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, taken from Psalm 69 :21–22b. Translated from the Latin, the text reads:
My heart expected reproach and misery and I desired one who would grieve with me
and there was none: I sought one to console me, and I found none: and they gave me gall as my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
The text of today’s piece draws attention to both the physical and the symbolic elements of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From the symbolic standpoint, the heart of the one proclaiming the psalm—understood in the context of the feast as the Heart of Jesus himself—is broken; it is inconsolable, overcome with grief at the devastation of reproach and abandonment. And yet there is also an immense physicality in these lines. Hearing this passage from the Psalms in the voice of Jesus, we are reminded perhaps of his words from the Cross: “I thirst” (Jn 19: 28). Here is the one who hungers and thirsts to draw all into the communion of life he shares with the Father and the Spirit, and his longing is met with derision; his thirst for love is slaked with a drink of malice. We see the juxtaposition with stark clarity in the Reproaches for Good Friday: “I gave you saving water from the rock to drink, / and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.”
To contemplate the Sacred Heart of Jesus is not simply to contemplate the overwhelming love that Jesus pours forth from his Heart; rather, it is to contemplate the mystery that Jesus pours forth his love for us even as we wound his Sacred Heart with our sins. We see this mystery in the way that the Sacred Heart is represented in visual art: pierced, surrounded with the crown of thorns, surmounted by the Cross which ultimately stopped its beating, and yet, even in the midst of these wounds, it is still ablaze, burning with divine love, the love of the God-man who longs for nothing more or less than perfect communion with his people.
We hear this mystery in Casili’s motet in the way that musical dissonance (clashing/grating of pitches) gives way to serene consonance (rest/resolution). This is the way that nearly all Western music operates at some level: tension arises in the music that is ultimately resolved. The dissonance somehow serves to help us appreciate all the more the consonance that resolves it. In this sense, consonance seems to purify the dissonance as the notes are brought into harmonious communion with one another in the movement toward resolution. This is what happens when we allow the dissonance of our sinfulness to give way to the love of the Sacred Heart: we ‘sour notes’ are brought into a radiant harmony with Jesus as we learn to sing with ever greater fidelity the hymn of self-giving love he intones from the Cross.
In contemplating with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque the Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we learn to give ourselves over to the ardent love of Christ as it blazes forth from his pierced Heart, that the dissonance within our own hearts may be melted away and dissolve into the consonant, radiant harmony of life in God; that, in the words of St. Paul from the proper reading for today, we may be “rooted and grounded in love, may have the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17b–19).
Today marks the feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael—the three archangels named within the canon of Scripture. St. Michael, whose name means “Who is like God?” is most commonly identified as the warrior, leading an army of angels in defeating the great red dragon and his legions in the book of Revelation (see Rev 12:7ff). St. Gabriel, whose name means “God is my strength” is arguably the most well-known of the three archangels. Gabriel is the herald of the Incarnation, announcing first to Zechariah that he will be father to John the Baptist, forerunner of the Messiah (Lk 1:11–21), and then announcing to Mary that God has chosen her to be the Mother of his Only-Begotten Son, Jesus, who will save the world from sin and death (Lk 1:26–38). St. Raphael, whose name means “God has healed,” appears only in the Old Testament book of Tobit, where he not only heals Sara of the demon Asmodeus and brings her to a happy marriage with young Tobias, but he also heals the eponymous Tobit (Tobias’ father) of blindness (see Tob 4:17).
The archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are held up to the Church today for their obedience to God as messengers (the literal meaning of the word “angel”): they stand before God, ready to do his will, and at God’s bidding, they go where they are sent and proclaim the word given to them by God. In other words, the angels are evangelists. They proclaim the Good News of God’s power over evil (Michael); they announce God’s plan to redeem humanity by becoming one like us in all things but sin (Gabriel); and they reveal God’s desire to heal humanity of every illness and iniquity (Raphael).
Catholics today may be more likely to turn to saints who were, well, human beings, instead of turning to the archangels we celebrate today or the guardian angels whom we will celebrate on October 2. Because we may never have seen an angel (or at least think we’ve never seen one, for as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2)), we are perhaps more ready to dismiss angels altogether not only as beings whom we are incapable of imitating, but also as beings incapable of understanding our human plight. But today’s feast shows us that such is not the case. We can imitate the angels and archangels by imitating their readiness to serve God and their fidelity to God’s will, and angels do understand our plights because, as Scripture shows, they are always ready to help us out of them.
In the realm of sacred choral music, we find the angels and archangels placed front and center in Benjamin Britten’s The Company of Heaven. Originally written in 1937 as incidental music for a BBC radio program broadcast on the feast of Michaelmas (prior to the revision of the sanctoral calendar, only St. Michael was celebrated on this date), The Company of Heaven is an extended work featuring music, Scripture, and poetry by authors including Christina Rosetti and Emily Dickinson. The structure is less like an oratorio or cantata (which are entirely sung), and more akin to Lessons and Carols services often seen during the Advent and Christmas seasons (a combination of spoken and sung texts). Throughout the work, Britten demonstrates a familiarity with various traditions of liturgical music including chant and hymnody, as well as a remarkable musical dexterity in taking these forms and infusing them with his own distinct musical voice. This music is rooted in tradition, making it recognizable and accessible to listeners, and yet it is also wholly Britten, making it a unique contribution to the treasury of sacred choral literature.
For our musical and spiritual edification today, we’ll focus on the finale of the work, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,” a grand setting of the famous hymn text written by Athelstan Riley set to the tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen (most commonly paired with the text “All Creatures of Our God and King”). The way Britten sets this well-known tune is a particularly brilliant example of his taking something familiar and arranging it in such a way that it becomes something wholly new. He sets up expectations in the listener’s ear and then stunningly subverts them more often than he fulfills them: a resolution that we think is coming around the bend never appears; the key changes unexpectedly; the rhythm with which we’re familiar is changed ever so slightly. In other words, this music zigs one way when we think it’s going to zag the other. It surprises us. And when we listen to it in light of today’s feast, these musical surprises can call to our minds the ways in which God beautifully and lovingly surprised his faithful ones with the messages they received through his archangels.
Britten’s setting of “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” gently shows us the folly of familiarity, of thinking that we’ve heard everything there is to hear when it comes to a tune we think we know well. We can fall into such a pattern of familiarity in the life of faith, too, thinking that we’ve heard everything we need to hear, or worse, that we know everything we need to know. The musical surprises present throughout Britten’s music invite us to rethink that which may have become familiar, and to open our hearts once again to being surprised by God. By cultivating such a stance of openness, we will more closely resemble the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael in their openness and readiness to hear and obey God’s voice, and, perhaps, we will even be more readily able to perceive God’s messengers—the angels and archangels—still at work in the world around us.
Today we celebrate the feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, and although this is only the second post of this series, I’m going to depart from last week’s model of sharing a piece written specifically for a feast day and turn instead to three brief excerpts from a famous sacred choral work which utilizes the very Gospel text for which Matthew is celebrated today as a saint: Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
After an early version was performed on Good Friday in 1727, Bach revised and expanded the work in 1736, and continued to make adjustments until 1746, when the piece was finalized in the form we now know it today. While today the St. Matthew Passion is often performed in concert halls, Bach actually wrote it for use during a service held at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig, where he oversaw the music used in worship. As music scholar Michael David Shasberger puts is, the St. Matthew Passion is to be heard “as an active witness to the Gospel not as a museum piece.” This music was intended to instill in those listening an awareness of the fact that the Passion of Jesus Christ is not merely a historical event; rather, it is a mystery that must be contemplated and appropriated by believers in every generation.
In terms of structure, the St. Matthew Passion is written in the “oratorio” style: the text of Matthew’s Gospel is sung by a narrator (designated as the “Evangelist”), various soloists (representing different characters), and a chorus (not only representing the crowd in the Gospel but also drawing the congregation into the action). There are also other movements such as arias (solo songs) and chorales (strophic hymns) interpolated throughout the Gospel text. These movements utilize poetic texts, some of which incorporate other scriptural sources, but many of which are wholly original. These non-Gospel provide theological commentary on Matthew’s Passion narrative; they pause the dramatic action and provide the listening congregation with an opportunity to contemplate the mystery being presented.
Countless books and articles have been written on various facets of the St. Matthew Passion. But I want to focus here on the way in which Bach’s music brings the words to life in such a way that the music itself becomes a form of theological commentary. With regard to the text of Matthew’s Gospel, this theo-musical drama is particularly apparent toward the end of the work.
One of the final movements featuring the text of Matthew’s Gospel is a recitative—sung speech. Singing in German (since the Lutheran tradition utilized the vernacular), the Evangelist proclaims:
And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying:
At this point, the chorus provides the voice of the witnesses, confessing: “Truly this was the Son of God.” (Mt 27:51–55)
The relationship Bach creates between the text and the music enhances our awareness of the incredible drama in this moment. As the Evangelist describes the Temple veil tearing from top to bottom, the cellos paint a musical portrait of fabric ripping through a series of incredibly fast descending and ascending scales. The description of the earthquake is accompanied by a low cello tremolo (a string technique that creates a trembling or rumbling sound), and steadily climbing notes underscore the description of the dead rising from their graves. The Evangelist’s description of the fear descending on all present is reflected in the haunting and dramatic melody, sung at a hushed volume.
The radiant music of the chorus confessing Jesus’ divinity pierces through this dark moment, and from that point on, the Evangelist resumes the Gospel narrative with music suggesting that, even in the face of Jesus’ death on the Cross, there may yet be reason to hope.
While Bach’s setting of the actual Gospel text is dramatic and memorable, without a doubt, the most famous excerpt of the St. Matthew Passion is the chorale that appears throughout. Often sung in Good Friday liturgies today as O Sacred Head Surrounded, the music of this hymn actually did not originate with Bach. In its first instantiation, the melody was a secular love song by Baroque composer Hans Leo Hassler; however, by pairing this tune with a text by Paul Gerhardt in the St. Matthew Passion, Bach gave it new life as a hymn contemplating the depths of Christ’s Passion.
The chorale appears several times throughout the St. Matthew Passion, and, in keeping with Bach’s practice of utilizing music to provide theological commentary, each iteration varies slightly according to what has just occurred in the Passion narrative. In the penultimate appearance of the chorale (just after Matthew’s description of the crowning with thorns and mocking), the chorus sings two verses: the first in a powerful, declamatory style, hailing the sorrowful beauty of the Sacred Head crowned with thorns; the second in a spirit of trepidation and fearfulness, acknowledging the utter gravity of what is unfolding.
O head, full of blood and wounds,
Full of sorrow and full of scoffing!
O head, wreathed for mockery
With a crown of thorns!
O head, once beautifully adorned
With highest honor and renown,
But now highly abused:
Let me hail thee!
Thou noble countenance,
Before which shrinks and cowers
The great weight of the world,
How art thou spat upon!
How pallid art thou!
Who has treated the light of thine eyes,
Light that no light else can equal,
So shamefully amiss?
In the final appearance of the chorale, Bach transforms it into a dirge as the chorus pleads with Jesus to assist them in the hour of death.
When once I must depart,
Do not depart from me;
When I must suffer death,
Then stand thou by me!
When I most full of fear
At heart shall be,
Then snatch me from the terrors
Of fear and pain by thy strength!
The lower key, the tension-filled harmonies, the sparse use of instruments, and the altered melody—all of these musical decisions reflect the somber bitterness of Christ’s Passion, and the reality that all must eventually face death. And yet, even in the darkness of the Crucifixion, the chorale ends with a beautiful and perhaps unexpected resolution on a quietly hope-filled major chord, reminding the listener that all is not lost. Christ’s life does not end with death; rather, Christ tramples down death by his own Death and becomes the source of eternal life for all who make the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel their own: “Truly this was the Son of God.”
For more on the St. Matthew Passion: • Read the text and translation here.
• Listen to the full work here.
 Michael David Shasberger, An Introduction of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for the Contemporary Congregation (D.M.A. Dissertation, University of Southern California, 1983), 41.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life