Arguments for Easter: Join in the music of Christ's Passion: In the third of our series of articles for Holy Week, the Provost of Portsmouth, the Very Rev David Stancliffe, argues that music is the art which best expresses the drama of belief.
Wednesday 07 April 1993
It is our creative participation in bringing that dead score to life - of sharing the responsibility of continuing composition even - which attracts us, then forms us, and gives music its springing life and power. But even with a score and a player, there is still an ingredient missing: the instrument, the means by which we transform the notation on the page before us into living sounds.
A few years ago, it was reported that a cello by Antonio Stradivarius had been sold for a record pounds 275,000. Not a lot of money, I reflected, when compared with the prices for a Duccio or Tintoretto, let alone a Van Gogh. But then a cello is not for hanging on a museum wall: a cello is for playing; and cello players, unlike football players, cannot be bought, not even for ready money.
But if you are going to get good music from your cello it needs to be in good order: the fragile, wafer-thin belly can only withstand the pressure of the taut strings if its curves are just right: if the belly is too solid, the sound will be dull and lifeless; if the strings are too slack, there can be no music; too thin or too tight and wood or strings will snap.
It is George Herbert in his poem 'Easter' who explicitly compares such a fragile stringed instrument to the suffering Christ on the Cross:
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part With all thy art. The cross taught all wood to resound his name Who bore the same. His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key Is best to celebrate this most high day.
Herbert's point is that the instrument yields up what it has to give - its music - by its tension, its passion; and that likewise the Passion of God - the stretched body, lifted high on the wood of the Cross - is what discloses His music, His love, and draws us to Him.
As at the heart of music-making there is this tension of wood and strings, of vibrating reeds or vocal chords, so at the heart of the Christian Gospel lies the mystery of redemptive suffering - the claim that we are most fully ourselves as God is most fully Himself in that moment, poised between tragedy and triumph, which we call the Passion of Christ.
Paradoxically, it is in that moment, as the Christ is stretched on the Cross, that we hear the echo of the angelic song. It is in that knife-edge moment between total collapse and soaring music that we are offered our opportunities for change, for growth, for redemption.
This is the heavenly music for which the prophets of the Old Testament longed when they spoke of the day when God's law would no longer be a lifeless score, set in unyielding tablets of stone, but a living and fragile song in the heart of God's people, as they learned to tune their stumbling sounds to His music, to the sweet song of love as yet unknown.
But in the prophetic age that fragile music remained a haunting dream; there was no player: How shall we sing the Lord's song: in a strange land? As for our harps, we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein.
They did not really believe that His music could be theirs, and that is why, when Jesus began to teach his disciples about the suffering and death he could see ahead, his disciples - and Peter in particular - would have none of it. Success in their terms meant your calling the tune, not surrendering yourself to the will of others, or even of God. But Jesus's message is a simple one. The disciples are called to be instruments of God's Passion, letting his music resound beyond the limits of their known world.
It is a lesson his disciples could not learn in the abstract: nor can we. For us, it is not enough to hear the longing of the Old Testament prophets; not enough to listen to the words of Jesus: like the players of any score, the music must become ours, if others are to hear the harmony and be caught up in it. For it is the paradoxical, topsy-turvy nature of the Gospel of God that it requires, like any music, you and me to bring it to life.
How can this be done? First, by embracing, not avoiding suffering. Modern medicine and the anodyne availability of bread and circuses conspire together to provide ways of avoiding, of softening the experience; of anaesthetising us against 'the sharpness of death'. But Christ did not avoid suffering; he embraced it and was transfigured by it, and his experience must be ours if it is his music that we are to play, and not our own.
Second, by rehearsal. As any musician will tell you, there can be no music, no performance that can win over hearts and minds, without rehearsal.
And a rehearsal - although this may sound strange - is what we are engaged on in the act of eucharistic worship.
It is a rehearsal first and foremost because here we are learning to make a whole of our individual lines: we, though we are many, are constantly being made one body in Christ. Second, it is a rehearsal, a recalling, a going over of the score - of God's saving acts: as we move through the eucharistic liturgy, we experience it for ourselves.
And third, we need to have passion ourselves - a longing, a desire to put ourselves whole-heartedly and without reserve at the disposal of God. For at the heart of the Passion of Christ is not so much his sufferings - they are but the consequence of his passion - but his total self-giving.
How do we enter it? That dynamic community of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into which the Christian is baptised, is the pattern of self-giving life into which the Christian community is absorbed. As we lose ourselves in this life, rehearsing weekly, daily, the pattern of the eucharistic offering in broken bread and poured-out wine, and as we find ourselves as a result increasingly open and less defensive, we come to realise what living the divine life might mean.
It is just this - this ability to be taken out of ourselves, lifted beyond where we could get under our own steam, and welded together in perfect harmony - that music-making offers us: if anyone asks you to explain the mystery of the Trinity to them, then get them to sing in a choir with you. It is through participating in performing what a composer has written that we complement exactly the divine action of the liturgy in which we are engaged in Holy Week. Here too we are taken out of ourselvesand welded together in perfect harmony.
The Passion of Christ is a living instrument, whose music - the love of God - is ready to sound today.
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