‘The Crucifixion’ by John Stainer

This evening, we went to a performance of John Stainer’s The Crucifixion at St. Cuthbert’s Church, performed by the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. St. Cuthbert’s was an ideal setting for this triumphal oratorio of the greatness of Christ’s Victory over sin and death upon the Cross. The space is light and airy, with beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the half-dome of the apse behind the choir, as well as the beautiful frieze of the Last Supper, the magnificent pulpit, and the copy of a statue by Michelangelo atop the font. Somehow, whoever took this photo made the place look dark:

St. Cuthbert’s is worthy of a post itself. Yet as lovely as that place of worship is, we were there for Stainer’s choral masterpiece tonight.

The Crucifixion (libretto here) begins in the Garden of Gethsemane and takes us to Christ’s last (pre-Resurrection) breath. We move from a brief narration straight into The Agony. Here, the recitative was followed by the choir:

Jesu, Lord Jesu, bowed in bitter anguish, and bearing all the evil we have done, Oh, teach us, teach us how to love thee for thy love; Help us to pray, and watch, and mourn with thee.

This choral verse is minor and potent, carrying the weight of the words of that prayer, the weight of our souls witnessing the anguish Christ suffered on our behalf. And when Christ is led away to be crucified , the singer has a rest, and crucified lengthens syllable by syllable, with the final line, ‘And the soldiers led him away,’ notable for its ritardando.

Then there is a brief interlude while the organist plays music from Nintendo’s Dragon Warrior 4, suited for when Our Hero is in a village.

The Processional to Calvary follows this RPG Village Music, and it is triumphal, with the choir singing the refrain: ‘Fling wide the gates! Fling wide the gates!’ Indeed, Christ is seen as the king here and now. This is his true triumph, not Palm Sunday.

Soon, there is a hymn. Stainer and Sparrow-Simpson (the librettist) wrote hymns. We were encouraged to join the choir for the verses in bold. So we did in all of them, beginning with ‘Cross of Jesus, Cross of sorrow,’ which had a familiar tune that I’m used to accompanying a different hymn; my music memory is faulty, and it may have been the final hymn of the work. The second-last verse of this, one of those sung by choir alone, began with quiet organ (was it acapella??):

From the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,
We adore thee, O most high,’

And then the full blast of the organ’s potency for:

Down to earth’s blaspheming voices
And the shout of ‘Cruficy!’

The oratorio took us from there, ‘The Mystery of the Divine Humiliation,’ to ‘The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation,’ both of which showed us the powerful Christological reality of what went on at Golgotha, to ‘God So Loved the World.’ John 3:16-17 were sung beautifully with a very full dynamic range from the very quiet to the loud, graced by lovely harmony. It was beautiful and regal, working from small to big. A far cry from banners at football games, but more fitting for the glorious truth of the Gospel.

Another powerful moment came during the Recitative immediately following the hymn ‘Holy Jesu, by Thy Passion.’ The tenor sang, ‘Jesus said,’ and then the men of the chorus, sans organ, sang out, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The tenor and baritone proceeded from this moment to sing a duet about the wondrous fact of Christ seeking the forgiveness of his killers.

The solo thief who mocked Christ was given short, choppy rhythm, whereas Christ’s, ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,’ was sung by the entire choir in flowing (legato) loveliness. The music, again, suited the words.

‘There was darkness,’ was preceded by a deep, minor organ prelude.

Once again, we had the men alone for the minor, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

Finally, after Christ ‘gave up the ghost,’ we sang ‘All for Jesus — all for Jesus’, a hymn I know, though I don’t recall having sung this verse before:

All for Jesus — at thine altar
Thou wilt give us sweet content;
There, dear Lord, we shall receive thee
In the solemn Sacrament.

This Victorian choral masterpiece was certainly the highlight of my day! I hope it is a precursor to a wondrous week, filled with the good blessings given by the Crucified.

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What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.

Traditional and Modern Meet in Steve Bell’s CD “Devotion”

AMC Casiday, in Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, writes something along the lines of being traditional as creative interaction with one’s origins.*  This is, essentially, what Steve Bell‘s CD Devotion does.

The songs Steve chose for Devotion, save two, are by Gord Johnson, a songwriter from his (Anglican) church in Winnipeg, St. Benedict’s Table.  They would sing these songs in church, and, it seems, Steve really liked them and wanted to share them with the world; these riches were not to be hoarded.  So, with Johnson’s blessing, Steve Bell recorded the album Devotion, a worship album of relatively simple yet deep songs of worship and prayer, praise and supplication.

The lyrics of “Almighty God”, the very first song on the CD will be familiar to all who have been to an Anglican Eucharist:

Almighty God
To you all hearts are open
All desires known
No secrets are hidden
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
By the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
That we may perfectly love you
Worthily magnify your holy name
Through Christ our Lord

Two other songs draw upon older texts: Gayle Salmond’s “The Lorica”, a modern reworking of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”  I love the original hymn, but enjoy singing this new telling of it.  The other is “Benediction.”  For those of us who pray Compline, this is Johnson’s adaptation of the ancient office hymn “Before the Ending of Day” (“Te Lucis Ante Terminum”).

While few other songs are modern retunings and rewordings of old prayers and hymns, still, I believe, the spirit of these songs is the spirit of the Great Tradition.  One of my favourites is “Praise the Father, Praise the Son,” whose chorus is thus:

Praise the Father, praise the Son
Praise the Spirit, three in one
Who was and is and is to come
All praise and honour and glory and power
O praise his name forever

Also great is “Embrace the Mystery,” a very short Eucharistic song (“Behold what you are / Become what you receive / Take up this bread and wine / Embrace the mystery”).  The other songs are also great and notably singable and full of grace, beauty, and truth, the same truths and ideas found in the traditional hymns.

Worship is not about how you feel.  It is not about your ability to connect with God.  It is about rendering praise to God and telling Him how much He is worth (worth + ship = worship).  It is extolling his Name.  We are, however, to worship Him in spirit and in truth.  Songs such as these help us focus our spirit so that we are singing more than mere words, as our minds focus their attention on the words — empty diction, empty syntax, empty grammar — and infuse them with meaning.

Whether you feel good, bad, or indifferent, singing a Gord Johnson song will help you focus your mind on God.  This is worship.

*I’m in Ottawa; my notes are in Toronto.  I’ll let you know later what the proper quotation is.

Music

I have some thoughts ensuing from my last post.  The first is about music.  This blog is primarily about classic Christianity as revealed through texts.  A discussion of Haydn’s Creation and the doctrine of creation is not about any classic texts of the faith, and a significant portion of it was about a teaching or idea.  However, a discussion of a piece of classical music such as that is consonant with the aims of Classic Christianity as seen in the sidebar on the main page.

The riches of the Great Tradition are not only locked away between the covers of books.  Another of the places where Christians can find the richness of the past ages is the arts.  Haydn’s Creation carries within it pieces of the tradition, truths that are timeless, enrobing them in the flesh of music.  The beauty of Haydn’s composition sings forth the beauty of creation.

Haydn’s Creation is but one example of many, but is an entrance into one facet of how music can carry the tradition through the ages.  Similar to Creation is Handel’s Messiah, also an oratorio, recounting the life and theology of the Messiah in beautiful music with words all taken from Scripture.  Within that tradition of performance-oriented classical music we also have Bach’s cantatas based on the passion narratives of the Gospels, Brahms’ German Requiem, and Stravinksy’s Symphony of Psalms among others.  All of this music captures in some way some aspect of the Great Tradition.  All of this music is worth listening to as music, as art.  And, I believe, all of this music is a vehicle of God’s grace and revelation.

Most Christian music, however, has been composed for use in worship.  The earliest surviving music is the chant of the ancient churches, Gregorian, Byzantine, Syrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Armenian.  Related to these are Anglican plainsong and the chant of the Slavic churches.  This music is filled with an austere beauty and able to create space for worship of a type that modern worship music does not.  The Renaissance produced music so beautiful one imagines that the angels in heaven must use it as they gather around the Throne of the Almighty, especially Palestrina but also Tallis, Allegri, and others.  All of this ancient, beautiful music for worship stands within the same musical tradition and is very valuable.

Composers of classical music have also written music for times of worship.  Tchaikovsky wrote settings for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Monteverdi wrote Vespers.  Verdi and Mozart both wrote Requiems.  Vivaldi wrote a Mass.  Their music has also been applied to hymns by different lyricists, such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” providing the tune to “Joyful, Joyful.”

Also important is the tradition of hymnody.  I speak now of music with English lyrics.  These old hymns are worthy to be sung in congregations all of the world.  The best of them have resonant theology with captivating music.  My favourite hymnographers are Charles Wesley and John Mason Neale.  Some of my favourite hymns by other writers are “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,” “I Cannot Tell Why He Whom Angels Worship,” “As I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

In modern worship, these hymns sometimes fall through the cracks as we seek to be cool and contemporary and relevant, singing only the newest and hippest songs.  Yet these songs, these tunes with these words, connect us to the tradition of Christians who have gone before us, passing along their thoughts and theology, their beauty and sense of holiness.  I encourage leaders of worship to keep the hymns in the repertoire amongst the newer songs.

Exciting to my mind are some new hymns that have been produced (we’re talking hymn as a musical genre).  The only things that come immediately to mind are “In Christ Alone,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”  Other musicians who have kept links to the old music, old poems, and old theology have produced new music for liturgical settings, as John Michael Talbot who has essentially produced the entire Mass and Steve Bell who has a version of the Sanctus, “Holy Lord.”  Steve Bell has also recorded musically new yet truly old songs on his album Devotion, though these are not all his own compositions.

A study of the old music is important for those who wish to engage in the creation of new music.  Some churches act as though only the old is worth singing; this is not true, for the old was once the new.  Some churches act as though only the new is worth singing; this is also not true, for the new is untested and untried.  A combination of the two is worth singing, in my opinion.  However, a knowledge of this old music, of Haydn, Palestrina, Tchaikovsky, Wesley,  and Neale, of what has gone before, will undoubtedly deepen the new music, as a knowledge of old poetry can deepen new poetry, that of old theology new theology, that of old paintings new paintings and so forth.

Since we’re talking about music, I do listen to some new Christian music besides John Michael Talbot and Steve Bell.  I am a fan of Rich Mullins and dc Talk (both “old” new music by now), some Newsboys, Jars of Clay, and Third Day as well as a certain amount of new worship songs by the likes of Matt Redman and people whose names escape me (except — because I worship at Little T — Mike Janzen and — because I’m kind of oldskool — Graham Kendrick).

Music is an important part of the life of church, ancient and modern, old and new.  We should tap the resources of this vast tradition that spreads out behind as well as all around us.

Unspiritual Reason to Read the Bible #2: Everything Other Than Books

We have seen how reading the Bible, which is one of the foundational documents of western culture, helps you understand books here. It’s helpful for pretty much everything else as well, you know.

Films: The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Robe, Prince of Egypt, The Passion of the Christ, The Mission, Godspell, Into Great Silence, and others I can’t think of because I’m not a big enough film buff.  There are doubtless lots of movies that play on biblical ideas, stories, and morals.

Art: Michelangelo, Raphael, Byzantine & Russian Icons, Mediaeval manuscripts, Bernini, Jerome Bosch, El Greco, Rembrandt, et al.

Music: Haydn’s Creation, Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St. John Passion, Christian rock, some stuff by Creed, some Scandinavian Power Metal from the ’80s, some stuff by Lifehouse, Strauss’ Salome, hymns, Christmas carols.

Morals & Ethics: Most of these, at least the traditional ones (not counting individuality) are based in the values upheld by the biblical narrative.  If you want to get to the heart of how our society operates, you must get to the heart of the Bible.  And once you’ve got the heart of the Bible, you see how short our society falls and has fallen from the ideals that helped guide it to where it is.

I believe that the Bible helps with the understanding of all of these things.  It will also help make sense of a lot of specifically Christian things, like the liturgy and why your neighbour may engage in certain practices.  Missing out on the Bible misses out on these things, though.  So it’s worth a read.