The [North American] Religious Education Association took for the theme of its 2013 Conference, “Coming Out Religiously”: Religion, the Public Sphere, and Religious Identity Formation. As a member, I received my invitation, but the cost of travel from Australia, both financial and physical, was too great. So I am grateful to read some of the papers from the Conference in the current issue of the Association’s journal.
There was evidently a rich exchange between Diane Moore and Charles Foster; Diane Moore from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School is acutely conscious of the need for citizens to become religiously literate. She takes as an aspirational point the American Academy of Religion’s definition:
… a religiously literate person will possess 1) a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs,
practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.
The more global citizens who can understand the cultural context of the world’s religions, she argues, the more violence – direct, structural and cultural – can be reduced.
- Quoted in Diane L. Moore, ‘Overcoming Religious Illiteracy’, Religious Education, 109(4) July-September 2014, 380
Charles Foster was keen to add to Dr Moore’s analysis. Not only do we need to learn from religions, we also need to be changed by our encounter with the sacred. As participants in religious traditions, we can live at greater depth, and we can be informed by the wisdom of our own and others’ religious traditions.
The ability to identify and compare religious traditions in other words, is not the same thing as recognizing in depth – or being confronted by – the sacred dimension of the mystery embedded in their practices. …
Religious education in this instance emphasizes the learning integral “to becoming” practicing participants in a religion’s traditions. Others among us are engaged in what might be called a religious education to draw on the wisdom and practices of their own religious traditions to participate competently in the mutuality of dialogue and critique with those of another religious education tradition. Still others among us join Diane Moore in a religious education in the public square to cultivate in persons capacities for discerning and analysing the role and place of religion in society.
- Charles R. Foster, ‘An Abbreviated Response to Diane Moore,’ Religious Education, 109(4) July- September 2014, 391 and 392.
Both Professor Foster and Dr Moore encourage me in my vocation as a religious educator. Just because I am technically retired does not give me a leave pass to stop teaching, or to cease writing. These issues are too important to leave alone.
It has just been announced that Australia writer Richard Flanagan has won the Man Booker prize for his novel Narrow Road to the Deep North. The chairman of the judging panel, Professor A.C. Grayling called Flanagan’s novel a ‘masterpiece’: high praise indeed.
While the story has universal appeal, it is also deeply Australian, asking – and answering – the profoundest of questions: what does it mean to love one another?
The novel takes us to events of World War II when prisoners of the Japanese were coerced to build a railway through the Thai jungle to Burma. Though explicitly fiction, it describes the events fully and exploits what novels do best: it humanises the characters. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.
Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. This is not love.
Dorrie Evans’ one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire. This is love of a sort, but not a compelling love.
However on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you, Sir.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else. This caring about mates, however flawed, approaches love.
At the heart of the novel is Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between the ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares in the novel to call it love.
Richard Flanagan has stated in interviews that he wanted The Narrow Road to the Deep North to be a love story. The novel is a multi-layered exploration of what it means to be human, with the central layer being the layer of love, brutal, surprising, passionate and real.
Jeffrey W, Driver, A Polity of Persuasion: Gift and grief of Anglicanism,
Cascade Books 2014 (paperback 184 pages) (from $AUD 22 online, or available at St John’s Books. Fremantle.)
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Published in Anglican Messenger, September 2014
I was born an Anglican. My first memories are of Saint Mary’s in Tambellup, now sadly de-consecrated, with its emphasis on Percy Dearmer – necessarily stripped down to suit the bush environment. I thought, of course, that this simple Anglo-Catholicism was the norm. That’s what all Anglicans were like.
At boarding school, I soon realised that the robed choir and six-altar-servers-on-Sunday at Christ Church, Claremont was the norm. Only on the very eve of leaving Perth to study theology in Melbourne I discovered that there were different types of Anglicans, and they were called ‘evangelicals’. In outlining the differences for me the late Canon Brian Albany expressed great sorrow because he knew he was ending my innocence!
Four decades on, my understanding of the Anglican Communion is a little more nuanced than in 1972. I know that there are shades of grey; and I also know that there are grave differences between Anglicans. It is no longer a matter of simply accepting that we have cousins in Sydney or wherever who though a bit different to us are still family. The divergent opinions thrown up first by the ordination of women and then by homosexuality in the short term are irreconcilable.
Jeffrey Driver, Archbishop of Adelaide, sets out in A Polity of Persuasion to ask whether the attempts of the Anglican Communion to heal these rifts have been appropriate and whether they are likely to bring success. He gives helpful summaries highlighting the principles and theology of each of the reports commissioned by the Communion and leading up to the Anglican Covenant.
He uses the 18-year (or more) process to the ordination of women in the Australian Church as a case study illustrating how big changes need a great deal of time; a preparedness to let go of our agendas and expect new outcomes; effort to be made both through the legal processes; but also, and much more importantly, through informal ongoing contacts where trusting relationships can be built and partners can be persuaded of the rightness of a change.
Driver calls this cluster of elements ‘a polity of persuasion’, and his term has been taken up more broadly than in our national Church.
He insists that differences must be addressed. He notes that the Vatican did not accept the first report from ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) because ARCIC’s aim of finding common ground meant that Rome couldn’t see where Anglican belief was clearly articulated.
Archbishop Jeffrey has been a bishop since 2001 involved in the work on the Anglican Covenant. He proposed enabling legislation in 2004 for the ordination of women to the episcopate. I was not surprised to learn of his background in journalism from the way he demystifies complex debates and principles. His snapshot story of the ordination of Seabury to be the first bishop in the American church illustrates not only the flexibility of Anglicanism, but also Driver’s gift for narrative and humour.
A Polity of Persuasion clearly draws on Driver’s Ph.D. thesis, but it is not dry academia. He outlines the history of our differences over the past generation with clarity, always keeping an eye on the principles and personalities involved. He gives good reasons for the church to be patient and to wait on the Holy Spirit. He calls on Anglicans to treat one another non-violently and respectfully.
This book will encourage those who are directly engaged in the work of the Anglican Covenant and in General Synod, and will inform those who stand on the sidelines of this institutional work but still love the Anglican Church and want it to continue to prosper. Reading it burrows out of you any idea that your Anglicanism is the norm and allows time for the Holy Spirit to lead all of us to the new place.
Susan R. Pitchford tssf, The Sacred Gaze: Contemplation and the healing of the self, Liturgical Press 2014, (Paperback 168 pages)
Available from $16 approx. online.
Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf
Gaze: to look with love into the face of another. Gazing requires attention over time; and gazing brings the one who gazes closer to the other whose face is beheld.
Susan Pitchford, as a member of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis, is the right person to introduce readers to gazing as “Contemplation and the Healing of the Self”, as she describes gazing in the sub-title of this accessible and helpful book. Pitchford uses Saint Clare of Assisi as her springboard for the idea of gazing as prayer, in particular, Saint Clare’s letter to Saint Agnes of Prague, where St Clare invites Agnes to gaze on Christ as a mirror.
Susan Pitchford first places this idea in her academic field of sociology to understand how a loving gaze can lead to the healing of self by correcting the images we have of ourselves.
We begin the journey by acknowledging that we are gazed at: God looks with love on our face. What God sees there, because God is love, is the self that is made whole, not the wounded and sinful self of which we are so conscious. When we discover this true self, we are set free to pray in true freedom. We then can gaze on the face of God.
Pitchford is conscious that this way of talking about prayer can easily be empty words. A useful chapter describes how different personalities can use their imaginations to engage in gazing: for some, this will be visual or verbal, for others auditory or kinaesthetic. All are ways to behold the face of God, to bring our attention to focus on God present with us. How to gaze with words or scenes from scripture or with clay or music attractively detailed. These practical suggestions are a strength of The Sacred Gaze.
Like Sister Ilia Delio in her books on Franciscan prayer, Susan Pitchford traces a threefold movement of prayer: from attention to gazing to transformative action. As Pitchford writes, ‘If our gazing at Christ doesn’t cause us to turn a compassionate gaze at the world, and motivate us to compassionate action, then we need to check on whether it’s really Christ we’ve been gazing at. If we know nothing else about Jesus, we can be certain at least of this; staying aloof from the needs of the world is not his style.’ (page 138)
The Sacred Gaze begins in Franciscan prayer and sociological insight, but roams widely and useful across much of the literature of contemplative prayer. I enjoyed the insistence with which Pitchford connects this material with ordinary life. It is encouraging that ordinary people like me and you can set out on the journey of the sacred gaze, being held in love, discovering the true self, and acting in freedom with compassion for the world.
Christ … withdraws at the very point where he could dominate. We in turn are thus required to experience the peril of the absence of God, the modern experience par excellence. … To imitate Christ is to refuse to impose oneself as a model and to always efface oneself before others. To imitate Christ is to do everything to avoid being imitated. … The death of the gods, which so frightened Nietzsche, is simply the same thing as an essential withdrawal in which Christ asks us to see the new face of the divine.
- René Girard, Battling to the End, Conversations with Benoît Chantre, Michigan State University Press 2010, page 125, Quoted in Scott Cowdell, Rene Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis, University of Notre Dame Press 2013.
The Reed and the Spring
On the cape the worlds of this kingdom disappear,
Invisible vessels that towards Him you steer,
When will we see your light-house flood the space with light
And banish before it the sombre squadron of night?
What celestial map showing how to take the promontory
Are you carrying with you as you race around eternity?
And when will you reach the stopover of prayer
to pick up the Eternal One if the harbours won’t let you there?
When on the sheltered docks of love and unreason
Did you load onto the admiral’s nave
Some fugitive demon a dream on the run from prison,
The chief of stars, pilot in the starry wave?
In heaven’s calm expanses disappear
The ephemeral wakes of vessels of prayer.
Has the ship’s astrologer hoisted the beacon of humanity
Far from earth on the Holy Spirit’s firmity?
Translation into English by Ted Witham 2014
Le cap sur ce royaume ou les mondes s’effacent,
Invisibles vaisseaux qui gouvernez vers Lui,
Quand verrons-nous vos feux illuminer l’espace
Et chasser devant eux l’escadre de la nuit ?
Pour affronter le cap quelle carte céleste
Avez-vous emportée en vous courses du Ciel ?
Et quand toucherez-vous, si nul port ne vous reste,
L’escale de prière où l’on prend l’Éternel ?
Avez-vous embarqué sur la nef amirale
Aux darses de l’amour et de la déraison
Quelque démon du songe évadé de prison,
Chef d’étoiles, pilote en la mer sidérale ?
Dans les grands calmes du ciel où s’évanouit
Le sillage évasif des vaisseaux de prière
L’astrologue du bord a-t-il loin de la terre
Hissé le feu de l’homme au mât du Saint-Esprit ?
H. Bosco, ‘Le Roseau et la source’, Poèmes,
Paris : Gallimard, 1949, pp. 266-267
Hugh Jackson, Australians and the Christian God, Melbourne, VIC: Mosaic Resources 2013
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Review first published in November 2013 issue of Anglican Messenger.
Is Australia a Christian nation? Or have we been taken over by secularists? It matters. Not only does it affect the place of the churches in Australian society, it also has an impact, for example, on whether God should be mentioned in the nation’s Constitution.
In Australians and the Christian God Hugh Jackson weaves a narrative from detailed historical evidence. He shows that convicts resented the desultory attempts to muster them for compulsory church parades. Only a tiny minority of “respectable” citizens were ever converted to evangelical Christianity in the 19th Century.
Dr Jackson sketches the philosophical and social environment of the enlightenment.
The influence of the churches on society should have been evident in the legislation in the colonies establishing education but the secular view won out in every state. Instead of education that was thoroughly Christian, most colonial education allowed only for visiting special religious teaching and general religious teaching in the curriculum.
There was a minor burst of activity in both Protestant and Catholic Churches in the 1950s. The Billy Graham crusades created excitement, but the figures show that there was no increase in attendance in the years following.
Across the 20th Century Jackson notes a distancing from God. The evidence marshalled by Hugh Jackson reflects a nuanced reality. Australians may gather in awe and respect for the sacrifice made by fellow-citizens in war, but their attitude to the God of Nicene Creed is a thudding indifference.
Hugh Jackson is a reliable narrator of Australia’s connection to the Christian God. He graduated in theology from Cambridge before spending some years in Anglican ministry. His doctoral work and academic career were in history. He remains a deeply committed Christian and a careful observer of the ecclesiastical scene.
Australians and the Christians’ God will be the standard in this area for years to come. I recommend it highly for clergy and all with an interest in the church’s place in Australian society.
(Reviewed by Ted Witham)
It’s no surprise that in reading Evelyn Underhill on Jacopone that you are reading two mystics at once: the 13th century Franciscan and the 20th Century Anglican, Underhill herself.
While unfolding the life of Jacopone, Underhill shows what a great teacher of mysticism she is. Her understanding of Jacopone’s progress in the spiritual life is penetrating and fascinating, and to draw this portrait, she opens up the literature on mysticism in an accessible way.
Jacopone trained as a lawyer, although it seems that much of his time as a student was spent studying poetry and literature. In particular he was fascinated by the new vernacular poetry being created in the dialects of the Italian peninsula with its roots in the love songs of the jongleurs.
He practised for some years as a celebrity lawyer, enjoying the comforts of the good life. He later threw over all the material trappings of success to become a Franciscan Tertiary, spending perhaps ten years in the rough habit of a Tertiary, probably wandering from town to town spreading the gospel message through songs and poetry.
He felt a particular closeness to the ageing Brother Leo still living at the Portiuncula near Assisi and to the zelanti, the party within the friars who emphasised absolute poverty. Eventually he sought entry to the convent at Todi. The friars there took some time to accept him: they were of the more relaxed party, and were perhaps reluctant to accept a strong personality at the extreme other end of the Franciscan movement. Why did Jacopone choose the Todi friary? Certainly the town of Todi was his home. But it may also have been a genuine reflection of his humility. He chose to submit himself to superiors with views quite different from his own, and he agreed to remain a lay brother and not seek the privileges of clerical office within the Order.
He seemed to want the quiet life. But to break a deadlock in the 1294 Conclave his friend, the hermit Pietro Angelerio, was unexpectedly elected Pope Celestine V. Celestine’s administration was a disaster. It appears that Jacopone, the trained lawyer, travelled to assist the Pope, probably at his court in Naples.
At the same time, tensions within the Franciscan Order grew even greater, and, perhaps thinking that Jacopone’s presence in the papal court would help, the friars appealed to Celestine to sort the Order out. Celestine’s solution was drastic. He invited all the zelanti to leave the Friars Minor altogether and to come directly under his protection. Because it would break their connection with St Francis of Assisi, neither the zelanti nor the moderati wanted this, so Jacopone returned to Todi, disillusioned, and probably saddened to watch his friend’s papacy spiral downwards in chaos until Celestine resigned later that year and returned to being a hermit.
Jacopone spent the rest of his life in relative seclusion in the convent at Todi. His poems and songs reveal how he grew spiritually leaving behind the wild joy of his years as a Tertiary, to learn how to order love and to integrate his being as a Christian, and finally to detach himself from everything except God’s grasp of him.
His reputation for saintliness continued to grow in his lifetime, particularly among Tertiaries. Guilds of Tertiaries gathered to sing Jacopone’s songs, often belting them out like rugby fans singing Abide With Me, but also writing their own sensitive spiritual songs in the vernacular.
Jacopone’s story reveals the interplay between the interior and exterior life: how as a Tertiary, he lived la santa pazia (the holy madness). His wandering life reflected the roller-coaster emotions of the jubilo, the interior stage of the soul’s progress, characterised by “immoderate transports, tears, raptures, despairs” (p. 132). This early stage was an inebriation, which, as Jacopone wandered the beautiful Umbrian countryside, he saw reflected in all Creation and in the Creator. (p. 79)
Jacopone strikingly believed that God does not fit with narrow-mindedness.
Dio non alberga en core stretto
tant’è grande quant’hai affetto,
povertate ha si’ gran petto
che chi alberga deitate.
God does not dwell in narrow hearts,
the larger the heart the greater the desire for God -
poverty has such a great heart
that Deity dwells there.
Eventually Jacopone realised that he needed to be more ordered in love. He passed from Richard Rolle’s stage of “fire and song”, through the stage of intellectual integration, ‘’mentis sublevatio, in which the illuminated mind beholds things above itself” (Richard of St. Victor, p. 231) to a stage of letting go completely to find “Love beyond all language, imageless Good.”(p. 225)
Jacopone writes of this final spiritual stage:
non c’è divisione
che te da lui retragga.
Tu bevi e se’ bevuta
en transformazione. (Lauda XCI)
You possess – and you are the possessed,
in such a complete union
there is no division
that can drag you away from him.
You drink – and you are the drink
in this transformation.
The saint discovers that God’s love is as ordinary and amazing as gravity, felt as the soul’s weight, carrying it to its right place; God’s love is “the secret of stability, the rule of the Universe”. (p. 235)
From his time as a travelling Tertiary onwards, when he wrote his early songs and ballads, until his death, Jacopone wrote songs, poems and satirical verse in Umbrian. In particular, the Laude (Praises) deserve to be better known. They resonate well with our modern sensibility being both direct and yet clear in describing complexities of the spiritual journey.
In January 2013, HardPress Publishing produced a good quality reproduction of Evelyn Underhill’s 1919 work available online for about $AUD 31, or the original J.M. Dent Publisher version is available for loan (free) through the Australian Public Library System. For those who read Umbrian, the Laude are available online through the Gutenberg project at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/29977.
Talk for the Naturaliste U3A Annual General Meeting introducing my 2014 course on World Religions.
Ted Witham, October 25, 2013
September 11, 2001 was a day on which many people thought the world would be better off without religion. My wife Rae and I were going to St David’s Church in Applecross at that time, and the priest there, Kay Goldsworthy (who later became the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church in Australia) invited the whole Applecross community to a service of reflection on the Sunday afternoon following.
The church was packed. I had not seen so many people crammed into the pews for many years. It seems that we human beings on one hand want to get rid of religion, and on the other hand we can’t do without it.
We hear noisy atheists like Richard Dawkins claiming that it is child abuse to bring up children in a particular faith. We hear informed and respectful atheists like Phillip Adams on ABC radio making a more reasoned case against religion. But people still flock to hear the Dalai Lama. There are still more people in church on a Sunday morning in Australia than there are at all AFL games on a weekend – though I fear that may change soon.
I believe passionately that we need to understand religion if we are to understand what’s going in the world. I’m not sure whether we are in a good position in Australia to understand. While two-thirds of us ticked “Christian” as our religion in the last census, we would have to concede that for many of us that’s a heritage statement. We’re Christian in the same way that we are European. It doesn’t affect our daily lives very much anymore. We’re actually Australians. And as Australians, we’ve never been strong on religion. Many of our forebears came to Australia as convicts or free settlers, and not from the church-going classes. The attempts to force convicts in Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land to compulsory church parades probably made anti-church feelings worse.
At the absolute height of our church-going in the nineteen-fifties, maybe nearly 50% of Australians went to church every month. Now it’s down to between 6 and 10% depending on which survey you believe.
But to understand the US, we need to understand their enthusiasm for religion; how, for example, in a country that appears on the surface to be like ours, people murder doctors who perform abortions. We have strong contrary views about abortion, but not murderous ones. Those views can only be explained in terms of American Christianity.
Some Muslims say they want to establish a caliphate from Malaysia across the Philippines and Indonesia and the top of Australia. You’ve seen the scary maps. But do all one billion Muslims want this? Is this what the Qur’an teaches?
Up to one in six of the families in the Perth suburbs of Murdoch and Winthrop are of Chinese origin. Our second biggest trade partner – and growing – is China. Taoism teaches a certain way of bettering oneself, to become a noble, by being natural and harmonious, it’s called wu wei. It includes the “Three Jewels” of compassion, moderation and humility… and getting ahead by education. This strand of Chinese religion is very helpful in understanding how they think and relate to others.
The civil war in Syria and the ongoing conflict in Iraq is between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Australia has accepted 500 refugees from the Syrian conflict. We ought to know more about them than just the bare fact that they are Muslims.
There’s a propaganda war being fought between the hard-line Saudis who spend huge amounts of oil money to promote their Wahhabi view of Islam. They build mosques in India and pay Imams’ wages around the world. Al-Qaeda came out of Wahhabi Islam. On the other hand the government of Qatar funds the English-language news channel Al-Jazeera. Their aim is to challenge the spin of both Arab and Western governments as an expression of their faith.
Or propaganda closer to home is the Malaysian court last week upholding a government ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” for God. This ignores nearly 2,000 years of usage by Arab Christians, Jews and Hindus and probably 1600 years of usage by Indonesian and Malay Christians. “No,” the ruling Muslims proclaim, “the word belongs to us, and if you use it, you will serve a prison term.” Interesting times.
The course that I offer next year will run for just 1 hour a week for 12 weeks. This will be time only to scratch the surface, even if we restricted ourselves to the most populous religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religion. What I propose is to take one aspect, holiness, and discover with you what it means in eight or nine religious groups to experience holiness. We may find in the end that the idea of holiness turns out to be too Christian and western to do justice to some of the other religions, but it will give us place to stand and explore and not be overwhelmed, because otherwise there is so much to know.
Each week I will talk or show a video for 20 or 30 minutes and then allow you to discuss the ideas that have been raised. I will aim to be respectful but not uncritical of people’s beliefs, including my own. I am a convinced Christian, but this group is not an exercise to persuade you of any particular belief or idea – it’s an opportunity to help us be better informed and understand a little better complex and important happenings in our world.
My sermon for the Third Order Convocation
Sunday 15 September 2013 – The Stigmata
Loving God through music
God takes human art very seriously. This weekend has reminded us of God’s interest in art. Anne has introduced us to icons which lead many to worship and may help us worship God too. Asta and others reminded us of the importance of play in art. Of course God has chosen as God’s principal means of communication with us a book full of parables, like that of the pearl we just heard, and poetry and insightful novels like Job and Ruth and Joseph and glorious liturgical praise-poems like those in Revelation.
The art form I know best is music. My Grandad was the first to tell me that you can tell how sincere a person’s faith is from the way he sings. I didn’t know then that he was quoting Thomas Hardy who was quoting John Wesley! It’s true that you can tell from a person’s voice something of their emotional state, and it’s true that singing leads many of us to worship.
We can take our lead from Jesus. We know that he sang. In the synagogues of his time – as today – the Scriptures are always sung. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue and took down the scroll of Isaiah and began to read, he chanted. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he sang. In our parish in Busselton, we are learning a new sung version of the Lord’s Prayer, and some people are objecting. I smile because I know that Jesus would have chanted his prayer both to help memorisation and also to convey awe and reverence: [sing] “Our Father in heaven.” The disciples sang a hymn on their way to the Mount of Olives.
Broadening our view of Jesus from Jesus the man to Jesus the Christ who was with the Father from the beginning, the Wisdom who was beside the Creator, we know that Wisdom played (Proverbs 8:31). Some scholars believe that Wisdom, the Christ, was playing a musical instrument. In Job, the “morning stars sang together”. Christ is the morning star (Rev. 22:16), so if we conflate Job and Revelation, we can hear the eternal Christ – the morning star – still singing. John Calvin says that Christ is the Precentor, the lead singer in heaven.
Great theologians of the 20th Century like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were accomplished musicians. Music, they said, especially like that of Mozart and Bach, invites us into the Gospel like parables.
But I think the importance of singing and worship is not just hi-falutin’ like that. When we sing in worship, we have to listen to each other and take into account each others’ voices. It’s nice to have a choir or a strong voice to give us a good idea of the pitch and the pace, but it’s the reality of hearing our relationships as the Body of Christ that strikes me as important. We hear each other, we give way to each other in love, we allow the Body to change us and improve us.
Most Sundays as we listen to each other we hear high voices and low voices, adult voices and children’s voices. Occasionally some brave tenor will sing his part. The voices weave together to create something new and striking. We are transformed as individuals and as a community.
Over the last 10 years my attendance at church has been hit and miss because of my health. And I do miss it. I miss receiving the sacrament in company; I miss the people; and I really miss the singing. The music incarnates the Church for me. The Roman Catholics at Vatican II hit on something when they said that “the incarnation brings heaven’s song to earth so that earthly singers can join” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy §83). We sing and we become the Body of Christ here and beyond here.
Singing reveals emotion. How often have we heard people say, “Oh I can’t sing.” Sometimes they might mean they are worried about singing in tune, but more seriously I think they’re worried about what people will think of them. My daughter says to me, “Dad, you sing too loudly and I get embarrassed.” It’s easy to be put off.
But be encouraged to sing. Be encouraged by Jesus for whom singing was important. Be encouraged because of what happens when you allow your voice to come out. Your sisters and brothers will hear the emotions you reveal and will accept you and love you for those emotions. Your voice with its emotions will become part of the rich tapestry of sound. And when we all allow the song to sing in us, when we let go and let the music happen, then we allow Christ to sing through us.
In a few moments we will renew our promises as novices and as professed. We will sing solo for a bit and allow ourselves, our whole lives to be sung by Christ, his instruments, his voice, his song.
Clement of Alexandria said back in the 2nd Century, “Christ plays the instrument of creation (especially the human part of it), Christ sings the true song, and Christ himself is the new song played by the Father.”
It’s a wonderful thought that may have occurred also to Francis playing air violin on two sticks. We are a musical instrument, and if we let go in the music, Christ plays us, Christ sings us, Christ lifts us up to the Father.
Please sing with me:
Father, we adore you,
Lay our lives before you,
How we love you.
This sermon much inspired by the essays in Jeremy Begbie’s excellent Resonant Witness on music and theology.