Music as sign of salvation

Sermon preached* in Saint Chad’s on the Knavesmire, York, on Sunday 19 June 2016 in celebration of the 50th birthday of the York Chapter House Choir

*recollected and tidied in tranquillity and reconstructed from notes

Lections: Nehemiah 12.27-43; Luke 8.26-39

We who gather for this celebration of the first half-century of the Chapter House Choir are a little like those who have agreed a date for a glittering summer occasion, only to have the weather turn wintry as the day has approached. Although we come together to rejoice (and rejoice we shall), we are all too aware of destructive forces at work in the world. The murder a few days ago of Jo Cox, a distinguished young humanitarian and Member of Parliament, has cast a heavy pall on an already unhappy nation that has been divided and struggling to engage in any edifying debate concerning our future in the European Union. This took place just a few days after the murder of 49 entirely innocent people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida (the deadliest mass shooting in United States history). And, of course, these are just two items of news in the apocalyptic chronicle of death to which we are relentlessly exposed. From fundamental ecological fears, to the ceaseless malignity of fundamentalist terror organisations, to the apparent lack of optimism with which observers await the eventual outcome of the American presidential election: wherever we turn, rejoicing seems very far away, as the rose garden is storm-ravaged and overgrown with thorns.

But although we lament, we do not despair, for we find in the celebration of music not merely a distraction from care and anguish, but a means and model for creating the world afresh.

The choir, as we have already heard, is a powerful sign of the harmony it exists to provide, and a perfect example of that complementarity in which none may say to another (certainly not to an industrious and tuneful other), “we have no need of thee” (cf I Corinthians 12.21). Each is needed and has an uncontested place from which to enjoy the satisfaction of creating something beautiful and good, enabling the elevation of hearts and minds to God, and participating in God’s ongoing creative work.

The choir is thus in a condition markedly distant from that of the Gadarene demoniac who features in today’s gospel reading. Consigned to solitude by the legion spirits that inhabit and sometimes drive him, he lives in a state of dereliction, sitting naked and alone among the tombs, as in an anteroom of death. Like a dog, he is confined, but the demons that hold him are stronger than the chains that bind. They push and pull him in all the wild ways of this foreign Gentile land that is supposedly across the border from God’s concern and purview. The demoniac is, in every sense, held to be beyond redemption; but it is within this unpromising place of dislocation and discord that Jesus offers him not only health but salvation — the assurance of being brought safe within the walls, made whole within the generous bounds of God’s love and the beneficent regard of friend and neighbour.

This is the process expressed liturgically in the passage we have heard from Nehemiah. By dedicating the walls of the city that is being rebuilt after the return of those who have been exiled, and by the sending of not one but two choirs around them to perform a joyful repertoire of music loud enough to be heard from afar, the forces of chaos and disorder within the sacred enclosure are brought under control, leaving the citizens free to worship God and to live in harmony with their community.[1]

This is, as very happy chance would have it, precisely the function of a chapter house. Here, as the effectively circular construction at York demonstrates well, the canons gather to exercise their voice and place in chapter, to speak and to listen so that, gathered round Scripture and Constitutions, the good ordering and service of the whole community might be maintained.

Appropriately, the craftsmen who built the roof of the York Chapter House were instructed to set the Lamb and Flag as the central motif. This quintessential image of the triumphant Christ (Revelation 7.10,17) invites us to consider the life of the community as one that is lived under Christ’s lordship, and one through which the life of earth and heaven are drawn together in ever-closer union.

This sense of a community in touch with, and transformed by God, reminds us that singing provides an opportunity for people to experience two of the things for which human beings ardently long: first, we are desperate to belong to a group engaged in a collaborative venture; secondly, we are hungry for the assurance that our life in some sense touches and participates in reality, — and not just the gas bills and hard-day-at-work reality; we crave an inkling that what we are doing might have some sort of resonance at the heart of things, raising us all to a decent height above the trivial concerns of survival and sensation. Our hearts, in short, are ‘restless for God’ (St Augustine).

This desire to belong to a community of shared purpose is not new. The Letter to the Ephesians refers to the Church being a body whose members are ‘subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’. This is advocated by the author as part of a wise approach to living in dark days, and is created and demonstrated by singing ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ to each other (Ephesians 5.15-19). Such singing, like all singing, will require first an attentiveness to the key and pulse in which the music is to be made, as well as a continued listening to the whole community to which we seek to be mutually subject: this is a timely reminder that in many languages audience and obedience have a single linguistic root: to hear is indeed to obey.

Even given the crucial role of singers, this growth in community is not solely the fruit of individuals working together on a shared project. One theologian reminds us that there is something in the nature of music itself that demonstrates the way in which communities aggregate, always finding space for harmonious addition, just as sounds themselves are able to merge with one another, running like colours, flowing together in harmony and counterpoint to produce an ‘edgeless expansion’[2] of endless creativity and potential.

A community dedicated to music will learn to imitate this capacity for generous growth: ‘the inclusive and uncrowded space of song embodies a distinctive unity’[3], always attracting new people into its harmonies. Each singer retains a distinctive voice and makes a unique contribution, but the pursuit is collaborative rather than competitive and demolishes dividing walls, just as the death of Christ has made Jews and Gentiles one, and has broken down the dividing wall between us’ (Ephesians 2.14).

This is the salvation of incorporation which Jesus offers the demoniac. It is the invitation offered to us in this and every Eucharist. And it is the mark and means of a healthy society, as, ‘clothed and in our right mind’ (Luke 8.35) we ‘feed upon reality’ through our engagement with music, certainly with serious music that is mined laboriously from the depths of human experience, or spun artfully from strands of vision and hope. ‘Precisely like that patient openness to God that is religious contemplation, a musical event is –whether we know it or not– a moral event, a recovery of the morality of time.’[4]

This is the ground of our bold claim at the outset that we find in the celebration of music a means for creating the world afresh. In performing this art whose nature is to grow outwards in a harmonious annexation of silence or cacophony, singers too find their unique place from which to contribute to the corporate endeavour. The inherent strangeness of the individual is not erased, but assumed into a collegiate whole whose diversity and unity are a model for society and an image of salvation. Our nation and world need to learn these lessons now. We need to hear the music of the choirs as our shared spaces are dedicated for habitation; we need to speak and listen from within the common ground of the Chapter House; and we need to learn from the gospel what can be achieved through coming close to Jesus. For the demoniac, all that is fractured and wayward is bought into a healthy unity by Christ’s saving action. We too might place before him in prayer whatever is warring or jarring or incomplete within us. And if such a thing is very far from your established custom, you might nonetheless dare to join the demoniac in asking his one urgent question, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’

But do be careful: the answer may be more than we had bargained for.

[1] See Joseph Blenkinsopp’s SCM Commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah.

[2] Jeremy Begbie, quoted by David Ford in Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (CUP, 1999), 121.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rowan Williams in Ford op. cit., 123.