Transfiguration and Music

11 February 2018 at 11:00 am

The Venerable David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Archdeacon of Westminster

The Gospel reading today (Mark 9.2-9) speaks to us about Jesus’ transfiguration, and it raises the question as to how our lives today may be transfigured. In other words how each of us may be spiritually transformed.

I would like to suggest that an important dimension to this may be found in music, through which our lives may be renewed and re-invigorated.

At this Sung Eucharist we bring all that we are before God, who in turn feeds us through word and sacrament, music and liturgy.

We give thanks for the fact that music both here at St Margaret’s and next door at the Abbey, is integral to worship and that our lives, in St Paul’s words, are meant to be acts of worship. That is lives given over to the service of God and one another.

In this sense, we should be constantly worshipping God. When we consider the place of music, the key question isn’t ‘what are we going to do with our music?,’ but rather ‘what can God do in and through our music?’

If we cast our minds back, over the centuries, we soon see that the Christian religion and music have gone hand in hand together from the days of Gregorian Plainchant to Oliver Messiaen.

Even the Protestant Karl Bath admitted there is music in heaven. He said, ‘When the angels sing for God, they sing Bach; when they sing for themselves, they sing Mozart’.

When we think of their great church Masses, especially the Lennox Berkeley setting for five voices that we hear today, its not difficult to recognise that music does indeed have its own ecstasy.

And, of course, there’s ecstasy in religion too: Jesus led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white such as no one on earth could bleach them.

Sometimes we have religious and musical ecstasy combined, as in that “glance of God” section in The Dream of Gerontius. There’s no doubt that God can do incredible things through the place of music in worship.

But it also means that music in worship must never be an end in itself. The ultimate purpose of music in worship is to glorify God, not to be tempted to highlight the virtuosity of the musicians, or the stunning arrangements, or even the subtlety of the improvisations.

It means that while we should always pursue the highest possible standards in church music, in the last resort, its more important that our music is transparent to God, a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.

To this end, its worth reminding ourselves that the Holy Spirit is given to us in order that we might be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and through him, might come to know the love and forgiveness of the Father.

Such transformation into the likeness of Christ can take many different forms and can be found in many different ways.

Alexander Pope complained that many people only go to church to hear the music. I don’t think he should really have complained, because in many ways music is the direct presentation of what worship is.

I say this because music is the representation in sound of the features of the universe which God created.

When we hear harmony, we sense through the ear those relations of number and proportion that resound throughout all time and space.

Artur Schopenhauer put this better than anybody when he wrote: Music is the soul of the drama or liturgy.

It expresses the true nature of the actions and words and makes us immediately acquainted with the innermost soul of the events…. Music does not express this or that particular affliction, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment or peace of mind; but affliction, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment and peace of mind – as they are in themselves.

We learn that worship isn’t about trying to break through to a distant God ‘out there’; its about God sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts so that we can cry “Abba, Father”; so that we can enjoy the relationship Jesus enjoys with his Father.

Music in worship needs to be caught up in this movement of transfiguration. For music is one of the many ways in which the Spirit binds us ever closer to Christ, so that through him we can be led into a deeper obedience and trust of the Father.

In worship there needs to be a sense, as Martin Luther put it, that ‘we have a brother in heaven’. Jesus has stood where we stand, and as we approach Lent we do well to recall again how God uses our weakness to make us strong in faith and love.

This facet of worship, which takes our fallen humanity seriously, cannot be ignored and certainly is not ignored in our music.

The wide repertoire established here at St Margaret’s confronts, among other things, the common human experiences of pain, protest, frustration, disappointment, and so on.

And likewise it must be faithful to the full faith of the church, reflecting its entire range: the horror of Golgotha, the glory of Easter, the inspiration of the holy saints, God’s tenderness as well as his hatred of sin, his boundless forgiveness as well as his passion for justice.

I think it goes without saying that we all recognise the fact that music in worship plays a fundamental role in strengthening church life.

At a very basic level, when a hymn is addressed directly to God its also a means of encouraging each other in our worship.

At a corporate level, musicians are very well aware that music in worship isn’t about individual or group ‘performance’, or asserting power over others, its all about enabling all to worship in spirit and in truth.

Music is important, liturgy is important, preaching is important, but ultimately we are redeemed not by the absorption of ideas or settings but rather by becoming members of Christ, that is, by coming into a fresh relation with the living Christ and thus, a fresh relation with each other.

I don’t believe its a question of old or new, but rather a mind-set which repeatedly and gently questions how the way we do things is somehow enabling that encounter.

We all know that music and liturgy are hugely helpful, but ultimately they can’t deliver that encounter on their own for only God can do that.

Our worship therefore should be an encounter with Christ through that highly specific cluster of events of life, and of death, and of resurrection.

Without the additional dimension and enhancement of music, the danger is that this that this encounter can be reduced to a rather generalised, all embracing, spirituality.

I draw to a close with one note of caution and one of encouragement:

Firstly the note of caution: Mindful of all the great benefits that music brings we do well to remember that sublime choral music in worship is not ultimately here to make us feel better, or to make us feel spiritual or to relax us and take our stress away.

All that would be very nice but that’s not actually what the gospel about. The gospel reminds us that we’re profoundly at odds with ourselves because we all need transformation, we all need to absorb God’s love into our very beings and be made whole in him.

And then the note of encouragement: There’s so much delightful and spine chilling music here on earth that we can be sure that there is music in heaven.

The sometime Dean of York, Eric Milner-White described heaven as a place where there is neither noise nor silence, ‘but one equal music’.

‘We are the music while the music lasts’, says Eliot; - and thank God the music lasts forever.

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