There are many joys that arise from choral music. One of the greatest joys for me is the discovery of new words and unpacking their meaning through different musical interpretations.
It is through choral music that I first became aware of the poet Thomas Traherne (c. 1636–1674).
This year, the choir will sing A Meditation by English composer Francis Pott (b. 1957) who sets select lines from Traherne's Centuries of Meditations.
There is great food for thought here, especially as the Church embarks on a holy Lent.
An empty book is like an Infant’s Soul, in which anything may be written. Do you not feel yourself drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing? Things strange yet common, incredible, yet known; most high, yet plain; Infinitely profitable, but not esteemed. Is it not a great thing that you should be Heir of the World? To conceive aright and enjoy the world is to conceive the Holy Ghost, And to see His Love: Love that is deeper than at first it can be thought. Love never ceaseth But in endless things. To cease is to draw upon ourselves infinite darkness: Which now I unlearn, and become… a little child again, That I may enter into the Kingdom of God.
Thomas Traherne (c. 1636–1674)
Here is a recording of A Meditation
We at the blog at Sinden.org have been skeptical of the so-called "Ashes to Go" phenomenon in the Episcopal Church for many years. Initially this was because no one else seemed to be skeptical of it at all. At least not publicly.
In the intervening years we are more convinced that the position we have argued is the right one, and we've learned we are not alone in our dislike for this practice.
And Mary Davenport Davis at Vested Interest has also written on the topic this year.
To begin this journey together, I believe that we do have to be physically together, for longer than a brief touch and in more than a one-on-one encounter. When I receive the ashes on my forehead abruptly, on my way from one thing to another, that time and space is lacking, and one of two things happens: Either I dodge the issue and fail to engage with mortality; or it steals up on me as I walk away, and I am left struggling with it alone.
But people love it, I hear. It moves them so much. The fact that "Ashes to Go" is so popular is a clear sign that people are hungry for the church to be more present in their public-facing lives. But surely we can find a more fruitful public ministry? Just because people are hungry doesn’t mean that what we are giving them is the right food.
Davis, Mary Davenport. "Ashes for Here". Vested Interest, 8 February 2016.
We commend the whole article to your reading
Update: See also, "Turn thou us from Sed Angli
Previously on the blog at Sinden.org:
ashes - a garland for, 2014
fire - ashes of a little, 2012
I am rather fond of the Two Short Anthems, Op. 103 by English composer Bernard Barrell, and I've written about "Truly the Lord is in this place" previously. After this past Sunday, I felt drawn to complete the set and address the other anthem in the set: "The grace of God has dawned".
The words come Titus 2:11.
“The grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind”
This wording is from the New English Bible. The New Revised Standard Version translates it somewhat differently, using ”appeared” instead of “dawned” ”salvation” in place of “healing”. But I think Barrell's selection of translation is fortuitous for the Epiphany season. Let me explain.
We read this passage from Titus on Christmas (propers for Christmas Day I). The Propers for Christmas III include the famous prologue hymn from the Gospel of John which is glowing with light imagery:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
This light shines throughout the Epiphany season. It is a star that leads the Magi to Jesus (Epiphany, Jan. 6).
Two apostolic feasts in the season have their own kind of light. It is a proverbial lightbulb that goes of for Peter ("You are the Christ") (Jan. 18). It is a blinding light that throws Paul to the ground at his conversion (Jan. 25).
In his song, Simeon proclaims Jesus to be "a light to lighten the gentiles" (Presentation, Feb. 2).
And then we come to the Gospel reading for the last Sunday of the season. So if you really haven't seen the light yet, the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary have you covered.
In Luke's Gospel the very next thing that happens after Jesus' appearance changes, and his clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah join the party, and Peter wants to build tents for everybody, and there's a voice from heaven, and all the witnesses are under a gag order is that Jesus is asked for an exorcism and healing.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
So in the Christmas-Epiphany season, we travel from light to light and then finally (only in Year C) we get this story in close proximity to the Transfigured Jesus, "the light that shines in the darkness".
Which brings us back to Titus's words and this setting by Barrell.
It's the kind of thing that would fit really well on Christmas Day, but even if there is a choir then it's hard to get away from singing carols. And maybe it would fit well in the Christmas season, but the choir is probably down a rehearsal then, and it's still hard to get away form carols. So I think this anthem can easily find a home in Epiphanytide, and especially on the last Sunday where we see a dawning in the Transfiguration and healing in the story that follows after.
There's resonance here with the Transfiguration being a foreshadowing of the resurrection. The “healing” is ultimately “salvation”. The exorcism of the little demon may even preview the trampling down of death.
This short anthem begins with a single line in the organ which is echoed by the sopranos. As the sopranos sing this phrase ("The grace...") the organ achieves some measure of independence, setting the stage for the entrance of the lower parts.
All gather into one to proclaim the first phrase of text (“The grace of God has dawned upon the world”) then everyone finds a cadence together.
It's in his organ accompaniment that Barrell really excels. There is something about the way in which the accompaniment supports and augments the voices which leads to an incredibly compelling texture with really not all that much going on (the primary motion in this anthem is quarter notes).
After a cadence, a short a capella section with the remaining text. And then, back to the original texture repeating the first words, but with new different music.
It's hard to describe. It's somewhat modern, but it really works, I think.
It's not terribly difficult (it is short after all), and it's not your typical church music. This really would be within the grasp of almost any choir.
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