When I travel by myself, I listen to a lot of music. I sometimes listen just for entertainment, just to pass the time, but generally, I listen to be moved, inspired, to have my world challenged and a new way of being emerged; of course, that doesn’t always happen. I like music that provokes and celebrates, that protests and challenges, across different genres.
Some of you will have heard of the late conductor Leonard Bernstein. He was famous because he was a great conductor, but even more so because he conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the Berlin wall came down 30 years ago; it was a celebration of freedom, reconciliation and a new beginning.
Bernstein was also a composer. He wrote a piece called Chichester Psalms. I bought it a while ago. It’s quite sublime. I thank Debra Dean Murphy for introducing me to it; she wrote in The Christian Century magazine back in 2012, an article called In Life, in Death, in Life Beyond Death. I read the article because of the line from the United Church creed and found Bernstein’s work described. This is what she said about the 2nd movement of Chichester Psalms:
A boy soprano (or a countertenor), in the “role” of the shepherd boy, David, sings in Hebrew the opening verses of Psalm 23. He is accompanied–sparingly, fittingly–by the harp. The first several measures are tender but not tentative; filled with sentiment, but without sentimentality (this per Bernstein’s instructions). When the women’s voices take over the text at גַּם כִּי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת . . . (Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…) there’s an ethereal echo-canon effect. This part of the movement, when executed well, is something sublime.
The tranquil beauty is then violently interrupted by the tenors and basses intoning the first four verses of Psalm 2: לָמָּה, רָגְשׁוּ גוֹיִם; וּלְאֻמִּים יֶהְגּוּ־רִיק . . . (Why do the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?). It’s a manic few measures (allegro feroce)–abrupt, angular, agitated–with frenzied orchestral accompaniment.
But gradually, unobtrusively, and, according to the vocal score, “blissfully unaware of threat,” the women return to Psalm 23: תַּעֲרֹךְ לְפָנַי,שֻׁלְחָן נֶגֶד צֹרְרָי (Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies . . . ). Underneath them, though, in the men’s percussive whispers, the turmoil continues. Even when the solo voice completes the last phrase of the 23rd Psalm and the women repeat its opening line, the final few measures of the movement belong to the instruments who, misterioso, recall the disturbing interruption of Psalm 2. The movement ends, like Bernstein, himself once said, “in unresolved fashion, with both elements, faith and fear, interlocked.”
This piece reminded me of Henryk Górecki, a Polish composer, who wrote music about very political issues in Communist Poland and about the Holocaust. My favourite piece is Miserere, an unaccompanied piece that begins with deep bass voices and progresses through to an 8-voice choral crescendo. In Latin, “Lord our God” (miserere) is repeated over and over until the very end when we hear of God’s mercy, “Have mercy upon us.” This piece was dedicated to the city of Bydgoszcz, the site of the confrontation and massacre of members of the Solidarity party by the Polish militia. He wouldn’t have this piece performed until 1987 after completing it in the early ’80s, and the first performance was on the site of a murdered Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko; this was a time of foment in Poland and the beginning of the end of Communism. God have mercy upon us in these violent and oppressive times and give us peace.
More than just asking God’s mercy upon us, these two pieces inspire us to live more fully the gift of love. They inspire in us a desire to move beyond the racial and nationalist divides that are separating us in the world today; they move us beyond the me-first attitudes of modernity; they move us beyond a power-over that seeks to divide and conquer and separate us into “us and them.” They move us to live the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings we hear from the story of the Transfiguration.
Part of what is at play in the story of the Transfiguration is an age-old story of power. Do we erect monuments to keep a moment-in-time the power of Elijah, Moses and Jesus? Or do we carry the transformative power of God’s Spirit in our hearts as we move together down the mountain to live fully the morning star of hope and love, living the prophetic teachings of Elijah, the essence of the Torah given to Moses and the embodied love of Jesus?
As a congregation, we’ve embarked upon a journey of trying to live more authentically the teachings of Jesus as we think about our future. But that journey is contained within the larger journey currently involving the whole world of how we live more authentically as human beings, as part of this wondrous Creation. To be sure, many people are locked in fear and double-down on maintaining self-centred ends; within our own country, we are front and centre with the challenges we have—the constitutional crisis of how to truly live reconciliation with 1st Nations people and how to come to terms with the history of racism that is part of our nation.
The Transfiguration invites us to return to what calls us to follow the Way of Jesus and embody the Love of God. We return to community and openness; we return to inclusivity and radical welcome where all can find a place. We return to finding a place alongside others, where we don’t forget history but build from it and learn how, in spite of our fears, we can create a new community with each other in deep and intimate ways. We move beyond our ignorance to learn about others and the history of racism. That’s the deep calling to us as Church in this modern era. And we don’t do this alone; one of the real delights of today’s life is that people of many different faiths are crossing divides to unite with others to find ways to celebrate our differences while seeking the common whole of peace with justice and hope with love. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity nor does it mean that we forget our past. We bring all that we are into new and deeper ways of relating the love of God in how we live.
Yes, as Bernstein wrote, we live with fear, but we don’t let the fear erode our faith in one another and in the beauty of life to find a way to harmony and peace; we start from a place of love and hope. As human beings, we need to listen to the Bernsteins and Góreckis of our world and let the music invite us to fully live as loving, compassionate human beings. That’s what we carry into the valleys from our mountaintop experiences.
 See the online Christian Century magazine article at https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2012-04/life-death-life-beyond-death.