Pandemic, Pedals, and Pentecost

I celebrated this Pentecost Sunday with a virtual Evensong service. While it is certainly not the same from behind a screen and 5,000 miles away, singing together remains a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives as believers. As choral composer John Rutter notes, Christianity has always been a “singing faith,” and theologians explain that this is because Christianity has always been a Spiritual faith; the movement of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God is manifest in the breath of believers in unified song.

In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their hearts]” (Ephesians 5:18-19). In this, the unity of believers in the Spirit is manifest in the harmony of song; furthermore, song serves to reinforce the communion and fellowship of the saints as a vital form of proclamation and encouragement.

My favourite part of being an organist is facilitating the song of believers. It is my greatest joy to provide the harmonic foundation upon which singers rejoice. Perhaps the reason the organ is so effective for accompanying choirs is that it has the capacity to breathe. The pipes of an organ are themselves similar to members of a choir, each singing with a unique voice and yet all attuned to the same song. Even the name “organ” indicates a sense of its being alive and active, perhaps as intrinsic to liturgical life as our own lungs are to singing. The organ, which breaths out in a mighty wind, is also analogous to the movement of the Spirit.

The organ, however, is also otherly. There is an eery quality to it, for its timbre is at once like and unlike any other instrument; for instance, the viol stop sounds vaguely like a string instrument yet maintains the unique character of being also a wind and keyboard instrument. This is perhaps analogous to the God we worship; He became like us in the person of Jesus Christ and breathes his Spirit into us, however, He is also other. Although we speak of God anthropomorphically and even familiarly as Our Father, Spirit, and Saviour, we must also remember His omnipotent and provident otherness as we worship.

The organ thus provides a foundation for our song, intimately supporting our breath with its own, while also reminding us that the One we worship is far greater than we. This Pentecostal theme is particularly prominent in one of my favourite pieces to play: Bach’s Chorale Prelude, Fantasia on “Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.”

This piece provides an extended introduction to a Lutheran hymn for Pentecost, the text of which translates:

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
fill with the goodness of your grace
the heart, spirit and mind of your believers,
kindle in them your ardent love !
O Lord, through the splendour of your light
you have gathered in faith
people from all the tongues of the world;
so that in your praise Lord, may there be sung
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You holy light, precious refuge,
let the word of life enlighten us
and teach us to know God truly,
to call him father from our heart!
O Lord, protect us from strange doctrines
so that we may never look for any teacher
except Jesus in true belief
and may trust him wholeheartedly!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You sacred warmth, sweet consolation,
now help us always to remain

joyful and comforted in your service,
do not let sorrow drive us away!
O Lord, through your power make us ready
and strengthen the feebleness of our flesh
so that we may bravely struggle
through life and death to reach you!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah

Although the organ prelude does not include words, it prepares the mood and melody for the choir, much as the Holy Spirit brings with it renewed speech and song.

Right now, although many churches are gradually reopening, it is difficult to celebrate Pentecost Sunday musically; choirs are an at-risk category, for although breathing together is intrinsic to Christian life, it is dangerous in the midst of a health crisis. I believe that we can take heart in the message of this chorale, though, which speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding believers to live courageously as they move through time.

Although the words of this chorale are encouraging, listening to the prelude can be, ironically, a breathless experience. The music is in constant motion, sixteenth notes passing fluidly and quickly between hands and only ceasing after five minutes. It can feel like movement through time: busy, prone to rushing, and overwhelming.

There is hope hidden in the bass-line, however, The melody of the hymn is found in the pedal line and remains a steady foundation for the upper voices. In using the chorale tune as the cantus firmus (the musical layer upon which all else is built), Bach makes a deeply theological statement through music: the truth of the Holy Spirit as proclaimed in the hymn is the essential foundation for all else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote something similar, using musical analogy to explain the goal of the Christian life:

“There is always the danger . . . that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love Him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.”

Bonhoeffer here speaks of our proneness to get caught up in earthly pursuits, just as in Bach’s music we may be distracted by the intricate counterpoint. However, by seeking the foundation of our faith, everything else begins to make sense, just as listening to the chorale tune in the pedals draws the rest of the fantasia into harmony.

Theologically, God gives His Spirit to guide believers through life and death; musically, the cantus firmus provides a foundation to all other polyphony. As long as the pedal line remains secure, the upper voices will interact in a clearly-choreographed relationship. Just so, believers can move through time and all that it contains—the “polyphony” of life—in the clarity of faith if they hold fast to their eternal foundation.

Right now, we cannot sing together in person but we may choose to rejoice together in Spirit. The world is buzzing in a ceaseless counterpoint which may feel chaotic and deafening. This Pentecost Sunday, however, may we remember the foundation of our faith and the Spirit which sustains us. May we continue to sing from wherever we are and to listen attentively to the cantus firmus who will never fail to “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”

The Royal Wedding

The Royal Wedding was beautiful: the flowers, the music, the gown, and- of course- the fabulous array of hats. But this event was not just a stunning example of a wedding ceremony, but of a liturgy. It was set in a gorgeous chapel, featured traditional English hymns, and presented a rich theology in both the message and the order of service.

The dean of Windsor opened by invoking the Father, Son, and Spirit and then introducing the responsibility of the congregation (Note: not merely guests, but a congregation) to witness the marriage now and to support it in the future. In the brief discourse that followed, he made no effort to soften the truth of marriage as an image of a holy reality:

“Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body, and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.”

From this opening statement, all gathered (and the many millions watching worldwide) were confronted with the truth that marriage is at once something greater than we could ever imagine, but also something far less. In recognizing marriage as an image of the divine union, faithful husbands and wives will find their marriages elevated and edified. However, they also will find that there is something far greater which they must strive toward together: the ultimate marriage of the Church to Christ.

That the Royal Wedding followed a liturgical structure made this explicit. Why should a wedding parallel the order of an ordinary (though grandiose) church service? Because the marriage of a human man and woman is not the primary focus, despite the media thrill. A liturgical wedding reminds guests that they are in fact called to be the congregation and believers that they are to be the Bride.

In the same way that we might consider a wedding liturgical, we must not forget that every gathering of the faithful in worship- that is to say, every Church service- is also to be a wedding. As the Dean of Windsor proclaimed, human couples are but imaging the divine mystery of Christ and His redeemed Bride. This marriage of the heavenly and earthly ought to be celebrated both in liturgies and weddings.

I am thankful for my nondenominational upbringing, but I do feel that something beautiful and significant is lost when traditional liturgy is abandoned completely. I recognize the dangers of becoming focused on ceremony instead of faith alone, but having never experienced the dignity of such a service, I had never considered what it meant to be the Bride of Christ until I began working as an organist for an Anglican church and then attended a mass in Assissi, Italy.

At first, I was inclined to view it all as spectacle; it felt posed and practiced, so unlike the “authentic” and casual services I had experienced. However, as we stood to the strains of a familiar hymn and the priests processed down the aisle with incense and sacraments, I realized that I was not at church as I knew it, but at a wedding.

The white robes, the organ processional, the congregational responses affirming the creeds… These were all things I had associated with weddings, not necessarily with church. However, the two quickly reconciled as I recalled that the Church is a Bride, indeed, the Bride.

I knew then that, should I marry, my wedding would have to be more liturgical, not just because I am a traditional soul with a soft spot for stained glass and organ music, but because I want my wedding and the marriage that follows to be an overt visible image of the union of Christ and the Church. To have a wedding that is conducted like a church service is to image the divine mystery and to remind those of the Church that it is they who are the Bride even if they are not yet gowned in white.

It is for this reason that I now yearn for liturgy and ceremony. I fear that many contemporary believers, like myself, have forgotten (or perhaps never considered) what it means to be the Bride of Christ. To participate weekly in the procession, recital of creeds, and celebratory singing is more than just a rote liturgy; it is a rehearsal for the realization of the true Marriage. 

To rehearse is, simply, to remind and to prepare. The idea of rehearsing for the marriage of the Lamb is beautiful in itself, but also practical. Beyond the joy of realizing ourselves to be a Bride with hope in our future union, to know ourselves as the Bride of our Savior is to change our entire outlook- the entirety of our conduct, relationships, and lives.

Since that moment in Assissi, I have been often been convicted by this. Would the Bride of Christ present herself as anything less than modest, caring, and thoughtful? Would the Bride of Christ fail to speak out for truth and discernment? Surely not! A virtuous woman would not cease to honor and defend her faithful husband.

And men, called to image Christ in their marriages, are yet members of the Bride of Christ. They are called to the same fidelity, focus, and fervor, loving their earthly spouses because they also are to live after the example of Christ and are themselves waiting upon him as the true Bridegroom. A godly husband on earth is yet a Bride of Christ in heaven.

“This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

                                     – Ephesians 5:32-33

Beyond conviction and correction, though, to be the Bride of Christ has been a source of immense encouragement. In recent years, I have watched friends and peers I’ve known since childhood fall in love and marry. While I recognize that marriage is a blessed relationship, I know that it is intended as an image of a greater reality. While this truth gives greater significance to a godly marriage, it also brings hope to those who have not found or cannot have this type of relationship; to be a single believer is not to be excluded from marriage, but to be able to live fully into the most blessed Betrothal.

Indeed, upon the consummation of this most holy and redemptive union, there will be no other marriage. This is not because marriage is not a good thing, but because it is an image; once the divine reality is realized, what need is there for a reflection?

“For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

– Matthew 22:30

Husbands and wives are called and enabled to love each other by realizing their identity as the Bride of Christ and their role as image bearers of this relationship. In the same way, single Christians are also to show the redeeming love of Christ and live in the faithfulness of His Bride. How comforting to know that earthly marriage is not a prerequisite to the heavenly union! And how edifying to find that an earthly marriage might sanctify toward this union!

If I never marry, I will yet be a Bride. By the blood of Christ, I have been redeemed to a union that has fully saved and will fully sanctify and fully satisfy forever. As one of my favorite hymns sings, what wondrous love is this?

In realizing this, we find a richer joy in weddings, for we look toward the reality that is promised us. We are also revived in our hope and love as we weekly participate in the various liturgies that represent more than a rote pattern of worship, but the Holiest Matrimony. Married or single, all members of the Church are exhorted to look to Christ with the joyful anticipation and diligent preparation of a Bride awaiting her Beloved.

“Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”

                             – Revelation 19:7-10

Let us as Christians be reminded each week in our worship that we are the Bride and let us rejoice in marriages as they image the mystery of the divine union.

The most Royal Wedding is yet to come.