Commemoration of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel and Henry Purcell
Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.
— Psalm 150 (KJV)
There are some times I read the lessons for the day and wonder, “What’s that all about?” Today, though, with the commemoration readings, I don’t have that problem — mostly. Today I just couldn’t read the psalm from even such a clear and well-loved source as the NRSV. Today I had to go back to the psalm I learned as a child in the KJV version, a version with which at least two of the three musicians honored today would have been familiar.
The first “adult” recording I ever asked for as a child (I was about 10) was Handel’s Messiah. I had read about it in a book and wanted to hear it so I asked for it as a Christmas present. In it I found not just a familiar story but a kind of music that touched me in a way the familiar hymns and songs of the church of my childhood just couldn’t reach. It sort of puzzled my family, who thought Lawrence Welk was sublime (and which sort of made me gag), but they went along with me. It began a love affair with music of that period that sticks with me today and is my music of choice.
For me, Bach, Handel and Purcell form a sort of almost-holy trinity, perhaps “a little lower than the angels” but certainly not far from them and definitely a step above a lot of folks. Of course, I’d add others — Byrd, Tallis and a few more — to that level, but the church has chosen these three for this day and that works for me. Each of them has a niche in the realm of church music that is theirs alone, yet together they represent a part of our church tradition that is still, in some places anyway, still practiced today. The tunes might not be as catchy as some (like some of the Taizé chants or contemporary praise music) or things you might hear being whistled on the street or hummed while doing housework, but they are like a banquet of sound rather than a drive-thru Happy Meal, in my humble opinion.
As has happened so often before, we are again in a period where we are looking at how we “do” church, how tradition meets the modern world, how we appeal to the youth and young adults and draw people to the community and faith that we have found within our parishes and missions. We look at tradition, the “why we do what we do and believe what we believe,” and decide that since our numbers are declining and this other church over in the next street is growing like wildfire, we therefore must clean house and adopt what they have found successful, whether or not it really fits or is comfortable for us. We must build new buildings if they do or appear to the rest of the community to be unsuccessful, offer services at the times they do so we don’t infringe on other activities planned for that day, add more variety to the way services are done to make them more “relevant” and appealing, and, in short, copy what seems to be working for them, whether or not it works for us. While progress is inevitable and change is often necessary, sometimes it is as cathartic as creation — or as painful as death.
There are parts of the tradition that do need to be challenged – like the role of women, equality in marriage and ability to answer God’s calling to ministry or the episcopacy, challenging faith and encouraging thinking about what it really is that we believe and why. What does our faith say about us and how we perceive the message of Jesus and, more importantly, how it affects what we do and how we pass along that message? What parts of tradition, though, are the cornerstones or the keystones of the arch? What does tradition offer us that we can’t find anywhere else? What needs demolishing, what needs to be spruced up a bit and what needs to be build afresh?
It’s hard these days to know what parts of tradition to keep and which to ditch. There are parts that are definitely needing change. Those parts are the ones that limit or demean parts of the Body of Christ while elevating others at the expense of those being limited or demeaned. There are also parts of tradition that, I believe, need to be retained, not just seen as nice little artifacts to be trotted out periodically like Mama’s good china on holidays, Sundays and special occasions. For me, the music of Bach, Handel, Purcell and others fit that category. They need to be out there and heard, not necessarily only at royal weddings or coronations, Christmas or Easter. We are so much in the world — the exposure to a little heavenly stuff can only be a good thing now and again.
My playlist for today: B Minor Mass (Bach), Coronation Anthems (Handel) and Te Deum and Jubilate Deo (Purcell). That should keep my ears (and heart) busy and raised heavenward for this morning. Maybe the afternoon as well…. Now where did I put my timbrel?