Jun 17, 2007
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Grace Upon Grace: Gods Own Polyphony
When in our music God is glorified,
And adoration leaves no room for pride,
It is as though the whole creation cried,
I know this will come as no surprise to anyone, but I love music. I am utterly hooked on the stuff. I sing. I play instruments. I love to dance. I will listen to music for hours on end. It is an all-encompassing artistic romance for me. So, it should also come as no surprise that it was music that had a principle role in my conversion to Christianity. Faith and art are, for me, of one piece. I dont really know how to separate them out from one another. And this has colored my conversion since the very beginning.
William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, the sixteenth century composers, likely just as much to do with my conversion as anyone living with us now. Year after year in college and afterward I would have sung their music, and other music inspired by and written for the Christian faith. Chant, hymns, anthems, praise choruses. I had an opportunity to play and sing through so much music. And it all has its part in my conversion. But when all is said done, it is Byrd and Tallis
the great masters of polyphony, who shape and guide my faith with their own expressions of faithfulness.
Polyphony is a fascinating musical form. I know that some of you here likely know more about it than I do, but I hope youll bear with me for a moment. You see, polyphony is, at its core, the expansion of and elaboration upon a simple musical theme
like a chant. The melody is altered, rearranged and even shared between a variety of vocal parts. Sopranos will sing the melody and somehow, the composer will hand it over to the altos. The altos will hand it to the tenors. Now, of course, the tenors are loathe to part with the melodic line, but will, thanks to the strength of the composer, have to relinquish it to the sopranos once again. Every now and then, a brave composer like Byrd or Tallis would grace the bass section with the melody. Sadly, this is a rare occurrence.
But in the end choral politics matter not. Counter melodies are brought into the mix. Harmonies take on lives of their own and become melodies, complimentary melodies adding to the beauty and texture of the overall piece. Tones are layered upon tones, melody upon melody. Grace upon grace.
The words of faith, scripture, prayers, ancient creeds and confessions of faith, too, are stretched, single spoken phrases stretched so far that they are almost not recognizable as language. The listener must pay attention. The singer must remain constantly aware of what it is they are singing
not just a series of vowel sounds, but actual words. The lyric, the words are as important to the composition as the notes are. The words "I believe" or "Alleluia!" are expanded and ornamented over measures and voice parts and even then the piece only hints at the depths of emotion and faith expressed in the simple phrase "I believe," "Alleuia!"
How often making music we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
No art form exists without the artist. This is such a simple statement that it borders on the absurd. But it is important to recall in our current age when everything is labeled product and can be mass-produced. Music, visual art, statuary, pottery
theater and dance are no less subject to the whims of our consumer culture than a Twinkie. Consumerism dehumanizes when it is taken too far. So we must make a conscious effort to recall the human being, to bring her to the fore of our conversations about art.
It is a danger for all of us to become so caught up in the "how" and "why" of life that we forget entirely about the "who." Our selves are "the who." God is "the who." We forget people, persons, divinity and humanity. It is an easy trap to hole up in our heads and in the technicalities and forget that all art, all faith is expression of human experience experience of the banal and the divine. The Pharisee from our Gospel passage seems to suffer from this trouble. Yes, he is kind and hospitable to Jesus. But his curiosity is a technical one.
He wants to speak to Jesus the teacher. He wants to see how he thinks, how he gets his ideas and notions. His is a charitable place, but it is a heady place. It may not be soulful, heart-felt or faithful.
We can be like the Pharisee.
We weigh and balance, measure and set goals, plan projects, create institutions, set boundaries, and organize, organize, organize. We cannot help it. These are necessary activities, we say
but they are all for naught if we do not remember ourselves and others in the process. If we dehumanize the entire endeavor, then we destroy any hope of anything good, anything godly arising from our work. We become like Simon graceless.
"I believe" writes James Jordan of the Wesminster Choir College, "that within every artist is contained, deep with in the soul, a fundamental set of truths; without it, he or she would probably not be an artist. I do believe that persons who do not practice expression have them, too, but they continually slip away if not used. Hence, the reason why people sing and play and have a basic love of music and the arts. Innate sensibilities about fundamental profundities of life: birth, re-birth, struggle, separation, trust, compassion, hope and the contemplation of the end of ones life, death. To quote the old hymn, Give me some of that old time religion."
Jordans words are powerful. They remind me of the purpose behind all faith, the truth behind all art, the reality of the believer, who is the faith artist. Faith is never simply a set of precepts. There are techniques, disciplines, surely, for painting, singing and, yes, even for faith. Doctrine has this place in faithfulness. And the Pharisee rightly reminds us of this. But the Pharisee takes this too far. He questions Jesus when Jesus does not shun the sinful woman. He says to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him that she is a sinner."
Jesus recognizes the sin, but he forgives her. She has come before God in an act of faith. Her expression is generous, passionate, heart-felt. She recognizes Jesus for who he is. She praises God. She asks for forgiveness with her tears
and her act of hospitality. She has shown love where Simon the Pharisee could not. Her faith heals her very soul. Passion and technique go hand in hand. One thrives only when the other is present.
Thus the sinful woman joins the song. Her life has become one of the many melodies written in Gods polyphony. Jesus opens all eyes to the truth of her faith and the injustice that is borne witness by Simons. When Simon would not have let her in his house, Jesus goes so far as to proclaim redemption. She joins other women and men, other artists, in the proclamation of faith.
So has the Church, in liturgy and song,
In faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
Borne witness to the truth in every tongue,
In every work of the artist, we praise the Divine Artist1. We are Gods own polyphony, Gods creation, a work, a craft
We are art. We are Gods expression. We are Gods polyphony, each life a melodic line of forgiveness offered and received grace upon grace.
The individual human being, the sinful woman, the many women and men who followed Christ, even Simon the Pharisee, is part and parcel of a community of song. The polyphony that is community is upheld by each line, each rest, each note dissonant and resonant. Their voice, the phrase that is their life, is essential to the composition as a whole. Without them, the composition would be incomplete.
And here we find ourselves at the beginning of the work, revisiting the theme. It is here we encounter conversion, our ongoing healing and transformation in Christ. In this way we encounter each of us as an artist, a Byrd or Tallis. We become grace for one another grace upon grace: Gods own polyphony.
Thanks be to God.