They Sing a New Song

Exodus 15; Psalm 98; Revelation 5; John 20
a sermon at the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival Eucharist
feast of Mary Magdalene, 22 July 2005

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

‘Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To him who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honour and glory and might, for ever and ever!”  And the four living creatures said, “Amen!”  And the elders fell down and worshipped.’

The scale and exuberance of the worship described in Revelation 4 and 5 locates, and justifies if that were needed, the scale and exuberance of our worship here this morning.  Biblical faith is a singing faith, from Miriam’s wild song of triumph on the shores of the Red Sea to the thunderous song of all creation at the triumph of the Lamb.  You could summarize the whole of Christian discipleship in terms of the summons to join in that song in ways appropriate to its great theme on the one hand and to particular human situations on the other.  Drawing together a great artistic festival into the central Christian action of the Eucharist, and surrounding it with yet more music, is one appropriate way of answering that summons, just as is the crash of drums and guitars in the church on the housing estate or the soft murmur of Taizé chant in a secluded chapel.  The Psalms themselves provide both the ancient resource for this worship and the constant challenge to sing to the Lord a new song.  Making music to the Lord is, in fact, almost as central and obvious a Christian act as the Eucharist itself.

The most central acts can of course become self-indulgent, just as the most holy objects can become idols; and the way to avoid this trap is always to reflect Christianly on what it is that we are doing, and to make sure that it is never turned in upon itself but always outwards, as part of our love for God and our love for his world.  There are two important questions which present themselves to us today as we reflect on music and the arts, what they are, what they do, and what place they have within the divine economy; and in addressing these questions we determine whether a festival such as this is actually part of the urgent mission of God to his needy world, or whether it is an escape from that task into a comfortable pretence that everything is all right really and we don’t need to bother.

The first question has to do with the nature of artistic endeavour and its place within human life as a whole.  Two recent books have addressed this powerfully from very different angles. The great critic John Carey has denounced most popular current theories of what the arts are there for in his new book What Good Are The Arts?, reserving special venom for any theory which divides ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and which implies that arts and artworks are more important than the people and communities to which they belong and which they serve.  And the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Clark Lectures now published under the title Grace and Necessity, discusses the theory of art offered by the Roman Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain, and its explicit application in the very different work of David Jones and Flannery O’Connor.  This isn’t the place to engage with either of them in detail, but they indicate today’s lively interest not just in the making of music, the painting of pictures and the writing of novels and poems but also in the question of why the arts are what they are, and what purpose they can serve.

To this question I believe the Christian can and must give a robust and exciting answer – an answer which, I venture to suggest, cuts right across the reductionism of John Carey and explores a different dimension to the one which Rowan Williams probes with such sensitivity.  Western culture is rapidly leaving behind the stale denials of secular modernity, in which everything was reduced to functionalism and spirituality was an escapist luxury.  Most people now recognise that human life is multi-dimensional, and that what we can touch and see, what we can weigh on the scales or calculate in a bank-balance, is only one dimension of a much richer existence, a universe full of meaning, a world charged with the grandeur of God.  This isn’t to say, of course, that we can simply go back to assuming an earlier version of the Christian worldview.  Indeed, we can’t, and that’s part of the excitement.  There is no way back to a pre-modern worldview; but we can go on, through the decay of secularism, through the scepticism and denials of postmodernity, and out into something new, something deeply and truly Christian, something for which there isn’t yet a name.  From the world’s point of view, nobody is leading the way into cultural renaissance, any more than they are into political renaissance: art declines into kitsch on the one hand and brutalism on the other, and sometimes it seems that the only way music can escape a similar fate is through ever more difficult and intellectually challenging work, running all the risks of highbrow snobbery.  But from the Christian point of view, the cultural impasse at the turn of the millennia ought to open up a new possibility: a possibility of re-expressing once more the truth that heaven and earth are the interlocking spheres of God’s creation and that in the arts, and perhaps especially in music, we are constantly brought within sight and sound of that other reality.

The angels keep their ancient places;
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

Several of our hymns today pick up from Revelation 4 and 5 the theme that our task here is to join in with the worship of the angels, to celebrate the fact that of course there are multiple layers of meaning in ordinary life, and that we of all people ought to know something about them and find ways of building bridges between them.  The eucharistic possibility – the stuff of earth being charged with the life of heaven – is, as Rowan Williams makes clear, near the centre of genuine Christian art.  As such, picking up the human vocation to be pro-creators with God the lavish creator, it ought to be the artists and the musicians, the poets and the dancers, who are leading the way into a fresh expression of the Christian faith that might shape the cultural life of a new generation.  As we relish the resonances of generations long gone as we sing again the great church music of yesterday, we must respond to the vocation to use our historic resources as the launching-pad for new forms, new ways of saying old things, which will not only have an impact in themselves but create a climate for Christian mission in the post-postmodern world. One of the reasons people find the Christian faith unbelievable is when the surrounding culture is giving off the message that the only alternatives are trivial tunes on the one hand and industrial cacophony on the other.  One of the reasons people might find the Christian faith not only credible but attractive is if the artists lead the way in generating a world, a universe of discourse, within which it makes sense, glorious sense, to say `I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in his son crucified and risen, and in the spirit, the lord and giver of life.’  Sing to the Lord a new song; and, as the psalmist insisted, watch the whole creation, the sea, the hills, the fields and the animals, join in as they are longing to do.

The first question, then, is whether we can give a fresh and compelling account of the arts and their place in human life; and, though I’ve only been able to hint at it, I suggest that we can, and that what we do here today and this week ought to encourage us to think this through and to understand our artistic life, not least our music, in terms of that fresh cultural engagement which will facilitate and energise the wholistic mission of the church.  But this leads, as it must in our own time, to the second question, which is: how can we sing the Lord’s song, let alone the Lord’s new song, in the strange land where the natural order comes up with a deadly Tsunami one day and a cancer the next, and where the human world seems to be in a downward spiral of bombs and blood, of hatred and horror?  How can the world of the arts do and be what it must do and be within this world, the real world, our world?

We will rightly respond, of course, that the Christian artist will start, as much through implicit stance as through explicit statement, with the cross of Jesus Christ, the sign (to quote the Archbishop) that God thought this world worth dying for.  But I want to go beyond that, with Exodus and Revelation at my elbow and, in particular, with the story of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning as the guiding light.  The question can be rephrased in terms of two great passages from Isaiah: in Isaiah 6, the cherubim sing that heaven and earth are full of God’s glory, but in Isaiah 11 the prophet declares that the earth shall be full of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  How can we say both those things simultaneously?  How can art, Christian art, Christian music be both utterly realistic about the appalling state the world is in and utterly hopeful about the way it will be?

The song of Miriam, and its echoes in the book of Revelation, give us the right starting point.  A victory has been won.  Something happened in the dying and rising of Jesus the Messiah, through which the world has become a different place.  We all know the standard objections to this claim; indeed, we know them so well that we often back off from making the claim.  But make it we must, and make it we do every time we celebrate the eucharist and join in the angelic Sanctus near its climax.  St Paul wrote that the gospel had already been preached to every creature under heaven.  St John heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth singing praise to God and the Lamb, saying Amen, and falling down and worshipping.  This is not simply a vision of the ultimate future.  This is a vision of the present.  The Lamb has triumphed, and all creation knows in its bones that the creator God is remaking the universe, and is groaning with eager longing as it waits for it to come about.  The whole world is already filled with God’s glory; that is precisely why we feel the present horror and shame of creation the way we do.  There is an unbearable tension between the two realities.  But the whole world will ultimately be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, on the day when God makes all things new, and binds up every wound, and wipes away all tears from all eyes.  The Christian contribution to the worlds of the arts, not least music, is therefore neither to collapse into sentimentality, to murmur the easy half-truths which comfort for a while but wither in the face of the horror of the world, nor to connive at that brutalism which, under the guise of ‘telling it like it is’, denies the very possibility of hope.  The Christian contribution to the arts must lie along the line of listening to the longing and groaning of creation, a longing which is itself multi-dimensional because it is the evidence of the Spirit’s groaning and longing within the world, and expressing and portraying that longing both in its present agony and in its certain hope.

And this is where, I believe, music is especially important.  In the final scene of Revelation there is no more sea; the dark power which God defeated in creation, at the Exodus, in the victory of the Son of Man, is finally overthrown.  Likewise, there is no sun or moon, because they are after all signs and symbols for the life and light and power of God the creator.  Nor is there a Temple, because God himself is there, and the Lamb.  But the whole book of Revelation resonates with the music which goes before us into the new Jerusalem, or rather which comes from God’s ultimate future into our present.  Think about it: within the brilliance of gothic architecture, it is music which enables us to inhabit not only the spaces down here but the spaces up there, the world of the angels and archangels.  Even so, it is music which comes forward into our present world from God’s ultimate future.  Music is, in that sense, a form of glossolalia: to the critic who says it is incomprehensible and nonsensical, we reply, well of course!  Did you expect the language of heaven to be translatable without loss into the language of earth?  Did you expect that the ultimate shout of victory would make complete sense in a world of violence, hatred and suspicion?  My friends, we are called to sing the song now which speaks of the ultimate triumph, and which speaks of it not just in words which are set – that, in a sense, is icing on the cake – but in the very structure and substance of the music itself.  Just as, in 1 Corinthians 13, there are some things which pass away but others which will last, of which love is the chief, so music, no doubt purified and ennobled in ways we can’t begin to imagine, is a link not only with the present world of heaven but with the future world when the song of Miriam will become the song of every creature, when we shall all at last obey the Psalmist’s injunction to sing a new song to the Lord and have all creation join in.

This, then, is why our Christian re-appropriation and celebration of the whole world of the arts, and especially music, is the very opposite of self-indulgence.  It is the sign and celebration, within the world of space, time and matter, of the multi-dimensionality of creation.  It is the sign and celebration, within the world of shame and sin and death, of the triumph of the Lamb as a past event and of the ultimate future victory of God over all the powers of evil.  And that is why, to come to her at last, the story of Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning carries such powerful resonances.  She is a sign of the present world, the world which is so easily reduced to function and thence to futility, rather than being allowed to know its own rich, multi-layered meaning.  She is a sign of the world of sorrow, sin and death, weeping at the tomb of the last best hope of God’s people.  And as a result, in the matchless work of art we call the gospel of John, she is then the sign that God’s victory, God’s new life, has restored the meaning to creation, just as all true art seeks to do; and she is the sign that God will indeed wipe away all tears from all eyes.  In the Greek text of John 20.16 Jesus addresses her by her real name, her ancient name, not Maria, the Greek form, but Miriam, the name her parents called her, the name which speaks of Moses’ sister, tambourine in hand, singing the song of wild delight at God’s victory over the forces of evil.

That is the song in which we are all called to join in.  ‘My soul, bear thou thy part; triumph in God above.’  The poet Wendy Cope, not one for collapsing into either sentimentality or the pseudo-realism of brutalism, wrote a short poem remembering how her grandmother had given her a confirmation present, and had written on the flyleaf a little note saying ‘Psalm 98’.  She had blithely ignored it for half a lifetime.  Then, as a poet finding her own voice, and perhaps her own faith, she goes to evensong on Day 19 and hears the choir singing the psalm.  ‘O Sing unto the Lord a new song’.  Nanna, she wrote, it is just what I wanted.