Based on the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with the alabaster jar of precious ointment, the sermon is a testament to the power of music in faith and worship.
- Maureen Erb
What other story is there in the Gospels that more intimately encapsulates and interprets the true inwardness of all that we have received and experienced during these three wonderful days? If the Southern Cathedrals’ Festival were to have a patron, surely that patron should be this unnamed woman. In an exuberance of love she poured out on the head of Jesus the whole content of an alabaster jar of precious ointment. What her heart was bursting to express, her hands performed – a sacrament of love. We all find ourselves at one time or another tongue-tied, unable to find words to say to another what our heart is bursting to express. We search for a gift, for some token in which we hope that the discerning heart of the recipient will read what we are unable to put into words.
Alabaster jars of precious ointment have been poured out over our heads in these three fragrant days and the perfume has penetrated to high places of these vaults and has entered into each of us, purifying our sensibilities and exciting our responses.
How precious, how costly in time, energy and discipline only those will really know whose imagination allows them to reflect on the amount of preparation, the sheer hard practice, even by trained voices, needed to produce such fragrance of sound. Nor do we forget all those hidden people off-stage whose devoted work has enabled all this Festival to take place.
There is something deeply personal as well as professional in the quality of excellence that has been showered upon us – a reciprocity of expectation and response – the expectation of the three choirmasters and the response of the three choirs. The response has been what we have experienced because the expectations have been so high. But only respect for the three choirmasters – only a loving determination to give of their best – could produce such results from the singers. The personal trust and love between the three choirmasters and their choirs enabled the professionalism of the singers to match the expectations of their leaders, to match the claims of this architecture, to give glory to God.
The story I read of the unnamed woman whose love for Jesus evoked her particular response does not tell us what it was about Jesus that had evoked that response. But the spontaneity and costliness of her response leaves us in no doubt of her desire. The accumulated music of the Church of the centuries provides just such an opportunity and fulfills just such a need.
Deep down in the depths of each one of us, in that secret centre which we hardly dare to enter, there is, I believe, a need and a longing to give ourselves totally in response to another in love and trust. That longing is all too often unrecognized. It runs contrary to what for most of the time we are actually feeling or doing. We are at deep heart-level, I believe, longing to get free from self-centered pre-occupation with ourselves, longing to get free from our anxieties, our fears, our feeling that we have no value. But in the ordinary exchanges and relationships of our usual days we are cautious about giving ourselves away wholeheartedly even to another person whom we have come to know and to trust. Perhaps we have tried to do this and have been hurt and so we’ve closed up all entrances to that centre of our longing and of our hurt. But music in its many expressions and especially in Christian choral singing allows us to respond wholeheartedly to the expectations of the conductor and the demands of the words and the notation, and to the claims upon us of God’s truth, of God’s love distilled for us in our Lord Christ and in those who have given themselves trustingly to him and to his cause.
And when the words are the resonant words, themes, poetry of deep wisdom – taken from the scriptures or from poets who have delved deeply into the longings and the pains of the human heart – when these words are matched with music of comparable quality – then the singers become identified with the song and we who can only listen find ourselves taken out of ourselves and into a deeper sense of ourselves in all the magnificence and trembling of knowing who we really are in the eyes of God.
Through the intermediary of words and sounds, you and I can be deeply moved within ourselves, as we were on Friday evening when we were taken afresh into the mystery and the meaning of the death and resurrection of Our Lord, or when last evening we found ourselves standing with the Mother of Jesus at the foot of the Cross on which her son – and such a son – was crucified; and she could do nothing except be with him in his agony. Where Mary stood, millions of women have stood as the terrible consequences of human cruelty have fallen upon those whom they loved – and not least in the horrors of this century.
But when these Christian themes are expressed musically in acts of worship – in Evensong or the Eucharist – then these choral offerings can become for us wings of prayer—articulating our heart’s longing for goodness, for glory, for God – sacraments of love – alabaster jars of precious ointment, poured out by the singers and drawing us – if we will – into the exhilaration of being enabled to express the inexpressible.
Only in worship addressed to God can we really let go our caution and our fear. We dare to do this because we dare to believe that the Divine Beauty has entered our lives and made himself known to us, not least through the gift of music and song.
You and I are not here as an audience listening to a concert. We are here to break the alabaster jar of our own heart’s deepest longing for someone to adore. We let the words and music of the choir enter into our minds and hearts and become to us the articulation of all we long to say to God. So in this thanksgiving for all we have received during this Festival, let us allow the music of the liturgy to take us beyond ourselves into the presence of the adorable Mystery “in whom we live and move and have our being”, into that “Beauty both so ancient and so new, who is and who was and who is to come”, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to whom alone adoration can be truly given, because in Him alone is the true glory.