St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh
Midweek Devotion 6th August 2020
Led by Rev Professor Kenneth M Boyd
Welcome and opening sentences
Welcome to online devotion with St Giles’ Cathedral, today, Thursday the 6th of August 2020.
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart. I will sing your praise. Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly. O Lord, your love endures for ever. [Psalm 138].
Genesis 32: 24-30
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Luke 9: 28-29, 35
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face was changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
Das ist der Christen Kunst – this is the Christian’s art. The closing bass aria of J S Bach’s church cantata BWV 185 begins with these words, which are then repeated, with heavy emphasis, several times throughout the aria. One of Bach’s biographers suggests that in emphatically repeating these words, the young composer might have been ‘mimicking the rhetorical displays of eloquence of a typically pompous preacher’ – and doing so, in order to ‘overcome the banality of the text’ he had agreed to set to music. That Bach was having a little gentle fun at the expense of the clergy is certainly possible, especially at a time when sermons were much longer and more repetitive than they are today. But did Bach do this also to ‘overcome the banality of the text’? I’m not so sure. At first hearing, perhaps, what the words sum up as ‘the Christian’s art’ can sound like the platitudes of pietist preaching. ‘Know God and know yourself. Burn with true love’, they begin. ‘Do not judge unduly’, they continue; and finally: ‘Do not forget to treat your neighbour most generously. This makes for goodwill with God and man. This is the Christian’s art.’
Yet if these words can sound like platitudes, they cease to do so when transfigured by Bach’s musical art. And in this, I think, is a parable. Bach was not only a great musician: he was also, like the rest of us, an imperfect and fallible human being, a sometimes fractious and irritable Christian, often struggling to make the most of less than ideal circumstances, and not always succeeding. Yet his art, his musical art, so often does succeed triumphantly, moving even the most cynical instrumentalist, and making even the most convinced atheist wonder. Like Jacob in the reading we heard a moment ago, Bach struggled, and was blessed by God.
Like Bach’s musical art, the Christian’s art also is called, to lift off the page and transfigure words that can sound like platitudes: ‘Know God and know yourself. Burn with true love. Do not judge… treat your neighbour most generously’. To discover the profound and liberating meaning deep within gospel words such as these, requires a listening ear, imagination, inventiveness, practice, practice and more practice; and for its performance, in place of an orchestra, a supportive community of faith, and in place of an audience, a world in which to act charitably and bear our lot cheerfully. Most of us cannot scale the heights of the Christian art, as Bach did in his musical art: and no doubt, all too often we will find that ‘to get anything right we need first to get many things wrong’; but fundamental to the Christian art, is that if its practice has to be endless, so too is God’s forgiveness, and also the forgiveness we must extend to one another and to ourselves. Forgiveness is endless, for its true end is that, as the Eastern Church says: he became as we are, so that we might become as he is. Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ, on the mountain top Peter, James and John
looked upon the majesty of your glory, and from the mystery of a cloud
heard a voice declaring you to be God’s Son.
Though we do not live on mountain tops, grant that we too may glimpse your glory.
In the mundane predictability of our life, may there be moments when sight gives way to insight,
and the paths of earth become the road to heaven. Amen
God of light and love, your Spirit leads us to desire you,
the perfection of goodness, the fountain of truth, the vision of beauty.
We aspire to your perfection, we seek your truth, we rejoice in your beauty.
We praise you for every way the arts reflect your loveliness and lift the human spirit into heaven.
Continue to inspire thinkers and writers, artists and authors, composers and craftsmen, directors and performers, that they may play their part in making the heart of the people wise,
their mind sound and their will just; to the honour of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
God of all grace and comfort, hear our prayer for those who are unhappy,
who are lonely or neglected, who are damaged or abused,
or whose life is darkened by fear or pain or sorrow.
Give us grace to help them when we can.
Give them faith to look beyond their troubles to you, their heavenly Father and unfailing friend,
that they may take up the threads of life again
and go on their way with fresh courage and renewed hope;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught us when we pray to say:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen
And now may the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
bless, preserve and keep us and all God’s children,
in the joy, simplicity, and compassion of the gospel. Amen
Felix Mendelssohn Sonata No 3 in A (2nd movement Andante tranquillo)