11 May 2014 (3rd Sunday after Easter)
‘What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is often to make a beginning…’
These frequently cited words from Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ create a useful introduction for this sermon. I want us to reflect together on ‘beginnings and endings’ – prompted in part because several here tonight are approaching one ‘ending’ and another ‘beginning’ after this term – whether as choir member, chorister, choir parent, graduate or undergraduate. Our lives are punctuated by innumerable ‘beginnings’ and ‘endings’: our first and last days at school, beginnings and endings of significant friendships, the start and completion of tertiary education or of a particular job.
In Chapel over the last two weeks we have also been made aware of beginnings and endings of two books in the Bible. In Week One it was the Gospel of Mark, when the Chaplain reminded us that Mark ends as it started – north of Jerusalem, in Galilee, first with the call then with the commissioning of the disciples. Last week the Vicar of St Mary’s reminded us that the beginning and ending of John’s Gospel offered a similar inclusio – the focus on Peter, especially on Jesus’ words to Peter at the beginning and the end of the Gospel: ‘Follow me’. The Gospel of Matthew has a different inclusio: at the beginning we read that Mary will name her newborn ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’, and at the end the very last words are of Jesus telling his disciples ‘I will be with you always, to the end of time’. Luke’s Gospel is perhaps the most appropriate of all for this sermon: it starts with the priest Zechariah, alone in the Temple, being promised a son, John the Baptist, and the Gospel also ends in the Temple: the last verse tells us that, after the final resurrection appearance of Jesus, the disciples returned to the Jerusalem Temple, where they were continually, ‘praising and blessing God’.
Individual prayer like that of Zechariah and corporate praise like that of the disciples is a theme I want to focus on tonight. I want us to turn instead to the Book of Psalms, and to spend some time reflecting on the first and last psalms of the Hebrew Psalter. (You’ll see I’ve given each of you a card which illustrates by word and art what I hope we shall reflect on together.) We heard Psalm 1, in Coverdale’s translation, sung to us earlier, where the choir captured so well the thoughtful mood of those personal reflections. We have also just heard an anthem which echoed the themes of corporate praise found in Psalm 150: I am grateful to the choir for illustrating these contrasting themes.
Let us look at each of these psalms. See first just how similar in length each psalm is. Both can be divided up into three stanzas with two verses in each; not many psalms have this particular structure, so they mirror each other very clearly. They each have an obvious beginning and end: Psalm 150 is the easiest to see, with its ‘Praise the Lord’ at the start of verse 1 and the end of verse 6: I’ve represented this from the Hebrew, where in each case the word is simply ‘Hallelyu’ – ‘Praise to Yah!’. Psalm 1 also has a clear beginning and ending, in the Hebrew: as those who have read this psalm in Hebrew will know, the very first letter of the first word, ‘Happy’, begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an aleph, and the very first letter of the final word, ‘perish’ begins with the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a taw. So two psalms at the beginning and ending of the Psalter each have their own clear inclusio.
But, you might well ask, what has all this to do with our prayers and our worship? – A good deal, for these two psalms have been placed where they are in order to point to the two polarities of our faith in God. Let’s turn first to Psalm 1, which communicates a mode which is personal and individual. In a sense it is not even a prayer, because it doesn’t actually address God; the psalmist considers that an obedient believer can become close to God by quietly reading his word (here called ‘the law of the Lord’), but this also entails avoiding the influence of those who mock and deride their faith. (Look at how in the first verse, the verbs ‘walk/ stand/ sit’ suggest the increasing temptation to do so.) At the heart of the psalm the believers are compared to a fruitful tree by streams of living water; by contrast, the unbelievers are like the chaff after harvest time ‘which the wind blows clean away’. There are two destinies here: that of the faithful believer who is ‘known’ by God, and that of the faithless who do not seek to know God – and so are not known by him. Psalm 1 stands as a gateway to the Psalter, inviting us to explore, psalm by psalm, a life of faith lived out in this prayerful obedience: and as we journey through the Psalter we discover this is not actually a simple or easy process, for the life of faith is full of good and bad choices, resulting in difficult times as well as good ones. And although it is a journey which we share with thousands of others over thousands of years, it is also a journey, as Psalm 1 indicates, which each individual undertakes on their own.
Let us turn now to Psalm 150. This is a very public psalm, beginning in the Temple, or the ‘sanctuary of God’. Even without singing it ourselves we can almost hear the ‘trumpet sound’, the ‘lute and harp’, the ‘tambourine and cymbals’, and the ‘strings and pipe’. It is as noisy and jubilant as Psalm 1 is quiet and reflective. Ten times we are called upon to ‘praise God’; for the Hebrew worshipper would probably have reminded them of Genesis 1, and those ten calls by God as he brings creation into being. If Psalm 1 focussed on the fragile fate of the individual, Psalm 150 emphasises the power and greatness of Israel’s God. If Psalm 1 looks inward as to how the suppliant might please God, Psalm 150 looks outward and sees the wider world beyond. Psalm 1 invites us, on a quiet and reflective note, to embrace the life of the faith for ourselves; Psalm 150 invites us, in exuberant tones, to focus no longer on ourselves but on the character of God: ‘Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!’
It is fascinating to see how these two polarities of faith have been captured in representations of each psalm in music and art. One of the oldest Christian illustrations is found in the ninth-century Utrecht Psalter, which comprises over 150 line drawings which interpret each psalm as literally as possible. You’ll see the interpretation of Psalm 1 on your card. In the top right we can just see the believer inside a ‘tempietto’, reflecting on God’s word ‘day and night’ (I hope you can make out the sun and moon in the sky above him). On the other side, top right, is, literally, the ‘seat of scoffers’. Our eye is drawn to the middle of the picture where we might see a tree by running water; moving down to the bottom right variousdissolute individuals are being blown away by a strong wind which drives them into some sort of pit. The imagery of the psalm is told as a story for the faithful: its message is about the significance of making good and bad choices in the journey of faith.
If you now turn to the front of the card, you’ll see Marc Chagall’s Jewish representation of Psalm 1, from the 1970s. Here the believer is actually in the tree, whilst the female figure at the foot of it hints at Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. A protective angel hovers above, apparently encouraging the reading of the Law which is depicted as the fruit of another tree. Again, especially with the Eden theme, personal choices between good and evil seem to be at the heart of Chagall’s sketch of this psalm.
Let us now look at the way in which the Utrecht Psalter has represented Psalms 150. In its typical brown ink sketch, you can identify the ‘sanctuary’ in the middle at the bottom, and immediately above it God is seated on a throne in his heavenly sanctuary, with angels singing his praises to his right and left. On earth below, musicians and singers stand on small hillocks and offer their own earthly praise to the figure on the throne. Look out for the lutes and harps, the strings and pipes, the tambourines and the dancing. The clamour of praises echoes from the page.
Turn to the back of your card, where you can see Marc Chagall’s depiction of Psalm 150. Some of you will have seen this amazing stained glass window in Chichester Cathedral, created when Chagall was in his nineties: the exuberance of the music is now represented by the fiery red background which is broken up by greens and blues and yellows. Look at the small figures and animals playing musical instruments and joining in the fun and jubilation. At the top is David, sitting rather uncomfortably on a donkey, playing his harp, and right above him is the Torah, reminding us, perhaps, of Psalm 1. Everywhere is movement, celebration, noise: ‘Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!’ is the caption for it.
It seems Worcester Chapel is the right place to be in which to consider the differences between these two psalms. For Psalm 150, we have the frieze to my right with the angels (Uriel, with a psalms scroll, and Raphael, Gabriel and Michael); they are singing ‘to thee all Angels cry aloud’, and the angelic choir of eight respond with ‘Holy Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts’. (This is the ‘Te Deum’ we heard tonight.) As for Psalm 1, all over the chapel, on the friezes and on the mosaic floor, we have the contrasting examples of individual saints who, like the psalmist in Psalm 1, have learnt the comfort and the cost of the choice of obedient faith.
I hesitate, in the company of so many skilled in music here tonight, to say anything about the musical representations of these two psalms. Let us briefly reflect on Psalm 1: as well as the interpretation of Coverdale’s Psalm sung by the choir earlier tonight, I am reminded of Thomas Tallis’s sustained and reflective version of Psalm 1, with its title ‘The first is meek: devout to see’. We might contrast such versions of Psalm 1 with, for example, Anton Bruckner’s and Igor Stravinsky’s compositions of Psalm 150, where we celebrate our faith together rather than reflect on it alone. One of the most vital and vibrant interpretations of Psalm 150 is the one by Benjamin Britten, composed for children at Britten’s preparatory school in Aldeburgh. The performance lasts five minutes. It starts with a lively dance, based upon the praise of God to the sound of the trumpet; this merges into an animated round of children’s voices, and ends with that forceful march to the words ‘O Praise God’. The Gloria allows for the unselfconscious praise of children, using various musical instruments as guided by the conductor. Perhaps one day our choir might sing it? We have an example here already – the praises of choir boys represented on the alabaster lectern in the centre of the chapel.
But again, you might ask, what difference does all this representation in music and art make to our understanding of our Christian faith here, tonight? Again, I will echo what I said before: each psalm marks out the complementary polarities of our Christian faith. The two readings we heard also indicated this. The Old Testament passage from Chronicles reveals to us something of the vibrancy of worship, where music and praise brings to life the words of the psalms; the New Testament lesson from 1 John, by contrast, speaks of the importance of reflecting not only on the written words of God but also on the living word of Life – Christ Himself.
There is however more to these psalms than just the contrast between personal prayer and corporate praise. Psalm 1 is about a faith which looks inwards, excluding the unrighteous from the congregation, whilst Psalm 150 suggests a faith which looks outwards and includes ‘everything that breathes’ in the purposes of God. Some Christians will feel a greater affinity with the more private and defensive faith of Psalm 1; other Christians will feel more at home in the world of Psalm 150. Yet others may be somewhere in between. But both perspectives are important: we cannot be sustained only by a private faith on our own, nor can we be sustained only by the faith of others. And between Psalms 1 and 150 we find both approaches continuously presented throughout the other 148 psalms, as we move from the personal to the corporate, from prayer to praise, and from the corporate to the personal, from praise to prayer. So from Psalm 1 we learn the importance of a works-orientated faith which quietly meditates on the Word of God; from Psalm 150, we see the importance of trust-orientated faith which goes beyond the medium of words alone and through the power of music is celebrated so all might know about it.
‘On his Law they meditate day and night.’
‘Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
1Happy are those
who do not walk after the advice of the wicked,
or stand in the way of sinners,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither
In all that they do, they prosper.
4Not so, the wicked!
they are like chaff
that the wind drives clean away.
5Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous
but the way of the wicked will perish.
Utrecht Psalter (ninth century) © University of Utrecht
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him for his surpassing greatness!
3 Praise him with the trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes
praise the LORD!