14 September 2022

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Wednesday 14 September 2022

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral seen from the gates of the Garden of Remembrance in Lichfield … the lettering on the gates says: ‘Pax 1919’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Holy Cross Day in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship (14 September).

I left Sheffield, yesterday following ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital on Monday as a follow-up to my stroke (AVM) six months ago (18 March 2022).

Two of us are spending a few days in York as I take some rest and time to recover, and perhaps we may visit York Minster and Durham Cathedral during these few days. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The Calvary Ccrucifix at Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Startford, was renovated in 1996 in memory of Canon Eric Steer … today is Holy Cross Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The cross on which Christ was crucified has become the universal symbol of Christianity, replacing the fish symbol of the early Church, though the latter has been revived in recent times. After the end of the era of persecution, early in the fourth century, pilgrims began to travel to Jerusalem to visit and pray at the places associated with the life of Christ. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was a Christian and, while she was overseeing excavations in the city, it is said she uncovered a cross that many believed to be the Cross of Christ. A basilica was built on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and dedicated on this day in the year 335.

John 3: 13-17 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said to Nicodemus:] 13 ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

Today’s reflection: 3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For these six days this week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.

The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.

I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

This morning [14 September 2022], I am listening to the third movement, ‘Reconciliation.’

3, Reconciliation

The heart of Dona nobis pacem is found in the third movement, ‘Reconciliation.’ In this movement, Vaughan Williams uses this heart-wrenching poem by Walt Whitman in its entirety.

Although Whitman’s long lines are not easily set to music, the words have an almost intolerable beauty, marked by truth and compassion in the face of the shocking carnage suffered by humanity.

‘Reconciliation’ transcends the threatening atmosphere with a striking, bitter-sweet moment. Set like a lullaby, Whitman’s text offers a promise to the dead enemy – ‘a man divine as myself’ – that time will wash away the awful deeds of war, a promise sealed with a kiss.

The text is matched in perfect spirit by the beautiful setting by Vaughan Williams, sung by the commanding yet gentle voice of the baritone soloist. The baritone introduces the first half of the poem, which the choir echoes and varies.

The baritone then continues with the rest of the poem, followed by the choir presenting a new variation of the first half.

At the end, the soprano repeats a variation of Dona nobis pacem, which we heard in the first movement, hauntingly soaring above the final lines of the chorus.

3, Reconciliation

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly,
Wash again and ever again this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

The war memorial cross in Grantchester Churchyard … the name of the poet Rupert Brooke is inscribed alongside those of parishioners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer (Wednesday 14 September 2022, Holy Cross Day):

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who in the passion of your blessed Son
made an instrument of painful death
to be for us the means of life and peace:
grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ
that we may gladly suffer for his sake;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Faithful God,
whose Son bore our sins in his body on the tree
and gave us this sacrament to show forth his death until he comes:
give us grace to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
for he is our salvation, our life and our hope,
who reigns as Lord, now and for ever.

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Let us give thanks for the love of God, which knows no limits, and the sacrifice made so that we could be saved.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Crucifixion depicted on the rood in the chapel of Pusey House, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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