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In the style of beauty, truth, and Life

Good Friday Sermon during J S Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

06 April 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

Very few here (except this balding priest) look old enough to remember Joseph

Cooper and co. in Face the Music.

‘Lily O'Grady,

Silly and shady,

Longing to be

A lazy lady,

Walked by the cupolas gables in the

Lake's Georgian stables,’

The Popular Song from Walton’s Façade (a tap dance), and panellists like Joyce Grenfell ensured a touch a class.

Apart from the dummy keyboard, one of my favourite bits was having a tune in the style of another composer – many will recall how both the melody and the style had to be named for points to be awarded. Earlier this year I went to Havana, and enjoyed the myriad styles of live music making in restaurants, cafes, bars and the streets, from breakfast until midnight. Timba, trova, salsa, rumba, bolero, – you name it. Music is a lifeline that keeps people going amidst the ghastly economic failures of Castro’s regime. As is cheap Rum. If you must try the experiment of communism, surely better to give it a whirl in the Caribbean sunshine, and the haze of mojitos, than the frozen plains of Eastern Europe and beyond. The mainstream jazz in Havana is good as well – and most memorable for me was a jazz trio which unexpectedly downed mood and tempo, as the pianist played a Bach-inspired number of his own – slow and in the style of the cello suites. (Quite different from Jacques Loussier’s style!). He was fiercely sincere about it. Art is taken seriously too - though a visit to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a slightly surreal experience. This is because there are countless examples of Cuban artists over the last century painting in the style of well-known masters. You recognise the Cézanne the Gaugin, the Picasso, Braque and Warhol, and yes the surreal Dalis as well. Except they aren’t. Cuban artists I imagine were travelling the world and bringing the latest styles back for home consumption.

The Christian vocation is unashamedly an invitation to choose a life in the style of Christ. The imitation of Christ involves not only an immersion in the greatest story ever told…the good news of Jesus and the world God so loved, in which we are involved today, but also a daily response to the call to live in the style and manner of God. For a life so lived there is no avoidance of passion, death and resurrection – sharing in the cross of Christ. The death of Jesus on the cross was the consequence of his rejecting violent power play…his refusal to pander to vested interest. His inner strength to be faithful issued from a life of prayer…and living out the teachings of the beatitudes. Obedience too is at the heart of the style of Christ – to the will of the Father. He was obedient even unto death, death on a cross. Though a much-misunderstood concept, surely the world needs more holy obedience? Obedience is a gift to be given to others, rather than a demand made upon them. It means always putting God, and the other, first. Just think for a moment to whom you owe obedience in this life, for obedience sets the soul in right relation to divine order. Maybe obedience to the needs of your aging parents, to your children, your partner, your lonely friend? The style of Christ also gathers and builds a people – a whole community of love, and this communal dynamic is a corrective against the modern trend to privatise religion. Though personal holiness is indeed a laudable aim.

Good Friday is about trying to kill and bury God, and an insistent obedience to self and self alone. An easy image of Easter is seen in the natural world with spring and new life all around us. That the dry brown parched hard earth of summer is eventually softened after the gradual rains of winter bringing new life seems a little miracle every year. Is the same thing happening in our hardened souls? The more successful and financially secure among us perhaps need to guard more carefully than others against the spiritual perils of self sufficiency. I have worked only in deprived areas prior to coming to Mayfair, and living amongst poor people often provides a blessing of people who know their need of God. The spiritual climate in wealthier areas throws up the hazard of fostering a kind of hardness of heart – not wicked, not nasty, people are perfectly pleasant and delightful…but there is a need to guard against becoming a hard and compacted personality that is not blessed with knowledge of its need of God.

Classical music was frowned upon in Cuba after the 1959 revolution, and considered part of the bourgeois legacy that needed to be swept aside. Things got so dire that musicians and teachers had to be imported from the Eastern bloc to keep orchestras intact. Youngsters then (things have changed a lot now) had little interest in the violin or the oboe. Try to suppress, starve and kill off classical music as they did, it didn’t work. With the collapse of the Soviet Union large crowds turned up for orchestral concerts. Cuba now has six symphony orchestras fully staffed with local musicians. This is a wonderful parable about the impossibility of killing truth and beauty (they are always linked in my view)…but the crowning image of hope was discovering that an enormous crowd broke the doors down at the Teatro Nacional, trying to get into a concert of Bach’s music. The poorest of the poor, suffering yet so alive, frantic and passionate for Bach.

You cannot kill truth, or bury beauty. The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth, cannot be suppressed. The victory is won. However reviled and rejected, however resisted and mocked, however despised, nailed down and buried…the truth will out. And so the truth came to pass. Written for the entire world to see…in Hebrew, Greek and Latin and displayed on the cross: ‘Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.’ The way, the truth, and the life. You can’t keep him down.

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