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Angela Tilby: Season of light needs extending

14 January 2022

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THE Christmas tree is staying up until Candlemas. I usually have no fixed view on whether to take it down on Twelfth Night, or to wait until February. Sometimes, the post-Christmas clutter annoys me, and I do the demolition job on Twelfth Night.

But, this year, with the Omicron surge and the mostly grey and cold weather, I decided that there was every reason to extend the season of light. Just after Epiphany, at Portsmouth Cathedral, we had an inspiring performance of Olivier Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur by our sub-organist, Sachin Gunga. I have always loved these nine organ meditations on Christ’s birth, with their scriptural commentary alternating Gospel narratives with carefully chosen sentences from the epistles. The combination is a profound theological/musical exploration of the incarnation, which is quite un-English.

I love the English Christmas, with its folksiness and sentimentality, but the French liturgical tradition speaks to me in a different register. There is a robust theology underlying Messiaen’s work. Scripture is absorbed and combined so as to comment on itself, anticipating the faith of the creeds. We hear the human story in the music; the familiar rustic shepherds and the persistent wise men. Their pilgrimage is reflected in Les Mages, a movement that is often taken slowly, emphasising the weariness of the journey. Mr Gunga took it briskly, conveying the eagerness of the travellers and clarifying the melody of Veni, Creator Spiritus, which weaves through their insistent footsteps.

But, alongside the human story, Messiaen’s work explores the incarnation as the saving divine descent into our human world. One of the most luminous movements of the piece is Le Verbe, a meditation on the pre-existent Christ, drawn together with texts from the Second Psalm, Wisdom, and I John. In the seventh movement, Jésus accepte la souffrance, the Passion is foreshadowed in agonising chords hinting at the stretching of Christ’s body on the cross, with the text from Hebrews based on Psalm 40: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me” (Hebrews 10.5).

I think that the English sometimes tend towards Nestorianism, the heresy of separating the two natures of Christ. There are hints of this in the C of E’s 2020 Vision document, which speaks of a “Christ-centred, Jesus-shaped” Church, a phrase still in circulation in spite of how odd it might sound to a Catholic or Orthodox Christian, or to anyone aware of the Chalcedonian faith.

The point of the incarnation is, as the liturgy more insightfully insists, the gathering up into one of things earthly and heavenly. As we enter another year, when it sometimes seems that the surrounding darkness is strong, I will keep my Christmas lights until Candlemas. I will meditate on the Nicene Creed — and listen to more French organ music.

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