I’ll have to ask for forgiveness at the outset of this podcast, mostly because of its speculative nature. Generally I prefer not to engage in too much speculation, at least not in the context of this podcast or when I’m writing for others to read. The incarnation of Christ, which we celebrate in the feast of Christ’s nativity, the feast of the Word become flesh, is a most significant point in our salvation. But we all too easily look at the story from a merely moral or simply theological point of view and fail to stop and think about what has actually happened.
St. John says it quite clearly in the Prologue of his Gospel, in verse 14 when he says, “And the Word (that is, the Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us.” There’s several places on which to place the emphasis in that short sentence, but the fact that God has actually become flesh, has united himself with our material world, is not the least significant of those. St. Paul will spend ample time in the eighth chapter of Romans speaking about the ultimate end of matter, what St. Maximus the Confessor would later call “the marriage of heaven and earth.”
But we experience this on a regular basis when we receive Christ’s body and blood. Bread and wine are not merely bread and wine. Something else has taken place, and we receive the body and blood of God. In all of the sacraments, or mysteries, of the Church, something ordinary—or at least ordinary as we think—quite ordinary and material is changed and becomes united with heaven, and we receive heavenly things, or better yet are united with God. Thus the baptismal waters become the waters of Jordan, as we say in the prayer, and are themselves imbued with the Holy Spirit. We come out of the waters no longer the same.
My speculation—and the above is not speculation, but is in fact the dogma of the Church—but my speculation is to think about the union of heaven and earth, but to think about it in the course of our daily lives, to think about it as a matter of course.
A gift I received a couple of Christmases ago was a CD of a Russian choral group was singing music somewhat of the Church, somewhat of a moral folk origin, though it was largely modern in its composition. It was a Russian group called Svetilen, and it’s a delight to listen. I think I first heard them, I think, on Ancient Faith Radio. But part of what they do is an attempt to recover the experience of an older great culture, that is, of holy Russia, but I would say it’s also an attempt to convey heaven in music. For if ever there was a holy Russia, there was, for some and in some places, a union of heaven and earth to some great degree.
I think about this today because I wonder what it is we want to do in our music, what it is we want to do in our art, and especially when we do these things as part of the expression of the Gospel in the Church. It certainly cannot be enough to try and capture a bygone era or to evoke feelings of something that’s past. A great icon, a truly great icon, is indeed a window into heaven. This is both a function of the iconographer, that is, the one who paints; it’s a function of the icon itself; and it’s a function of the one who is viewing the icon. It requires all three.
But what I’m describing is, in fact, a normative view for the Christian life. We should never yield to the temptation to simply relegate sacraments or the mysteries of the Church as “churchly rites” that take place only as “holy things” for which we go to church to “get” and to go home the better for it. They are surely that, perhaps, but must be seen as much, much more. The whole of the service should be much more.
I recall several years ago speaking with a group of Russian church singers who were visiting here in our town and offering a performance, a very, very masterful performance of Church music. They had just sung some of the most sublime and difficult music of the Orthodox Church, but had rendered it in a fashion that was truly beyond description. I was discussing this with a couple of the singers—there were only five or six in the group; it was amazing, the sound they produced—but I was told by them… They said, “We must be very careful of our relationships with one another. If we are not in love and kindness with each other, the singing will be a disaster.” Thus, the music is much more than mere notes mixing. It is also the sound of heaven, human beings transformed by God into the sound of heaven as they sing in love and forgiveness.
I would suggest that everyone who sings in a church choir—for that matter, everyone who sings in church—should always have this in mind: that we need not simply to get the notes right, but we have to get the heart right; that the heart will be the place from which the sound truly comes.
Art, too, should carry this element, and more. Indeed, my speculative question today has to do with the whole of our activity. What does it look like to live in union with heaven? How does it sound? What else should it mean? The Word has become flesh, but flesh must also be united with the Word and be changed from glory to glory into the image of Christ. This indeed is Christmas throughout the ages and day by day. Glory to God.