Grassroots music

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On Sunday 7 May we celebrate ‘Land’ Sunday in Season of Creation, so let’s consider grassroots music in church – you might also think of ‘grassroots music’ as folk music.

The soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is pervaded with grassroots music of Northern America – you can listen to an interview with T-Bone Burnett, on NPR’s all songs considered, and play some of the songs from the 10th anniversary recording.

In the movie, there is a touching scene in which grassroots music both encapsulates and stirs the men’s impulse towards faith and freedom: the ‘down in the river to pray’ scene. This is a style of music that speaks to many at St Luke’s as well, and we’ve enjoyed singing it in our own harmonisations. Alison Krauss’ version in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is beautiful. Can you think of a better musical setting for this scene?

Tell out, my soul

Katrina DowlingMusic2 Comments

Franz Anton Maulbertsch: Visitation (detail), c.1771-1777

This week we’re singing Timothy Dudley-Smith’s metrical setting of the Magnificat, “Tell out, my soul.” The text of the Magnificat, from Luke’s Gospel, is usually read in Advent, and, although in many traditions it’s part of daily prayers, at St Luke’s we don’t normally have it in corporate worship at this time of the year. Yet here it is on the day we celebrate Holy Humour – both our laugh-out-loud joy at God’s victory and our laugh-at-ourselves appreciation of the way that God’s sovereignty turns our pretensions and power structures upside down (“the humble have been lifted high”).

When I look at the Magnificat, I enjoy reading from just before the song, to hear how Elizabeth’s words of recognition and blessing call forth Mary’s song of praise in turn. It’s an amazing spectacle of affirmation. This is the episode, in the translation that inspired Dudley-Smith’s hymn:

About this time Mary set out and went straight to a town in the uplands of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby stirred in her womb. Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried aloud, ‘God’s blessing is on you above all women, and his blessing is on the fruit of your womb. Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? I tell you, when your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy. How happy is she who has had faith that the Lord’s promise would be fulfilled!’

And Mary said:

‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord,
rejoice, rejoice, my spirit, in God my saviour;
so tenderly has he looked upon his servant,
humble as she is.
For, from this day forth,
all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the Mighty One.
His name is Holy;
his mercy sure from generation to generation
toward those who fear him;
the deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might:
the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout,
he has brought down monarchs from their thrones,
but the humble have been lifted high.
The hungry he has satisfied with good things,
the rich sent empty away.

He has ranged himself at the side of Israel his servant;
firm in his promise to our forefathers,
he has not forgotten to show mercy to Abraham
and his children’s children, for ever.’[1]

Elizabeth and Mary are telling out praise to each other, in a way that reminds me of the poetic image in Psalm 19 of all creation pouring out praise, every moment reciprocating and in turn evoking a new part of the song:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.[2]

Leonie Stocks, Autumn equinox, Melbourne 2017

And, to return to Holy Humour, there’s something about the profound truth in which, in the act of praising, we come to rest, that allows us to contemplate our ridiculous smallness with delight, as an element in the whole relationship between God and creation. John O’Donohue observes that:

the act of praising draws you way outside the frontiers of your smallness. To praise awakens the more generous side of your heart. It draws out the nobility, the Úaisleacht, in you. When the soul praises, the life enlarges.[3]

It’s ironic that if you measure yourself in the context of human society, it tends to foster a sense of need and anxiety and serious self-regard, but when you see your smallness in the vast greatness of God, it tends to lead to self-forgetting and trust and gladness!

These two Scripture texts and the hymn could furnish a lifetime of experience. In your recent enjoyment of the Magnificat and “Tell out, my soul,” what has been speaking to you? Back-and-forth telling out of praise across distance and generations? Subverting human power structures? Or something different?

[1] Luke 1:39-55 (NEB)

[2] Ps. 19:1-4 (NRSV)

[3] John O’Donohue, Eternal echoes: Exploring our hunger to belong (London: Bantam Press, 1998), 299.

Breaking through structure

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We’re heading towards Easter and the celebration of good news and transformation. In our Lenten study we’re up to the later chapters of Matthew’s telling of the Good News, and we have entered the portion in which the very structure of religion is disrupted.

Transformation – whether you seek it or it overtakes you – means a familiar existence gives way to a new way of being. It’s literal or metaphorical death. Perhaps the most famous image is the seed that dies to its existence as a seed, splits open and discovers its hidden nature as a new sprouting plant:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [John 12:24-25]

When I think of transformation, I think of the music of Gustav Mahler. He is the master of thematic transformation, and because of this he is able to break open the symphonic structure as it was understood at the end of the 19th century, not destroying the symphony, but allowing it to transcend its old boundaries and achieve a different kind of completion.

Mahler’s music embraces many real-world sounds – dance music, military signals, birds, cow bells, running water and much more – but, rather than primarily illustrative, his music is more like parables: everyday things telling a story symbolically. In his thematic transformation Mahler incorporates but goes beyond the Classical symphonic techniques of working with themes as abstract musical material; he incorporates but goes beyond the Romantic techniques of depicting scenes, moods or narratives; in fact, by working the musical material at the level of symbolic significance, he synthesizes abstract and illustrative musical functions into what we might refer to as music that can philosophise.

In our limited space here it’s hard to do justice to examples, but let’s touch on one of the most significant elements in Symphony No.1. The interval of a falling fourth appears throughout the symphony, undergoing transformations that sometimes progress so organically that you might not always consciously recognise that the same germ is there in many guises, unifying the symphony. But it’s good to begin with one of the most obvious thematic connections. In the opening of the first movement you hear the falling fourth emerging from a sustained A and building into a short theme:

In the final movement it is an answer to the problems posed by the symphony:

But we can only make a relatively crude comparison here. If you go with Mahler through the course of the symphony then the transformations take on meaning. Try listening to the whole symphony and ‘buy into’ the world it offers you at the beginning, and by the end of the symphony you’ll get a small sense of leaving that world behind in order for it to be born anew.


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Let’s hear the song “Khumbaya,” but not the song as you might know it from Guides and Scouts and campfire singing. In fact, I’ll suggest that it can be a model of liturgical prayer. The familiar campfire song, in the experience of many people, has been exploited to arouse shallow-rooted feelings of happiness and harmony. As a consequence, “kumbaya” is a synonym for “the warm fuzzies”: unrealistic or cheaply-generated good feelings.

In comparison to songs like “Imagine” and “We are the world,” which are, arguably, intrinsically patronising or emotionally manipulative, the common campfire version of “Kumbaya” suffers only from being reminiscent of a schoolyard chant in its repetitive words and sing-song tune. Its taint comes only from the practice of using the song to induce an evanescent feel-good mood. But the Soweto Gospel Choir’s version of “Khumbaya” is distinct enough to allow us to shake off old associations with the campfire rendition and hear the words as a simple invocation and expression of trust. The refrain “khumbaya” throughout is dialect for “come by here,” i.e. “be with us”:

Somebody’s crying Lord. Khumbaya
Somebody’s praying Lord Khumbaya

Oh Lord, hear my prayer Khumbaya
As I lift my voice and say Khumbaya
I need you Lord today Khumbaya
I need you right away Khumbaya

Somebody’s in despair Khumbaya
Somebody feels like no one cares Khumbaya
I know you make a way Khumbaya
Yes! Lord you make a way Khumbaya

 When I listen to this version in particular it reminds me that liturgy means the work of the people, that is, the church’s public prayer, and that I don’t need to be in a given situation in order to join in making the public prayer for those who are experiencing it. I don’t even need to know them personally – I just need to know that “somebody’s in despair” as we lift our voices to carry that prayer together.

Letting go from music into silence

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Are you doing any sort of fasting during Lent? We have one fasting discipline that we are doing as a community in our Sunday morning worship – we’re letting go of some of our music. It was introduced in this way on the order of service for the first Sunday of Lent:

The season of Lent is traditionally one of fasting and contemplation, modelled on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. To reflect this, there will be no prelude or postlude today, nor during any of the Sundays of Lent. This ‘fast’ from background music and the accompanying open silence are intended to provide an opportunity for reflection and private prayer – a time ‘in the wilderness’ for us.

On the first Sunday of this ‘wilderness’ experience, we took to it easily; I think most people found it to be a little more of a spacious experience of quiet rather than a deprivation of something good, which is undoubtedly also true of a fast. It was a good answer to the desire James had shared with the worship ministry group that our Lenten discipline would be about “relinquishing, not ripping out.”

Among the music team, when we contemplated letting go of our instrumental music before and after services for the duration of Lent, we immediately had a strong sense both of what we would be relinquishing and what the rewards might be. I paraphrase here some of the reflections from our musicians:

  • There are unique things that music can do for us in Lent, and we will dearly miss playing special seasonal pieces
  • There are also unique places that silence can take us to – we have a sense of anticipation about what might happen in this time
  • Having ‘decluttered’ the time before and after the service, with no competition between music and other activity, we will enjoy its simplicity
  • Being ‘in the wilderness’ in this way for musicians means a rest from some of the work of performing and a change of focus to other parts of our musical practice during Lent
  • We wonder how our appreciation of preludes and postludes might be enhanced when we reintroduce them after our fast

This Sunday (12th March) we’ll also have the experience of a short time for silent reflection in the midst of the service; Julie Hall says that a little breather like this “gives the soul time to catch up with the body.” Both Julie’s and our musicians’ insights remind me of Shirley Murray’s song “Come and find the quiet centre,” which says of clutter:

Come and find the quiet centre in the crowded life we lead… clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes, that we can see all the things that really matter, be at peace, and simply be.

And of finding a pace at which soul and body come together:

Silence is a friend who claims us,
cools the heat and slows the pace,
God it is who speaks and names us…

This song goes with the tune Beech Spring. Since music and silence are such good partners, here’s a suggestion for an under-five-minute music and silence reflection time to try at home:

  1. Get a timer and set it for 2 minutes
  2. Read the quotes from Murray’s song above or all the lyrics at Hope Publishing
  3. Listen to Dan Carollo’s rendition of Beech Spring in the linked video
  4. After the music, start your timer, expect the lyrics to be true for you in the coming moments, relax and enjoy your silent time!

Love knocks and waits for us to hear

Katrina DowlingMusic2 Comments

Bossa nova means “new style” but it comes organically out of Brazilian genres such as samba; “new” does not mean completely different, but a new flowering from the same branch. Bossa nova has the same rhythms as samba, but played more slowly, and the playing and singing is always soft and gentle.

We learned the bossa nova setting of Daniel Charles Damon’s “Love knocks and waits for us to hear” at St Luke’s on 19 February as a way of exploring this text:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:38-48[1]

This text looks very demanding and living it out would be difficult. So it’s refreshing to get a feel for the pulse of its spirit through the gentle rhythms of bossa nova. Suppose these precepts were given to you in the form of a love song that showed what Love offers you, so that you need only give out of what you’ve received. Damon’s song puts it this way:

Love knocks and waits for us to hear,
to open and invite:
Love longs to quiet every fear,
and seeks to set things right.

Love offers life, in spite of foes
who threaten and condemn;
embracing enemies, Love goes
the second mile with them.

Love comes to heal the broken heart,
to ease the troubled mind;
without a word Love bids us start
to ask and seek and find.

Love knocks and enters at the sound
of welcome from within;
Love sings and dances all around,
and feels new life begin.

By popular request, we’re singing this song again next Sunday (26 February), and, because we didn’t have time to share our responses when we were learning it on the 19th, I offer here some passages that you might find resonate with the lyrics, and encourage you (whether you were in the music session on the 19th or you’re encountering the song for the first time here) to interact with each other via the comments.

Images in verse 1

Love knocks and waits for us to hear,
to open and invite:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

Revelation 3:20

Love longs to quiet every fear,
and seeks to set things right.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2

Images in verse 2

Love offers life, in spite of foes
who threaten and condemn;

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

John 10:10

embracing enemies, Love goes
the second mile with them.

Matthew 5:38-48 – see the top of the post

Images in verse 3

Love comes to heal the broken heart,

When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears,
and rescues them from all their troubles.
The LORD is near to the broken-hearted,
and saves the crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:17-18

He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds.

Psalm 147:3

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Isaiah 61:1

     to ease the troubled mind;

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

John 14:27

without a word Love bids us start
to ask and seek and find.

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

Matthew 7:7

Images in verse 4

Love knocks and enters at the sound
of welcome from within;

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Jeremiah 29:11-14

Love sings and dances all around,
and feels new life begin.

The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing

Zephaniah 3:1

Please continue the conversation in the comments section – are there other Scripture passages that you feel speak through this song? Have you struggled with the text in Matthew 5 before, and is this a new way of encountering it? If you were at the music session on the 19th, how was your experience of meeting the Matthew text through a bossa nova?

[1] All Scripture in this post New Revised Standard Version.


Katrina DowlingMusic1 Comment

This is a strange aspect of music ministry. In two separate occasions within a week, people looked to me, as music director of the local church, to confirm whether certain behaviours among the congregation show ‘disrespect’ in corporate worship.

Honestly, I had no official line to give, despite the fact that, if I lead a choir, I will give members a code of conduct; but that’s the prerogative of a choir director and doesn’t relate to comportment in the congregation as a whole. So I became curious about what the church’s teaching is, and discovered that there’s nothing explicit, but that I could read into the spirit behind some of our guidelines and teaching.[1] Here’s what I found…

No guidelines on specific behaviours

The Uniting Church in Australia provides ethical guidelines for members and adherents, and these guidelines say that we are expected to treat people with respect, but it doesn’t mention treating worship, worship accoutrements, or God’s presence with respect. Beyond saying that we are expected to be courteous and let people know that they are safe, the guidelines don’t prescribe exactly how to behave in order to be courteous.

There’s also a code of conduct for lay leaders, which adds to the guidelines for members some practices we are expected to do, such as studying Scripture and praying alone and together;  but neither of these codes deal with ‘conduct’ in the sense of how you comport yourself in corporate worship.

Church traditions are expected to be changing, not fixed

The history of this church seems to stress that tradition is a living thing rather than a static thing to be preserved unchanging – its traditions live by means of renewal as well as preservation. The attitude is influenced by “the notion of ‘receptive ecumenism’ where churches are encouraged, in relationship to each other, to move from defensiveness to appreciation of gifts kept by other traditions which have been lost or obscured in one’s own.”[2] If we have living traditions, then we might retain many longstanding practices, but we can’t rely solely on how things have been done in the past to teach us how to do things today.

Guidelines on liturgy are only minimally prescriptive

Because the church doesn’t tell us how to behave when we are worshipping together, I looked at what the guidelines for liturgy might suggest. Firstly, although the services of worship set out in Uniting in Worship are normative and include clear directions on what must and should be part of liturgy, “this does not mean, of course, that the services in Uniting in Worship are intended to be used rigidly and without imagination. All worship should be geared to the particular situation of the congregation, be it large or small, urban or rural.”[3] So the local context is expected to influence how we do worship.

Secondly, our particular expressions of liturgy (which would include the way in which we comport ourselves) are given secondary importance in worship, because the church believes that “aids to worship are signposts for christian pilgrims, not the goal of their journey. Only the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can bring human words and works to life, enabling us to be true worshippers who worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”[4]

Diversity is valued

The diversity of the Uniting Church is acknowledged:

The liturgical life of the Uniting Church is impossible to summarise. Its diversity encompasses a growing appreciation of the seasons of the Church year and of the Revised Common Lectionary, along with a commitment to liturgical freedom and, in some places, the exercise of continual novelty and an avoidance of written material.[5]

Diversity is supported and encouraged, as, for example, in Uniting in Worship, where, alongside an expectation of thoughtful and proper inclusion of all that’s needed for full entry into worship, there is the encouragement to treat the liturgies in the book more as a directory than as a book of common prayer.

Formal, middle and informal attitudes are all embraced

The Uniting Church provides for us to use a mix of formal to informal behaviours in terms of the language we use in liturgy. The preface of Uniting in Worship 2 discusses three ‘registers of language’ (note: “in speaking of registers of language, we do not imply registers of theology”).[6]

The liturgies in Uniting in Worship 2 use two registers of language – high “conveys a sense of dignity and the transcendence of God”; middle, through “a wider and warmer range of imagery… facilitates the connection between the Church’s corporate worship and our service of worship of God in everyday life”. Because it is a written book, it does not feature the oral tradition of low register language, which is “more colloquial and conversational… to speak to immediate situations, and to particular groups of people,” but it allows for liturgies to be conducted in informal language as well.[7] For me, this is the closest the church gets to saying what specific behaviours in worship are considered either appropriate or disrespectful; it seems to suggest that not only is a range of attitudes from formal to informal acceptable, but maybe also that we would be wise to use all of them to some extent, depending on our context, in order to experience the fullness of worship.

Conclusion… local cultures and church culture

Reading the spirit behind all of these guidelines, I think that, in general, the Uniting Church in Australia is more interested in enabling people to worship within their various cultural idioms than in establishing a unified church culture and enculturating people into it. It also seems that the church sees comportment (behaviour) as residing in the sphere of culture, making it a matter of local agreement, rather than theology, which would have made it something for the church to comment upon.

That leaves us with the task of agreeing in the local community on our expectations of our behaviour in worship: when to arrive and leave, when to move or be still, when to speak or be silent, what to wear, what posture to adopt, and so on… and the task of making it known so that we won’t be uneasy about whether we’re doing the right thing in this context. Further – and this is difficult to navigate for someone who needs to teach a choir or band to conform to expected behaviours for the good of the whole community – I’m reminded of Richard Foster’s warning against evaluating ourselves by our outward behaviours and against controlling others in their outward behaviours:

Jesus teaches that we must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). Yet we need to see that their righteousness was no small thing. They were committed to following God in a way that many of us are not prepared to do. One factor, however, was always central to their righteousness: externalism. Their righteousness consisted in control over externals, often including the manipulation of others. The extent to which we have gone beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees is seen in how much our lives demonstrate the internal work of God upon the heart. …

If we are to progress in the spiritual walk so that the Disciplines are a blessing and not a curse, we must come to the place in our lives where we can lay down the everlasting burden of always needing to manage others.[8]

Please leave a comment if you can refine the understanding offered here of how Uniting Church traditions relate to ‘respectful’ and ‘disrespectful’ behaviour, or if you’d like to add a perspective from a different tradition.

[1] Disclaimer: I’m not speaking on behalf of the church here, but showing how I, as a layperson, understand what the church makes available for me to learn from.

[2] Robert Gribben, “Living Traditions in the Uniting Church,” in Being and Doing Church, A Uniting Church Perspective, ed. Christopher C. Walker (Adelaide: Mediacom, 2015), 4,

[3] Preface to Uniting in Worship (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1988), 8.

[4] Preface to Uniting in Worship (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1988), 11.

[5] Preface to Uniting in Worship 2 (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2000), 9.

[6] Preface to Uniting in Worship 2 (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2000), 9.

[7] Preface to Uniting in Worship 2 (Sydney: Uniting Church Press, 2000), 9-10.

[8] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Study guide edn. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), 9-10.

Brighter than the sun

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The concept that Christ is ‘brighter than the sun” has special force now. Epiphany is the season of revelation, with light being the preeminent symbol of God’s revealed presence in the world. In the Northern hemisphere it’s a midwinter season, and you can see lights shining in the darkness; in Australia, the brightness of the midsummer sun is expansive and everything is enveloped in light.

With its themes of revelation, light, the baptism of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, mission, and telling the news, Epiphany is a great time to sing gospel songs. I feel especially drawn to this genre right now. Since the choir is on summer holidays during Epiphany, I’ll be playing some gospel piano solos instead, so I thought it would be good to share the associated lyrics.

John Helgen has set “Brighter than the sun” for choir and piano in what he describes as a “down-home Southern Gospel” feel, and we’ve sung it with enjoyment at St Luke’s for many years. There are many arrangements of “I love to tell the story” – I like Joel Raney’s gospel-style piano solo arrangement.

“Brighter than the sun” (Ray Makeever)
Brighter, brighter than the sun is the candle of the Holy One.
Bigger, bigger than the sea are the waves of God washing over me.

Davezelenka: Baprism of Christ, 2005Gonna light my candle from the holy flame
of the one that’s brighter than my own name.
Gonna wash my body in the holy sea,
in the water of life that’s bigger than me

Gonna meet God’s children at the fountain of life,
where the word and the water and the Lord Jesus Christ
make a new creation out of every one.
Holy Spirit of love, let the waters run.

Gonna gather ’round and gonna welcome
in ev’ry child to be and ev’ry one who’s ever been.
Gonna breathe together with this spark of life:
Holy Spirit of God, make our flame burn bright.

“I love to tell the story” (Katherine Hankey)
I love to tell the story
of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory,
of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story,
because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings
as nothing else could do.

I love to tell the story;
’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it,
more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story,
for some have never heard
the message of salvation
from God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story,
for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting
to hear it, like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
’twill be the old, old story
that I have loved so long.

How to come and adore

Katrina DowlingMusic4 Comments

In the Christmas season, singing “O come let us adore him…” reminds me of devotional (visual) art, which gives the viewer some ways to come and adore, typically:

  • Figures in the image look at or gesture to the viewer to invite you into the scene (e.g. the Botticelli Adoration of 1475, below)
  • Figures in the image model devotional posture to help you join in (this is especially strong in the Botticelli Adoration of c.1478-82, below)
  • The image imaginatively expands the Biblical account to make it vivid for you (as in the page from the Très Riches Heures, towards the end of this post, that depicts how the three magi might have met each other in order to make their journey together)

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, 1475

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1478/1482

Programme music can play a similar role. ‘Programme music’ is instrumental music that seeks to portray an image or narrative (without using sung words). The title of the music tells you what its ‘programme’ is so you can imagine it as you listen. For example, inspired by paintings in the Uffizi Gallery including the 1475 Botticelli above, Ottorino Respighi composed an orchestral suite called Trittico Bottecelliano [Botticelli Triptych] (1927), which includes a movement called “L’adorazione dei Magi.”

Respighi’s musical “Adoration” goes beyond the relatively static moment of the Botticelli painting that inspired it – the magi and their retinues having arrived and gathered around the scene of the nativity – to suggest an entire journey, more in the vein of the work of the Limbourg brothers in the Très Riches Heures illumination below.

It’s up to the listener to fill the story out, but along the way, you’ll hear:

  • musical arabesques to give the flavour of the eastern land from which the journey begins
  • quotations of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” [“O come, O come, Emmanuel”] to underscore the anticipation of the promised one (see also the post “O Come Emmanuel” and the Great “O” Antiphons)
  • quotations of the Neapolitan carol “Tu scendi dalle stelle” [“You came down from the stars”] to depict wonder

So here is a suggestion on how to come and adore in a 10-minute devotional time:

  • find your favourite recording of Respighi’s “L’adorazione dei Magi” or play from the linked video at the end of this post
  • set a painting of the journey or adoration in front of you; or close your eyes
  • imagine preparing to set off on the journey…
    • what do you bring with you? – what do the people in your home ask you to take on their behalf?
    • what do you anticipate? – what do you most deeply desire?
    • how does it feel when your fellow travellers join you? – what do they add to your journey?
    • as the landscape before you and behind you changes, what new prospects are revealed ahead? – when you look back, what seems new about the land you’ve travelled?
  • leave the prompts behind and keep on imagining, following where the music leads… you might not get to the destination in this short contemplation; it’s OK to take time en route.


Limbourg bros., Meeting of the Magi, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, fol.51v, c.1412-16

Limbourg bros., Adoration of the Magi, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, fol.52r, c.1412-16