Singing a New Song

September 24, 2017

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Revelation 14.1-5 at Evensong on Sunday 24th September 2017, the 15th after Trinity.

Have you ever sang a new song? A song that no-one has ever heard before? Or painted, or built, or written or baked a completely new work of art? If so maybe you remember the feeling. The feeling when something completely new is BORN. When I was reading today’s passage from Revelation my memory took me back to the nineties, when a bunch of us had collected together our equipment to make a music studio in a bitterly cold side room of a free church but they gave it us without charge. Inside we had banks and banks of synthesizers lining the room, a 24 channel desk, microphones, and a collection of other instruments including a pair of congas that had once belonged to Graham Kendrick. And that was where we went and composed. Sometimes I went there at 2 in the morning and there I would mix whale song and deep throbbing bass riffs and  synth textures and plainchant, the spoken word, and soaring vocal melodies,  and give birth to something completely new, and that moment, when it all came together, and something emerged that was balanced and beautiful and that had never been heard before, was spine tingling. Of course in the cold light of day it is never quite the same, the song was no longer new-born. But some of the pieces lasted, one had a brief outing onTV and most rest in peace on digital tape in a cupboard. But that doesn’t matter. It was the act of creating them in the first place that was important.

Which brings me to todays confusing but beautiful reading when 144,000 sing a new song before the throne of God, a song that not everyone can learn.  The book of Revelation is a very strange book, full of picture language, symbolism and prophesy. It was written for a group of Christians being persecuted and killed for their faith, yet it has been used, and misused by many over the years. But if you think of it as less like future history and more like a room full of inspirational paintings, it begins to make a little more sense.

The passage this afternoon begins with the lamb on Mount Zion, Christ having returned to Jerusalem and 144,000 are with him. These are the ones singing a new song. The number, of course is symbolic. Israel had twelve tribes, and mirroring this, Christ chose twelve apostles. Revelation chapter 7 speaks of 12,000 people being saved from each of the tribes of Israel. Yet the book of Revelation is not suggesting that only unmarried Jewish males can inherit the kingdom. It is number symbolism, probably meaning completeness, every tribe and family having the hope of salvation.

But lets get back to the song. The ones singing the new song are those redeemed from the earth. This is normally taken as salvation from sin and death. But I believe the Christian redemption includes more than that. If we were only saved from the grave but never made complete and whole within our inner beings, that is, our souls, and released from whatever hidden heartbreaks we suffer and memories that cause us pain, this would only be a half-salvation.

One of the things that strikes me about this passage is that the 144,000 have the name of Jesus and the Father’s name written upon their foreheads. What could this possibly mean and why can these people sing this song and not others. Are they particularly skilled in sight-reading music? Or is there something more to it?

Well I think perhaps one thing God might be teaching us through this passage is that these people are not afraid to sing a new song. They can sing a challenging and new piece of music because they have the name badge of Christ written upon their very skin.They know who they are – they are children of God, and are unafraid of being undermined by anyone else.

They can be courageous enough to sing a completely new song because the are released from the criticism and the expectation of others that they will conform to existing musical forms and can truly break new ground musically and artistically.

It reminds me of something that Martin Neary said the other year at the old choristers dinner. I often wondered how Winchester, which at first sight seemed a very traditional cathedral,  had such wonderful modern music in the repertoire; Tavener and Part and Dove. Martin Neary said he was young and noone told him it couldn’t be done, so he just did it, and our current director of music, Andrew Lumsden has continued that wonderful work of innovation, finding pieces such as Twist’s “how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land?”

I believe that one of the wickedest things one human being can do to another human soul is to crush their creativity and stifle their new song and this is what happened to Hildegard of Bingen. Abbess Hildegard was a 12th century nun and mystic. She had visions, composed florid plainchant which has made its way into a number of modern compositions. The best known is “O Euchari” and she even wrote medical and scientific books. Yet one incident which happened at the end of her life I find heartbreaking.

A controversy happened because Hildegard’s community decided to bury a revolutionary youth in their cemetery who had been excommunicated by the archbishop. The church demanded that his body be dug up and laid in unconsecrated ground. However the nuns insisted that he had repented and that he had been restored to communion within the church before death.

Hildegard removed his grave marker so the soldiers could not find the body, so the Bishop of Mainz excommunicated the whole convent, but he did something far worse than that. He knew how to really hurt them, so he completely silenced them, forbidding them to sing. In her letter to the archbishop Hildegard lamented how by the interdiction the bishops had silenced the most wonderful music on the Rhine. The silence lasted a whole year before the song was restored to the community and Hildegard died soon after. What a wicked thing to do, to wound a community in the very centre of its artistic soul. But I think that Hildegard of Bingen had the last laugh, gaining two top 40 hits in the 1990s when O Euchari was sampled by two separate bands, Orbital and the Beloved. Her song lives on unlike his.

So, finally, let me encourage you all, and particularly the choristers, as it’s really hard at school and on the internet to hold your own against other people when they want to make you feel small about your artistic creations or about the fact that you are musical and sing in a choir.  Don’t let your inner songs (or any other artforms) be crushed by how you feel about yourself or your talents or by the rudeness of others. For you too, are a child of God, which gives you the right to compose and sing a new song, or paint or sculpt or dance or craft. The songs you sing might not be to everyones taste, and you might not get to perform them in many places, maybe only in a drafty church at two in the morning. But they are yours and they are part of the promise and the inheritance of eternity for you.