Let me tell you about a song that began long ago when words like ‘began’ and ‘long ago’ made no sense because time and place had not yet been invented. But the song was there, wherever there was, and from it and within it, in some mysterious way, our world was brought to birth by the Creator. And this song, the Spirit’s song, was woven into time and place, to touch the earth-bound with the sound of heaven, and to bring the voice of earth before the throne of God.
After that beginning the song of heaven changed, it grew more sorrowful notes because the people of the earth in each time and place did not always hear the beauty of the song or want to join and sing it. But for those who did, it became a song of rainbow promise, a song of belonging and relationship. By Abraham it was heard as the song of a nomadic people and their God. By Moses as the song of freedom from oppression, expressed in God’s provision of manna, in the tent of meeting, and on the top of a mountain shrouded in cloud. Wherever it was heard and sung, it carried the creativity from the very beginning into that time and place. And the creativity of the song was that in each time and place and tribe it was different.
This imaginative piece is a kind of extended metaphor. I wrote it a few years ago after hearing an address at Ely Cathedral by Revd Peter Wood which described some of the very different ways faith has been practiced in different eras and communities. It owes something to CS Lewis’ brilliant description of the lion Aslan singing the world into being in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, and to a lecture on pneumatology (the theology of the Holy Spirit) in which the Christian life was described as listening for, and learning to dance to, the melody of the Spirit. Others are sure that I must have been thinking of the song of the Ood in a 2008 Dr Who episode! I have used it in slightly different versions more than once, most recently at the services for the Feast of All Saints in 2019 in Hardwick and Dry Drayton.
Over time the song of heaven sung by the saints on earth changed many times. David’s version of the song was mostly about building a nation to live in peace. For Elijah, Jeremiah and other prophets it was a protest song heard and sung by them. The song that Daniel heard was full of metaphor and images of the glory of God. In exile, sometimes the people struggled to sing the Lord’s song. And sometimes the people corrupted the song or tried to invent their own. But for those who truly heard it, the song of heaven was so beautiful, so true, so full of light that they ever after yearned better to join their voices its harmonies.
On the day that Jesus was born, heaven touched earth and angels sang the song of God’s glory and love, the transcendent made particular in time and place 2000 years ago in Palestine. The song was loud again at Jesus’ baptism – a glimpse of heaven and a burst of the Creator’s voice. Slowly disciples learned to sing the song, as Jesus taught them to listen for its cadences.
The song fell silent then, for three days, until when no one was expecting it, it rose again, renewed: singing light into darkness, life and hope into despair. The song circled the disciples for 40 days as they met the risen Jesus, until they began to understand.
It rose to a crescendo again, at the meeting of earth and heaven on the mount of the Ascension: the heart of heaven open and singing with the heart of Christ. At Pentecost the power to sing the song was gifted in many tongues. The melody was strong: it became a joyful song of witness to the Messiah who suffered and died and rose again; a song of witness to forgiveness offered to any who turn to follow him. On that day the song of earth and heaven’s witness to the Christ was sung by many; and became truly the song of saints on earth.
And as the saints, the followers of Christ, began to spread so did the song. From person to person, household to household, from traveller to community, from beggar to king. The song had many names, all of them true – the song of the Spirit, the song of heaven, the song of witness, the song of the saints. And the song had many forms. In each age in each place wherever there were those with open hearts, those who were teachable, the Spirit taught them to sing the song of witness particular and true to their time and place.
In Jerusalem in the early days the song of the witness of the saints was sung quietly in secret rooms and catacombs by networks of believers, spread in whispers, a song of courage and of joyful certainty tested in challenge and persecution.
In coastal Northumbria 1000 years ago the song was rooted in the life and danger of the sea. A song of risk and asceticism. And there the song was led by those who found the Spirit’s inspiration most clear in island isolation, adrift in a coracle or shivering neck-deep amongst the waves. In the best of the monasteries, the saints’ song of witness was a song of learning and of artistic skill to the glory of God. The song was measured through a daily rhythm of cloistered prayer and work.
100 years ago, in East Africa, the song of the saints was exuberant, of healing, forgiveness and revival. With drums and rhythm and many voices raised in praise to God. In South America, the Spirit taught a song of justice and liberation in the face of poverty. Of the essential dignity of human beings made in the image of God. Expressed by the poor in social and political action.
There were times over the years when the song was confined by tradition or institution. Sometimes it was the fault of habits held too long; sometimes it was practices right for one place but not every place that confined the song. Sometimes the song was masked by those who tried to use it for political ends. Sometimes human beings lost their ear for the music and refused to learn again, singing instead their own song. But the song of witness was sung wherever faithful people gathered to listen to the Spirit and join the music. Down the centuries, across the continents, powerfully different in each time and place yet still the song of witness to the One who is the King of heaven and of earth.
And now, today, this song passed on from the very beginning is sung by saints, in different forms, across our globe. Sometimes in whispers and in hiding where persecution is real; sometimes in prison, sung in hope of a better time to come. Sometimes the song is corrupted to become almost indistinguishable from the louder brasher tunes around it. Sometimes it rings out loud and clear in brave counterpoint to the prevailing music of the age.
And now, here, the song of the witness of the saints, through the ages and across the world is entrusted to us. So we must listen to the music of the Spirit and learn the form of its melody for our time and place, for us, saints together for here and now. Our singing of the song connects us in solidarity with other saints in other places and other times – generations of the past and generations yet to come.
And one day, the saints of all the ages will sing this song of worship and witness together, before the throne of Jesus, the Lamb of God: each form and part of the melody complementing and combining to create a glorious, unimaginable, heavenly whole.
My prayer for us, for each of you, as God’s people – his saints here – is that we have the stillness to listen and the patience to learn the music that the Spirit is singing for us in this time and place so that we can join the song of the witness of the saints as it echoes round the world with courage and with joy.