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The Spirit of Music

By The Revd Canon James Mustard
SWEETEST of sweets, I thank you: when displeasure
          Did through my bodie wound my minde,

You took me thence; and in your house of pleasure

          A daintie lodging me assign’d.

Now I in you without a bodie move,

          Rising and falling with your wings:

We both together sweetly live and love,

          Yet say sometimes, God help poore Kings.

Comfort, I’ll die; for if you poste from me,

          Sure I shall do so, and much more:

But if I travell in your companie,

          You know the way to heavens doore.
George Herbert, “Church Musicke”, from The Temple
This feast of Whitsun, also known as Pentecost, the fiftieth day, marks the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. It is considered by some to be to the birth of the Church, but it has a more complex identity, being the Jewish Festival of Weeks, a celebration of the gift of the ten commandments to Moses. It is for that festival that the Disciples, and many others, were gathered in Jerusalem. They were not waiting for the Spirit, but to celebrate the Jewish Law. What follows, we are told, is anything but a celebration of an ancient legal code, but the apparently crazed conduct of a crowd, speaking in tongues animated by the Spirit of God, the longed-for “paraclete” or “comforter”.
The Greek “Paracleto” means literally one who is called to be alongside. It is close to the idea of “Advocate”, or “intercessor”, someone who speaks on behalf of another. Indeed the Spirit is almost always associated with speech. It is a Greek term not found except in the context of the Holy Spirit. It seems to have been fashioned by exposure to the Latin “Ad-vocare”, and Roman legal practice. A reminder, if it were needed, that the vocabulary of scripture in its original and many translations is always shaped by context, culture and experience, as well as by God.
But if we take the Spirit to be both advocate and comforter, the one who speaks alongside and for us, what does experience of the Spirit look like? Some have, of course, tried to recreate, and perhaps have authentically experienced, a Pentecostal-style speaking in tongues. Though I must confess I am sceptical. For, and I must confess it has only been on one occasion, in Gloucester Cathedral, some twenty-five years ago, I was struck that the speaking in tongues, led, surprisingly, and enthusiastically by the then Dean at an evening charistmatic event, seemed to coincide with the ebb and flow of the music. It seemed to be that the musicians were much more in control of the congregation or audience’s speaking in tongues than anyone dared to admit.
If one takes Herbert’s poem and considers the different qualities he attributes to church music it is, verse-by-verse: comforter, companion and guide. For him, Church music seems to the spoken Word which, being sung, enables it to reach the parts that mere speech cannot. There is a remarkable overlap between the qualities of Church Music and that of the Spirit. It is advocate in the sense that well-measured music is able to speak on our behalf to God. Just think of those voluntaries of Bach, or the works of Messiaen, both in their way able to express on our behalf to God, our appreciation of the majesty of creation, of form, of grandeur, complexity, of adoration, fear, ecstasy. All achieved by the skilled hands of the musician who, via a keyboard of ebonies and ivories, manages the passage of pressurised air through ducts of leather and columns of wood and metal, to the Glory of God and elevation of our hearts. Herbert, or I for that matter, is not saying that music is the Holy Spirit, but it gets us very close to the action of the Spirit, an advocate, guide and comforter.
Therefore, the ministry of a church musician, is one of huge importance, and a role of great subtlety. It’s important, of course, because our musicians lead much of our worship and set the tone for the times and seasons of our worship. They are our advocates, prayerful, emotional and spiritual. It requires subtlety, of course, because it is all too easy to make the music and end in itself, a magnificent machine independent from the ministry of the church, and end in its own right. But, at its best, and shaped with care, music can lead us to the heart of God.
So, we give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit, as advocate, comforter and guide, and we give thanks for church music and musicians who, with the advocacy, comfort and guidance of their art, show us more of ourselves and of God.
O praise God in his holiness *
 praise him in the firmament of his power.

 Let every thing that hath breath *
 praise the Lord.

(Psalm 150)