All creation sings your praise

While the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ is August 6, the Last Sunday of the Epiphany (February 7) is often referred to as “Transfiguration Sunday” because of its Gospel reading each lectionary year. I think Last Epiphany is one of the “fun Sundays” for music.

This Gospel reading (Luke 9:28-36) is a certainly a significant one for various reasons. Jesus’ manifestation is identified again (“This is my Son, my Chosen”), confirmed by the prophets of old (Moses and Elijah) and revealed to only the prophets Peter, James and John. What a dazzling sight that must have been for them… literally.

The Transfiguration event has inspired composers for centuries and continues to do so with modern composers today. The anthem at the 10:30 service this Sunday is a setting by Louisville native Craig Phillips (b. 1961), who is parish musician at All Saints, Beverly Hills, and one of the most successful composers in the country today. This anthem was commissioned by the Association of Anglican Musicians 2004 national conference in Cincinnati/Lexington, which I attended. And as Craig is a friend and colleague, research on this Sunday’s anthem composer was not difficult.

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1294), writer of the anthem text, does require a little research, however. Mechthild was a Beguine, a Christian lay order active in Northern Europe in the 12th through 16th centuries. The Beguines lived in monastic community but did not take religious vows; they were part of a larger 13th-century spiritual movement of people who sought to live as Christ did through voluntary poverty, care for the sick and the poor, and religious devotion.

Also called a Christian medieval mystic, Mechthild was born into a noble Saxon family. She had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at age 12 and “renounced her worldly honour and worldly riches” shortly thereafter. She became acquainted with the Dominican friars, and it was her Dominican confessor Henry of Halle who encouraged and guided her to write down her visions of God in her book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity).

Mechthild’s works were revered during her lifetime, as they were translated into Latin and widely known. Her writings were largely forgotten by the 15th century but rediscovered in the late 19th century. Today they are studied, highly valued and widely available in print.

In this Sunday’s anthem, intently listen to Craig’s treatment of the text. The harmonies are close and occasionally dissonant. Pay attention to the words upon which the music lands on a dissonance (sun, moon, height), after which consonances are heard (well, light, measure).

O burning mountain, O chosen sun,
O perfect moon, O fathomless well 
O unattainable height, O unattainable light
O clearness beyond all measure, O wisdom without end
O mercy without all limit, O strength beyond resistance
O crown of all majesty
All creation humbly sings your praise
Bright stars, high mountains
Depths of the seas, rushing waters 
All these break into song at heaven’s proclamation:
This is my Son, My Beloved, My Chosen One. Alleluia.
(Mechthild of Magdeburg, with Mark 9:7 and Luke 9:35)

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 08:25