As January ticks away, and the splendid feast of the Theophany recedes into the distance, we all know what’s coming next: Lent.
In the Byzantine tradition, the ante-Lenten preparations have already begun, and this Sunday, January 28th, is called the Sunday of the Prodigal Son because of the gospel reading appointed for that day. It marks the end of a fast-free week in which we are encouraged to eat all the meat and cheese we want, because the following Sunday—Meatfare Sunday—will mark the “farewell” to meat until Pascha. And, a week later, Cheesefare Sunday bids farewell to all dairy.
I confess I am not a good faster, and the picky eating habits of my children are wonderfully to hand here, giving me an overly convenient excuse not to try too much. Instead, my approach over the last few years has been to just hunker down and hang on through what feels not like six weeks but six months when all I can think of is steak. This, I tell myself rather unconvincingly, must be exactly what Christ endured in the desert—“hangry” bleakness powered through by sheer grit to get the job done for His Father. In Freudian terms, Lent is all superego all the time, and the superego is nothing but a remorseless martinet.
But this year my imagery of Lent has been shaken up quite unexpectedly from a source one would never associate with such things.
Whenever I discover a new piece of music, my unvarying practice is to listen to it obsessively for about six months. And right now my obsession has fastened onto the Coronation Anthems composed by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).
I blame my second son, who started learning trumpet last fall and found one of the Anthems on Youtube and attempted precociously to play it. I soon started listening to them all and have not stopped. They are wonderful.
But if I am not a good faster, I am also not much of a good listener. And so it is that I’ve listened to the four Anthems countless times in the car since October, but hadn’t really paid attention to all the lyrics, which were originally written in 1727 for the coronation of George II and Caroline of Great Britain.
One day last week while driving to work, two lines suddenly reached out of the radio and throttled me—I really heard them for quite the first time. And not just as splendid political poetry set to music, nor as separate pieces (as they are in Handel’s original) but as forming one message from God.
The realization that gripped me was that this is what God says to us, and really wants us to understand deeply and permanently, never doubting again: He is not the divine martinet demanding discipline in the desert. Rather, he is “exceeding glad of thy salvation”.
The Lord is exceeding glad, is exuberantly happy, is wild with delight, in coming to us to serve and save us. That is not how I often—indeed, ever—think of Him, least of all during Lent. But Handel has helped me to do so.
In Handel’s third anthem (based partly on Psalm 21), titled “The King Shall Rejoice,” where this line is found, the composer sets up what seems to me a dialogue between the new sovereign and God, dramatically emphasizing the power of the latter over the former by means of trumpets and drums and both choir and orchestra at full throttle: “The King shall rejoice in the strength of the Lord.”
By contrast, the second section, abandoning the pomp and power of the brasses, is much gentler and more human: “exceeding glad shall he be of thy salvation.” For Handel, this is pitched as the king’s response to the power and gift of God—he, the human king, is “exceeding glad” to be saved by God.
But is that not how we should see God coming to us—hastening to us, delighted to see us again, eager to catch up with us in great warm conviviality, like the father who runs to greet the prodigal son? Is not the Father behind this wonderful gospel exceeding glad to see us?
The second line of great power that stands out to me is also quite unexpected. It comes from the fourth of the anthems, “My Heart is Inditing.” That anthem, originally developed by Henry Purcell for the 1685 coronation, was reworked by Handel, not for the king but the coronation of Queen Caroline:
Upon thy right hand did stand the Queen in vesture of Gold/
And the king shall have pleasure in thy beauty.
The king shall have pleasure in thy beauty. Again the line leapt out at me and was linked in my mind to the earlier one. And again, it seems to me that these two lines belong together as the one message of the prodigal son: the Lord—the “Lover of mankind”, as the Triune God is called so often in the East—is exceeding glad of our salvation, and like the father greeting his son who has wasted his life living with pigs and whores, He sees not our filth but instead has pleasure in our beauty.
The Lord is exceeding glad to save us, whose beauty gives Him pleasure: if this is the message of Lent, then perhaps for the first time in my life I’m ready for it.
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