A very old prayer

The last chorister has returned to Australia from overseas. The tour really is over. We are well and truly back to the normal weekly singing.

This Sunday morning we sang the Missa Aeterna Christi Munera, written by Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina in 1590. Four hundred and twenty six years ago, this beautiful piece of music with its haunting, twisting melodies and fervent prayer was sang for the first time. Whether or not Palestrina realised the beauty of what he’d created, we will never know. We will never truly know what his life was like, what he himself was like, any more than he could have had an insight into the people singing his music one Sunday morning almost half a millennium later and a world away from anything he was familiar with.

Palestina’s world was no more peaceful than ours is. The church was in turmoil, with the death of a newly-elected pope and the installation of another; wars were raging, and although the scale of them seems negligible in comparison to the wholesale slaughter of the twentieth century, the rapid changes of an unstable world would have been something that any modern person would intimately understand.

Into this world’s turmoil Palestrina brought the Mass setting we sung this morning — quiet, flowing, four and five voice parts swirling together to sing our prayers, to sing the prayers of a whole congregation, a whole community, a whole communion of faith. Into this battered and hurting world, and more specifically this battered and hurting community, we let our music ring. We sang old music and ancient words, offered to a broken world in the hope of wholeness.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world; Lamb of God, grant us peace. The prayer is no less heartfelt for the fact that it’s been sung to the same rising and falling notes for so many years, and it’s no less relevant in our world than it was in Palestrina’s. We sang our prayers and we prayed for peace, and next week we’ll do it all again — same prayer, different notes.

Now that tour is over, we’re back to week-by-week singing, the mundane demands of everyday life, and it’s easy to forget the importance of what we do. But today, just as every week, we sang beautiful music, and became a small part of its history; and we prayed for peace, and we hope the world is a little brighter for it.

We’ll see you next week.

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