Anyone who comes to the cathedral with any regularity at all will know that we sing — with some variation in notes and lots of variation in mood — pretty much the same thing each week. Each week the same prayers, the same hopes, the same longings. It’s tempting sometimes to forget the familiar text and focus on the notes, the phrases, the key changes, the fear of messing up those parts of the weekly routine that are a little less familiar than the words.
But the words are important, for all their familiarity, for all the fact that they’re veiled at times in the unfamiliarity of Latin. We sing the words of the Benedictus — blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord — and in that we are singing the great mystery of the incarnation, of the coming of the Son of God to the world. Some settings of the Benedictus — the Palestrina Missa Brevis we sang this morning, for instance — are gentle, soft, almost insubstantial. So too was the coming of a baby into the world: an event only noticed by history because of the magnitude of who that baby grew up to be. Other settings bring beauty to those words: the Benedictus becomes music to make us swoon, and we are reminded of the beauty of the presence of Christ in our world, and in our lives. Other settings are huge and glorious — how can we fail to acknowledge the magnificence of God’s presence in creation, when we sing it to music like that? — while others are whispy and mysterious, and we know, singing them, that we can never truly understand the faith we believe: we are even asked to sing, a few minutes later, of the great mystery of faith.
The Benedictus we sing reminds us of the birth of Jesus into obscurity on a dark night in a bustling, overlooked corner of a small middle-eastern town. It reminds us too of the blessed presence of the Divine in our own world, in light and darkness and all the joys and sufferings of life. The mood of each setting teaches us something about that miracle: glorious and unnoticed, mysterious and utterly beautiful. Each setting we sing carries with it the truths in the music of all the other settings; it carries too the truth of the presence of the Divine in our lives and in our hurting, beautiful world.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest. No matter how we sing it, the music — and the reality of our lives — contains all of these truths.