Debussy: Passion and Resolution for Holy Week

DebussyToday is the 100th anniversary of the death of the French composer, Claude Debussy. Among his works are the well known La Mer, with its impressionistic harmonies depicting the rising storm waves, l’apres midi d’un faune, with its dreamlike quality, and Clair de lune, based on a folk song and again with that characteristic floating tone. His String Quartet was one of my A’ level set pieces, with its chromatic scales. At times his music can be discordant and seems to reflect the turmoil of his life, but always finds a resolution.  His life was marked by turbulence, growing up in a poverty stricken suburb of Paris, taken under the patronage of a Russian millionnairess who engaged him to play duets with her children, and his later love-life was not straightforward. He even escaped for a while to Eastbourne on the south coast of England. He was haunted by suicidal thoughts and as is frequently the case brilliance was accompanied by emotional turmoil, something he was able to channel so beautifully into his music.

It is a strange mix that passion, pain and creativity often find themselves in the same company. A quiet life does not produce the greatest works, or change the course of history. And so to desire a quiet life is really to desire no life at all. The range of emotions that touch us reflect how love and loss, living and dying, hope and despair, beauty and desolation, weave a pattern around us and in us and through us. We can see beauty, sometimes in surprising places. The rocky outcrop of the garden tomb depicted in the Lady Chapel main window has a few daisies and other plants growing beneath the angel who is announcing the resurrection to the women who had come to anoint a dead body. These flowers are signs of new life blooming where there was death. The daisies are reflected in the altar frontal and deliberately so. The best artwork brings the range of colour and tone to bear and reflects for us what life feels like from the inside, that we may glimpse what it can be beyond and ahead of us.

Passion, pain, beauty and brokenness, all combine as we enter this Holy Week. We journey with Christ from the shouting crowd, who seem to be wanting to herald the revolutionary leader that Jesus is not, through his picking a fight by overturning the money changers’ tables, a final meal, agony in the garden – will we watch with him for just one hour? – to betrayal, arrest, trial and execution. Holy Week is exhausting for the emotional turmoil it recalls, the range of passions it elicits from within us, and the hope it heralds. Because of this Jesus is no remote saviour who just descends from outside to deal with the mess, but one who shares the passion just like we do and so saves from the inside.

The story we are to recall and retell this week, over the coming days, is rooted in the life of passion and rich emotions that we live. So we can find ourselves easily in its narrative. Sometimes as affirmed and blessed, sometimes having to confront the darkness within and the less flattering attributes we might display at times. We can find our deepest moments of despair and loss, of heartbreak, brought centre stage for Christ’s redeeming touch.

Like the music of Claude Debussy, the turbulence of life, its beauty, passion and heartbreak, are brought to resolution in sounds of wonder and glory. Music provides a fitting sound track to the breadth of emotions of walking the way of the cross; sometimes it is the only language to really hold the depth of this passion. If the music ends without resolution we go away disturbed and unsettled. And God is good to us, because the passion of his Son comes with the greatest resolution that there is: salvation and therefore hope even in the most discordant moments.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Palm Sunday, 25th March 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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