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Music at Midnight: Taylor Carey

There’s a story that the great Anglican poet and priest George Herbert once made himself late for an important rehearsal by stopping to help a poor man in distress. Herbert re-saddled the man’s horse, and helped him on with his pack, making himself filthy in the process. Upon arriving in the midst of proceedings at the Cathedral, Herbert was asked why he had even bothered to waste his time with such a pathetic figure as the poor man on the road. Herbert replied that his deed would ‘prove music’ to him at midnight, ‘for if I be bound to pray for all that be in distress, I am sure that I am bound, so far as it is in my power, to practise what I pray for’. ‘And now,’ he added, ‘let’s tune our instruments’.

Music is a theme to which countless Christians have returned when considering matters of social justice. A striking vision of Christian society, after all, is of a well-balanced orchestra in which each player understands both the unique contribution they bring to the sound, and also the context of dependence upon others in which they operate. St Paul’s understanding of ‘gifts’, expounded in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:12), was centred on a vision of diversity and harmony in the Body of Christ, in which each member might exercise their talents as an indispensable part of a greater whole. All the while, as Psalm 69 bids us, we are called to ‘sing a new song’ of praise, ever more closely caught-up in the glory of God. That imperative to perform God’s song afresh often draws seekers of the Kingdom into the wilderness to discover the ‘still small voice’ (1 Kings 19:12) of the One who stands in judgement.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth firmly believed that no composer could ever be thought to rival the genius of Mozart. In his own words, ‘Mozart has apprehended the cosmos and now, functioning only as a medium, brings it into song’. ‘One marvels again and again,’ he continued, ‘how everything comes to expression in him: heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, passion in all its forms and the most profound inner peace…It is as though in a small segment the whole universe bursts into song’.

The whole universe bursts into song. The point, for Barth, was that Mozart had simply allowed God’s continuous action to take over and shape his art. Mozart’s own emotions and ideas were always responses to, and in the service of, the ‘original music’ which is God’s constant creativity. In the words of Joseph Ratzinger, surely one of the most significant theological aesthetes of our time, ‘the joy that Mozart gives us…is not due to the omission of a part of reality; it is an expression of a higher perception of the whole’. And so, for all that his works present to us the unbearable tragedy of the human condition, and God’s judgement over against us, they also carry over the reality that God’s mercy, forgiveness, and Grace is already forthcoming and overflowing.

How then do we hear God’s ‘music’ in our own lives? One answer is provided by Jesus in an episode recorded by each of the synoptic evangelists. ‘Let the little children come to me,’ says the Lord to his baffled disciples, ‘for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ (Matt. 19:14). We are to become as children, so that we might inhabit God’s new creation. And, on a practical level, this perhaps means two things above all. Firstly, we are called to a purging of our ‘adultness’, which binds us to our unthinking habits, and continues to perpetuate structural injustice in a broken world. Secondly, by a rediscovery of our imagination (through what Nicholas Lash would call asking ‘childlike’ questions), we are called to an anticipation of the Kingdom. We must live in a world ‘charged’ with the energy of God – ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil,’ as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote – and always alive with the possibilities of the Divine. This must be our continual witness, in thought, word, and deed.


So, Herbert was right. The greatest ‘music at midnight’ is the truest resonance of God’s own perfect harmony, echoed through generations of Christians who say the Creed and transform the world. ‘The whole universe bursts into song’. Indeed. And it’s about time we listened.




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