A June evening out of the tropics, hot and breathless. The elms are still, and the haze over the valley shimmers with heat. Lazy shadows make the campus a study in gray and green. Inside a building, some students and I are listening to one of the great musical authorities in America. The subject of the lecture is the Mass in B Minor.
“A strange mixture of great, good, and bad music,” the learned lecturer says . . . “Never intended for performance as a part of divine worship” . . . “Seven themes directly appropriated from other sources” . . . “Almost every imaginable style of composition” . . . “Sometimes so crowded with notes that it cannot possibly be performed well.”
He arrives at the choral section “Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi” . . . “This,” he says, “is beyond description” . . . “The greatest choral music ever written, matchless clarity, amazing profundity, marvelous solemnity” . . . “Here Bach was at home.”
The visiting lecturer placed the recording on the machine and the music filled the room. “Qui Tollis” . . . “Thou Who Bearest.” The words and the notes soared through the open windows and flew upward into the night sky. The stars would not hear them, but the stars do not need them. They were intended for me and all men, who need them if we want to understand life and live.
In the words and music of the “Qui Tollis” is both the realness of our sin and the greater realness of its transfer from the world to Him who bore our sin in His body on the tree. The melody itself conveys the steady, strong, lifting and rising action which is the meaning of the text. For some music one feels the urge to stand up; here at the “Qui Tollis” one has the desire to kneel before the mystery of God and to let Him raise us up to the likeness of his Son.
The recording and the lecture ended and the shadows on the campus merged into the general darkness of the night. The end of another sun in the summer of the year of our Lord. Now the cool of the evening after the heat of the day. In the remembered echoes of the “Qui Tollis,” I reflected upon the days to come. As the students gathered up their lecture notes and scattered into the night, I hoped they had also heard the deep call of one world to another in the “Qui Tollis” and taken it home. A call for amphibious men and women, at home in two worlds, holders of dual citizenship, living by the lifting power of the Bearer of our sins, living eternal life in the midst of time.
“Agnus Dei, Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi.” So often sung on Good Friday—but words and music for every day. I remembered a special Good Friday service announced many years ago. It was a service offered in the middle of the day and workers were urged to come “as they are” in working garb. “As they are.” There is something in that. Too often the Church is hopelessly removed from the stream of daily life. It is good for us to dress up on a Sunday morning and appear before the Lord with scrubbed faces and in our best suits. It is equally good and perhaps better that at times we come to church “as we are.”
The Church which sings the “Qui Tollis” can and should be part of the warp and woof of the world, close to it, squarely in the middle. The best divine service, I believe, would be one to which the men and women would come from their work as the vesper bell rings. The center aisle would be lined with empty lunch pails. If there should be an usher in a frock coat with a carnation in his lapel, I hope he would stumble over the pails. The preacher would say a few words fitting for the end of the day and for the day ahead, and everybody would sing an evening hymn. God, I am sure, would like that very much.
“Qui Tollis.” I am finally reminded of those words of scripture which have seldom been explained properly: “The common people heard him gladly.” Some of the prophets spoke in words of majesty and mystery, but not our Lord. The Bearer of the sins of the world was close to life and His speech was simple and clear. With Him we are not on the brow of Mount Sinai in thunder and lightning nor in the shaking and smoking temple with flying seraphim, but on a hillside under the afternoon sun, listening to a friend.
He talked of grass and wind and rain
Of fig trees and fair weather.
He made it His delight to bring
Heaven and earth together.
He spoke of lilies, vines and corn,
The sparrow and the raven;
And words so natural, yet so wise,
Were on men’s hearts engraven;
And yeast and bread and flax and cloth
And eggs and fish and candles—
See how the whole familiar world
He most divinely handles!