Yearning is a big part of our religious existence… ultimately yearning for God, but by extension yearning for all the good things of this world. I’ve written before about the positive power of yearning, about the eros-dimension of our love for God. Yearning is front and center in the life of the Church as we “groan in expectation” (Rm 8:19) of what God promises, and never more so than on Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. At Christmas we await his coming in the fullness of time. At Easter, even though we know how the story ends, who can help but watch, wait and wonder with the Apostles on Holy Saturday, “What happens next?” And at Pentecost we cry out, Veni creator Spiritus. And Veni sancte Spiritus! Come Creator Spirit! Come Holy Spirit!
The yearning of Pentecost is associated with it a particularly venerable musical tradition, enshrined in two hymns Veni Sancte Spiritus and Veni Creator Spiritus. Their music comes from the middle ages (9th and 11th centuries), but their texts and their sentiment call forth memories of a more distant antiquity.
As the Apostles prayed following the Ascension, we know that they awaited the coming of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit promised by Christ. Huddled in the Upper Room they would’ve chanted the psalms together, as the Jews still do today at the Western Wall and in their synagogues, a musical expression of the heart’s deepest yearning.
We know that immediately following Pentecost the Church’s musical tradition began. There are, in fact, many texts within the Gospels and writings of the Apostles that were most likely musical lyrics before they were ever enshrined as Scripture. Indeed, in an oral tradition, music makes it much easier to remember and hand on information across generations. The Magnificat is a great example of this, as is the Canticle of Zechariah.
Both Christian and pagan imperial records tell us that during the Roman persecutions, Christians were famed for singing under torture, and in the arenas as they prepared for death in the mouths of beasts, or on the cross after the fashion of our Lord. This music was particularly powerful: It witnessed to tens of thousands of onlookers the power of the Holy Spirit whose gifts of hope and fortitude filled the dying Christians. That witness turned the dynamic of the arenas on its head so that the very events meant to crush the Church spread her message of hope to vast crowds. By their musical witness, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.
Through the dark ages, the droning chant of the monks preserved civilization like a low flame supported by the power of the Spirit flowing from their altars… I could go on and on… but I should fast forward through time and space to America and a dark chapter in our own history. What was it that sustained enslaved peoples here in the US if not their nascent Christian faith expressed through… spirituals… This beautiful genre of music witnessed hope not only to successive generations of enslaved individuals, but also to those who would become their greatest advocates, the abolitionists. Their work and prayer finally sent the Grand Army of the Republic marching to the Battle Hymn of the Republic to end slavery and preserve the union.
One of the great things about Pentecost is that its gifts go on unchanged. The gift of the Incarnation at Christmas ultimately ascends to the Father out of human sight. The gift of the Resurrection happened once. But the descent of the Holy Spirit continues unchanged to this day, if only you and I can see it with eyes of faith. And the music of the Spirit is our great helper in that effort.
Recommended Listening: Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony – based on the Veni Creator Spiritus