''The most important thing I've ever done''

''The most important thing I've ever done''

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. [Mt. 11.28]

This passage is taken from the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday. It is immediately proceeded by what is perhaps the strongest self-assertion of Divinity that is given to us by Matthew's Jesus--'no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him' [Mt. 11.26a]. In this verse Jesus describes both his absolute unity and with the Father and his access to him in a way that would not be out of place in John's Gospel. Indeed, the essence of Jesus' words here are pretty similar to 'I am the way, the truth, and the life--no one comes to the Father except through me' [Jn. 14.6]. 

The Son has chosen to reveal the ineffable mysteries of the Father to anyone who will come to him. However, what is the nature of the 'rest' that he promises to those who follow and learn from him? For me it is Grace--'that freely flowing, undeserved help and mercy that God gives us in order to enable us to become his children, partakers of the divine nature and eternal life' [CCC. 1996]. Thomas Aquinas fleshes out the Grace as not a created force but an attribute of God. It is through Grace that our broken humanity is healed and our sinful bodies are sanctified [Summa 110]. God's Grace flows over us--our 'accepting' Grace is in itself an effect of God's Grace being poured into and around us. However, through our own free will, we are able to reject Grace--Aquinas uses the idea of a potter (God) attempting to shape clay that  is simply unworkable [Summa 112.3]. That is to say, while we have the power and agency to destroy ourselves, our help and salvation lies with God [cf. Hosea 13.9]. Let us thus pray to become more holy and more accepting of God's boundless Grace.


56 years ago, the Cathedral Church of the Episcopal Diocese of California was completed and consecrated--the dedication is 'Grace'. The Cathedral's Dean, C. Julian Bartlett, planned a year-long Festival of Grace in order to mark the building's consecration. Amongst other lectures and performances, the Festival featured a sermon from Martin Luther King Jr. and a liturgical performance of a Jazz Eucharist by Vince Guaraldi. Dean Bartlett received much hate-mail and even some death threats for organizing the the latter. 

The musical highlight of the Festival occurred on September 16 1965. Duke Ellington--the legendary Jazz pianist, composer and bandmaster--put on a 'Sacred Concert'. In Ellington's own words, the Sacred Concert was 'the most important thing I've ever done'. The work fits into a category all of its own: it is neither a mass nor an office setting, neither a cantata nor an oratorio. Ellington was adamant that the Sacred Concert was 'liturgical'--it is music and art as an act of worship in itself. The final movement of the the work featured tap-dancer Bunny Briggs and is titled 'David danced before the Lord with all his might'. It recalls the story of King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. It is a stirring conclusion to a work that truly pushed at the limits of what 'sacred music' can be. 

Whilst there was some controversy surrounding the 1965 Sacred Concert, it was a roaring success. Ellington composed two more during the remaining nine years of his life. The Second Sacred Concert was premiered in 1968 at St John the Divine, NYC and the Third Sacred Concert was premiered at Westminster Abbey in 1973.  

from First Sacred Concert (1965)
Music: Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Artists: Duke Ellington's Orchestra, Bunny Briggs, Jon Hendricks/Duke Ellington

Further Reading



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