MUSIC: Rehearsing For An Epiphany by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Rehearsing For An Epiphany by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

Advent and Christmas: ‘Tis the season of extra rehearsals, the season of getting ready for special concerts and services.  When you are a church musician hauling music stands into the organ loft, trying to arrange them in a very cramped space, finding time to rehearse with a soloist, penciling cues into a musical score, and phoning a publisher to express-mail you some instrumental parts, you may begin to wonder: is it worth all this madness?  It takes such immense amounts of time and energy.  But when the moment of performance arrives, whether in a church or a school or a concert hall, there may be an epiphany: a manifestation of the divine, a disclosure of the spirit of a timeless musical work, a revelation that awakens wonder, a light that fills a shadowed soul, a sound that gives wings to a prayer, or a melody that traces the shape of the heart’s deepest yearning.

Musical epiphanies lead me to consider anew the epiphany recorded in Matthew 2, the journey of the magi to find the Christ child.  We usually think that their journey begins with the appearance of a new star, but their journey must have begun long before the star appeared.  In order to spot a new star, they would have had to have studied the sky for years.  The first stage of their journey was all the time they had spent mastering the names and positions of the stars already present, so that when a new point of light appeared they would notice it.

Go out some cloudless night when the moon is only a sliver and look up at the heavens.  Try counting the stars and see how far you get.  Try remembering where each star is relative to the others.  It takes years of concentrated viewing to know what you are seeing, and it is only possible to spot a new star if your nighttime observing is a discipline as rigorous as that of musical practice.  Without telescopes and without the ambient light of the modern world, the ancients studied the heavens with attentive eyes.

Many of us have received Christmas cards featuring an over-sized star pointing to the place of Christ’s birth, but the scriptures do not describe the star that way.  The magi simply report: “We observed his star at its rising.”  If the star were extravagant in size and brightness, it seems Jerusalem and Herod would have known about it before the arrival of the magi.  And, if the magi themselves had not first studied the skies, they, too, might have missed the epiphany, the moment of Heavenly manifestation that was accessible to them because of their discipline.

Let the magi inspire our musical preparations for the season.  We are arranging music stands and making pencil marks on our scores and repeating tricky passages again and again because we are rehearsing for an epiphany!  To help you keep this in mind, here is a carol in short meter for the season:

The magi’s journey starts
before the birth star shines.
Long years by night they map on charts
the galaxies’ designs.

They discipline their eyes
to such exacting sight
they spot at once when charted skies
emit unplotted light.

To realms far off and strange
it beckons them to go,
a journey that expands the range
of ways they see and know.

To us, O Lord, impart
the magi’s deeper sight:
the vision of a seeking heart
responsive to your light:

Light far and high above
yet reaching to the ground,
embodied here on Earth as love
and in a stable—found!

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