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Good Letters

offertoriumI took a trip to Boston this past week. The youth choir from my church here in Dallas was touring the Boston area, and among them were my two teenage children. I took the opportunity to attend to some business I’d been avoiding, and to take my kids on campus visits while they were already in that college town of all college towns.

As we run up to the July Fourth weekend, one gets palpable sense that it is also a very patriotic place to be, the cradle of our independence, both politically and intellectually.

A good bonus for me was to hear the choir in concert Wednesday evening at the Memorial Church at Harvard University. It was my first visit there, and even as I enjoyed the concert very much, I was moved as well by the memorial aspect of it. The church was dedicated on Armistice Day 1932 in memory of those alumni and faculty who died in World War I. Additional memorials have been added to remember those who have died in the wars since.

As I wandered through the church after the concert, there are engraved upon the walls long lists of names, among them I imagine some of the best our country had to offer—young men and faculty who were loved, and who once held such promise. As I looked at these names I couldn’t help but steal a glance or two at my own children larking about with their friends nearby. Leaving the church, I began to think about, and to play through in my mind, passages from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

Britten was commissioned to write a new piece for the ceremony marking the completion of the new Coventry cathedral. The original millennium-old Cathedral was destroyed by German bombing during World War II, and the new structure was shrewdly built alongside the ruins of the original. For this “reconsecration,” Britten produced his War Requiem (or more accurately, his “Anti-War Requiem”) which was first performed on 30 May, 1962. Through this work, Britten, well-known as a pacifist, presents a convincing denunciation of the iniquity of war.

One of his chief methods of making this denunciation palpable was his unorthodox incorporation of secular poems alongside the original Latin text. For this purpose, Britten selected nine poems written by Wilfred Owen, a British officer and poet who was killed within one week of the Armistice that ended World War I.

When arriving back home in Dallas, I took my score of the Requiem off the shelf and listened to it all the way through. I am reminded again that it is really an amazing piece, one of the most awe-inspiring compositions of the twentieth century. I listened several times to the end of the Offertorium—a horrible, beautiful passage where Britten sets the text recounting Abraham’s sacrificial offering of Isaac against Wilfred Owen’s riff on those same verses. Owen’s version, sung by tenor and baritone soloists, ends with the following lines:

…And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him.
Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, —
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This last line is sung three times over a treble boys’ choir chanting in unison the following lines (in Latin) from the traditional Offertorium text:

Lord, in praise we offer to Thee
sacrifices and prayers, do Thou receive them
for the souls of those whom we remember
this day: Lord, make them pass
from death to life.
As Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.

I was fairly useless the rest of the day.

And as chance would have it, sitting down in worship this past Sunday I opened the bulletin to see that the reading from the Lectionary for this day was Genesis 22, the same story of Abraham and Isaac. So like me, in congregations all over the world there were those who were reading this same passage, thinking again about the unthinkable pain and tragedy of being asked to offer up our own sons and daughters. So we pray. As we come upon the Fourth of July, in grateful reflection upon all that has been given for us, I am perhaps more earnestly lingering on some lines from the Orthodox morning prayers, which go as follows:

Be mindful, O Lord…of our Armed Forces, of this city in which we dwell, and of every city and countryside; grant them peaceful times, that we, in their tranquility, may lead a calm and peaceful life in all godliness and sanctity.

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