Right after September 11, 2001, theologian Calvin Seerveld told singer-songwriter Michael Card: “The church has no such songs (of lament) to sing.” Our contemporary praise music does not seem to account for such a national tragedy as 9/11 or even for funerals, no dirge or lamentation appropriate to express loss beyond words.
As a survivor of 9/11—my family lived three blocks away from the World Trade Center and I was trapped in a subway stop underneath the collapsing towers—I can testify to this lack. Today, we may similarly pause to ask, “Do we have songs to sing during a pandemic?”
There was one piece of music that was played over and over during the period after 9/11 on classical music radio stations. It was Lux Aeterna by Morten Lauridsen. In this choral piece, the overwhelming cascade of voices coalesces and moves deeply into our lament, yet the music rises above the nadir of our common despair and somehow reframes our hopes.
Several years after 9/11, I had an opportunity to reflect on Lauridsen’s composition and honor him. I was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by president George W. Bush and worked on the nominations for the 2007 National Medal of the Arts. The council selected Lauridsen as one of the award recipients. I was the table host designated to welcome him to the list of great artists and arts advocates including the likes of Andrew Wyeth and Henry Steinway. Lauridsen’s legacy will be known with other great composers who’ve received this high honor, such as Aaron Copeland and John Williams.
As Lauridsen looked around the room, he said, “What am I doing here?” I responded: “Sir, millions of people sing your songs; I think you deserve this honor.”
Lauridsen composes music that the vocal range and singing capacity of a typical community choir can handle; in other words, he makes his music accessible to all. Perhaps that accounts, in part, for the popularity of his music in the classical and choral music world. But how is it that this communal music can carry the weight of our common curse yet manage to infuse hope in us?
‘Thou Best of Consolers’
My dear friend James Jordan, the master choral director of Westminster Choir College, told me that Lux Aeterna is “a work of sound art that is humanly honest, because of its Gregorian chant roots.” It makes sense that some of the text of this choral work was first created out of a community—a community of ordinary saints seeking to renew their daily faith through their monophonic plainchants. Such an integrated, authentic song from a community many centuries past does not fit neatly into our contemporary categories like “secular” or “sacred” or “Christian music.” And precisely because it does not, it is a song for eternity that resonates in all areas of human experience, lifting all of us to the heavens in worship.
Lux Aeterna, Latin for “eternal light,” begins with the movement “Introitus.” Its words, translated from Latin to English, read:
Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them
A hymn befits thee, O God in Zion.
And to thee a vow shall be fulfilled in Jerusalem:
Hear my prayer,
For unto thee all flesh shall come.
Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
These lines are repeated over and over in the piece, providing an echo of voices that seems to embrace our stricken hearts. Cello undergirds the movement of rising voices, giving the movement gravity. The line “Rest eternal grant to them” is like a whisper, a mother’s voice to calm a troubled soul.
Then, in the fourth movement, “Veni, Sancte Spiritus,” we hear:
Thou best of consolers,
Sweet guest of the soul
In labor, thou art rest,
In heat, the tempering,
In grief, the consolation.
The triumphant last movement of Lux Aeterna, “Agnus Dei,” awakens our hearts toward the beatific hope, then the choir settles into the cascade of restrained hush at the end. The closing “Amen” is sung as if a last breath in unison.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—or the “life after life after death” as N. T. Wright puts it—provides an entry point for us into new creation. “Just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us,” the apostle Paul wrote, “so also our consolation is abundant through Christ” (2 Cor. 1:5, NRSV). We are consoled by the voice of the one who suffered and took the penalty of sin away by giving his life on the cross. “In grief, the consolation” matters to Jesus because he chose to be executed as a common criminal so that we can be redeemed. Jesus is the God of ground zero.
Thus, in my personal ground zero, the choral voices in Lux Aeterna called me to persevere and also to see the experience as a starting point—as a “zero” point of cancellation of my sins and brokenness, my transgressions against my Maker. The voices carry me beyond my transgressions into the hope of Easter morning.
Mending to Make New
This past fall, as I wrestled with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Lux Aeterna continued to hover over me and allowed me to move into my pain again, haunting me and releasing me as I journeyed through a difficult day. In Lux Aeterna, I hear the dissonance of brokenness, and yet, like the gold veins in a kintsugi bowl, I hear mending to make new.
In a unique way, the music highlights and captures the spirit of a single line from John 11, the shortest sentence in the entire Bible: “Jesus wept” (v. 35). These words frame a central thesis in my book Art + Faith: A Theology of Making:
In John 11, Lazarus is found sick and dies. Jesus comes to the scene late, intentionally. Before showing his power as the Son of God to resurrect Lazarus, he does something that has no practical purpose: He “wastes” his time with Mary, to weep with her. Theology of Making hinges on this gratuitous act of Jesus … on a kind of culture that flows out of the tears of Christ.
There is a sense of such gratuity in Lux Aeterna, in the music’s power to slow down time. It’s as if all that is violent and torn, explosive and horrifying, is made to obey the silent rhythm of the ordinary. What I detected in the music as I navigated our post-9/11 struggle was the depth of a profound Presence and the powerful pauses of refrains that were at once both vulnerable and refocused. Lux Aeterna traces the flow of Jesus’ tears into our stricken desert of ashes; and what seems extravagantly wasteful, like the nard Mary poured out on Jesus’ feet (John 12:3), becomes then absolutely necessary. Music and art can make the extraordinary ordinary and accessible, the peaceful and beautiful chants of our days sung into our despair-filled ground zeros.
Our Holy Saturdays
Though Lux Aeterna has themes of both sorrow and hope, I don’t primarily think of Lux Aeterna as Good Friday music or as Easter Sunday music. I think it’s most appropriate to consider Lux Aeterna Holy Saturday music. Holy Saturday sits in between the devastation of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter Sunday. It is a day of darkness, of waiting—a day that echoes in our own experiences of waiting and darkness. The choral voices of Lux Aeterna arise out of that restrained pause. Like new bulbs taking root deep beneath dark, frozen earth, Lux Aeterna captures that invisible life growing even in times when we can only see the snowy, cold ground.
“In my end is my beginning,” T. S. Eliot wrote, and Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna captures the same diction of the heart as Eliot’s post-war masterpiece Four Quartets. It points us toward the one who promises, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5, ESV). As we stand on the ashes of our common curse of the pandemic today, the profound meditations and music of Lux Aeterna can guide us toward the new, not by “fixing” but by mending to make new. It resonates into my own fragmented journey, into my life and my art, and composes my own life of loss and joy.
Makoto Fujimura is a contemporary artist who has served on the National Council on the Arts. He is the author of several books including Art + Faith: A Theology of Making.
This article is part of The Wondrous Cross which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at MoreCT.com/Easter.
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