Sunday 4 June - Pentecost - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN: Pentecost; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

The Oslo Cathedral School Choir, our very welcome visitors today, are singing Mozart’s Missa brevis No 8 in C major. Mozart composed this when he was aged twenty, during his troubled employment as court musician to the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. Mozart’s time there was not happy, partly because of the aristocratic arrogance of the arch-episcopal court, but partly also because of Mozart’s own effervescence and yearning for wider horizons. Given the sometimes feckless and even frivolous aspects of his character, some of his modern biographers have gone so far as to claim that Mozart was not really interested in religion, indeed that he was ‘fundamentally irreligious, and that even his church music was at best “superficially” Catholic’. This claim however was seriously questioned by two major twentieth century theologians, the Catholic Hans Kung and the Protestant Karl Barth.

Kung begins by agreeing that ‘like so many organists, the Salzburg court organist went to church primarily for the sake of the music; he lived his life in the sphere of music and almost only in music… he had little truck with church piety and hated popish practices’.  But Kung then goes on to relate a conversation Mozart had two years before his death with the successor of J S Bach as cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Recalling his early childhood experience of attending mass, which he called being ‘introduced… into the mystical sanctuary of our religion’, Mozart said that ‘there, when you did not yet know how to cope with your dark but urgent feelings, you waited for worship with an utterly fervent heart, without really knowing what you wanted, and went away with a lighter and uplifted heart without really knowing what you had had’. And now, Mozart said, ‘though that gets lost in the life of the world’, nevertheless ‘at least that’s the case with me – once you really take in words which you have heard a thousand times, in order to set them to music, it all comes back. It stands before you, and moves your soul.’

‘It moves your soul. Once you really take in words you have heard a thousand times’, the words of worship for which you waited ‘without really knowing what you wanted’ and from which you ‘went away with a lighter and uplifted heart without really knowing what you had had’: this faith of Mozart’s, however theologically inarticulate and even almost unconscious, the Catholic Hans Kung suggests, is at the root of the ‘traces of transcendence’ in his music. And the Protestant Karl Barth agrees: ‘Mozart’s music’ he writes, ‘is not, in contrast to that of Bach, a message, and not, in contrast to that of Beethoven, a personal confession. He does not reveal in his music any doctrine and certainly not himself…. Mozart does not wish to say anything: he just sings and sounds’, He does not ‘will to proclaim the praise of God. He just does it…he himself… is the instrument with which he allows us to hear what he hears: what surges at him from God’s creation, what rises in him, and must proceed from him’; and what we hear in Mozart, Barth says, echoing Kung’s ‘traces of transcendence’, is ‘a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing, in which joy overtakes sorrow without extinguishing it, in which the Yea rings louder than the ever-present Nay’.

What you waited for ‘without really knowing what you wanted’ and from which you ‘went away with a lighter and uplifted heart without really knowing what you had had’. This morning’s order of service notes that the ‘solemn, short mass’ we are hearing, is considered ‘suitable for the great feast of Pentecost, sometimes known as the Birthday of the Church… when the Holy Spirit descended on the Virgin Mary and the Apostles to strengthen them for mission’. But in the light of what I have just been quoting about ‘without really knowing’, perhaps the fact that this mass was composed by Mozart makes it particularly appropriate for Pentecost: for ‘without really knowing’ surely, must have been above all true of the experience of the disciples at Pentecost, which as our reading from Acts puts it, was amazing but also perplexing. Acts, of course, then goes on to record how Peter quickly interpreted what was going on with reference to ‘what was spoken through the prophet Joel’: but things perhaps were not so clear to all of the disciples; and there is a quite different story in this morning’s reading from John’s Gospel, where the disciples receive the Spirit at an earlier stage and from the breath of Jesus himself. In the New Testament indeed there are various different ways in which what is meant by the Spirit can be understood, and it was not for two or three centuries after the day of Pentecost that the Church seriously tried to define what it meant by the Holy Spirit, and then only for competing definitions eventually to become a source of division between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches.

But perhaps it should not surprise us that attempts to define, to pin down in words, what is meant by the Holy Spirit, did not succeed. As John’s Gospel also reminds us, the Spirit is like the wind which ‘blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes’. The Spirit moreover did not just appear at the end of Jesus’ earthly life: the gospels tell us that the Spirit descended on him at his baptism and that it led him in the wilderness when he was tempted. The Spirit moreover is there also even at the very beginning of the Old Testament, the Spirit of God who ‘moved upon the face of the waters’, creating order out of chaos, and again in the Book of Proverbs, where, personified as the feminine figure of Wisdom, she is ‘daily [God’s] delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race’.

These and other biblical images have enabled the Spirit and the Spirit’s guidance to be understood across the years and today in a great variety of different ways – charismatic and enthusiastic as on the first Pentecost, more conventional and traditional in the life and work of established churches, and today in the world beyond the Church and in faiths beyond Christianity; in the quest for peace with justice and in the care of the environment. As a declaration of the World Council of Churches puts it: ‘We discern the Spirit of God moving in ways that we cannot predict. We see the nurturing power of the Holy Spirit working within, inspiring human beings in their universal longing for, and seeking after truth, peace and justice. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”, wherever they are found, are the fruit of the Spirit.’

If then, like Mozart and the disciples at Pentecost, you and I also wait in worship ‘without really knowing’ what we want and then go ‘away with a lighter and uplifted heart without really knowing what’ we have had, let us be thankful that the Holy Spirit has touched us, as the Holy Spirit does, at a level deeper than our ordinary consciousness, more profound than our articulate thoughts. And then, returning to our ordinary consciousness and consciences, let us feel a little better prepared to love one another realistically, on Thursday to vote responsibly, and to play our part in the work of the world.  How shall we know if it is the Holy Spirit who has touched us so deeply? In a moment we shall confess our faith in ‘the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life’. The giver of life, the life-giver, is the one who makes us feel more alive, more lively in our hopes for one another and for the world.

Come down, O Love divine,

seek thou this soul of mine,

and visit it with thine own ardour glowing;

O Comforter, draw near,

Within my heart appear,

And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.



Hans Kung Mozart: Traces of Transcendence London: SCM Press 1992

Karl Barth Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock 2003