On Pipe Organs

“I want my daughter to grow up hearing a pipe organ,” the visitor said, nodding with appreciation, holding his baby girl in his arms.

That’s not something you hear every day. The young man was visiting our parish church this morning and noticed the organ high in the loft. I wondered about what he said.

Did I take this huge instrument for granted? I knew it was a costly one.

I Googled pipe organ and learned that the pipe organ’s supply of wind from the pedal-board allows it to sustain notes much longer than a piano, giving the rich multi-textured timbre, which I fear we take for granted as we sing our hymns in the pews below. I also learned that for a time the pipe organ was the most complex manmade device, until the invention of the telephone exchange in the late nineteenth century (thank you, Wikipedia).

I know from parish experience that organs are becoming obsolete, largely because they are large, and cumbersome, but also because they are very expensive to maintain. Our parish accountant can attest to that, as well as our organist who at present is somehow playing with only a partial keyboard… until the next overhaul is sanctioned by our vestry and our limited budget.

So the words of the young man resonated… we have a unique experience at St. Peter’s, Oakland. Maybe I should pay more attention.

It was one of those curious coincidences (or angels flitting around in my life) that strike you all of a sudden. For I had just mailed some children’s books to a friend this last week who ordered through our church publishing house, the American Church Union (I help in the office from time to time). I knew Josephine but didn’t realize she was an organist until I Googled her name. But she is so petite! I thought, amazed. Very pretty and sweet and charming, but very petite. How does she reach those pedals?

The pipe organ. I thought how I love singing the robust hymns of the nineteenth century, often powerful words put to Bach and Handel and medieval tunes, sometimes songs going back to first monasteries and psalm-singing. They are glorious and fill our nave with a sound that is truly indescribable.

All because of our pipe organ.

I began to think of the other parts of our service – the Elizabethan language of our Book of Common Prayer, the psalmody from the ancient monastic “hours” going back to the fourth century, the creed, the Our Father given to us by Our Lord himself, the Scripture readings, the sacrifice of the Mass – the offertory, consecration, communion. In fact, all of the pieces of our Anglican liturgy, like the Roman Catholic liturgy, are rooted in these two thousand years of praise and offering and celebration. We sing into these past years, and we sing into the present year as well, dancing the Church seasons into the future, following a path that our ancestors followed, a path making sense of that historic moment when the tomb was empty. That first Easter Day.

The immensity of what happens in that single hour of Sunday morning worship struck me forcibly this morning. We have a pipe organ because it produces big immense music. We want big notes, magnificent melody, glorious song, because we are expressing a big and glorious and immense and magnificent truth: the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.

The Gospel today was the account of the Canaanite woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus (oddly, one thinks at first) replies, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it to dogs.” Our preacher explained that until this moment in time God had invited only his Chosen People, the Jews, the People of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel), to his table. But with Christ, the invitation is extended to the rest of us – gentiles like this Canaanite woman. The woman countered his rebuke that even dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Jesus heals her daughter. (Matthew 15:21+) She is happy for the crumbs. I, too, am happy for the crumbs.

From the time of Christ the history of the world changed course. Indeed we use that dating still, B.C. or before Christ, and A.D. or Anno Domini after the year of Our Lord. Like the tip of a fulcrum, things shifted. Today we are in that time, that second half, Anno Domini. We are in the Apocalypse now.

Our organ booms. We think it an immense sound for we believe in an immense God. In the time and space of all Creation it is probably a tinkle. But I think, that since Christ, since Anno Domini, our God of immense love welcomes our song filling his nave and sanctuary. God hears our voices, our prayers, our joys, our sorrows. Christ carries them in his body, heavenward, for we have been invited to his Father’s table.

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