The song that we sing has neither beginning nor end. It is the story of Alpha and Omega, of the Word incarnate, of life and death, of life after death. Our beginning of this tale comes out of nothing and our song will die away into nothing. It is insignificant and small and, what is more, its subject is our insignificance and littleness.
The cantor sings words by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam that were never set to music and never before sung, especially when we consider that the music-hater Erasmus certainly never intended them to be sung.
Since the nature of God immeasurably surpasses the feebleness of human intelligence – however talented and acute that intelligence may otherwise be – its reality cannot be percieved by our senses, or conceived by our mind, or represented by our imagination, or set out in words. Yet even so traces of divine power, wisdom, and goodness cast a dim glow in the created universe. As a result parallels drawn from the things that we do in some fashion grasp with our senses and intelligence and guide us towards a vague and shadowy knowledge of the incomprehensibles, so that somehow we gaze on them, as through dream and mist.
These are the sentences with which Erasmus begins his paraphrases of the Gospel according to John. The cantor sings Erasmus’ words as he would chant a section of the Gospel or any other text from the New Testament, or of a Gospel commentary such as Augustine’s. He varies the chanting tone where he considers it necessary not only for comprehension and clarity, but also from his own comprehension of the text. He thus presents the text to a community in a version with his own vocal setting and reading, which he thinks balances his position as a more or less objective conveyer of a message with that of an inspired teacher or a captivating artist.
“To seek out knowledge of the nature of God through the power of human reasoning is futility. To speak about things that cannot be expressed in words is madness, and to define them is blasphemy.” The use of this Erasmus text emphasises the historical situation of the fifteenth and sixteenth century manuscript sources that we have chosen: we are in the period shortly before the Reformation. It is also a reference to that great ancient tradition, that of reciting commentaries by the Church Fathers during the offices. Most of all, however, we bring the Eternal Present into our innermost being through our recitation and our retrospective deed. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.
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