In Medieval music, the cantus firmus is the principal melody upon which all other melodies are built. These melodies move in consonance or dissonance to the cantus firmus. While a modern equivalent to this kind of music making would be difficult to find, perhaps that of a groovy bass-line or jazz tune provides a near parallel: pop and jazz musicians improvising new melodies based on the original tune or on a pre-existing chord progression. The drama of the music is in the relationship between the original and the new, and this tension has profound significance for Christians. Take a moment to hear Guillaume de Machaut’s use of cantus firmus in his Messe de Nostre Dame. This excerpt from the Kyrie depicts lamentation (“Lord, have mercy”) a particularly fitting excerpt in light of the tragic fire at Notre-Dame cathedral.
In 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a Christian pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi spy – wrote in his letters from prison,
“God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint… Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness…as long as the cantus firmus [love of God] is kept going.”
To me, this is a true picture of the role of Christ in the life of the believer. Christ asks to be the center, and that our love for him be strongest (as his love is for us). In this way, we are to base our lives around His song. Far from weakening “earthly” loves, love for God rightly orients and orders all our other loves and, in so doing, makes them meaningful. Whether it is our treasured relationship with our spouse and children, or our appreciation of breathtaking human achievements like Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral and Oliver Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, or the simple joys of a hike up Saddleback Mountain in Mexico (and tacos in the evening!), love for God invigorates each and enables gratitude and praise.
This is also why C. S. Lewis writes, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Belief in God alters the way we see everything. In this light, that which is good, true, and beautiful becomes glorious. Love for God means love for our Creator and this must flow into love for our neighbor. This is the strong theological ground that compels us to fight against lies, hatred, poverty, and prejudice. It is this understanding of love – as the principal theme of our song – that makes sense of the invitation to freedom in Paul’s letter to the Romans (Ch. 8).
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death... those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
This freedom is empowered by God’s love for us and our response to this love. This is a call to live deliberately and courageously in the Spirit. Our response is our first improvisation, the beginning of a lifelong journey – one without condemnation. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). God’s grace (the love poured out in Christ) is the cantus firmus. Our gratitude is the way we freely express our love in ways that improvise on this theme. In John Newton’s words, this is the song of those who were “once lost but now [are] found” and it transforms the way we see everything.
In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “[We know] that in [our] struggle for justice [we have] cosmic companionship. This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith.” The idea of “cosmic companionship” may seem arrogant to some, and it has no doubt been communicated poorly by many of us who call ourselves Christians, but this is the bold, radical love that followers of Christ claim. And it is this love – willing another’s good even at a great cost to oneself – that fuels and orders our many “earthly” loves. In rousing style, Dr. King concludes,
“There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy the palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.”
May we live and love in the light of this confident truth, and may our lives birth a song worth singing. Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
Josh Rodriguez, co-director of Deus-ex-Musica, Assistant Professor of Music Theory & Composition
California Baptist University
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