Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Note: Due to Patrick Lafferty's itineration, there is no new ETC this week. So we're reaching back into the archives to revisit an article posted one year ago on October 14, 2011.
As a soldier in the French army near the beginning of World War II, he would ask his commanding officer for the morning guard duty shifts. The flight of birds at sunrise was his interest, though ornithology was for him only an avocation. As his part of the world awoke, the stillness may have afforded the objects of his attention a greater freedom to swoop and chirp, to glide and preen, unhindered by the din of the day. It was his observations of their unfettered movements that he translated into music. For this soldier and student of the feathered species was foremost a composer. His name was Olivier Messiaen.
The score he composed from his meditations on the flight of birds later became part of a much larger work. But the setting in which he completed that entire eight-movement composition was far from the pastoral milieu of his native France. It was from within the barracks of a German POW camp near Gorlitz following his capture in 1940. While Messiaen was confined to Stalag VIII-A his captors came to learn of his musical reputation and granted him the freedom to practice his craft.
And on the night of January 15, 1941, the camp guards escorted nearly 500 prisoners, many on stretchers recovering from wounds, into an icy meeting hall to hear Messiaen’s finished work entitled, “A Quartet for the End of Time.” There prisoner and captor, friend and foe alike, sat attentively and listened to a little bit of serenity surrounded by the awful carnage of war.
The episode is remarkable for any number of reasons: beauty and horror juxtaposed; one of the most murderous regimes in history permitting no small act of humanity; a man imprisoned nevertheless inspired to create loveliness amid brutality. And then this: Messiaen’s Quartet took its primary inspiration from dreams the composer had about visions from the Book of Revelation. These are only a few of the reasons Rebecca Rischin chose to document the debut of Messiaen’s work (to a literally captive audience) in her book, For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet.
But I tell this short summary of that moment because I think it resonates in part with what we heard from Pastor Bill last Sunday concerning Jesus’ beatitude about persecution. Our Lord says in so many words that he is no fool who labors for the sake of God’s glory though he is met in return with anything from derision to destruction.
Messiaen’s moment in Stalag VIII-A isn’t a perfect analogy. He wasn’t being persecuted for his music; in fact they invited him to put his talents on full display. Yet for a few reasons the concert could not be a more apt illustration for Jesus’ call to joy in persecution.
Though he was constrained for reasons quite unrelated to his music, Messiaen refused to let his subjugation squelch the interest in bringing forth what bore testimony to the greatness of God. While persecution of any sort might threaten our interest in making Him known, the composer embodies an inward compulsion to stand against the tyranny by voicing what gives Life.
Messiaen also demonstrates what it means to answer to what is Higher. He did not succumb to the cynicism seeping from a world enshrouded by injustice. To be reviled or persecuted because of our faith tempts us to heed those antagonistic voices—to see them as authoritative. But like an operatic voice summoning us to wonder at a beauty we cannot describe, so the news that our incalculable corruption and guilt has been overturned by an even greater Love heralds a deeper Truth that compels a walk upon a higher Way.
Finally, this humble and talented Frenchman reminds us that there is an intrinsic satisfaction to bringing attention to what is good even if it would not result in immediate liberation. Jesus grounds the joy to be found in persecution in past, present, and future dimensions. We may take pride that we keep company with an admirable list of forbears. The courage to persevere presently comes from knowing the ground upon which you find the footing to make a stand for His honor could not be more holy—nor could it be more secure. And that no matter how great the losses incurred for following in His footsteps—from ridicule, revulsion, or retaliation—they will never exceed what we will gain when face to face we see Him. In those past, present, and future reasons for resilience in persecution we find an intrinsic satisfaction in doing His will, even if our circumstances don’t change—either immediately or ever in this life.
What might Messiaen’s lofty moment mean for you and me here, far from any war or POW camp? How would these few devotional words translate into a larger composition of life?
For one, less calculation and more risk with love. Jesus does not bid us throw caution to the wind, but He does exhort us to risk more of ourselves for the sake of His honor and Grace without constantly (neurotically) worrying about how such will be received. And also, less fear and more thanks. Anxiety about being misunderstood or misrepresented, about being harassed or harangued, pitied or pilloried—all these more self-centered fears would be overshadowed by gratitude for being thusly treated as a result of Gospel-centered acts.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father...Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29, 31). As the birds inspired Messiaen, may they continue to teach us: even should we fall to the ground—and for the sake of His name—His love will enable us to stand in the war and one day liberate us from its persecution.