Lucy Winkett shares her experience of attending a gig by John Grant at St James’s, and how his song Glacier resonates with the events in Holy Week.
A few weeks ago, I sat in St James’s listening to original music played live by an artist I had never heard of before that night. The American singer-song writer John Grant was playing a gig at St James’s as part of the Piccadilly Piano Festival curated by our new Creative Team. I had been intrigued because the artist posted the gig on Instagram and it sold out in 30 minutes. He has dedicated fans who have missed hearing him play live. And this was his only performance in London, so it had become a hot ticket.
It’s always an interesting experience seeing a place you know well in a different light and different context, and although in my 12 years here, I have attended many different prayer services, meditations, concerts, debates, art installations, gigs and events, this one will stay with me for a long time. Some of this was for practical reasons. The artist is a global star, and so the technical backup was first class, meaning that his voice, rough and emotional, was being transmitted to the audience by top quality kit. It meant that his voice was immediate, even in our roomy acoustic, and his every breath, stumble, lyric or occasional swear word, was as if he were sitting next to you. It was also partly because the church was absolutely packed with 500 people who wanted to listen to his lyrics and his tunes, and as I looked around, I could see that a significant portion of people had come to this gig on their own. As the songs began, and the vibe became more obvious, I saw that the power of this music was that it was reaching into the heart of each person there and was somehow singing them into believing they were not alone.
There is one lyric that I am taking with me into this most holy of weeks, and it’s from the song ‘Glacier’. John Grant’s song describes the isolation he feels when people quote the Bible at him, condemning him for being a gay man. In thinking about this and writing it down, he has come up with a vivid picture: ‘This pain is like a glacier moving through you. Carving out deep valleys and creating spectacular landscapes.’
The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran wrote something similar when in the 1920s he crafted the thought that ‘the deeper sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain’.
This is a way of describing the days we are in now, the days that the church calls ‘Holy Week’, moving through the last heady days of Jesus of Nazareth. Public adulation, the turning of the crowd in response to the abuse of religious and political authority, false accusations, the betrayal of friends, a mock trial, condemnation and state execution. The story is not for the faint hearted. It is violent, convicting, revealing of human hubris, fear and complicity. In short it is a story for our time.
And at the same time, it is shot through with miracles. With the kindness of strangers, the enduring love of women, with the promise of God. The promise that resonates today: not for an easy or pain-free life but a life that is abundant, fierce, brave and, in the end, revealed to be eternal.
The relentless drum beat of the last days of Jesus, and the explosive mystery of the empty tomb demand from all who encounter them not just a logical consideration of the possibility of such a series of events. Instead, a full-hearted, full-throated trust in the lyrical melody that is sung by Jesus as he dies, hollowed out as he is by the cruelty and collusion of which every one of us is capable.
A melody that is echoed in the farthest reaches of the universe. That life is eternal and love is immortal. And that death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight. And that our prayer is to be lifted up by the crucified Christ that we may see further and more clearly the promise and presence of God. (an image used in a prayer by Bishop Brent 1862-1926)
And that the glacier of pain, isolation and suffering that human beings mete out to one another, pain that is given irreducible focus by Jesus Christ in his last days, moves through us in Holy Week. That we allow it to move through us, as it carves out a new landscape, that is lit up by the enigmatic dawn of Easter day.