This is slightly longer than usual. But I have more time on my hands just now. And, let’s be honest, shall we, so do you. Besides, there are things I need to say. Please don’t quit: none of it is unneccessary.
Wherever we find ourselves this Easter, it will be unlike any we have experienced before.
Today it is Maundy Thursday. As most of you will know, the word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment. Whether you are a Christian or not, the central message of the Last Supper, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another’ can scarcely be more apt than it is now.
Before I get stuck into matters musical, allow me to digress and share a Maundy anecdote with you. For nearly thirty years, my late father volunteered as a guide at Westminster Abbey, for which, to his enormous surprise, he was recommended and received Maundy Money from the Queen. For the only time in her reign, her own birthday coincided with this occasion. Everyone, of course, knew this.
But in my father’s case, the occasion brought back a particular memory, which we, his own family, heard for the first time on the day. (To put it into context I was in my mid 50s.) Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, celebrated her 18th birthday at Windsor Castle. When it became clear that they were four men short, word went out to a school nearby to send up some suitable substitutes and my father was one who caught the selector’s eye.
Off they went, the only men in black tie, everyone else being in uniform. With the good manners that defined his whole life, my father requested a dance of his hostess, Queen Elizabeth, not yet the Queen Mother – who, no doubt with equal grace, declined him. Duty fulfilled, he sought out the next best option. Everybody was queueing for Princess Margaret. So dad made for the birthday girl herself – who accepted his invitation.
When Her Majesty approached my father on that Maundy Thursday, her birthday, she was introduced to him with the reason for him being a recipient, with the addition that ‘This gentleman danced with you on your 18th birthday!’ Once the details had been filled in, the smile on her face was the most radiant I think I’ve ever seen and the sparkle in her eyes was stiff competition for the glistening on her not insubstantial diamond brooch.
I expect you may be wondering how she replied – we certainly did. Unfortunately the words were lost in the recesses of the abbey. “I’ve really no idea,” he said. “I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t hear a word.”
Returning now to that new commandment to love one another. We will all have personal experiences of this basic reality in the last couple of weeks. Yesterday, it was brought home to me in two polar opposite ways: I spoke to a near life-long friend who unwttingly found himself as a mini celebrity, after listening to his eloquent and deeply moving account on television of how the love of doctors and nurses had saved his life from being taken by COVID-19.
And last night we heard the shattering news that another friend, who was due to undergo emergency brain surgery this morning, had himself proved positive for the virus, meaning that the operation cannot, for now, go ahead.
Both bring home what matters in a fragile world. Love, essentially, is all we can cling to, to pull us through. It may be corny as hell, but at the moment we are being reminded of it like never before in our lives.
The current lockdown means that this is the first year in very many when I have been unable to make my annual pilgrimage to The Royal Festival Hall to hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, my one non-negotiable, save-from-the-waves Desert Island Disc. I have written about this piece on previous occasions at this time of year: as a work lasting just under three hours, it is stuffed with with memorable moments.
Today I pick out one close to the end – ‘Mache dich mein herz rein‘ (in the old, and my preferred, translation, ‘Make thee clean my heart from sin.’) The music has a little skip to it, alongside a yearning quality in its plea to ‘let Jesus in’.
Remember, you do not need to be a believer, even if it helps, to appreciate this. But if you aren’t, no matter: when it comes to ‘let Jesus in’, just swap the name ‘Jesus’ for ‘Love’, in the same way George Herbert did in his beautiful poem of the same name. Look it up and you’ll see that they are interchangeable; and if you remain unconvinced, concentrate on love.
If we let love in, we can be sure we’ll let it out. I’ll be back on Easter Sunday with something much briefer. In the meantime, click on the image and soak up this gorgeous supplication in Bach’s masterpiece.