December 19, 2018 — Ode to Joy

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On an early summer’s evening in 1824, in his private lodgings in Vienna, an old man with untamed hair and a deeply furrowed brow is gazing intently at a manuscript. His left hand holds his head, pushing his wild grey locks out of his face, and his right hand is stained with indelible black ink as he feverishly makes last-minute revisions to a symphony manuscript that would prove to be his last. In 2003 that same ink-stained manuscript, with the same hastily scrawled amendments, was sold at Sotheby’s London for $3.47 million. The man in question was Ludwig van Beethoven and the symphony was his Ninth, “Ode to Joy,” first performed in Vienna on May 7, 1824.

Among music critics, the Ninth Symphony is almost universally considered to be among Beethoven's greatest works, and is considered by some to be the greatest piece of music ever written. Beethoven composed this symphony and conducted the piece at its premier whilst profoundly deaf. At the premier, witnesses saw him turning the pages of his score and beating time for an orchestra he could not hear. You can only imagine the pain of his loss in being unable to hear the music. Even so, the lyrics of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony end with this extraordinary hope and exhortation: “Brothers, above the canopy of stars, must dwell a loving Father…Seek Him above the canopy of stars!”

When all there is is pain and silence, how on earth do you do that? How do you keep going? How would you know how to seek a loving, eternal Father? What do you do when you have so many questions and from God all you hear is silence?

In such a silence, and in all our lonely soul searching, is it possible that God would encourage us to recover our place in His love, the reality of His Fatherhood, through the gift of each other? Koinonia, the Greek word used in the Bible for “fellowship,” is almost untranslatable. This is the word that the Apostle John uses of our relationship with God. But it also describes the relationship that the love of God equips us to share with one another. It expresses a relationship of great intimacy and extraordinary depth. Solomon reminds us, “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” (Proverbs 12:25). To be “cheered up” can sound a little trite, and yet our Heavenly Father understands that there are times when, in the silence, we need to be cheered by an audible voice or to feel the comfort of a flesh and blood hand upon our shoulder. These are the moments that literally turn me around. It never ceases to amaze me how just one kind word can be the small hinge upon which my whole outlook is restored, my head is lifted and my heart is reoriented toward the reality of God’s love.

When the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Ode to Joy,” came to its grand conclusion, the audience stood to its feet and wildly applauded. Testimonies differ but it is believed that Beethoven, with his back to the audience, head down and oblivious to the rapturous applause, continued to conduct the orchestra, being several bars behind. One of the soloists, the contralto Caroline Unger, walked over to Beethoven and gently interrupted his continuing efforts. She placed a hand gently on his shoulder and turned him around to now face the audience's cheers and applause. There were handkerchiefs in the air, hats thrown to the ceiling and raised hands. With her hand upon the great man’s shoulder, Beethoven was now able to see exactly what was going on around him; all that he was at the very center of.

I know that in moments of painful silence and disorientation my inclination is to isolate myself, to burrow deeper into my own hopelessness. If that is at all familiar to you then God’s encouragement is to listen for His voice in the kindness of another and to accept the comfort of His touch in the compassion of a friend. And in this gift of fellowship, is it possible that your words, your actions, might be that small hinge upon which you turn another person’s life around to know that he or she stands at the center of God’s love?

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