Dona Nobis Pacem

Sermon for Sunday, December 10, 2017 || Advent 2B || Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

The second semester of my sophomore year of college, the choir of Sewanee performed in concert an extraordinary piece of music that I bet most of you have never heard of. The Dona Nobis Pacem by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is a work for choir, soloists, and orchestra in a similar vein as something like Handel’s Messiah but with a more eclectic text. The words of the Dona Nobis Pacem come from the Bible, a political speech, the church service, and the poetry of nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. Written in 1936 as fascism was on the rise in Europe, Vaughan Williams work acknowledges the horror and heartbreak of war even as it cries out for peace. Dona nobis pacem: give us peace.

Now, the choirmaster at Sewanee, Dr. Robert Delcamp, programmed the music for the entire school year the summer beforehand. So he could never have known what would happen the same week we sang our song of peace. It was the spring of 2003: Shock and Awe, the bombing of Baghdad, the beginning of the Iraq War. And here we were, a little choir at a little college, tucked away on a mountaintop in Tennessee, singing our plaintive cry for peace while the drums of war sounded both within the music and out in the world.

That singular performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem still haunts me with its beauty and its longing, even some fourteen years later. I recall it for you today because we just read some of the words Vaughan Williams set to music in the glorious finale of the choral work. The piece ends with a soaring vision of the peaceable reign of God, where swords have been beaten into plowshares, where “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” as Martin Luther King Jr. would say a generation later.

In the middle of that soaring final movement, Vaughan Williams quotes our psalm for today, Psalm 85: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” I can hear it in my mind even now. I still get tingly and teary when I listen to the recording, still remember how it felt to cry out for peace even as bombs were falling on the Iraqi capital.

I tell you, the range of emotion was vast. There was sadness, utter sadness in the knowledge that our song of peace could not prevent our soldiers and the Iraqi people from dying in the desert sands. There was the flutter of hope that maybe, just maybe, our song of peace could do just that – could join a chorus of voices that would bring the conflict to a swift and just conclusion. There was the fervor of patriotism, for I believe the desire for peace in the midst of war is a patriotic act. And there was the joy of raising my voice in harmony with a hundred other people, all of us singing as one voice, speaking a word of peace into a world of war.

“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” When I read these words from Psalm 85 today, the same roil of emotions fills me: sadness and hope and fervor and joy. But I must confess: today, sadness pushes the others down. I look out and see a world where mercy, truth, righteousness, and peace are far from here; where the scourge of gun violence takes more lives everyday; where sexual harassment and abuse are wielded like weapons by famous and ordinary men alike; where the safety net of the poor is being eroded away to line the pockets of the rich; where race, sex, religion, and orientation continue to be warrants for exclusion and disrespect. I look out and see a world covered in darkness, and the darkness threatens to overwhelm me.

Then I remember one of my favorite verses of scripture from the prologue of John’s Gospel, and I say it to myself over and over again: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I’m convinced this is God’s way of reminding me that total despair is an unproductive state of being. For despair is sadness made comatose. But God invites us to take our sadness and remember that hope still exists alongside it. That is why, as we approach the darkest days of the year, we light candles against the encroaching night. We defy the darkness with the Light of God’s own Word that is coming into the word.

When we say “Mercy and truth have met together,” it is no mere pipe dream; it is our mission. When we say “righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” it is not simply a figure of speech; it is speech that figures into how we live our lives as followers of God.

Mercy is quiet. It does not draw attention to itself. The same with truth. The problem is that lies are loud because they must be told over and over again to be believed. All we can do in response is speak the truth in love, trusting that in the end the truth will set all people free. Righteousness is quiet too. It is the daily living of those who do right by each other, loving their neighbor as themselves. Anything louder becomes self-righteousness. And then there’s peace, which you would expect to be quiet, and it is, compared to the cacophony of war. But where war is deafening with destruction, peace crescendos with new creation.

Just because mercy, truth, righteousness, and peace are often quiet things, that doesn’t mean they are gone. It doesn’t mean the darkness has swallowed them up. It just means we have to look harder for them. And the harder we seek them, the more we train our eyes to notice them.

It’s no surprise Ralph Vaughan Williams composed the Dona Nobis Pacem three years before the outbreak of World War II. In that moment, the world needed that prayer: give us peace. It’s no surprise that he quotes Psalm 85 and later in the finale a certain group of angels who sing to some bewildered shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men.” For those angels sang that song of peace in a war torn age of violence and degradation. They sang that song of peace because of something happening quietly in the little town of Bethlehem: the Word of God made flesh, the Love of God incarnate. They sang that song of peace which echoes down the ages to us, and we can join their song.

If sadness at the state of the world is threatening to overwhelm you today, remember to light a candle in defiance of the darkness. That light is the Light of Christ. Use that light to help you see God’s mercy, truth, righteousness, and peace persisting in the midst of the horrible and the heartbreaking. And ask God to give you the grace and the strength to help make those quiet things just a little bit louder.

Listen to the original 1936 BBC recording of Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem.

3 thoughts on “Dona Nobis Pacem

  1. Have sung that song in church choirs for many years!! One of my favorites! A tradition in the Episcopal churches that I have gone to!!

    1. The Dona Nobis Pacem in the Hymnal 1982 is wonderful! I love it! However, Vaughan Williams’s piece is a different one — a choral cantata of several movements that lasts about 30 minutes. You can listen to it via the link at the bottom of the sermon.

  2. Dear Father Adam Thomas: The sermon was lovely and Dona Nobis Pacem is one of my favorite Hymns From Elaine and Robert Nelson

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