Commissioned by Martin Ellis of Portland, Oregon, Ekklesia was conceived as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a composer of primarily sacred music, I found it impossible to divorce the idea of hope for the future from my faith. This is also the most substantial piece for solo organ that I have written to date. Details of the premiere are yet to be determined.
Ekklesia is a term of Greek origin that encompasses the community of all believers in Christ – that is, all denominations, all languages, all nationalities – who are called to represent the kingdom of God and to be a light in the darkness of this world. This cycle of short tone poems for solo organ is based on seven Scriptures that reveal clues about the true identity and purpose of the Ekklesia, providing meaning and direction in the midst of the challenges that we face. In a world filled with pain and suffering, we must look to Christ, our Hope, for the anointing to bring restoration where there has been devastation, beauty where there were ashes, and gladness where there was mourning. (Isaiah 61).
Three hymn/chant melodies are used, in II (VENI EMMANUEL: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel), III and VII (THE CALL: Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life), and IV (VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS: Come, Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire). These three are linked in that each is a prayer inviting God to come and bring redemption, peace, restoration, light, love, joy, strength, grace, anointing: ultimately, all that leads to abundant life. The rest of the musical material is original, intended to illuminate the corresponding Scriptures.
I. “…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” (Isaiah 40:31)
Beginning quietly and somewhat mysteriously, the concept of “hope” is expressed through sixteenth note figures played on 8’ stops, seeming to bubble up gently from the ground and never gaining too much intensity. The “renewal of strength” is signified by the chorale-like section in the middle, which grows slightly into a cautious sense of triumph before subsiding into the sixteenth notes again, leaving us with hope and anticipation.
II. “They will be called oaks of righteousness, planted by the Lord, so that he may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3b)
A strong, sturdy theme opens the piece, depicting the people of God as foreseen in Isaiah 61. The prophet declares that after they experience healing and restoration, they will be able to stand firm as “oaks of righteousness” that will bring glory to God. An oak tree reaches high into the sky but also has deep roots so that it cannot be easily moved; likewise a person who has been healed and restored by God is like the man in Matthew 7:24-25, who built his house (life) on the rock (Christ) and is able to withstand the trials and temptations of this life because his foundation is firm.
The middle section employs the tune VENI EMMANUEL, in reference especially to the first verse: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.” The people of Israel were scattered and exiled, and yet Isaiah decreed that they will be restored and once again rejoice because of their Savior. The prophetic parallels for the times we are living in today are not difficult to see.
III. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
The beauty of truth is illustrated by lush string stops, and a solo registration of flutes 8’ & 2 2/3’ illustrates the clarity of mind that truth brings. Undulating chords on the string stops alternate with embellished phrases of THE CALL on the solo registration. Throughout most of the piece, a “D” can be heard as an anchor for the harmony, but also for the idea of being held in bondage by sin or deception. At the end of the piece, the “D” is liberated and there occurs something like a takeoff into the sky, rising in every feature of the music: pitch level, dynamic level, and tempo, representing the freedom that comes through knowing the truth, which can be found in the Word of God.
IV. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Luke 3:16b)
When the Holy Spirit came on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire on their heads in the book of Acts, they were empowered with boldness to preach the Gospel, and they were endowed with spiritual gifts, one of which was the ability to speak in tongues (other languages) so that the Gospel message would not be limited in its reception. This piece is fiery and unpredictable like the Holy Spirit, and bold like the gifts of the Spirit. The chant VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS can be heard in the pedal, a prayer of invitation undergirding the wildness of the toccata-like figurations. God invites us today to be consumed with his holy fire and to welcome the Spirit into our lives to receive boldness and power for fulfilling our calling, whatever that may be.
V. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)
Theme: LIGHT IN DARKNESS
The image of an ancient city on a hill, at night, with bright lights illuminating it for all around to see, was the inspiration for this piece. It begins with a trumpet call, as if a watchman is sounding an alert. The ensuing figurations alternate between irregular sixteenth-note figures and steady eighth-note punctuations suggestive of the many lights dotting the skyline. This metaphorical city, which cannot be hidden because of its elevation and its brightness, is to represent the Ekklesia, which has now been restored, set free, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, shining brightly in a world of darkness and bringing hope to others who are still in bondage.
The juxtaposition of the 8’ trumpet stop on one manual and an 8’ flute combined with the Cymbale on another manual is an unusual combination meant to sparkle or shimmer in a quirky sort of way. A chorale-like section comes towards the end of the piece, representing the strength and solemnity of the hilltop city, standing alone and immoveable despite the darkness around it.
VI. “Those who believe will do even greater things than these…” (John 14:12b)
In John 14, Jesus promised his disciples that if they had faith in him, they would carry on the work he had begun. We live in a time that is ripe for healing miracles, and indeed, in pockets of the world, such miracles are taking place. Prophets within the last century have declared that these things will increase to become another “great awakening,” perhaps within our lifetime. Faith is depicted in this piece as something slow and steady, always present and ever growing. The piece is in the form of a chaconne with a seven-bar ground bass, which is stated four times. It begins quietly and serenely and grows in intensity with each statement, ending powerfully.
VII. “…our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
Scriptures refer to the Church as being the bride of Christ, which God is preparing to “occupy” the Earth until he returns, and to spend eternity with him. Through the indications in these chosen Scriptures, it is clear that he does not want a weak, damaged, or sinful bride, but instead one that is strong, radiant, and glorious. With the theme of “glory,” it hardly seems fitting to end this cycle with anything other than a toccata.
We return to the hymn melody used in the third piece, THE CALL. In the three verses of the hymn, the writer names nine different titles for God: Way, Truth, Life, Light, Feast, Strength, Joy, Love, and Heart, with an invitation to come. As we ponder the meaning of these seven Scriptures and the journey each of us is on, may we make room in our lives for each of these attributes of God and allow his glory to be revealed in us.