Mercy on the Radio

God is on the radio.

Classic FM is one of the stations that are pre-programmed into cars and radios in this country. It regularly plays what I think is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. It is a choral setting called Miserere Mei, Deus, originally composed in the 17th century by Gregorio Allegri.

It is loved by many. People are moved by it without even knowing what the words mean. There are comments on this video from people saying they’re “not religious” but would go to church if they could hear this being sung.

For those who can navigate the Latin, they still might not know that the lyrics were taken directly from Psalm 51, written about 3,000 years ago by David, King of Israel. He wrote it after he had broken God’s law in a way that is commonly seen today as utterly deplorable.

It plunges the depths of his regret. He had grieved a God whom he loved. His soul was so torn that his bones felt as though they were crushed.

But throughout the sober sorrow there is an undeniable sense of awe and grace.

Allegri knew this. Miserere is slow, with significant pauses. As I listen I hear the assuring rhythms and tones that speak of steadiness. God listens. He can be trusted. Through the ages he has spoken tenderly to unworthy people. His justice and mercy are expressed softly and humbly as one choir responds to another, and the male and female voices fill vaulted halls of cathedrals with a harmony that spans the centuries.

It’s all beautiful. But there is a moment that stops my heart. A solitary soprano lifts her voice and lowers it tenderly.

And then, after a brief pause, she lifts her voice higher, and then even higher, in a cry that seems to reach for the very throne room of God.

She sings the cry of faith. It is the cry of the church on earth, of all who would dare to believe. We’ve all messed up one way or another, but here is a prayer that asks for a grace so astonishing that even the words to ask for it were written down for us. Anyone can ask. It’s bigger than we can imagine.

My daughter and I regularly listen to it as we drive along the motorway. She loves all things Latin and Roman and Classical but she isn’t sentimental. This piece catches her breath.

God is on the radio. And across the country, in cars as people commute home from work, in kitchens as parents cook meals for their families, in earphones as people ramble to the pub for a drink, this cry rings out: Words that ask for mercy, and words that are answered by a God who loves to give it.

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