Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. (Have mercy on me, O God, after thy great goodness.)
Sacred music moves me to consider the deeper things of God. When I listen to Gregorio Allegri’s Misere mei Deus, a choral setting of Psalm 51, the magnificent scoring clearly reveals the composer’s profound understanding of the need we all have for God’s mercy. As the piece alternates between the full chorus and quartet, the yearning for God’s intervention floats and winds its way throughout. Like Psalm 51 itself, Miserere holds in tension the deep cry of our hearts amid the brokenness and beauty of our world.
Shifting Blame & Crying Out for Mercy
Psalm 51 is most recognized as the lament penned by David after his affair with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. Have mercy on me, O God… cleanse me from my sin… create in me a pure heart… restore to me the joy of your salvation. For several hundred years, Allegri’s mysterious and beautiful choral reflection on David’s psalm was only permitted to be performed in the Sistine Chapel during the week leading up to Easter. Today, the ban has been lifted and many choirs around the world have performed the Miserere.
Even though this piece is more commonly listened to during Holy Week, I find myself reflecting on it in this season of preparing for the birth of Christ. Advent is a time to ready our hearts, minds, and souls to encounter Emmanuel, God with us who waded into our sin-damaged world to rescue us from death.
Part of preparing ourselves for Jesus’ birth is to examine our own humanity; our frailty and brokenness, our need for a Savior to deliver us from the mess we’ve made of this world. The Miserere leads me to remove my self-protective outer shell, to get on my knees and recognize there is no hope for us without God’s forgiveness, intervention and deliverance.
Today and everyday we need God’s great mercy and intervention. On campus, sexual assault affects close to 20% of our female students. Yet, often the university blames or silences the victims. Racial and ethnic tensions have reached a fever pitch. While students of color are mourning, majority culture seems to be silent or antagonistic. Campus shootings have become normal. And it seems politicians are commandeering these horrific events for political capital, pointing fingers across the aisle. Demonizing one another and shifting blame has become our default.
Our Shared Convictions
If I’m honest with myself, when I encounter the brokenness of the world, my first response is to either turn a blind eye or join the mob crying for vengeance. I either want to ignore it and remain comfortably ignorant or to immediately find someone to blame.
Why is it that when I encounter the sinfulness of myself, and the world, my response is to point fingers and find a scapegoat? Why isn’t my default to examine my own heart and cry out to God for mercy, to turn to the only one who is able to defeat darkness and reform my heart? It is rare that I turn inward and ask, “How have I contributed to the damage around me?”
Consider the doctrinal basis that we as InterVarsity Staff read and sign each year.
Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, who lived as a perfect example, who assumed the judgment due sinners by dying in our place, and who was bodily raised from the dead and ascended as Savior and Lord.
Many of us might quickly read the statement, sign it and move on, rarely pausing to take it all in. Yet the richness of Allegri’s Miserere reminds me that believers all over the world have been proclaiming this truth over and over throughout the ages: All of us are culpable for the mess of our world, all of us are in need of a Savior. The Lord of the Universe, in his great mercy and love, lowered himself, took on flesh, and brought the redemption and restoration we so deeply need yet are so unable to create ourselves.
This Advent, what if we stopped pointing fingers and started looking inward?
What if we softened our furrowed brows… Relaxed our tensed muscles… Let go of our obsessive need for vengeance… Laid down our swords for plowshares… And got on our knees together to cry out to God for his mercy. Rather than washing our hands clean of any responsibility, what if we turned to God for mercy on behalf of those we hate?
Now more than ever, we need to be a people who pursue God for mercy and justice.
Listening with an Open Heart
I invite you to listen to Allegri’s masterpiece. As you listen, imagine the posture you might take if you were singing these words as your personal prayer, Have mercy on me, O God. Are you looking up? Are you kneeling? Or are you standing at a distance contemplating what it even means to express a need for mercy?
Allow the chanting of the male voices to fill you. How can we acknowledge the role we have all played in allowing our world to decay instead of flourish?
Listen to the purity of the soprano solo during the quartet sections. How can our cries for mercy and deliverance be filled with this kind of purity and vulnerability?
As you hear the music move from tension to resolution contemplate this question, How can we accept the joy of our salvation, knowing that God has cleansed and redeemed us?
Turn to Psalm 51 in a Bible. It begins with these piercing thoughts:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
As you listen to Miserere mei, Deus, read the entire psalm as a prayer.
This Advent, as we encounter the groaning of our hurting world, may we be people who turn to lament. May we be people who cry for mercy from our God, trusting in his unfailing love and great compassion.
Alison Smith is on staff with Greek InterVarsity at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a member of Pi Beta Phi for women. She loves reading, running, and going on adventures with her husband. In college, Alison sang the Miserere and still enjoys listening to early Sacred music. You can read more from Alison on her personal blog.
The blog is an avenue for staff and student leaders to hear from the visionary leaders of Collegiate Ministries about theological formation, discipleship, chapter planting, chapter growth, and other key ministry themes for campus work.