Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam. (Have mercy on me, O God, after thy great goodness.)
Gregorio Allegri, a 17th century composer and priest, is most well-known for his Miserere mei, Deus, a choral setting of Psalm 51. For several hundred years, Miserere was only permitted to be performed in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter. A mysterious and beautiful composition, several composers tried and failed to transcribe the piece. Today, the ban has been lifted and many choirs around the world have performed Miserere.
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.
It is clear in Allegri’s scoring that he understands the deep 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. Miserere holds in tension the deep cry of our hearts amid the brokenness and beauty of our world.
Shifting Blame & Crying Out for Mercy
Even though this piece is more commonly listened to during Holy Week, I find myself reflecting on how appropriate it is in this season of preparing and waiting for the birth of Christ. Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is a time to prepare 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. Mass shootings have become normal. Racist incidents seem to be exposed everyday. Politicians on either side of the aisle are pointing fingers. Families are decaying. Terrorist factions around the world are exploiting and destroying the most vulnerable and marginalized. Demonizing one another and shifting blame has become our default.
What if we softened our furrowed brows.
Relaxed our tensed muscles.
Let go of our obsessive need for vengence.
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
As you listen to this piece, imagine the posture you might take if you were singing these words, 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.
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 the quartet resolves, how can we accept the joy of our salvation, knowing that God has cleansed and redeemed us?
Read Psalm 51 as a prayer as you listen to Miserere mei, Deus:
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
in burnt offerings offered whole;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.