Sermons

March 6: Ash Wednesday

“Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and say, ‘Spare O Lord your people.’” Joel 2:12-18

Stop everything, the prophet Joel tells us, and: “Blow the trumpet in Zion!”

Ash Wednesday is a special day, where we mark our foreheads with ash to announce a season of reflection, repentance and even a measure of devotion during these forty days.

Recently I came across a news story about the town of Cremona, Italy and the famed Antonio Stradivari, the 17th-century “luthier,” the maker of violins, cellos and string instruments.

Stradivari lived to the age of 93 and crafted 1,116 string instruments, mostly violins, and cellos. Today, 650 of these instruments survive of which there are 450 to 512 violins, and at auction, such one of these precious instruments command three million dollars and more.

According to the New York Times, “A Stradivarius violin, viola or cello represents the pinnacle of sound engineering, and nobody has been able to replicate their unique tones.

Enter Leonardo Tedeschi, a former D.J. and a man with a mission. He was concerned about the future of these magnificent instruments, and how their sound might be lost to time and needed to be preserved in a modern digital form, the so-called “Stradivarius Sound Bank.”

Tedeschi is from Northern Italy and lives nearby Cremona with its Violin Museum, his most obvious source for his essential project. He notes, “We are making immortal the finest instruments ever crafted.”

His ideas were to record the very best Stradivari at his disposal in a way to preserve the sound digitally; but not for a particular composition, instead of for every distinct sound possible with hundreds of scales and arpeggios, using different techniques with their bows, or plucking the strings.

Tedeschi brought together in Cremona both Italian and Dutch musicians who accomplished these variations and played hundreds of thousands of individual notes and transitions on two Stradivari violins, a cello, and viola.

Each of these four instruments has names: the 1700 “Stauffer,” 1727 “Vesuvius,” 1615 “Stauffer,” and 1734 “Prince Doria.”

Inside the museum concert hall, everything appeared fine, until the addition of 32 hypersensitive microphones from the German recording company, in which even the very slightest sounds from outside of the hall caused audio problems.

There was the ambient sound of the rumble of a person dragging a suitcase on cobblestones or the hiss of the street-sweeper, and the noise coming from a bustling open-air market. In a town of 70,000 people, there is less silence than you might imagine.

“Every time we hear this sound, the sound will mix with the frequency of our instruments, so we cannot use that sound in our product,” Tedeschi laments.

What to do? Tedeschi went to the mayor of Cremona and explained the situation. They agreed that a “zone of silence” around the Violin Museum would be enforced from Jan. 7 to Feb. 9. There were checkpoints and security guards stationed to enforce the curfew. The mayor implored the citizens of Cremona to avoid any sudden and unnecessary sounds.

So for eight hours a day, six days of the week and five weeks, the people of Cremona stood silent. The town complied to these orders and in the words of the mayor, “We are the only city in the world that preserves both the instruments and their voices.”

Journalist Christopher Livesay concludes: “It’s a level of devotion Antonio Stradivari would likely have appreciated. After all, attention to detail is what makes a Stradivarius a Stradivarius.”

So what might this mean for a day like Ash Wednesday? We too are instruments, capable of listening to the voice that speaks to us.

We are called on this day and during Lenten season to carefully reflection and find that spirituality or inner music that may animate our lives now and in our very promising futures.

Sometimes this may call for time for personal silence and prayerful reflection.

For the people of Cremona, it was their level of devotion to their town’s musical heritage that’s remarkable and very inspiring. But it’s your devotion to Jesus, as Ambassadors for Christ, in service to one another here at Santa Catalina but acts of faith, hope, and love for your family and friends.

Such devotion to those most in need that can indeed mark our lives as distinctive, and as clear as today’s ashes on our foreheads signal a higher commitment to one another and Christ.

Here’s a final word about Stradivari violins. I’ve been told that the best way to preserve these precious instruments is to play them. In other words, by placing these violins in a glass enclosure or a bank vault can destroy their tone and quality of the sound.

So too, the best way to celebrate our spiritual and religious lives or, let’s say, is to tune up our instrument — and practice, day after day.

Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.

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