Confirmation in D Majorby Fr. Daniel+ on November 11, 2021
One of the most recognizable pieces of music is Pachelbel’s "Canon in D Major." That word canon means “rule” or “law.” When you listen to Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” you might say that the ‘rule’ for the piece is the series of chords the bass strings play. (In the link above, the bass strings are most prominent, because largely unaccompanied, from 0:05-0:19.) Those bass strings play the same canon throughout; they’re the ground that makes the song possible.
Baptism is like that: it is God’s establishing in us his canon. It is the series of divine bass chords, which will continue to play eternally regardless of our own actions, regardless of whatever discord we may stumble into. In other words, the reality performed in the sacrament of baptism is that God’s music is always playing in and for us. Full stop.
In baptism, God adopts us as His children and makes us members of Christ’s body, the Church, that we might be inheritors of the kingdom of God (BCP, page 858). We’re in the symphony now, and this decision on God’s part is irrevocable. In baptism, the action that is foregrounded is God’s action; it does not rely on us. Hence, we baptize adults and infants alike. Those bass notes are for everyone.
But if you listen to “Canon in D Major,” you very quickly notice that there’s a lot more going on than the bass chords. Other instrumental voices join in, other variations of the melody spring up around the bass strings, like climbing roses on a trellis. (You can notice different instrumental voices and melody variations joining in at almost exactly fourteen-second intervals—0:19, 0:33, 0:47, etc.—up until the famous flourish at around 2:07.). However, despite the many playful violins weaving in and out of the bass notes, they are all only beautiful because they correspond to, build upon, or imitate the bass chords. All the instrumental voices that join only work because they are guided by that original canon.
Confirmation is like that: it is our deciding to play along, and that our playing will abide by the canon God establishes in us at baptism. The beauty is that there are countless ways to imitate, riff on, or build upon God’s canon. Long, slow movements; bright, quick flourishes; violins, harpsichords, and classical guitars, if you like. There is no end to the particular variations of God’s image as it appears in the Communion of Saints.
In confirmation, we express our mature commitment to Christ (BCP page 860), to God’s canon, and vow that the whole field of our human action and improvisation will strive to harmonize with Christ. In confirmation, the action that is foregrounded is our action; we are making a public choice to claim, and enact as our own, that which God has done in our baptism. Hence, babies and young children do not get confirmed; they need to be old enough to choose. Not everyone chooses to pick up the violin.
Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” is particularly popular at weddings. It’s bright, pretty, hopeful, and intimate with how it takes diverse instrumental voices and makes of them one. It’s a good image for a wedding: two become one, just as multiple instruments become one.
There’s something similar happening at confirmation, too: that which is multiple and varied—God’s people in the Church—are affirming together our oneness in Christ. There is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, One God and Father of All. And just as at a wedding, the bride and groom make vows so as to bring into speech the reality God is creating, so too at confirmation do confirmands make vows alongside their congregation. We call these vows the Baptismal Covenant (BCP page 304-305): belief in God the Father, Son, and Spirit; continuing in the apostle’s teaching, in the breaking of bread and prayers; persevering in resisting evil and repenting as needed; proclaiming by word and example the Good News; seeking and serving Christ in all persons; respecting the dignity of every human being.
This is a major way the Episcopal Church articulates and attends closely to God’s canon given to us in Jesus. When we are not thinking, speaking, and acting this way, we’ve strayed from the symphony. We’re trying to solo in the wrong key or falling silent altogether. Things done and left undone.
The point is not to get it right forever and always—whenever we sin, we promise to repent and return. That language is important: it’s not if we sin, it’s not if we hit the wrong string, but when. The bass notes are always playing. We can always find the melody back home—but mistakes are a part of any practice, including Christian practice. The point of being a disciple of Jesus is a bit like the point of playing music together: it’s not accuracy that is the real goal, but holy pleasure. Not fleeting entertainment or distraction, but real, honest to God satisfaction, peace, joy. The grace of having given oneself fully to Something Beautiful which is greater than we are alone. The kind of wholeness that comes only with God in community. The security that comes with joining our Source and Highest Good.
Music creates beauty in time, from now to then, just as a painting creates beauty in space, from here to there on a canvas. To make or renew a vow is just to keep God’s canon forefront in our minds, and to discern now God’s music reaching before us into the future then. It’s not a matter of seeing the future, exactly, but of trusting that it already belongs to God. It’s trusting that the key we’re in at the beginning of Canon in D will still be the same key when the piece finishes. We habituate this trust in formal vows in worship, but we do it in less formal ways all the time. Whenever we say “I promise,” we are (if the promise is a good one) ceding our future time to God’s canon, saying that whatever part we play in that future, it will be in D Major and at the appropriate rhythm. We are saying now that we will participate in God’s beauty then. It is the same when we make a financial pledge at our church: we are saying now how we will participate in God’s future then.
To make vows together is to trust that the song will continue, even when we mess up as individuals, and that each of us, for each other, becomes a little more like God the longer we play. The violin that plays the bright flourish at 2:07 is only possible because it is anchored by God’s bass strings there from the beginning, but the flourish at 2:07 is also supported by the instruments that join at 1:01. So, too, do we rely on both God and on each other. My walk with Christ depends in part on your walk with Christ. A symphony is not a mere collection of individuals, but a unity.
There is no greater gift than to be for your neighbor an outward and visible sign of God’s presence, of that sacred canon playing on and on. To Robyn, Cameron, Emma, Fate, and Toby, we are grateful that you have decided to pick up these strings and play, and we are so, so proud to stand beside you as you do.