Monday, April 21, 2014

Abide with Us: Bach's Cantatas for Easter Monday and Tuesday

memecenter.com
My weekly journey through Bach’s sacred cantatas resumes!

Today is the Monday after Easter, and we have two cantatas for that day. One is the last selection on CD 13: "Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen" (BWV 66, “Rejoice, all ye hearts”). In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments although Bach may have been creatively weary following the production of his two Easter passions, he still gravitated to the joyfulness of Easter celebration and was able to adapt now-lost birthday serenatas for “Erfreut euch.”



Rejoice all ye hearts,
begone, all ye agonies,
the Savior lives and governs in you.
You can dispel the grieving,
the fear, the anxious trembling,
the Saviour revives the Kingdom of the Spirit...
The grave is rent asunder, and thus our woe is ended...

The other Easter Monday cantata is on CD 14, "Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden" (BWV 6, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening”). The sleeve photo is of a boy in Nuristan, Afghanistan.

Gardiner writes that this is an “Emmaus” cantata that shares a mood with the St. John Passion, although this cantata lacks necessarily lacks the lamentative aspects of the Passion. “It manages to be both narrative (Evoking the grieving disciples’ journey to Emmaus as darkness falls) and universal at the same time (the basic fear of being left alone in the dark, literally and metaphorically).” Bach “paints” the theological affirmation to hold onto Christ in the Word and sacrament even though Christ is soon to depart.

Ah, abide with us, Lord Jesus Christ,
for evening now has fallen,
Thy holy Word, the bright light,
let it not cease to shine on us!

In this final, dismal hour,
lend us constancy, O Lord,
that we Thy Word and Sacrament
keep pure until our end is nigh.

CD 14 is filled out with the two cantatas for Easter Tuesday: "Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiss" (BWV 134, “A heart that knows its Jesus to be living”), and "Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergotzen" (BWV 145, “I live, O heart, for your delight”). Gardiner comments on the joyous quality of 134 and 145. Music from that earlier set of birthday serenatas have been "recycled" for this new purpose.

How fortunate are you, God has thought of you,
who are God’s hallowed property;
the Saviour lives and conquers with might
to bring you salvation; to His glory
Satan must now fear and tremble,
and hell itself be shaken
(from BWV 134)

I have my receipt here,
signed with the blood and wounds of Jesus.
And it holds good:
I am redeemed, I am set free
and live now with God in peace and unity...
(from BWV 145)

I've not participated in the Walk to Emmaus program for over twenty years. But the Emmaus story itself in Luke 24 has always been dear to me, as I write here. Although Bach's texts admonish us to remain faithful to Christ and not grow lax in our discipleship, the Emmaus story reminds us that Christ seeks us whether we are righteous or not. In fact, the disciples in the story had given up and were moving on. Christ chose them to console and teach. Christ is ever compassionate to those who are afraid and uncertain. He helps them make all the connections, so to speak, and he gives them all the time and companionship they need.

The image of "God's hallowed property" is a pleasing complement to the imagery of the Easter Sunday cantatas, of "holding to (the risen) Christ" amid temptation and trouble. When we experience difficulties, what a great thought that Christ holds onto us, so to speak, even as we seek to hold onto Christ. This is Pauline theology ("you are not your own, you were bought with a price," 1 Cor. 6:19-20) that defines our value and embraces our particular sources of value.

(As stated in the liner notes, all English translations in this set are by Richard Stokes.)


Sunday, April 20, 2014

"....Thee to know, thy power to prove..."

Christ the Lord is ris'n today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heav'ns, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids Him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened Paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Dying once He all doth save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Foll'wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to Thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

King of glory, soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, Thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!

---Charles Wesley

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Heavens Laugh: Bach's Cantatas for Easter Sunday

Statue of Bach near his
birthplace in Eisennach
(from Wikipedia)
Back to my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas!

Let me reintroduce this project. Many people have heard of the "Bach Cantata Pilgrimage." The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death. To commemorate the occasion, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach's extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, and the pieces were also recorded. Deutsche Grammophon was willing to release only a few of the cantatas so Gardiner established his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to release the rest. Those words, "to the glory of God alone," were Bach's dedication of each cantata.

The cantatas have been released in sets over these years and feature photographs by photojournalist Steve McCurry of people from around the world. (His famous picture is that of Sharbat Gula, "the Afghan girl," although that particular photo is not used on these sets.) The photos give a sense of the universality of the music of Bach and its themes.

When all of the cantatas were released this past fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com. Then I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner's!) and listen to the cantatas on the Sundays represented by each. I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I'm so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. Disc 1 of the set is for Christmas Day, but I began with Disc 52, the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, and thus started my project at the beginning of the Christian liturgical calendar. I listened to discs 52 through 56 for Advent and Christmas, and then I began with disc 1 and have been  pretty faithful to listen to each set of cantatas on the represented Sunday (or generally that weekend). I'm not quite a third of the way through.

Without many cantatas for the Lenten season, my “journey” has had a few weeks off. (It was a good time to listen again to the St. Matthew Passion, as I did last year.) Now, this weekend I’m listening to Bach’s cantatas for Easter Sunday, CD 13. The photo is of a girl in Peshawar, Pakistan. The cantatas for Easter Sunday are "Christ lag in Todesbanden" (BWV 4, “Christ lay in the bonds of death”), and "Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubliliert" (BWV 31, “The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices”)

All of the Gardiner-conducted cantatas were originally released on two-CD sets over the past several years. The cost has been around $30 per set. Hoping that the cantatas would eventually be released together, I had purchased only one---these cantatas for Easter Sunday and Monday---because they were performed at the Georgenkirche in Eisennach, Germany. My family and I had visited Bach's birthplace in that town in 2007, during my daughter’s choir tour.

In the CD notes, Gardiner notes that BWV 4, like Luther’s hymn of the same name on which the cantata is based, calls the believer “to become a character in the play of redemption, casting aside his doubts and meeting the ephemeral Christ in tangible form.” It is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas (from 1707, when he was 23), setting all the verses of Luther’s hymn and beginning and concluding in E minor.

The minor-key cantata, filled with alleluias though it may be, focuses upon Christ’s death and the corresponding life-and-death drama of redemption.

It was an awesome battle
when Death and Life struggled.
Life won the victory
and devoured death;
the scriptures foretold it so,
how one death gobbled up the other
and made a mockery of death.
Alleluia!

In the notes, Gardiner discusses the musical techniques that Bach uses to give mood and nuance to Luther’s hymn. For instance, in one section, the bass singers must hold a D for several beats on the first syllable of “Wuerger” (“strangler”) to emphasis the whole line, “the strangler can no longer harm us.”

Just listening to the music on my computer, without following the text, I was struck by the contrast between the minor key “Christ lag in Todesbanden" and the other surviving Easter cantata, BWV 31, where the music is much brighter from the ouset. Even the next-to-last verse of “Christ lag”, with its dance rhythms, isn’t as cheerful as the opening of the subsequent cantata:

The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices,
and all she bears within her womb.
The Creator lives! The highest triumphs
and is freed from the bonds of death.

He who has chosen the grave for rest,
the Holiest One cannot decay.

The text continues to contrast the incorruptibility and victory of Christ with the need for us believers to die spiritually to our sins and “dead works” so that Christ can live in us and be reflected in us. The suffering, as well as the difficult spiritual renewal that is necessary in this life will eventually end so that, in our final hour, we will “behold Jesus’ radiant joy and his bright light.”

Last Sunday our pastor pointed out that contemplation and celebration go together during Holy Week: we can't celebrate Easter without first contemplating what has happened before. I thought of that as I listened to the contrasting moods of these two Easter cantatas: the second more upbeat than the first. While the second makes us feel more spontaneously happy, the more subdued alleluias of the first remind us of the themes of sin and death which, though now defeated, still give us sorrow.

The message of Easter is the victory of Christ. Part of that victory is our ability to hold to Christ and embrace the renewal available through the Spirit. At different times of my life, "holding to Christ" seemed like another difficult obligation among many. It's easy for some of us to berate ourselves that we have not done enough for God, that we haven't devoted ourselves to spiritual disciplines sufficiently well, etc, etc. The trick is to understand "holding to Christ" as a wonderful opportunity---to be loved and accepted, rather than burdened. Holding to Christ means trusting someone who is truly on our side.

Peter Gomes remarks that the modern European traditions of biblical interpretation, while valuable, are different from traditions of black preaching, which “endeavors to remove as many barriers between the thing preached and those to whom it is preached as quickly as possible, so that the ‘objective’ story becomes with very little effort, ‘our’ story, or ‘my’ story.”(1) In placing us within the drama of salvation, Bach's cantatas achieve a similar result. Maybe Bach places us even more quickly into the story of salvation, since it is beautiful music and not merely the uttered Word that places us there.

Note:

1. Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 340-341, which I quoted in my book What About Religion and Science (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 106.

English translations of Bach's texts are all by Richard Stokes, according to the CDs' notes.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

"Beneath the Cross of Jesus"

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand
The shadow of a mighty rock
Within a weary land.
A home within the wilderness,
A rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat,
And the burden of the day.

Upon that cross of Jesus
Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me.
And from my stricken
Heart with tears,
Two wonders I confess,
The wonders of redeeming love
And my unworthiness.

I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place.
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face.
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss.
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

"A Ransom for Many"

My very first teaching job was as a teaching assistant at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, CT. That was 1981, when I was 24. I assisted the professor in a course called the Gospel of Mark. The pages of Mark in my old Bible are REALLY marked up (no pun intended) with notes from that course.  It was a fascinating journey through the shortest and possibly the earliest gospel.

I remember that the professor pointed out what he considered the key verse of this gospel, 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The shaping of Mark’s text is interesting. In 10:32-34, Jesus cautions the disciples what would happened to the Son of Man once they reached Jerusalem, the place to which they were traveling. In the next pericope, James and John get into trouble for wanting a place of honor when Jesus is in glory. Jesus instructs them, and then instructs all the disciples that greatness has to do with service. Thus 10:45: even the Son of Man offers his life in service and ransom to others. The next section is the healing of blind Bartimaeus, and the apparent positioning of stories contrasts the physical blindness of Bartimaeus with the figurative blindness of the disciples.

The word “ransom” brings to mind adventure stories wherein a kidnapped person will be released if the kidnappers are paid a designated sum of money---not incommensurate with some theories of the Atonement where Christ's blood buys us back from the captivity of sin and death. This morning I happened to pick of an older paperback of mine, Karl Adam’s The Christ of Faith (Pantheon Books, 1957), which concerns Roman Catholic christology. His thoughts on ransom (pp. 350-357) are placed in context with Catholic teaching but are not solely Catholic.

Fr. Adam makes a variety of connections with the word---the Greek is lutron---and with the whole verse, Mark 10:45. The service of the Son of Man connects us back to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and in turn the section 10:32-34 where Jesus describes his brutal sufferings that (without Mark specifically quoting Isaiah) are in keeping with the Suffering Servant’s abuse.

Interestingly, Matthew uses that ransom saying in chapter 20, where we find similar positionings of stories of suffering, greatness, and blindness. In keeping with the Synoptic practice we might expect Luke to use the saying and the stories similarly as Matthew. But (Fr. Adam points out) Luke does not use the ransom saying. Instead, and significantly, Luke uses the pericope about greatness in a different context: within the story of the Last Supper (Luke 22:24-30), where Luke also has Jesus specifically quote from the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah (Luke 22:37).

This ties together several things among the three gospels: Jesus’ suffering as a “ransom for many,” his suffering as a fulfillment of the Isaiah passage, and this suffering expressed in the Eucharist where Jesus’ blood is poured out “for many” (Matthew and Mark).

But the Last Supper passages also connect us to the Torah: the phrase “blood of the covenant” used first by Moses in Exodus 24:8) where he sprinkles the blood of sacrificed calves upon the people. Now the blood of Jesus rather than the blood of peaceful calves is shed for the people called to covenant with God.

Fr. Adam also connects “ransom” to various statements of Paul concerning Christ’s redeeming work. Paul does not use that word but his teachings about redemption (i.e., buying back from danger, for instance 1 Cor. 1:30, Rom. 3:24, Col. 1:14), and “bought at a great price (1 Cor. 6:20), are similar and related though not identical. Fr. Adam notes that Luke (Paul’s associate) does not use “ransom,” nor do either Paul or Luke use the words “for many” in their respective eucharistic passages. Fr. Adam argues that Luke’s citation of Isaiah within the Last Supper passage was sufficient to make the point concerning Jesus’ abuse and death for our sakes.

I checked both my old Interpreter’s Bible and the New Interpreter’s Bible. Those authors make the same point in different ways: that “ransom” in Matthew and Mark is certainly a resource for but is not yet a fully developed doctrine of the Atonement. However you understand the theological meaning of Christ’s sufferings, we are certainly focused upon them today, Maundy Thursday, and through Good Friday and Holy Saturday until we can celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Sunday morning. That "key verse" of Mark is filled with meaning, darkness, and light during these final hours of Holy Week.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"When the students are ready…"

There is a proverb, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear," or sometimes, "When the student is ready, the teacher is ready." According to this site, the proverb is not Buddhist but is from 19th century Theosophical writings. I always like the proverb because that really is the way of teaching: you can talk to students and explain things to them, but they won't understand until they're ready. Teaching has an aspect of kairos: we learn at the right time. Many times, students make comments about a subject that help me see something differently, and learning happens in a reciprocal way.

The other day, I commented that it's customary for us during Holy Week to point out the catastrophic drop in Jesus' "approval rating" during Holy Week. A pastor friend calls our Holy Week experience "liturgical whiplash."

Another customary thing to notice is the failure of the disciples to stand by Jesus. Jesus even predicted their behavior. Matthew 26:31 reads: Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written [Zechariah 16:7],
“I will strike the shepherd,
   and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”

I'm thinking of their desertion of Jesus in light of that proverb. Clearly the disciples (and the word means "students") weren't ready to understand the teacher!

But since Jesus already knew what they would do, what if their desertion was a way for them to be ready for the teacher's appearance: literally the appearance of Christ resurrected? For all their time listening to Jesus, they still needed the power of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit for them to be really ready. Their readiness took a lot of time and regret---but Jesus was there and, in fact, had brought them along.

That's good assurance for all of us when we feel we are slow to learn. The Teacher is patient and hangs in with us in our own circumstances.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Worse Messiah Ever

It's customary to point out that Jesus' high "approval rating" on the first Palm Sunday plummeted by Thursday and Friday. A pastor friend calls the effect "liturgical whiplash."

It's hard not to point out the quickness of the people to reject Jesus, after they had greeted him with palm branches and enthusiasm. There is anti-Judaism in the account, unfortunately, for which Jews have suffered over the centuries.

But there is also a lesson about a difficulty in religious belief generally: how quick we are to misidentify (or miss) signs of God's grace. How impatient we are when the Lord comes to us in a way we don't recognize.

We tell the Palm Sunday story from the standpoint of knowing the ending. We know that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers during those Easter Season days. We know how Jesus' resurrection validated his teachings and identity.

But try to imagine Palm Sunday without thinking of Easter: Jesus was an eloquent and insightful teacher-healer connected to the long-delayed expectation for Israel's redemption. He spoke of the necessity of his death, but his words were upsetting and confusing to his hearers, not filled with positive meaning. Of course we know now, he was Jesus Christ. The folk he encountered had no benefit of hindsight for such baffling words, no understanding of the truth of his call to discipleship. As the events of Holy Week unraveled, the crowds (and the disciples) seemingly had insufficient validation to convince them of Jesus' identity.

Among the many enjoyable, loquacious cab drivers in Dublin, Ireland, we met a cabbie one summer, who joked about American politics. Mimicking people's shifting, fussy opinions, he said, "Barack Obama? Worst president ever! George W. Bush? Worst president ever! Bill Clinton? Worst president ever! George Bush 41? Worst president ever!"

You could say: after the enthusiasm of Palm Sunday, people began to look at Jesus and think, "Worse Messiah ever!"