Saturday, December 21, 2013

Sin and Hypocrisy: Bach's Fourth Advent Sunday Cantatas

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 (186 in all) in over sixty churches---in one year. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, but 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 fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from

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. So I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner's!) and listen to the cantatas on the days represented by each. I'll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year.

On December 1st, I began with Disc 52, cantatas for the First Sunday in Advent. Now I'm continuing with Disc 53 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The picture on the disc is a man from Rajasthan, India.

The first cantata is "Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet!" (BWV 70). It captures the Advent theme of expectation for the Second Coming: “Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! Be prepared at all times till the Lord of Glory brings this world to an end.... When will the day come, when we leave the Egypt of this world? Ah, let us soon flee Sodom before the fire overwhelms us! Awaken, souls, from your complacency and believe; this is the final hour.” In the notes, Gardiner points out that Bach alternates orchestra and choir to conjure “the terrifying moment ... when ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat’.”

Advent reminds us of the future final hour of Christ's coming---though we must also be mindful of our own deaths as well. But those who pray and watch have consolation: “Lift up your heads and be comforted, you righteous ones, so that your souls might flourish! You shall blossom in Eden and serve God eternally.”

“Beretet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!” (BWV 132) is next. “Prepare the ways and level the paths of faith and life for the Highest; the Messiah draws nigh!” The person of faith has great promises: “Through the springs of blood and water your clothes have been cleansed, that had been stained by sin. Christ gave you new clothes, dressed you in crimson and white silk, such is a Christian’s finery.” According to Gardiner, Bach assigns an aria to the bass soloist as well as bass instruments “to express all that the text implies: the vigorous declamatory denunciation of sin and hypocrisy.” Advent is a time for us to reflect upon changes we can make in our lives.

Sin and hypocrisy are themes in all three cantatas. The third, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (147), begins, “Heart and mouth and deed and life must give witness of Christ without fear and hypocrisy, that He is both God and Savior.” Jesus is our joy and comfort, strength and treasure, and so the believer should not let Jesus out of heart or sight. The familiar tune, "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," is used in the song "Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe." The faithful person holds to Jesus amid distress and grief, though his/her heart might break, for Jesus is faithful and loving and provides rest and help.

As we consider our own sin and hypocrisy---as well as our griefs and troubles---how great to hold onto God's promises for us. Though the scriptural words of judgment are frightening, those who trust in the Lord find tenderness and faithfulness.

(The English translations in the CD notes are by Richard Stokes.)

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