Sunday, January 19, 2014

Weighed by Sorrow: Bach's Cantatas for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Continuing my "journey" through J. S. Bach's sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. On disc 5 of this set, the cantatas for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (today) are “Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?” (BWV 156, “My God, how long, ah! how long?”), “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 3, “Ah, God, what deep affliction”), and “Meine Seufzer, meine Traenen” (BWV 13, “My sighs, my tears”). The Scriptures are Romans 12:6-16 and John 2:1-11. The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach's music) is of a man (wearing a bright red hat) from Lhasa, Tibet.

I listened to the CD before I studied the notes, and I was taken by the overall somber quality of the cantatas after some of the joyful numbers of the previous Christmas and Epiphany pieces. Sure enough, Gardiner comments in the notes that even the sad titles of the cantatas seem out of place for the happy quality of the lessons and Epiphany season. But the texts describe journeys “from mourning to
consolation.” Similarly, the Gospel text from the Cana wedding calls attention to the then-unfulfilled ministry of Jesus (“My hour has not yet come”), which connects to the not-yet-fulfilled journey of the believer, who still looks forward to faith’s fulfillment in Heaven.

In the first cantata, for instance, the believer is assured that God does not delight in sending afflictions but that God wants the joys of Heaven to become all the more precious as we struggle through difficulties. In the second cantata, Jesus is most certainly the one who helps us bear our crosses and keeps our hearts in faith through “mortal fright and torment.” The third cantata is particularly filled with references to tears, sorrow, grief, distress, and bitterness, including feelings of abandonment from God. But all the while God promises to “turn bitterness into joyful wine” and to console us with the promises of Heaven.

Gardiner notes the music devices Bach uses, like the six notes in chromatic descent that symbolize grief in BWV 3, which Bach tranforms into chromatic harmonies that represent the movement from grief to hope. In that same cantata, in the soprano-alto aria connects the cross of Christ to the believer’s troubles, resulting in joy. But in the last cantata, in the fifth movement, Bach uses the bass soloist with recorders and violin to depict our present life as bleakly as possible.

"Hope" in the sense of Christian hope is not only anticipation that something will happen but also trust that it will---and trust in the promiser. I hope that we get a nice tax refund this year, but it would be foolish to trust that we will. I'll just have to get our taxes done and find out. Christian hope, though, is confidence that God's promises of comfort and blessings are part of our lives now, as well as in the future. Heaven is in the future, but God has given us the divine life and the divine power today.

So we really live in two circumstances, so to speak, one temporary and one permanent. Our temporary circumstances are filled with things like distress, sorrow and uncertainty (as well as joy and accomplishment). But our permanent circumstance is the life with God which is already accomplished by Christ and is real and powerful. Looking to Christ's complete fulfillment, however, is that which helps us stay grounded in the divine promises while other things in our lives weigh us down--or nearly crush us.

English translations of the texts by Richard Stokes.

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