Friday, January 31, 2014

Calming Storms: Bach's Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Cantatas

Over this weekend I’ll be listening to two discs in the set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. The theme of Disc 7 is Bach’s cantatas for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany (Feb. 2 this year): “Ach wie fluechtig, ach wie nichtig” (BWV 26), “Ah how fleeting, ah how trifling”), “Jesus schlaeft, was soll ich hoffen?” (BWV 81, “Jesus sleeps, what hope is there for me?”), “Waer Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” (BWV 14, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side”), Jesu, meine Freud” (BWV 227, “Jesus, my joy”). Actually the first two are Bach’s only cantatas written specifically for this Sunday, while the others two fill out the disc well with common themes. The photo---all the cover photos depict people around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach's music---is of a young person of Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

As the title indicates, 26 concerns the shortness of life and all its hopes. As I wrote last week, Bach had tragedy in his life: the death of his first wife and several children. I’ve read elsewhere that his parents died when he was young. For this theme of life’s shortness, Gardiner indicates that Bach’s writing “create a mood of phantasmal vapour” and also of a mountain river (symbolizing life and its hopes) rushing away. The words express sorrow at all the supposed pleasures, accomplishments and splendor of life. “All things, all things that we see shall fall at last and period. Who fears God shall live forever.”

BWV 81 is concern with another “aquatic” image, that of Jesus calming the storm. Gardiner notes that Bach uses recorders with the strings to depict the fear of God’s abandonment (in the image of Christ sleeping while the disciples are fearful). Gardiner comments that the dramatic quality of this cantata (with the long silence of Jesus, the disciples’ fear, the  storm itself) gives a sense of what a Bach opera might have been like. “Though lightning cracks and flashes, though sin and Hell strike terror, Jesus will protect me.”

Bach does not repeat the water imagery for BWV 14, but the text does grapple with life’s (and Satan’s) threats to the community of believers, and the assurance of God’s protection and care. BWV 227, an eleven-movement motet included with this Sunday’s cantatas, includes those images---“Beneath Thy shield I am protected from the raging storms of all my enemies”---while more geneally affirming the sweetness and protection of God amid life’s storrow, pleasures, and honors.

How well do we look to Christ amid the metaphorical and actual storms of life? Over the years I’ve tried to sustain my faith (persistently if not consistently) through good times so that I’m less distressed when trouble comes. (As an aside, I’m a terrible worrier, but trouble that has come usually was not what I worried about but something unexpected.)

Fortunately, Christ does not wait until he is suitably impressed with the quality of our faith before he steps up to help us. The disciples were fearful and fussy amid the storm (as I would have been), and although Christ sighed at their fearfulness, he calmed both the storm and their anxieties. For some of us, that is two great miracles in one!

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