|Bach in 1715|
CD 11 of this set of Bach’s sacred cantatas contain four for this Sunday. As conductor Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach seems to have wanted his church (St. Thomas in Leipzig) to have good music before entering the solemn Lenten season.
(The music on CD 12 of this set will be Palm Sunday, so this year-long feature of my blog will be back on April 13. That's good, because I've a ton of grading to accomplish in March!)
These Quinquagesima cantatas are: “Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe” (BWV 22, “Jesus took unto Him the twelve”), “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” (BWV 23, “Thou very God and David’s Son”), “Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott” (BWV 127, “Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God”), and “Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem” (BWV 159, “Behold! We go up to Jerusalem”). The sleeve photo is of a woman from Gao, Mali.
Gardiner points out that in the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Luke 18:31-43, Jesus predicts his passion to the disciples and also restores a blind man’s sight. Gardiner discusses Bach’s use dance rhythms and “a skittish fugal chorus to point up the disciples’ incomprehension.” He notes that Bach’s Leipzig audience was that way themselves: neither dissatisfied nor very appreciative or enthused about Bach’s 26-year efforts on their behalf. The cantata does end with comprehension, however:
My Jesus, draw me on, and I shall come,
for flesh and blood cannot comprehend at all,
like Thy disciples, the words Thou didst utter.
This cantata and BWV 23 were written to precede and follow the sermon, with 23 to be performed during the Eucharist. They are also his “audition” pieces when he applied for the cantor post at St. Thomas. More solemn than 22, this “Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn” “emphasises the way in which Jesus actively sought out the sick and handicapped---and therefore social outcasts---and healed them." An opening duet that pleads to Christ for compassion is followed by an aria in which the oboe plays the Lutheran Agnus Dei, which in turn is echoed in the setting of Psalm 145: “The eyes of all, O Lord, Theou almighty God, wait upon Thee...” In the final chorale, the singers beseech the Lamb of God, “have mercy on us!’
BWV 127 is (according to Gardiner) “arresting in its musical presentation of the dualism of God and man and the relationship of the invidiual believer to Christ’s cross and Passion.” Among other things, the cantata leads the believer (aware of death’s inevitability) along the path of Christ’s crucification. Anyone having the notes for this cantata (which is Volume 21 of the original release) can follow Gardiner’s several indications of the theological and artistic complexity of 127; it's all interesting to me, but too much material to quote here. Cantata 159 continues the believer’s journey with Christ; for instance, Bach has a “walking” bass line in the first number, and overall communicates the pathos and pain of the journey to the cross, similarly to Bach’s two passions.
Ah, do not go! The cross is already prepared for Thee,
where Thou must suffer bloody death...
But if Thou wert to remain behind,
I myself would not have to journey to Jerusalem,
ah! but regrettably to hell.
As we imagine the scripture lesson, most of us would probably visualize ourselves as the sinners and the sick, in need of Christ's outreach. I did so, as I thought of all my weaknesses and sins (grudge-holding, wavering faith, and the like), my hope that Christ will have pity on me. Then I thought: that's a little disingenuous, because in my position in life I'm much more like the comfortable upper-class and the religious authorities of Jesus' time---people he by no means snubbed, but he was definitely critical of us. Nevertheless, we too need Christ's mercy and, in our comfortableness, we need to seek it all the more.
Bach was no outcast, either. As I quoted in one of my recent posts, Gardiner points out that Bach struggled to be paid what he was worth and to gain professional respectability, as he meanwhile poured out musical glories of religious imagination that were, often enough, penitential and hopeful. So many of Bach's cantatas thus far have focused upon Christ's work---the salvation which is the only lasting treasure amid life's sorrows and struggles.
Christ's journey toward Jerusalem will be a theme of upcoming Lent. But I'm still connecting that journey with something I talked about two weeks ago: the approximately 70-day period between Septuagesima Sunday and Easter can symbolically stand for the 70 years of the exile of the "Babylonian captivity."
A World Council of Churches essay by Peter-Ben Smit (found here) makes several interesting insights about the Exile.
* The entire Bible is, in important ways, about being in exile and longing to be redeemed from exile. The Bible begins with the exile from Eden, of course.
* Smit notes that Jesus’ death and resurrection happens within the framework of Passover, which of course points back to Egyptian slavery and that earlier “exile."
* The liturgical traditions of the church have been language of exile, too: our desire for heaven (the home we long for, analogous to the way the Judahite exiles longed to return to the Land) as we struggle in the world.
* Smit also notes that exile functions in contemporary theology in postmodernism (the uncertainty and absence of God, theologies of liberation (the struggle of oppressed people for freedom), and peace churches (the theology of whole reliance upon God rather than violent means: the error of Israel and Judah in relying upon foreign powers). But he argues that ecumenism itself echoes exile-language within theological in discussions of the church and the world (the church as an eschatological community in “exile” in the world), hospitality (caring for others who are in exile in different ways), healing broken relationships, being “wounded healers” of others, and so on.
I don't want to "bracket" the Jewish experience of God's redemption and thoughtlessly appropriate it only in Christian terms. But it's instructive to link the powerful Jewish experiences of Passover and Restoration to the work of Christ in Christian experience. Think about Lent's 40 days as fitting within a 70-day envisioning of the ways we are in "exile." Think about Jesus' journey to Jerusalem not only as a trip for his little group of students, but also the way Jesus' work connects to God's Passover salvation, God's post-exilic Restoration promised by the prophets, and the way those prophetic teachings speak both to post-exilic Restoration and to the person and work of Christ.
(All English translations are by Richard Stokes)