Saturday, February 1, 2014

"It Is Enough": Bach's Candlemas Cantatas

No Bach cantatas for Groundhog Day…. but these cantatas (and the ones in yesterday's post) are for February 2 commemorations.

This year, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany also falls on Candlemas (which in turns falls this year on a Sunday). Candlemas is also called the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or the Meeting of the Lord. It is the fortieth day following Christmas, a good halfway point between Christmas and the spring equinox. In the Gospel lesson for the day, Luke 2:22-40, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete Mary’s purification and to perform pidyon haben, “the redemption of the first born” (Exodus 13:12-15, Leviticus 12). Because Simeon calls Jesus a light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), the festival became known as “candle mass.”

The next Bach cantatas will be for the Third Sunday Before Lent (Septuagesima), which is February 16 this year.

Bach’s cantatas for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (disc 8 in this set) are “Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde” (BWV 83, “Joyous time of the new order”), “Ich habe genung” (BWV 82, “It is enough”), “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin” (BWV 125, “In peace and joy I now depart”), and “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” (BWV 200, “I shall acknowldge His name”), although only one movement of this cantata survives. The cover photo is a boy from Afghanistan.

Gardiner notes that “Erfreute Zeit” “contasts the old order of the law and the new order in Christ,” with Bach using the solo violin to emphasize the joy of the wors erfreute” and “freudig” (“joyous” and “joyful”). The second movement, symbolizing the “old order” uses “archaic musical forms... for the Nunc dimitiis,” while the upbeat tenor and a return of the solo violin regains the sense of joy of Christ.

BWV 125 returns us to the Nunc dimittis theme: the servant of God who is ready to leave this life because the waited-for salvation has come. By the second aria, Christ’s light reenters the formerly somber music and the believer looks forward to the prospect of being with Christ, “O unexhausted store of kindness, that has been revealed to us mortals.” The surviving movement of BWV 200 (such a pretty and assuring 4-minute piece, I wish there were more) also uses the theme of Luke 2:29. “I shall acknowledge His name, he is the Lord, He is the Christ... No death robs me of my trust: the Lord is the Light of my life.”

“Ich habe genug” is a well-known cantata, which I’ve also heard with Hans Hotter and with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the bass soloists. It is an emotional cantata but “Bach’s interpretation (writes Gardiner) contains no trace of spiritual sentimentalism, or glib triumphalism... Might the lullaby of the third movement represent a father watching helplessly as his daughter falls into death’s sleep, and the joyful dance of the final movement anticipate the healing romp of familial reunion in eternity?” The cantata premiered six months after the death one of the Bach’s children. “It is enough... that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”

This is a day for honoring Mary. I found a website ( that quotes Pope John Paul II: “Simeon's words seem like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow.” The site author goes on to say: “The archangel’s announcement was a fount of incredible joy because it pertained to Jesus’ messianic royalty and the supernatural character of His virginal conception. The announcement of the elderly in the temple instead spoke of the Lord’s work of redemption that He would complete associating Himself through suffering to His Mother.” So in concluding the stories of Jesus‘ infancy on this fortieth day after Christmas, we approach the end of the overall Epiphany period and come within sight of Lent and its emphasize upon suffering, renunciation, and repentance.  

These cantatas also lead me to think about Simeon and Anna. Yesterday (January 31st) was the birthday of Thomas Merton, a man who has inspired so many of us with his dedication to prayer, reflection, and contemplation. Although not much is related about Simeon and Anna in the Gospel, their dedication to vocations of prayer are scriptural inspirations for us. Analogous to the appeal of a Walden Pond-like retreat, what is it about a life completely devoted to prayer that holds appeal to many of us---including those of us who really enjoy our present lives?

My own struggle is how to maintain a faithful prayer life amid the busyness of life. These Candlemas cantatas remind me yet again to step up my efforts. But what if, in the midst of faithful prayer, God calls us to a deeper kind of prayer life, wherein we might have to give up some of the hard work, hopes for professional recognizing, and even hectic ministry work that we enjoy?

But maybe that's making things too complicated when God's grace is really more simple. After all, Bach set these words: “It is enough... that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”

English translations by Richard Stokes

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