Last fall, I purchased the box set and decided to listen to all of the cantatas on the appropriate days (or, generally, those weekends) as a year-long "spiritual journey." I began with the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent (disc 52 of the 56). With this weekend's listening, I'm now halfway through the cantatas---and the church year.
The Sunday after Ascension Day (June 1 this year---tomorrow) is called Exaudi Sunday from the first Latin word of the Introit, “Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice.” I had not thought of this Sunday as liturgically a solemn Sunday: Jesus has left his disciples, but the Holy Spirit has not yet been given. We are in a ten-day period when the disciples struggled not to feel abandoned by the Lord but instead to live according to his promise. Of course, the Holy Spirit is given to them on the following Sunday, Pentecost.
Bach’s cantatas for Exaudi are both entitled “Sie werden euch in den Bann tun” (BWV 44 and BWV 183, “They shall put you out of the synagogues”). This disc (#21 of this set) also includes the liturgically unspecified “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (BWV 150, “Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul”), and a short piece by Johann Christoph Bach, “Fürchte dich nicht” (“Fear not”). The cover photo is of a man in Pol-e Khomri, Afghanistan.
Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that BWV 150 is an early cantata, the theme of which is “the believer’s hopes of redemption in the hurly-burly of life,” which “is particularly apt in the period between Easter and Ascension.” In the CD notes he writes interestingly of Bach’s musical development from this comparatively youthful piece. One of Bach’s inspirations was the music of his first-cousin-once removed, Johann Christoph Bach, whom I just mentioned. Gardiner writes concerning some of the musical research still being done about the older Bach and how he influenced Johann Sebastian. (This man is not to be confused with J.S. Bach’s older brother Johann Christoph Bach, nor with J.S.’s son Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach.)
Back to the two cantatas called “Sie werden euch in den Bann tun.” Gardiner writes, “Both in their separate ways depict an earthly voyage beginning with the prophecy of imminent persecution and the need for submission and surrender to the Holy Spirit.” The earlier cantata focuses upon persecution as well as the eventual joy experience by Christians.
Christians on earth
must be Christ’s true disciples.
Attendant on them every hour
are torment, exile and sore affliction,
till they be blissfully overcome...
It ever remains the Christians’ comfort
that God watches over His church.
So even though tempests gather,
after such tribulations
the sun of gladness has always soon laughed.
The later cantata, though similar in terms of overall mood, gives “a more positive gloss to the Gospel reading” (Gardiner), with passages of serenity and comfort, as well as those with dance rhythms and joy. The joy is the Spirit’s guidance and consolation.
Highest Comforter, Holy Ghost,
Thou who dost show me the path
on which I should journey,
help my weakness by interceding,
for I cannot pray for myself;
I know Thou carest for my welfare!
Thou art a Spirit that teaches
how one should pray aright;
thy prayers are granted,
thy singing sounds well…
Neither cantata, though, is as upbeat and major-key hopeful as the "Ascension Oratorio," which was BWV 11 this past Thursday.
I find biblical texts about persecution unsettling, for a different reason than the usual. I think these texts inspire for some churchgoers a morbid fascination: "Christians suffer today in different parts of the world as they did in the Roman empire. Maybe being a Christian is too easy for us. But look how 'they' are trying to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance and Christ out of Christmas. Our beliefs are under attack, too!" I just don't think this is healthy, sensible thinking, and it's often extremely partisan.
Some biblical texts are anti-Jewish, too: "those Jews kicked Christians out of the synagogues when they should have been accepting Jesus, too." These kinds of biblical texts subtlety inspire modern-day disdain for Jews and Judaism.
That's not to say religious persecution doesn't exist today. Something I've been doing lately is to look for news reports about different religious groups that are experiencing persecution---and to fit prayers for them in my busy and forgetful schedule. Christians are suffering in Syria, for instance, but Muslims are suffering in Myanmar, anti-Muslim sentiment is growing online, and Jewish researchers have observe a recent rise in worldwide anti-Semitism. To me, we live in enough of a pluralistic, globalized world that we can consider intolerance to any religious group as worthy of our concern and prayers.
That's one reason why the use of worldwide people as CD cover photos was a wonderful idea for this set. When I first looked at the 2-CD releases, my first shameful thought was, "What does some kid in Tibet or Myanmar have to do with Bach's music?" Bach's faith and texts are Christian, but his music speaks to a wide range of human feelings and experience. For this Sunday, that experience is the feeling of lostness and difficult hope when one clings to faith but isn't at all sure what's going to happen next.
(All English translations are by Richard Stokes.)