Archive for October, 2014

Avery-book-cover-200x300Route 66: The Highway and Its People (1988) has always been my favorite among the many histories of the fabled highway. I purchased my copy in Sedona, AZ in 1989, during the years when my family and I lived in nearby Flagstaff. The photographer Quinta Scott and the historian-writer Susan Croce Kelly researched the highway and interviewed many people associated with the road. Scott took photographs, Kelly wrote the text, and the book was published by University of Oklahoma Press. I used the book in my “American Highways and American Wanderlust” colloquium at University of Akron.

Now, Kelly (Susan Kirkpatrick) has written a wonderful biography of Cyrus Stevens Avery (1871-1963), the “Father of Route 66,” also published by University of Oklahoma Press. What a fascinating life! Born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, young Avery and his parents and siblings journeyed to Indian Territory and then Missouri. He went to college in Missouri, married Essie McClelland, then moved back to Oklahoma where he was an insurance agent, moved into real estate loans, and established the Avery Oil and Gas Company. In 1907, he and his wife and children moved to Tulsa.

Automobile travel at that time was new but growing rapidly. Roads were dirt and gravel, poorly suited for cars. Consequently, the Good Roads Movement in the 1910s was an effort to improve and eventually to pave highways. Avery became interested in this effort, which would benefit Tulsa and Oklahoma. He became a leader in the movement. Among his several roles, he joined the Oklahoma Good Roads Association, was president of the Albert Pike Highway Association, and was president of the Associated Highway Associations of America.

He was also appointed to the Joint Board of Interstate Highways, the task of which was to designate and mark a new system of federal highways. Prior to that time, roads had names, like the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Highway, the Jefferson Highway, the Dixie Highway, and many others. But as the designation of named highways had been controversial in the 1910s, with towns vying for a place on major routes, similar controversies occurred in the laying-out of federal roads. One dispute was fateful. Boosters proposed a route from Virginia Beach to Springfield, Missouri and eventually to Los Angeles, and proposed number was U.S. 60. Avery, though, pressed for a major road from Chicago to Los Angeles, also via Springfield, MO, that would pass through Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Such a road would benefit his town and state, unlike the proposed U.S. 60 which, under the original plan, would not enter Oklahoma.

In the layout of federal routes, the west-east transcontinental highways would end in 0, and the principal north-south highways would end in 1. (My hometown Vandalia, IL, which Susan mentions as the terminus for the pioneer National Road, is on two of these routes: 40 and 51.) Avery wanted his route through Tulsa to be U.S. 60, identifying the road as a major route. Kentucky leaders, however, balked at that idea, since the proposed U.S. 60 would (and still does) serve that state. The number 62 was suggested (U.S. 62 is now the highway from El Paso to Niagara Falls). Avery disliked that number, but he and his associate Frank Page discovered that the euphonious number 66 had not yet been assigned to a road. Thus was born the Chicago-Los Angeles highway that became famous.

The federal highway system of numbered routes became reality in 1926. The work of improving and paving those roads continued for many years. Avery was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association and its work of paving and promoting U.S. 66. As a member of the American Association of State Highway Officials, he was also involved in the approval of the signage with which we’re all familiar, including shields for highways, octagonal stop signs, round railroad signs, yellow diamond-shaped caution signs, and rectangular speed limits signs.

Other aspects of Avery’s life are also noteworthy: his work for a Tulsa airport and for a water pipeline to the city, his tireless handling of political disagreements, his travels, and his efforts to improve race relations. During his life, he earned the animosity of the Ku Klux Klan and eventually lost his job as a state highway commissioner because of Klan manipulation. In her readable style, Susan discusses these and many other aspects of Avery’s long career in business and public service.

Avery died in 1963. He is honored in Tulsa with several memorials, and nearly any highway history will mention his work for Route 66. It’s fortunate that now he has a history of his own!

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Bread to the Hungry: Bach’s Cantatas for the 1st and 2nd Sunday after Trinity

For the past nearly eight months, as part of a spiritual “journey” for the year, I’ve been listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas on the day (or more generally, the weekend) of the Sundays for which they were written. This is the big 56-CD set by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner; the cantatas were recorded as a “Bach Pilgrimage” during the 250th* anniversary year of Bach’s death.

When my family and I were on vacation in June, I missed two Sundays and a special feast day (John the Baptist, which I discussed in yesterday’s post). I’m going to feel dissatisfied until I catch up, and so I’m listening to the cantatas for the First and Second Sundays after Trinity Sunday, which were June 22 and 29 this year. As it turns out, the two sets of cantatas have common themes.

Disc 27 has the cantatas for the first Sunday: “Die Elenden sollen essen” (BWV 75, “The meek shall eat”), “Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot” (BWV 39, “Deal thy bread to the hungry”), and “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort” (BWV 20, “O eternity, O word of thunder”).The CD photo is of a man from Ladakh, India. For the second Sunday (disc 28): “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (BWV 2, “Ah, God, look down from heaven”), “Meine Seel erhebt den Herren” (BWV 10, “My soul magnifies the Lord”), and “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (BWV 76, “The heavens declare the glory of God”). The cover photo is of a child from Kashmir.

Yesterday I mentioned that the Feast of John the Baptist creates a liturgical connection with the Annunciation in March and Christmas in December. Trinity Sunday marks the end of the first half of the Christian year in a lovely manner: we have worshipped Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and at Pentecost we worshipped God the Holy Spirit who makes Christ forever present and loving in our lives. Concluding this portion of the liturgical year, we explicitly worship all three persons of the Trinity. We also transition to these Sundays after Pentecost (which will take us all the way to Advent) when we think about our Spirit-led Christian lives and how we can grow in the “fruit of the Spirit.” In the CD notes for the First Sunday cantatas, Gardiner notes that these are large-scale worships that build upon trinitarian themes. The three cantatas also are based on the Gospel lesson of Dives and Lazarus, so the music and texts consider good spiritual gifts: the love for other people that trumps the love for money.

Gardiner also writes that BWV 75 was Bach’s first cantata for Leipzig. Displaying his vast expertise in Bach, Gardiner comments that the score is even written on paper from Köthen, Bach’s previous city. The piece contrasts money and poverty, heaven and earth, the joy one finds in the Spirit instead of worldly accumulation. BWV 20, which is much more hellfire, focuses more upon God’s judgment toward those, like the coldhearted rich man of the Gospel lesson, who neglect God’s love and grace. BWV 39, which begins with a memorable and long chorus, has as its theme the need to care for the poor.

Moving to the Second Sunday after Trinity cantatas, I read in the CD notes that BWV 2 also has a theme of the plight of the poor, now within the overall context of the loneliness and affliction of the faithful. The biblical theme of refinement brightens the mood toward the end: suffering and persecution can, rightly understood, “purify” our faith as fire purifies precious metals. As obvious from its title, BWV 10 brings us back to Mary, whose Magnificat teaches the topsy-turvy priorities of God: the poor and lowly are exalted, the rich and powerful are not. Finally, BWV 76 reminds us of this mid-point in the liturgical year: as Gardiner writes, it is “the crossover from ‘the time of Christ’ (Advent to Ascension) to ‘the era of the church’ (the Trinity season dominated by the concerns of Christian believers living in the world without the physical presence of Christ but under the guidance of the Holy Spirit).” The conductor shows how the composer Heinrich Schütz (who wrote a motet with the same title: “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes”) influenced Bach.

God’s values challenge our values: the lowly and hurting are held in high esteem, while the successful and well-to-do risk losing their souls. It’s hard not to think of people who are hurting in our current time: people on both sides of the Israel and Gaza conflict, immigrant children trying to get to and stay in the U.S., those who suffer amid the growing wealth disparity in the world, people are mourn the loss of loved ones on either or both of the Malaysian flights. How is God at work in our world? Where, indeed, is God, when tragedies are so great?

Matthew 25:31-46 answers the question “Where is God?” God, in God’s triune fullness, is with the suffering and those in need. God calls us to be there, too. We ourselves may not be needful and meek, but we can stand beside those who are, and take their side.

The weeks after Pentecost are good times for us to freshly seek those spiritual gifts of love, kindness, generosity and others. As our hearts are changed, we respond with love and concern to those around us. That’s always a small, good thing. We won’t solve the world’s big problems. But the love that we show—the way in which we seek to live according to God’s priorities—can have an amazing reach.

(In the CD set, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.)


* Out of curiosity, I looked up the word for “250th anniversary,” and there really aren’t terms as common as “bicentennial” and “sesquicentennial” that people would readily understand. Sestercentennial, semiquincentennial, bicenquinquagenary, and quarter-millennial are all possible terms. It seems easier just to say “250th anniversary.”


A Deeply Troubled Heart: Bach’s Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Trinity

In June I faced the pleasant but enormous task of preparing and submitting a manuscript to publishers. (Anyone who has done that knows what I mean. The proof-reading, revising, and re-proof-reading seem to go on indefinitely, and one feels badly about performing other tasks until it’s finished.) Then my family and I went on a driving vacation of over 2500 miles. Not being able to spread myself so thin as I did when I was younger, I put my traversal of Bach’s cantatas on hold until now. So I’ve missed the first and second Sundays after Trinity and also the Feast of John the Baptist, but I’ll catch up with those before the summer’s over.

As I’ve written before, these posts represent a year-long “spiritual journey” through Bach’s extant sacred cantatas, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner, and available on a 56-CD set from arkivmusic.com. I’m now over halfway through the cantatas, and thus halfway through the Christian liturgical year.

There are two cantatas for the third Sunday after Trinity (disc 29 on this set): “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” (BWV 21, “My heart was deeply troubled”) and “Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder” (BWV 135, “O Lord, do not punish a poor sinner”). Conductor John Eliot Gardiner rounds out this concert (CD 29 on the 56-CD set) with Bach’s BWV 1044 concerto for flute, violin, and harpsichord. The cover photo is of a young woman from Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

In the CD notes, Gardiner comments that he has always considered BWV 21 as one of Bach’s “most extraordinary and inspired” vocal works. From the beginning it has a “poignancy” and “pathos” that continue as the difficulties and struggles of the sinner-believer are depicted. Gardiner writes in detail of Bach’s many beautiful and skillful ways of depicting the longing for salvation.

What use to us are these heavy sorrows,
what use is all this grief and woe?
What use, that we each morning
bewail our hardship?
We only increase our cross and pain
through our unhappiness….

Rejoice, my soul, rejoice, my heart,
give way, sorrows; vanish, pain!
Transform yourself, tears, into pure wine,
my moaning shall turn to cries of joy!
The purest candle of love and comfort burns
and flames in my soul and heart,
for Jesus consoles me with heavenly joy.

BWV 135 is a shorter cantata that contrasts well with 21. The instruments that begin the piece provide “a slow, ritualistic portrayal of a penitential sinner seeking reprieve and is deeply affecting.” All the texts focus upon the believer’s struggles with temption, sin, and anguish at separation from God, but like the penitential Psalms, the cantata ends with words of joy at God’s salvation and compassion.

After tears and after weeping
[Jesus] makes the sun of joy to shine again;
this gloomy weather changes now,
suddenly our enemies must fall
and their arrows recoil against them.

Musically, though, 21 concludes with fairly joyous music, which 135 ends with the pensive tune used in the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and which Bach uses in the St. Matthew Passion.

Both cantatas are deeply penitential, occupying the same theological world as psalms like 51. One of my “best friends forever” reminds me that I’m hard on myself and give myself insufficient credit for things. I wonder if those of us who err on the self-doubting side are often in the “penitential” mode because we will approach God feeling poorly about ourselves and our best efforts. The spontaneous mental prayers that I offer throughout the day happen from a rather “blue” point of view: unsure of myself, I ask for God’s kindness, for forgiveness for my weakness and typical struggles, for God’s mercy for me and the people I know, for the power of the Spirit to use me and my “circle” and multiply the worth and range of our efforts (and I often feel that my efforts are inadequate).

Put that way, prayer and repentance may sound rather anxious and and depressed. It occurs to me that even very humble, penitential prayer (like those reflected in Bach’s texts this weekend) should also have that element of joy, the way even the very sad psalms conclude on very upbeat, confident tones. We approach God for mercy, compassion and kindness, in a humble and contrite mood, because God will indeed show us those things, and in fact God’s compassion and kindness toward us is beyond our comprehension and is utterly trustworthy. A regretful, uncertain inner attitude is joined with a considerable joy of living because of God’s lovingkindness.

As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.

Belial’s Brood: Bach’s Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

My “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas continues. … This coming Sunday is the Fourth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. The cantatas for this day are: “Ein ungefärbt Gemüte” (BWV 24, “An unstained mind”), “Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe” (BWV 185, “Merciful heart of love everlasting”), “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 177, “I call to thee, Lord Jesus Christ”). This is CD 30 of the set; the photo is of a young man in Haridwar, India. One more cantata on this CD is for next Sunday.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes in the CD notes, “Whatever one’s own beliefs, how can one doubt that a sense of God’s grace was manifest to Bach in all the music he was composing, rehearsing and performing – always assuming that it was done in the spirit of devotion? Christoph Wolff refers to Bach’s ‘never-ending musical empiricism, which deliberately tied theoretical knowledge to practical experience’, and suggests that his compositions ‘as the exceedingly careful elaborations that they are, may epitomise nothing less than the difficult task of finding for himself an argument for the existence of God – perhaps the ultimate goal of his musical science’ (J S Bach, The Learned Musician).”

The text for BWV 24 is Luke 6:24-30, “judge not that you be not judged.” The text and music take up the themes of hypocrisy and honesty, which he are also themes of his Fourth Sunday of Advent cantatas. For instance, here in 24, Bach uses strings and a bass accompagnato to make a strong point about hypocrisy, which he follows by gentler measures for the tenor and oboe for penitential and then pastoral effect.

is a brood concocted by Belial.
Those who wear that mask
dress in the devil’s livery.
What? Do Christians
covet such things too?
Alas! Honesty is difficult to achieve.

Although the text beseeches God for a clear conscious, the cantata’s more pastoral atmosphere is much less sorrowfully penitential than the previous Sunday’s cantatas.

Let constancy and truth
be the base of all your thoughts,
may the words of your mouth
be the thoughts of your heart.
Being good and virtuous
makes us like God and angels.

In the CD notes, Gardiner explains in some detail how, in BWV 185, Bach took a comparatively uninspired text that paraphrases the same Gospel lesson and took it to beautiful places.

Forgive, and you shall be forgiven;
give in good measure during this life;
store up a capital
which there one day
God shall repay with ample interest;
for with the same measure that ye mete withal,
it shall be measured to you again.

BWV 177, meanwhile, contains no recitatives but is a setting of a Johann Agricola hymn. Gardiner writes about the way Bach opens with concertino violin and two oboes, then full strings, then he introduces three lower voices to create a penitential effect. The arias are contrasted with moments in turn happy, poignant, and anxious.

Grant that I, from the depths of my heart,
may forgive my enemies,
forgive me also at this hour,
give me a new life;
let Thy Word always be the food
with which to nourish my soul, and defend me
when misfortune draws nigh
and threatens to sweep me away.

What is the difference between hypocrisy and inconsistency in one’s faith? To me, hypocrisy denotes intentional falseness and dishonesty, while inconsistency denotes human weakness. I’ve known lots and lots of people who, like me, aren’t consistent in their faith, but I would hate to be judgmental and call even the most obnoxious among them “hypocrites.” Like me, they may have just been immature and poorly self-aware, saddled with personality traits and weaknesses not yet matured through the Spirit. We pray for constancy and truth, goodness and virtue, and a consistent faith.

I wonder if a really consistent kind of faith is something like what Christoph Wolff (above) writes: an ongoing effort to draw closer to God and to increase in the understanding of God. In our faith pilgrimage, we seek to “argue” so to speak for the existence of God, in the sense that we grow in faith in a God in whom we, through our experiences, trust—-but also, we hope to prove God’s existence to others, not only through our words but also the authenticity of our struggles and the honesty with which we live our faith.

As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.

God Will Have Us Searched For: Bach’s Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Here are four cantatas for this weekend, one (BWV 71) which was on CD 30 from last week, and the other three on CD 31. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner includes this cantata (“Gott ist mein König”, “God is my King”) and “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir” (BWV 131, “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord”) with the two Fifth Sunday after Trinity cantatas, “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” (BWV 93, “If you but permit the Lord to prevail”), and “Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden” (BWV 88, “Behold, I will send for many fishers”). The CD photo is of a wide-eyed young man from Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

The cantatas 71 and 131 come from his single year when the 22 year old Bach worked at Mühlhausen in his second professional post (June 1707 to 1708). From there he went to Weimar and later Leipzig, but Gardiner notes that at Mühlhausen Bach committed himself to write “a regulated or orderly church music to the glory of God.” BWV 131 is a penitential piece using Psalm 130, but Gardiner writes that Bach avoided simple stylistic devices and instead conveyed the emotions of the psalm and the occasion in genuine and moving ways, harkening back to works by Heinrich Schütz and Johann Christoph Bach. BWV 71, in turn, is a piece for the Mühlhausen town council elections. Gardiner writes that the piece is “laid out on such a grand scale in terms of its deployment of four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.”

Of the two Fifth Sunday after Trinity cantatas, Bach uses for BWV 93 the 1641 hymn by George Neumark, “Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten”. Gardiner discusses how Bach uses a “catechismal question-and-answer formula” to structure the cantata. The text raises anxieties about God’s mercy and patience toward us, and then responds with affirmations about God’s blessings and favor, even to the point of searching for us when we’ve left the true path.

BWV 88 also has the structure of anxiety and fear answered by God’s mercy and love. The cantata’s text is Jeremiah 16:16, wherein God send out search parties of hunters and fishermen to gather God’s people. Then in the second part, the text brings in the Gospel lesson where Jesus calls Peter the fisherman, providing a new context for the Jeremiah text.

The conductor writes, “[I]t is perhaps an early example of that ‘dialectic of modernity’ to which scholars are so partial: Bach’s way of cultivating memory on the part of his listeners.”

No, God is always eager
that we be on the right path,
sheltered by the light of His grace.
Yea, whenever we have strayed
and abandoned the proper path,
He will even have us searched for.

As I listen to and think about Bach’s works this week, what strikes me is the observation that Bach gained his lasting sense of purpose at Mühlhausen. This site gives more information about his brief but significant time there. Even though Bach’s months there were not altogether satisfactory, his work there began a long-time commitment.

Is there a place in your life that is that kind of place for you? Do you look back to a location or situation where you felt a commitment to something significant in your life? Where did you commit yourself to something for the glory of God?

If you have such a place, it can be a spiritual anchor for you, as you look back on your life and discern God’s guidance across the years, “sheltered by the light of His grace”. (To change the metaphor, you can think of such a place as the one where God set your compass and thereafter you knew where to go.) In turn, you can gain confidence in God’s eagerness to search for us, keep us, and steer us.

(According to the CD notes, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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God Is Gone Up: Bach’s Cantatas for Ascension Day

This past weekend, as I listened to Bach’s cantatas for Rogate Sunday in my motel room, I was not only on the road but also sick from some food. It’s good to be home again and feeling well for this religious holiday. Ascension Day has a specialness not all Christians appreciate.

Bach’s cantatas for Ascension Day are “Gott faehret auf mit Jauchzen” (BWV 43, “God is gone up with a shout”), “Wer da glaeubet und getauft wird” (BWV 37, “He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved”), “Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein” (BWV 128, “On Christ’s ascent to heaven alone”), and “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen” (BWV 11, “Praise God in his kingdoms”).

The CD picture is a smiling though hard-eyed man from Kabul, Afghanistan. It was interesting to realize that these four cantatas were not recorded during the “Pilgrimage” year (December 1999-December 2000) because of audio difficulties, but rather in 2012.

BWV 43 is a two-part cantata. The first part connects Psalm 47:5-6 with Christ’s leave-taking, followed in part 2 with the reflection of the believer upon Christ’s victory. That Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father means the salvation from sin and death , the promise of eternal dwelling with God, and help through the troubles and sorrows of life.

I see already in spirit
how He at God’s right hand
smites all His enemies,
to set free all His servants
from grief, affliction and shame.
I stand here by the wayside
and gaze on Him yearningly.

BWV 37 includes a kind of dialogue of the Christian soul with itself, as conductor Gardiner puts it, in which the different soloists reflect upon the promise of Christ who had not at all left us abandoned. Christ’s victory and Christ’s provision are full of help and promise for those who believe.

Faith provides the soul with pinions,
on which it shall soar to heaven,
baptism is the seal of mercy,
that brings us God’s blessing;
a blest Christian is therefore one
who believes and is baptised.

This dialogical form is similarly found in BWV 128, where the alto and tenor seem “to depict the believer scanning the distant heavens for Christ’s vanished presence” but they return to earth to reflect upon “the mystery of his ominpotence.” But (Gardiner continues), “the two voices seem to be the allegorical personification of Hope and Doubt” found in cantatas like BWV 60.

The fourth cantata is Bach’s “Ascension Oratorio.” “It is a heart-warming work,” writes Gardiner. “Even by Bach’s festive standards the two choruses are moments to treasure, full of rhythmic swagger, a jazz-like nonchalance, plenty of stratospheric glitter for the high trumpets and vocal acrobatics for the choir.” He notes that the fourth number is a memorable plea to the about-to-ascend Christ to stay longer.

Ah, stay, my dearest life,
ah, do not flee so soon from me!
Thy parting and Thy early leaving
cause me untold suffering,
ah yes, so stay yet here awhile;
else pain will quite encompass me.

Christ rose on Easter, and he completed that rising on Ascension Day. But he soon returned on Pentecost to our midst when the Holy Spirit was given to humanity. We can think of Good Friday-Easter-Ascension-Pentecost as the great work of Christ on our behalf.

With the Ascension Christ rose to Heaven and is established in his divinity with God the Father. But as he rose in both his divine and human natures, he also continues to experience and understand the pain that we suffer as members of his body, the church. Of course, he can identify with and help us in our pain, because his presence is more pervasive through the Spirit than was the case when he was among his disciples.

In Bach’s texts, the anxiety of the disciples is also our anxiety as we struggle with difficulties and temptations. But as the Resurrection and Ascension demonstrated Christ’s power and authority to the disciples, we too are able to look toward the rising and risen Christ and know that he is not really gone. He is more present than ever. Since we don’t always sense or feel that presence—and, in fact, we despair of it sometimes—people like Bach are great gifts to us.

All English translations in the CD notes are by Richard Stokes.

Though Tempests Gather: Bach’s Cantatas for the Sunday after Ascension Day

The English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner performed all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. Happening primarily in 2000, this “pilgrimage” commemorated the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death. During ensuing years, the cantatas were available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner’s own Soli Deo Gloria label). Eventually all of them were assembled as a 56-CD box set (available at this link). All the cover photos are of people from around the world, symbolizing Bach’s universality.

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.

O Eternal Fire: Bach’s Cantatas for Pentecost

Shavuot, or Pentecost, is the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of Torah on Sinai. That holiday is described in, among other places, Exodus 23:14-17 and Deut. 16:16-17, and is referenced in 1 Cor. 16:8 and Acts 20:16. In Acts 2, it was the day the Holy Spirit descended upon followers of Jesus, as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29, where God’s spirit would be poured out to all people. The gift also fulfilled Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8. Thus Pentecost (“fiftieth day”) is sometimes called “the birthday of the church.” In England especially, the festival is also called White Sunday or Whitsunday, after the color of the garments worn by persons to be baptized on that day. Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter, and the tenth day after Ascension Thursday.

Bach’s Whit Sunday cantatas are “Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten” (BWV 172, “Resound, ye songs, ring out, ye strings!”), two entitled “Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten” (BWV 59 and BWV 74, “If a man love me, he will keep my words”), and “O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe” (BWV 34, “O eternal fire, O source of love”). The CD photo is of a young person, covered in red powder, from Mumbai, India. It’s one of the more striking of Steve McCurry’s many photographs. I looked online and discovered that the red powder signifies the Ganesh Chaturthi Festival in Mumbai.

These cantatas are more celebratory and upbeat than the more somber and anxious pieces of last Sunday, when the disciples were waiting uncertainly between Ascension and Pentecost. Some of this joy stems not only from the celebration of the Holy Spirit but also the joyfulness of the harvest festivals that lay in the background of Shavuot. Even the “first fruits” language of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 seems (as conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes) to be an allusion to the holiday’s agricultural origins. Gardiner continues, “Bach often brings to the surface pre-Christian aspects and forgotten connections which mirror the turning of the agricultural year. Now…he comes up with music of unalloyed optimism and exuberance in celebration of the first gifts of newly-awakened nature, as well as the miraculous ignition of the divine Pentecostal spark which allows human beings to communicate across the language barrier.”

For instance (as Gardiner writes), BWV 172 contrasts the life-giving breath of God into the newly-created Adam with the different kind of life and breath of the Spirit at Pentecost. The cantata has several combinations of three—”three trumpets, a tripartite form, a theme moving in steps of a third and a triple address to the ‘mighty God of honour’”—providing a trinitiarian structure that also links creator God (Lord of life and harvest) with God the Spirit of Pentecost.

The first cantata entitled “Wer mich liebet” makes use of an 1524 Luther hymn, calling upon the Spirit.

Come, Holy Spirit, O Lord God,
and fill with Thy most precious grace
the heart, will and mind of Thy believers.
Ignite Thine ardent love in them.
O Lord, through Thine own brilliant light,
Thou hast assembled to believe
people from every tongue and clime;
for this, O Lord, may we sing praises to Thee…

The second cantata with that title is based on a text by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, which as Gardiner writes is constructed “on three main themes: the paramount need for love, and the need to be in a state of readiness to receive the spirit… Jesus’ announcement of his Ascension and return, and its joyful implications for humankind…. and his triumph over Satan, freeing the believer from condemnation.”

BWV 34 is a later work of Bach’s (from the 1740s), adapted from a wedding cantata and now used for Pentecost. Gardiner writes that it is filled with picturesque writing, evoking the pastoral aspect of the harvest as well as the Temple of the Lord and the flames of the Holy Spirit, all leading to a joyful conclusion.

As Bach tied together several themes for Pentecost, we can see how the narratives and promises of Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost interconnect. In chapter 14-17 of John, Jesus teaches his disciples that he must leave (die, rise, and ascend to the Father) in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation. So Good Friday, Easter, and Ascension are part of the same divine work. But although Christ ascends and leaves the disciples, the Spirit will come and will remain with the disciples forever. In fact, the Spirit is how we have a relationship with Christ today; we may wish we’d known Jesus in the flesh but we’re actually closer to him today!

One thing we forget, is that because Christ is one with the Father and the Spirit in their trinitarian unity, we are closer to one another, too. We understand ourselves to be in unity with one another, not because we share a God-soul as some religions understand it, but because the love of Christ (in his death and resurrection, and in the advocacy of the Holy Spirit) broke down barriers between us and God and between other people. The Spirit, in turn, provides us the divine gifts of love, gentleness, kindness, and other “fruit” that help and heal our relationships with one another. God gives us the gift of eternal life and the gifts of love for God and for one another.

All English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.

The Comfort of Thy People: Bach’s Cantatas for Whit Monday and Tuesday

Bach wrote four cantatas for Pentecost, and also five for Whit Monday and Whit Tuesday. I listened to these over the weekend (CDs 23 and 24 of the set). The CD photo for Whit Monday is of a girl in Jaipur India, and the other photo is of a child in Ghazni Afghanistan.

The Whit Monday cantatas are “Erhohtes Fleisch und Blut” (BWV 173, “Exalted flesh and blood”), “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt” (BWV 68, “God so loved the world”), and “Ich liebe den Hochsten von ganzem Gemute” (BWV 174, “I love the Almighty with all my heart”). Conductor John Eliot Gardiner describes ways that BWV 173 was transformed from earlier music written for a former employer, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. The happy dance music of some of the earlier music becomes music for the granting of the Spirit of God to the Gentiles and the love of God who gives his blessings to us.

A sanctified soul
sees and tastes the goodness of the Lord.
Praise, sing, tune your strings,
to propagate God’s goodness!

BWV 68 has a text by a writer Bach turned to on other occasions, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler. Although the title is from the happy John 3:16, Ziegler’s text continues with John 3:18 and “the chilling choice between salvation or judgement in the present life,” as Gardiner writes. “The second day of Pentecost may have been a time of rejoicing… but in postulating this bald division of the world into believers and sceptics, Bach left the congregation with food for thought.”

Bach makes use of the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto #3 (BWV 1048) as prelude for BWV 174, apparently (according to Gardiner) to make use of good instrumentalists available for the original occasion and giving the Whit Monday a wonderful celebration.

I love the Almighty with all my heart,
He loves me also exceedingly.
God alone 
shall be the soul’s treasure,
where I have the eternal source of goodness….

And even if my heart should break,
you are still my trust,
my salvation and my heart’s comfort,
who hath redeemed me through His blood.

For the Whit Tuesday performance, Gardiner augments the two surviving cantatas with that same concerto. He comments that the three violins, three violas, and three cellos of the concerto provides a trinitarian association that Bach perhaps didn’t realize when he wrote the piece.

In the cantata “Erwünschtes Freudenlicht” (BWV 184, “Longed-for light of joy”), Bach (and his unknown librettist) combined images of the Good Shepherd in John 10 with the granting of the Holy Spirit in Samaria in Acts 8. We gain a vision of Christ’s eternal presence for us with an overall pastoral beauty.

Good shepherd, comfort of Thy people,
grant us only Thy life-giving word!
Let Thy gracious countenance shine brightly,
remain our God and refuge,
who through almighty hands
shall guide our steps to life!

The title of the other Whit Tuesday cantata, “Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen” (BWV 175, “He calleth His own sheep by name”) alerts us that the music will also have a bucolic atmosphere. But we also experience the unhappiness of the “sheep” when the Shepherd seems to be missing.

Where can I find Thee?
Ah, where are Thou hidden?
O, show Thyself soon to me!
I long for Thee.
Dawn, O long-awaited morning!

In the notes for Whit Monday, Gardiner comments that Bach re-used some of his own previous works for later cantatas—not always, but he did so with these pieces. “Secular” music written earlier for the rulers of Weimar (the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt) and Köthen became used for church cantatas. Some scholars have fussed about this, but for Gardiner, it was a way that “Bach could express homage to a prince and homage to God in essentially the same way. Music – his music – was there to bridge the divide between worldly and divine glory.”

A few years ago I listened to an interview with The Who’s Peter Townshend, who said he was intrigued with the idea that the meaning of life could be expressed by a musical note. I thought of that again in this context: the meaningful bridge between divine and secular sovereignty is…. music.

God of Eternity: Bach’s Cantatas for Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (June 15 this year) is celebrated on Pentecost Sunday in the Eastern church but on the First Sunday after Pentecost in the Western church. The Sunday honors this fundamental doctrine of Christianity: the tri-unity of God revealed in the incarnation of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, defined by the 4th and 5th century councils of the church and affirmed in the creeds. In the tri-unity of God, God shares the divine life with Creation, gathers us into a saving relationship, and cherishes us forever.

Bach has given us four cantatas for this Sunday (CD 25 of this set): “Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest” (BWV 194, “O greatly longed-for feast of joy”), “Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding um aller Menschen Herze” (BWV 176, “There is something stubborn and fainthearted about the human heart”), “O heil’ges Geist- und Wasserbad” (BWV 165, “O sacred spring of water and the Spirit”), and “Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott” (BWV 129, “Praised be the Lord, my God”). The CD photo is of a thoughtful-looking bald child from Bagan, Burma.

BWV 165 is, according to conductor John Eliot Gardiner, “a true sermon-in-music, based on the Gospel account of Jesus’ night-time conversation with Nicodemus on the subject of ‘new life’, emphasising the spiritual importance of baptism.” Filled with images of water, the cantata flows both musically and thematically.

O sacred spring of water and the spirit,
which admits us to God’s Kingdom
and inscribes us in the book of life!
O stream that drowns all evil deeds
through its wondrous power
and bestows on us the new life!
O sacred spring of water and the spirit!

BWV 194 contains “one of those spacious, pastoral 12/8 movements (for oboe and strings) which Bach devised from time to time to convey the reassurance of God’s protective care (here it is his ‘light’)”, while another movement is “a spirited gavotte
for strings to celebrate the purifying effects of Pentecostal fire.”

Holy Ghost enthroned in heaven,
as God of eternity
with the Father and the Son,
the joy and comfort of the distressed!
All the faith that I possess
hast Thou kindled in me;
govern over me with mercy
and never let Thy mercy falter.

BWV 176 returns to the subject of Nicodemus but sets up a number of interesting musical and thematic contrasts between Christ and his nighttime visitor. Rather than subjecting Nicodemus to criticism, the cantata helps us to take his place, so to speak, in approaching the Christ in weakness and shame.

So do not marvel then, O Master,
that I should question Thee by night!
I fear that by day
my weakness would not stand the test.
Yet I comfort myself: Thou shalt accept
and exalt my heart and spirit,
for whosoever believes in Thee,
shall not perish.

BWV 129, in turn, is a “genial, uplifting work” that lack the recitatives and de capo arias of other cantatas but is filled with melodies and fanfares setting an 1665 text by Johann Olearius.

Praised be the Lord,
my God, my comfort, my life,
the Father’s priceless Spirit,
given me by the Son,
who quickens my heart
and gives me new strength,
who, when I am in distress,
counsels me, comforts and helps me.

Here are some thoughts of mine from an earlier post, about why this doctrine is filled with comfort, instruction, and love for us: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2013/05/trinity-sunday.html

As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.

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The Heavens Laugh: Bach’s Cantatas for Easter Sunday

Back to my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas…

Let me reintroduce this project. Many people have heard of the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.” The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. To commemorate the occasion, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, and the pieces were also recorded. Deutsche Grammophon was willing to release only a few of the cantatas so Gardiner established his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to release the rest. Those words, “to the glory of God alone,” were Bach’s dedication of each cantata.

The cantatas have been released in sets over these years and feature photographs by photojournalist Steve McCurry of people from around the world. (His famous picture is that of Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan girl,” although that particular photo is not used on these sets.) The photos give a sense of the universality of the music of Bach and its themes.

When all of the cantatas were released this past fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com. Then I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner’s!) and listen to the cantatas on the Sundays represented by each. I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I’m so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. Disc 1 of the set is for Christmas Day, but I began with Disc 52, the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, and thus started my project at the beginning of the Christian liturgical calendar. I listened to discs 52 through 56 for Advent and Christmas, and then I began with disc 1 and have been pretty faithful to listen to each set of cantatas on the represented Sunday (or generally that weekend). I’m not quite a third of the way through.

Without many cantatas for the Lenten season, my “journey” has had a few weeks off. (It was a good time to listen again to the St. Matthew Passion, as I did last year.) Now, this weekend I’m listening to Bach’s cantatas for Easter Sunday, CD 13. The photo is of a girl in Peshawar, Pakistan. The cantatas for Easter Sunday are “Christ lag in Todesbanden” (BWV 4, “Christ lay in the bonds of death”), and “Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubliliert” (BWV 31, “The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices”)

All of the Gardiner-conducted cantatas were originally released on two-CD sets over the past several years. The cost has been around $30 per set. Hoping that the cantatas would eventually be released together, I had purchased only one—these cantatas for Easter Sunday and Monday—because they were performed at the Georgenkirche in Eisennach, Germany. My family and I had visited Bach’s birthplace in that town in 2007, during my daughter’s choir tour.

In the CD notes, Gardiner notes that BWV 4, like Luther’s hymn of the same name on which the cantata is based, calls the believer “to become a character in the play of redemption, casting aside his doubts and meeting the ephemeral Christ in tangible form.” It is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas (from 1707, when he was 23), setting all the verses of Luther’s hymn and beginning and concluding in E minor.

The minor-key cantata, filled with alleluias though it may be, focuses upon Christ’s death and the corresponding life-and-death drama of redemption.

It was an awesome battle
when Death and Life struggled.
Life won the victory
and devoured death;
the scriptures foretold it so,
how one death gobbled up the other
and made a mockery of death.

In the notes, Gardiner discusses the musical techniques that Bach uses to give mood and nuance to Luther’s hymn. For instance, in one section, the bass singers must hold a D for several beats on the first syllable of “Wuerger” (“strangler”) to emphasis the whole line, “the strangler can no longer harm us.”

Just listening to the music on my computer, without following the text, I was struck by the contrast between the minor key “Christ lag in Todesbanden” and the other surviving Easter cantata, BWV 31, where the music is much brighter from the ouset. Even the next-to-last verse of “Christ lag”, with its dance rhythms, isn’t as cheerful as the opening of the subsequent cantata:

The heavens laugh! The earth rejoices,
and all she bears within her womb.
The Creator lives! The highest triumphs
and is freed from the bonds of death.
He who has chosen the grave for rest,
the Holiest One cannot decay.

The text continues to contrast the incorruptibility and victory of Christ with the need for us believers to die spiritually to our sins and “dead works” so that Christ can live in us and be reflected in us. The suffering, as well as the difficult spiritual renewal that is necessary in this life will eventually end so that, in our final hour, we will “behold Jesus’ radiant joy and his bright light.”

Last Sunday our pastor pointed out that contemplation and celebration go together during Holy Week: we can’t celebrate Easter without first contemplating what has happened before. I thought of that as I listened to the contrasting moods of these two Easter cantatas: the second more upbeat than the first. While the second makes us feel more spontaneously happy, the more subdued alleluias of the first remind us of the themes of sin and death which, though now defeated, still give us sorrow.

The message of Easter is the victory of Christ. Part of that victory is our ability to hold to Christ and embrace the renewal available through the Spirit. At different times of my life, “holding to Christ” seemed like another difficult obligation among many. It’s easy for some of us to berate ourselves that we have not done enough for God, that we haven’t devoted ourselves to spiritual disciplines sufficiently well, etc, etc. The trick is to understand “holding to Christ” as a wonderful opportunity—to be loved and accepted, rather than burdened. Holding to Christ means trusting someone who is truly on our side.

Peter Gomes remarks that the modern European traditions of biblical interpretation, while valuable, are different from traditions of black preaching, which “endeavors to remove as many barriers between the thing preached and those to whom it is preached as quickly as possible, so that the ‘objective’ story becomes with very little effort, ‘our’ story, or ‘my’ story.”(1) In placing us within the drama of salvation, Bach’s cantatas achieve a similar result. Maybe Bach places us even more quickly into the story of salvation, since it is beautiful music and not merely the uttered Word that places us there.


1. Peter Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 340-341, which I quoted in my book What About Religion and Science (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 106.

English translations of Bach’s texts are all by Richard Stokes, according to the CDs’ notes.

Abide with Us: Bach’s Cantatas for Easter Monday and Tuesday

My weekly journey through Bach’s sacred cantatas resumes!

Today is the Monday after Easter, and we have two cantatas for that day. One is the last selection on CD 13: “Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen” (BWV 66, “Rejoice, all ye hearts”). In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments although Bach may have been creatively weary following the production of his two Easter passions, he still gravitated to the joyfulness of Easter celebration and was able to adapt now-lost birthday serenatas for “Erfreut euch.”

Rejoice all ye hearts,
begone, all ye agonies,
the Savior lives and governs in you.
You can dispel the grieving,
the fear, the anxious trembling,
the Saviour revives the Kingdom of the Spirit…
The grave is rent asunder, and thus our woe is ended…

The other Easter Monday cantata is on CD 14, “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden” (BWV 6, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening”). The sleeve photo is of a boy in Nuristan, Afghanistan.

Gardiner writes that this is an “Emmaus” cantata that shares a mood with the St. John Passion, although this cantata lacks necessarily lacks the lamentative aspects of the Passion. “It manages to be both narrative (Evoking the grieving disciples’ journey to Emmaus as darkness falls) and universal at the same time (the basic fear of being left alone in the dark, literally and metaphorically).” Bach “paints” the theological affirmation to hold onto Christ in the Word and sacrament even though Christ is soon to depart.

Ah, abide with us, Lord Jesus Christ,
for evening now has fallen,
Thy holy Word, the bright light,
let it not cease to shine on us!

In this final, dismal hour,
lend us constancy, O Lord,
that we Thy Word and Sacrament
keep pure until our end is nigh.

CD 14 is filled out with the two cantatas for Easter Tuesday: “Ein Herz, das seinen Jesum lebend weiss” (BWV 134, “A heart that knows its Jesus to be living”), and “Ich lebe, mein Herze, zu deinem Ergotzen” (BWV 145, “I live, O heart, for your delight”). Gardiner comments on the joyous quality of 134 and 145. Music from that earlier set of birthday serenatas have been “recycled” for this new purpose.

How fortunate are you, God has thought of you,
who are God’s hallowed property;
the Saviour lives and conquers with might
to bring you salvation; to His glory
Satan must now fear and tremble,
and hell itself be shaken
(from BWV 134)

I have my receipt here,
signed with the blood and wounds of Jesus.
And it holds good:
I am redeemed, I am set free
and live now with God in peace and unity…
(from BWV 145)

I’ve not participated in the Walk to Emmaus program for over twenty years. But the Emmaus story itself in Luke 24 has always been dear to me, as I write here. Although Bach’s texts admonish us to remain faithful to Christ and not grow lax in our discipleship, the Emmaus story reminds us that Christ seeks us whether we are righteous or not. In fact, the disciples in the story had given up and were moving on. Christ chose them to console and teach. Christ is ever compassionate to those who are afraid and uncertain. He helps them make all the connections, so to speak, and he gives them all the time and companionship they need.

The image of “God’s hallowed property” is a pleasing complement to the imagery of the Easter Sunday cantatas, of “holding to (the risen) Christ” amid temptation and trouble. When we experience difficulties, what a great thought that Christ holds onto us, so to speak, even as we seek to hold onto Christ. This is Pauline theology (“you are not your own, you were bought with a price,” 1 Cor. 6:19-20) that defines our value and embraces our particular sources of value.

(As stated in the liner notes, all English translations in this set are by Richard Stokes.)

Cedars Before the Tempest: Bach’s Cantatas for the First Sunday After Easter

The church year moves along, and now we’re into the Easter Season and look toward Pentecost. The first Sunday after Easter is sometimes called Octave Day of Easter, and also St. Thomas Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, and Quasimodo Sunday (or Quasimodogeniti). The latter comes from the Latin “Quasi modo geniti infantes,” “like [or in the manner of] newborn infants,” which is the text of the Introit from 1 Peter 2:2

We have two cantatas for Quasimodogeniti and two others (150 and 158) that are thematically related. The four are “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” (BWV 150, “Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul”), “Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ” (BWV 67, “Remember that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead”), “Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats” (BWV 42, “Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week”), and “Der Friede sei mit dir” (BWV 158, “Peace be unto you”). This is CD 15 in the set. The photo is of a turbaned man from Balochistan, Pakistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that BWV 150, with its prominent chorus, is generally agreed to be Bach’s first church cantata. (The BWV numbers—short for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or “Bach Works Catalog”—is a thematic rather than a chronological ordering, so low numbers don’t necessarily mean earlier compositions.) Gardiner comments, however, that in this early piece Bach already writes well about the favorite theme: “the need to hold on to faith amid the doubts that assail us.” The text alternates between prayers and the 25th Psalm.

“Yet I am and shall remain content,
though cross, storm and other trials
may rage here on earth,
death, hell, and what must be…
Cedars must before the tempest
often suffer much torment….
do not heed what howls against you,
for His word teaches us quite otherwise.”

BWV 67, from twenty years later, depicts “the perplexed and vacillating feeings of Christ’s disciples… and to maintain the tension between Thomas’ legitimate doubts and the paramount need to keep faith.” The piece does have sections that make a listener feel unsettled! Among Bach’s interesting devices is a transition from dramatic writing for the strings, showing the nervousness of the disciples, into a slow passage depicting the appearance of Christ to the disciples in their room. The text expresses praise and relief for Christ’s help as one faces the foes and difficulties of life.

BWV 42 also has the theme of Christ’s appearance to his distressed followers, with an added dimension of Christ’s protection of the church within the difficulties of the world. The disciples in Jerusalem are an example of what happens when evil attacks God’s people.

“Do not despair, O little flock,
though the foe is disposed
to destroy you utterly….
Jesus shields His own people,
whenever persecution strikes them.”

The last cantata, BWV 158, may be a fragment and premiered on an Easter Tuesday, according to Gardiner. Its theme is the risen Christ’s greeting of Peace to the disciples, only in this case Christ’s greeting is directed to the distressed conscience.

“Your intercessor stands here.
He has annulled and torn up
your book of guilt…
My heart, why are you so downcast,
since God loves you through Christ?”

I always think that St. Thomas gets a bum wrap as “the doubter.” After all, his honest questions, as well as his openness to have them answered, gained him special attention from Christ. Faith is not the absence of distress and questions. Otherwise, we would not need frequent reminders to hold to Christ and count upon his help. These texts and their music don’t scold us for having struggles in faith. Instead, they affirm God’s trustworthy help when we’re in need—and we’ll continue to be in need up to and including physical death, as Bach’s cantatas frequently affirm.

These may be some of my favorite cantatas yet, not just their beauty but also the theme of confidence in Christ’s help. The disciples in Jerusalem had abandoned Christ—and yet Christ did not give up on them and bolstered their faith with his presence. I have not abandoned Christ, but I let a thousand things bother me, cast me down, and irk me like a stone in a shoe, especially in times of distress and uncertainty. Then I berate myself for my poor faith. My troubles fall far short of persecution, after all.

But Christ has “torn up your book of guilt”—and, in fact, he does not count any of our sin and weakness against us. We can and should remind ourselves of this truth again and again and again.

(All translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes, as credited in the CD notes.)

Faithful Shepherd: Bach’s Cantatas for the Second Sunday after Easter

Continuing my survey of the 198 surviving sacred cantatas of J.S. Bach…. This weekend’s cantatas for the Second Sunday after Easter (on CD 16 of the set) are: “Du Hirte Israel, höre” (BWV 104, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel”), “Ich bin ein guter Hirt” (BWV 85, “I am the good shepherd”), and “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt” (BWV 112, “The Lord is my faithful shepherd”). The CD photo is of a girl in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

As the titles suggest, these cantatas are all based on Psalm 23. My mom helped me memorize the psalm for Sunday school years ago, although as time went by, the psalm took a close second place behind Psalm 121 as a favorite. Likely Psalm 23 is a cherished or at least a very familiar scripture for many of us.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the first cantata “leads” the faithful to the “meadow of heaven” by moving from G major to B minor to D major to A major. But (he writes) the effect is not only pastoral (in the sense of bucolic) and placid, because the text of the cantata is also beseeching: Christ’s followers call out to the Savior to to hear their needs.

“Though my shepherd hides too long,
though the desert frightens me,
my feeble steps still hasten on.
I cry to Thee,
and Thy Word, my shepherd, doth cause me
to utter a faithful Abba….
Happy flock, sheep of Jesus,
the world for you is a heavenly kingdom.
Here already you taste Jesus’ goodness…”

Gardiner writes that BWV 85 is the third cantata in a series: BWV 6, 42, and 85 on consecutive feast days (Easter Monday, First Sunday after Easter, and Second Sunday after Easter) have the theme of the disciples’ concern about living without the physically present Jesus. Bach uses the instrument called a cello piccolo, which “seems theologically associated with the believer’s personal relationship to Jesus.” As with so many cantatas, the believer who is in distress must hold onto Christ and not lose confidence in the risen Lord’s power and presence. By connecting Christ’s death on the cross with his love and care for his flock, this cantata is thematically related to the St Matthew Passion.

“Behold what love can do.
My Jesus takes tender care
of His own flock.
He has shed on the cross
His precious blood for them…
no calamity can touch me:
retreat, all who are my enemies…
I have God as my friend.”

The text for the third cantata, BWV 112, is more straightforwardly a statement and exposition of the twenty-third psalm. But the musical mood is different from the other two. Bach uses horns to depict (as Gardiner writes) “a much more regal portrait of the good shepherd than we have previously met.” Bach also uses strings and oboes to suggest the movement of sheep, giving the piece a certain bounce. The text, though, still grounds us in the pastoral mood of the psalm.

“The Lord is my faithful shepherd,
He has me in His care,
wherein I shall want nothing
 that is good.
He feeds me continually 
on pastures
where the sweet-tasting grass
of His wholesome Gospel grows.”

Years ago, when I was serving a small church in a rural area, I preached a sermon on Jesus the good shepherd. I commented that shepherds weren’t so common as in Jesus’ time and so I explained some of the responsibilities of shepherds. Later, there was a cheerful laugh at my expense, because one of our church’s pillars was indeed a shepherd, though his role was (as I recall) coordinator in the animal science area for a nearby agricultural research center, specifically the center’s sheep herd.

I said last week that the cantatas for the first Sunday after Easter have been favorites so far on this “journey,” but I also love these three. We use the word “pastoral” in different ways: to refer to the work of sheepherders, to bucolic or rural life or scenery, to art that evolves landscape (I love British music, often characterized as “pastoral”), and to the work of clergy. The word “pastor” comes from the Latin word meaning “to lead to pasture,” and so there have always been etymological and metaphorical connections of pastors, their “flocks,” and shepherds.

I like the phrase “mein getreuer Hirt”—my faithful shepherd—to refer to Christ, and these three cantatas are beautiful depictions and proclamations of this aspect of Christ. I’ve felt spiritually “dry” and sad lately—not for a deep theological reason, like St. John’s dark night. I’m just tired from the about-to-end semester, feeling grief from family deaths in 2012 and 2013, and generally let-down-feeling for reasons I won’t get into here.

I need to focus on the many great people and many blessings of my life. But even a fixable attitude is something we can commit to the care of the good shepherd. My mother once commented that she thought we shouldn’t “bother” God with our everyday problems. But in this case Mom preached bad theology. The Lord is ready to listen and care for us at every moment, just as a shepherd is always patient and kind with needy, easily distressed sheep.

In this Easter season, it would be good to follow Bach’s lead and connect Jesus’ death and resurrection to the image of the good shepherd. When we are hurting, we must never think that the Lord just wants us to “deal with it,” pull ourselves up by the footsteps, and not bother him. The Lord is completely committed to us.

(All English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes)

The Rough Road: Bach’s Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter

CD 17 of the “Bach Pilgrimage” set contain cantatas for the Third Sunday after Easter, or Jubilate Sunday, named because the introit of the Catholic liturgy begins “Jubilate Deo omnis terra” (“Shout with joy to God, all the earth”) from Psalm 65. (Different churches assign these names to different Easter Season Sundays; someone who knows liturgical history better than I do can sort it out.) The sleeve picture is from Myanmar: a boy in a red monk robe.

Next week’s cantatas are for Cantate Sunday, then the following week is Rogate Sunday, and then that next Thursday, May 29th, will be Ascension Day. Next is Ascension Sunday on June 1, followed by Pentecost on June 8. When I get to Ascension Sunday, I’ll be halfway through my “pilgrimage.”

The titles of these cantatas sound less than jubilant: “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (BWV 12, “Weeping, wailing, fretting, fearing”), “Ihr werdet weinen und heulen, aber die Welt wird sich Freuen” (BWV 103, “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice”), and “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen” (BWV 146, “We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God”). Listening to them can be jarring, as some numbers are as somber as anything in the Passions while others are peppy and upbeat.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the cantatas all move as a “theological and musical progression” from sorrow and misery to joy, reflecting the morning’s scripture lesson from Psalm 126:6. The opening of the first cantata was later used for the “Crucifixus” section of the Mass in B Minor, so the section that became a musical setting of the four syllables of the word “Crucifixus” (reflecting the hammer strokes of the nails, according to Gardiner) are here the four words of this cantata’s title.

The cantata moves through different musical keys to form a progression toward the C major violin part that links us to God’s kingdom. But the cantata is full of dualism, writes the conductor, among contrary visions of the world of trouble, the stumbling block of Christ, and the image of Christ as shepherd, as well as the joy of the kingdom.

What God doth, is well done,
to this I shall be constant.
Though I be cast onto the rough road
by affliction, death, and misery

BWV 103 also has contrasts: the joy of the Christian but also the laughter of those who mocked Christ on the cross. In fact, Gardiner writes, we might mistake the happy themes of the oboes and strings to be the happiness of the disciples rather than that of Christ’s tormentors. Once the piece moves back to Christian joy, the words convey Christ’s help to sinners needful of his healing.

Recover now, O troubled feelings,
you cause yourselves too much grief…
my Jesus shall appear again,
O joy without compare!

BWV 146 turns to the joy expressed in Psalm 126:6, the famous “bringing in the sheaves” psalm. The weeping that accompanies planting is followed by the happiness of the harvest.

I sow my tears
with anxious heart.
Yet my heart’s distress
will bear me glory
on the day of the blessed harvest.

Gardiner comments again that this music was composed a few kilometers from the place that became Buchenwald, but where Goethe and Liszt also journeyed through the woods. The juxtaposition of human genius and beauty, and human evil could hardly be more striking.

I thought about that as I looked back on this past academic year. I’ve taught three versions of a course on contemporary moral problems. I’m glad to have other subjects to teach in the fall, because such an emphasis on serious moral issues (some quite distressing and depressing) has left me emotionally drained, especially as I’m also feeling downcast from my mother’s 2012 death, and a few other things. Human ingenuity and logical analysis contrasts with our inability to address lasting problems like hunger and war.

Bach juxtaposes the misery that can characterize human existence (and which he felt in his own life) with the joy of God’s promises. Distress, temptations, difficult social problems, and death itself do not have the last word. The resurrection of Christ shines as an ongoing beacon across history, a light which we follow through the darkness.

Based on Jesus’ teachings about joy in John 15-16, you sometimes get the message that Christians should be happy and cheerful all the time. John Wesley himself began to question the validity of his 1738 experience of his “heart strangely warmed” because he didn’t have accompanying joy. The overly cheerful, summery Christians contrast with those who have (in Martin Marty’s words) a more “wintry” kind of spirituality.

Bach’s cantatas for this Sunday—with their overall subdued, even weary mood—remind us that even Christians focused upon the truth of Christ can be very weighed down by distress and trouble. You may have “theological joy” even when the emotion of joy eludes you. You can stay constant to God’s saving acts—which are God’s accomplishments, not yours—even as you struggle upon a rough road.

(As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.)

Where Are You Going? Bach’s Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

This coming Sunday, the fourth after Easter, is Cantate Sunday, so named because the first words of the Mass introit are Cantate Domino novum canticum, “Sing ye to the Lord a new song.” The three cantatas on this disc, CD 18, are: “Wo gehest du hin?” (BWV 166 “Whither goest thou?”), “Es ist euch gut, das ich hingehe,” (BWV 108, “It is expedient for you, that I go away”), and “Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut” (BWV 117, “Give laud and praise to the highest good”).

The CD sleeve picture is of a boy in Mali—Timbuktu, in fact, a name not uncommonly used as a metaphor for any place a long way away.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that these cantatas seem less dramatic than other post-Resurrection cantatas, which I thought so, too, as I listened to them in the early morning (swatting away one of our cats who wants to walk on the laptop keyboard). But (Gardiner writes), “Bach is constantly challenging his listeners to consider what it is to be alive, using his music to tease new meanings out of the Gospel texts.” In BWV 166, for instance, Bach “reminds us how ephemeral human life is, and what a potential mess we make of it and its opportunities; but how there are signposts to be read, props to lean on and compass bearings to bring us back on course, even at the times when we sense we are most alone…”

The Gospel texts have to do with Jesus’ leave-taking in John 16. Christ was going to someplace a lot farther than Timbuktu, and the disciples weren’t sure how they could cope. (“Wo gehest du hin?” the singer asks over and over in the first number.) They didn’t understand that the risen Christ would be more close to them than ever before. In BWV 166, we have contrasting moods: the concern of the disciples, the lively happiness of a minuet which Bach inserts into the drama, and finally the quietness of the concluding chorale. Early in the cantata, the question of the title is turned back to the disciples:

“For whether I depart or stay,
the question always occurs to me:
man, ah! man, where are you going?”

This is a theme of Bach’s cantatas, as we’ve seen several times. We need to hold to Christ and follow Christ faithfully, which is the only smart way we’ll get through. Life’s uncertainty is also a theme of this piece:

“Just as rainwater soon subsides
and many colours easily fade,
so it is with pleasure in this world,
which many men think highly of;
for though one sees from time to time
one’s hoped-for fortunes bloom,
yet it can happen, when all goes well,
that the final hour will abruptly strike.”

Gardiner writes that the second cantata is structurally very similar to the first, as if Bach had the earlier one on his desk as he composed the second. “Both works are constructed on a sort of arpeggiated tonal staircase of keys suggestive of the imminent descent of the holy spirit at Pentecost (leading downwards in BWV 166 from B flat to g, c, D, Bflat, and g,and in BWV108 from A to fsharp, D to b). It is significant that BWV 108 fleshes out the central issue dealt with more summarily in BWV 166. ‘Whither goest thou?’ carries with it an explanation, ‘It is expedient for you that I go away’, the following year.”

The third cantata is not written for a particular Sunday but its theme fits with the other post-Resurrection pieces: the anxiety of God’s followers in light of Jesus’ eventual departure to heaven, along with the promise that God is never “severed from His people.” All the numbers end with the words “Give honor to our God.” In the CD notes, Gardiner explains (with more detail than I should copy here) the French influences and number symbolism that Bach employs in what might otherwise have been a less colorful text.

All the words are lovely but I especially liked the final aria:

“When strength and help are lacking,
as all the world bears witness,
He comes and helps abundantly,
the Creator himself, and inclines
His Father’s eyes to those
who otherwise find no repose.
Give honour to our God!”

As I’ve been writing here in recent posts, my wife Beth and I lost our mothers within a 14-month time period in 2012 and 2013. Neither Beth nor I take our lives for granted, but the loss of a parent is among other things an enormous reminder of one’s own mortality. We both have “good genes”—relatives who lived into old age—but that is no guarantee of the future.

Bach’s recurring themes of death and trouble find expression again this week in these post-Resurrection cantatas. Another of Bach’s themes is Christ’s call of discipleship. It occurs to me that, in the hands of us preachers, that call can seem more demanding than happy: we say in effect, “what have you done for the Lord lately? Why aren’t you serving Christ more completely?” After all, discipleship is a costly thing, so we have to remind people, lest they fall into “cheap grace.”

Bach’s cantatas are a lovely corrective to this one-sided emphasis. Discipleship may be costly, but it is also a cheap—and in fact, totally free—anchor for our lives. Many religious traditions teach the lasting peace that is found in affirming God, who is our true reality among the ephemeral and ultimately unsatisfying realities of life. My Muslim friends, for instance, find peace in submission to God; similarly my Hindu colleagues.

In our Christian tradition, we rely upon God’s unconditional love and promise to get us through life’s difficulties–to give us signposts and bearings, as Gardiner writes. In the Gospel lesson from John, Christ affirms that he goes away (i.e. dies) in order that he might be spiritually present for his followers, unlimited by time and geography. We’re so accustomed to the affirmation of Christ’s resurrection, that we forget what a momentous assurance it can be when we have all kinds of distress and fears.

As indicated in the CD notes, all English translations of texts are by Richard Stokes.

Yet I Would Gather Roses: Bach’s Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Easter

Continuing the post-Easter cantatas, CD 19 of the set of Bach’s sacred cantatas bring us near to Ascension Day, when the risen Christ finally leaves his disciples, who in turn aren’t sure what to do except to wait in Jerusalem for what happens next. The cantatas for Fifth Sunday after Easter (Rogate Sunday) are: “Wahrlich, wahrlich, ich sage euch” (BWV, 86, “Verily, verily I say unto you”), “Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen” (BWV 87, “Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name”), and for this disc the liturgically unspecified “In allen meinen Taten” (BWV 97, “In all my undertakings”). The word “Rogate” comes from the Latin rogare, to ask, calling attention to the need to call upon God’s care amid life’s troubles. The four days before Ascension are called “rogation days.”

The cover photo is of a woman from Lhasa, Tibet.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that, on the original 2000 pilgrimage, these cantatas were performed at Annenkirche in Dresden, a city which Bach loved. (Bach felt treated better there than in Leipzig and believed that musicians generally were treated well in Dresden.) My family and I visited the city in 2007 and were deeply moved, in particular its present-day beauty compared to the horror of February 1945. The text of the first cantata is Jesus’ words to the disciples (John 16): “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” The optimism of the text and the libretto, writes Gardiner, is poignant in light of the city’s wartime history, inviting “the listener to ask how these words of Jesus can be reconciled with
his or her own experience.” Bach musically traverses the libretto’s calls for confidence in God’s promises in spite of life’s pain.

Yet I would gather roses,
even though the thorns prick me.
For I am confident 
that my entreaty and supplication
will go straight to God’s heart,
for He has pledged His Word.

BWV 87 has “a mood of sustained reverence and pentience,” as Gardiner puts it. While the Gospel lesson is also from John 16, Bach uses “descending minor keys (d, g, c) for the first five of its seven movements” to suggest life’s suffering that we bear while at the same time trusting Christ’s promises.

Must I be troubled?
If Jesus loves me,
 all my pain
 is sweeter than honey,
a thousand sweet kisses He presses on my heart.
Whenever pain appears His love turns to gladness
even bitter suffering.

BWV 97, not specifically written for Rogate Sunday, is a setting of a poem by Paul Fleming and set to a hymn tune (which Bach employs) by Heinrich Isaac). The theme is one we’ve seen so often, the confidence one can feel as one places faith in God and trusts that “nothing can befall me but what He has provided.”

Rereading John 16, I’m impressed again with the confidence and joy preached by Christ even though, at the same time, he predicts pain and difficulty in the disciples’ lives. Challenging circumstances happen regardless of the quality of our lives. But as we have our relationship with God in order—or at least we’re working on it—God is never absent from our disordered lives and, in fact, is closer to us than even that “BFF” to whom we turn in good and bad times alike.

As stated in the CD notes, all English translations of Bach’s texts are by Richard Stokes.

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“I Am Content”: Bach’s Septuagesima Cantatas

Continuing my “journey” through J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. this weekend I’m listening to CD 9 in this 56-CD set of Bach’s sacred cantatas, having begun with the first Sunday of Advent. I’m a fourth of the way through the set!

CD 9 contains the cantatas for Septuagesima Sunday, which this year is February 16. I did some research about these next three Sundays, which are the Sundays immediately preceding Lent. They are Septuagesima Sunday (the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday), Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday), and Quinquasima (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday). The words mean 70th, 60th, and 50th respectively, but technically only Quinquagesima is mathematically correct, truly the 50th day from Easter, while the other two are 57 and 64 days from Easter. Since 1970, the Roman Catholic Church has not included these Sundays on the liturgical calendar. Nor do most provinces of the Anglican church, except those provinces that still use the 1662 and 1928 prayer books.

The 9th century liturgist Amalarius of Metz wrote that Septuagesima can mystically represent the 70-year Babylonian Captivity. In my other blog writing, here, I’ve thought about the importance of the 6th century BCE Exile, a truly key event in the entire biblical history and one that still shapes our religious imagination whether we realize it or not. This year I’m inspired to meditate more about the meaning of the Exile, and perhaps introduce an additional spiritual discipline of some sort, as we approach Easter from this earlier vantage point.

Bach wrote cantatas for all three of these Sundays. Bach’s cantatas for Septuagesima are “Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin” (BWV 144, “Take that thine is, and go thy way”), “Ich bin vergnuegt mit meinem Gluecke” (BWV 84, “I am content with my good fortune”), and “Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn (BWV 92, “I have surrendered to God’s heart and mind”). The sleeve photograph (all of which are of international people, symbolizing the universal message of Bach’s music) is of a smiling girl from Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the text for this Sunday is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew’s gospel. (I wrote more about this parable here.) The librettist to cantata 144 takes this message to heart and urges us to be satisfied with the things of our lives. Bach’s music also takes it to heart: in the opening, for instance (writes Gardiner), Bach repeats several times the figure “gehe him” (“go thy way!”), urging the believer to “take whatever life has to offer on the chin.”

I love Gardiner’s exposition of BWV 84, where he calls attention to Bach’s career-long concern for being paid according to the current rate for his work. At Leibzig, though, he was often torn between doing his work for the glory of God, “and the need to put up with ‘almost continual vexation, envy and persecution’.” It’s nice to know that Bach, too, struggled with everyday feelings of resentment—-and with the need to be paid what he was worth. But meanwhile, the text of the cantata is the same as 144: be content with what you have.

Yet this cantata (writes Gardiner) isn’t the uniform placidity of contentment but is “dynamic and fluctuating” with moods “wistful, resigned, elegiac even” to “sheer high spirits.” I love the peppy middle movement, for instance. In the text, the believer finally arrives at the place where “I live meanwhile content in Thee/and die, all sorrow laid aside.”

BWV 92 is a nine-movement chorale not specifically assigned to the biblical readings but has the same theme of surrender to God.

It is only because He wishes to test me
to see whether I remember Jonah,
whether, like Peter, I shall remember him…
See, see how all things snap, break, fall
that are not held by God’s own mighty arm…
Let Satan rage, rave and storm,
our mighty God will render us invincible…
I shall remain true to my Shepherd
Though He fill my cup of pain
For after weeping,
the sun of Jesus will shine again.

A few things strike me this week as I listen to this music and think about these words. The fact that Bach struggled to be paid fairly for his hard and difficult work shows us that humble contentment needs to be connected to the Serendity Prayer. Some things in life we can change, some we cannot, but we seek the wisdom that helps us discern.

On the other hand, many of us have plenty (in terms of money and possessions) but still we’re not content; we’d like just a little more and we’d feel more secure. Then we have a little more, and we’re still not secure-feeling…. and so on. This, too, is a matter of growing in wisdom and discernment. Seeking trust, gratitude, and contentment for our hearts helps us have perspective upon our lives and resources.

Many things in life cannot be changed: loss, chronic illness, and different kinds of trouble. In these cases, learning resilience and courage goes hand in hand with faith in God. Satan may rage, but Satan is not all-powerful. In fact, Satan’s final defeat is already guaranteed. Knowing this means holding to Christ whose light shines amid our struggles.

English translation of the cantata texts by Richard Stokes

As Rain Waters the Earth: Bach’s Sexagesima Cantatas

Continuing my journey through Bach’s sacred cantatas…. As I wrote last week, Sexagesima Sunday is the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or (approximately) the sixtieth day before Easter. This year it’s February 23rd. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.

Before a busy weekend, I spent some quiet time yesterday with this Sunday’s three cantatas: “Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel faellt (BWV 18: “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven”), “Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (BWV 181, “Frivolous fibbertigibbets”), and “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” (BWV 126, “Uphold us, Lord in Thy Word”). This is CD 10 of the 56-CD set. The sleeve photo is of a wide-eyed little girl in Mumbai, India.

Gardiner comments that these three cantatas are among “Bach’s most original and startlingly different pre-Lenten cantatas,” “characterised by his vivid pictorial imagination, an arresting sense of drama, and by music of freshness and power.” All three are focused upon “the overwhelming power of the Word… in the process of faith,” via the parable of the sower. The first, BWV 18, “has unusual orchestration like four violas and basso continuo, bringing a “dark-hued sonority” that for Gardiner represents “the warm topsoil, fertile and well irrigated, forming an ideal seed-bed in which God’s Word may germinate and prosper.”

For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth… so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth….
My soul’s true treasure is God’s Word
all other treasures are mere snares…

BWV 181 also takes the parable as a text. The word Flattergeister means the fickle and shallow people in which the Word does not germinate but is stolen by birds. And Bach orchestrates this aspect of the parable with staccato tempoes and trills, like flighty birds. Some measures are so jumpy, I become edgy listening to them! Maybe that’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t be the kinds of folk to whom Jesus refers in this parable.

BWV 126 is not connected to this parable but does emphasize the power of God’s Word. It’s a robust and dramatic cantata that harken to the threat of the Turks against Catholic Christendum in Luther’s day. Gardiner comments that this threat was long abated by Bach’s time, but the strength of God’s blessings amid perilous times is a timeless subject.

Man’s favour and might shall be of little avail
if Thou wilt not protect Thy wretched flock,
God, Holy Ghost, dear comforter…
Make Thy people to be of one accord on earth,
that we, members of Christ’s body,
may be one in faith and united in life.
Stand by us in our extremity!

I thought about the parable of the sower as I listened to the music. A conscientious and prayerful believer hopes very deeply to be “good soil” for God’s word. The human heart has a tremendous capacity for self-delusion; the “frivolous fibbertigibbets” probably think they’re the best Christians ever. But a longing to be “good soil” is a sign that the Spirit is working in your life.

But a conscientious believer can feel discouraged if his or her witnessing and faithful behavior doesn’t seem to be successful. However, the parable teaches that sewing seed IS the act of faithfulness. Whether the seed thrives is really up to the other people: they’re the good or poor soil and they need to figure out (with God’s help) which one they are.

Some of the previous cantatas have had to do with trust and faith amid life’s difficulties. That theme is present here, too: the only treasure worth having is God, and all else is ephemeral and unreliable. If we want to be “good soil” and faithful sowers, how can we use trouble to grow spiritually? (To be crude about it: remember that old saying “s*** happens.” How can that “s***” be turned with the soil that is our lives and be rich for God’s word?) Trouble makes a lot of us bitter, grumpy and fearful of the future—but that makes for hard, rocky soil. Bach’s cantatas show some ways toward faith, richness and depth.

English translations of Bach’s librettos are by Richard Stokes

Journey to Jerusalem: Bach’s Quinquagesima Cantatas

My “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas continues…. Quinquagesima is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or the fiftieth day (hence the name) before Easter. This year, the Sunday is March 2. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days.

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.

Beautiful the Morning Star: Bach’s Cantatas for Annunciation and Oculi Sunday

Last fall I purchased the box set of all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. (They’re available at this link.) Beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, I’ve been listening to these cantatas on the appropriate days, as a year-long “spiritual journey.”

Over three weeks ago, when I listened to CD 11 for the last Sunday before Lent, I looked at CD 12, saw “Palm Sunday,” and thought the next installment of my listening would be in April. But today I realized that the same disc contained a cantata for the Third Sunday of Lent (Oculi Sunday), which was this past Sunday, and also two cantatas for the Feast of the Annunciation (yesterday, March 25), although the Annunciation cantatas are also Palm Sunday pieces. (Oculi Sunday is so named because the first Latin word of the day’s introit from Psalm 24:15 is oculi, or “eyes”.)

Just a little late, I listened to Disc 12 on this day after Annunciation. The two cantatas for that day are “Himmelskönig sei willkommen” (BWV 182, “King of Heaven, Thou art welcome”) and “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (BWV 1, “How beautifully gleams the morning star”). The cantata for this past Sunday is “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” (BWV 54, “Stand firm against all sinning”). The cover photo (always international people, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a turbaned man in Allahabad, India.

The next cantatas in the set are for Easter Sunday, so I’ll be back with Bach in a few weeks.

In the notes, Gardiner writes that in 1714, when BWV 182 premiered, Palm Sunday coincided with Annunciation. The cantata opens with a pretty overture for violin and recorder with pizzicato accompaniment, perhaps invoking Jesus’ donkey ride, while the songs invoke the crowd’s happy greeting of Christ—and our own greeting of our Savior who, we know, will shortly suffer on our behalf.

Let us thus enter joyful Salem,
attend the King in love and sorrow.
He leads the way
and prepares the path.

But Mary’s sorrow is also suggested in the sad alto solo, accompanied by a recorder, beseeching us to give ourselves to Christ.

“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” is also a cantata for a year (1725) in which Annunciation and Palm Sunday coincided. Gardiner calls this a “jubliant spring-time cantata… opulent, regal and ‘eastern’, redolent of te Ephipany cantata BWV 65. He writes that the whole cantata is filled with dance rhythms and good spirits as the son of Mary and Son of God is “a joyous ray that has come to me from God… a perfect treasure, the Saviour’s Body and Blood… destined for us since eternity…”

BWV 54 for Oculi Sunday reminds us from the outset to “Stand firm against all sinning, or its poison will possess you.. Those who commit sin are of the devil, for he has invented sin, but if one resists his vile shackles with true devotion, sin will straightaway take flight.” Gardiner writes that Bach opens the first aria in a startling way “with a harsh dissonance, a dominant seventh chord over a tonic pedal point” which may have meant to jar listeners to do as the title says. In contrast to the cheerful “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” the cantata is appropriate for its Lenten location as an urgent reminder to renounce the devil’s ways.

Annunciation is a fixed rather than moveable feast and will, most years, fall within the Lenten season. It is interesting that Bach twice had the chance to write for both Palm Sunday and Annunciation as the same day. My own Lent has been so busy with school responsibilities that I’ve sagged a bit on devotional reading and the like. So I felt happy I could return to the Bach cantatas sooner than I’d anticipated—to get a gentle push back into the penitential, introspective time. I was also happy to be reminded of the joyous announcement to Mary: the Savior will be born to the favored young woman. To put it foolishly, it feels like a reminder of Christmas cheer (the promised birth of Jesus) within Lenten solemnity. (And it did snow a little yesterday….)

As each set of CD notes indicate, the English translations of Bach’s texts by Richard Stokes.

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