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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

 

The graves of Karl Barth, his family, and his assistant

Charlotte von Kirschbaum, in Basel, Switzerland.

 

My doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia, from which I graduated with a Ph.D. in 1991, was “The Social Ontology of Karl Barth.” It was subsequently published with the same title by Christian Universities Press (International Scholars Publications) in 1994.  It is out of print, and according to WorldCat.org it is found in 62 libraries.

Here is the description that I wrote for Amazon.com:

“The theme of the “Other” dominates post-Cartesian thinking. Specifically, what is the relation of the knowing subject to the Other (who is neither object nor alter ego), if both self and Other are supposed to be counterparts and partners–a Thou meeting the other’s I–and if each exceeds the other’s experience? Twentieth-century theology, too, has reconsidered the Cartesian basal subject from which the existence of others and God proceeds. Karl Barth (1886-1968) is a major representative of one approach to this theme. Throughout his theological career Barth tries to overcome a subject-centered theology wherein God is not allowed to appear as God and wherein the claim of the human Other goes unheeded. In Barth’s earliest theology, the believer’s subjectivity is the locus for God’s otherness yet the claim of the Other is said to lodge in God’s kingdom as manifested in social democracy. During his “dialectical” period, Barth rejects cultural and social norms, as well as the objectification of God, so that he may affirm the total divine otherness and the divine freedom to speak the Word. In the Church Dogmatics, Barth locates God’s otherness in God’s triune being, the divine self-correspondence and the divine correspondence to human beings. Human otherness is defined in terms of the human being’s being-determined as covenant partner with God and being-for and being-with others in analogous correspondence to the divine self-othering in Christ. During all of Barth’s theological periods, otherness is grounded in the unique otherness of Christ, so that the conditions of subjectivity and intersubjectivity alike are grounded in the Incarnation. Stroble suggests lines of dialogue between Barth’s theology and postmodern thought, showing paths for future theological reflection.”

Wow!  That’s deep. 🙂 But the exploration of Barth’s philosophy of human interrelatedness was formative for my subsequent interests in ministry and service.

Since the work is copyrighted in my name, and since it is out of print, I thought I would scan and then post here the two chapters pertaining to Barth’s mature theology, along with the introduction and bibliography.  This way, anyone doing research on these aspects of Barth’s theology may have an additional chance to find my modest work.

Anyone wishing to read the other chapters, concerning Barth’s pre-Church Dogmatics philosophy, may find the book on interlibrary loan. I should tell you, however, that there are other, excellent books (published before and after 1994) that more thoroughly address topics in Barth’s theology of the 1909-1931 period than my two chapters, which are more like preludes for chapters 3 and 4.

The original doctoral dissertation—which is in manuscript at the University of Virginia—had an additional chapter that discussed Michael Theunissen’s book, The Other: Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Buber, and Sartre, translated by Christopher Macann (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1984), and my own chapters (the fourth, especially) placed Barth in additional dialogue with these four philosophers.

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Visiting friends over this past weekend, I stopped by a favorite bookstore between visits and purchased the Spring 2015 issue of Tikkun magazine. I need to subscribe to this magazine because I enjoy the articles and the overall perspective of “healing/repairing the world” (tikkun olam). A particular piece that I have thought about in different contexts appeared in Tikkun.

This Spring 15 issue contains a series of articles on the theme, “The Place of Hope in an Age of Climate Disaster.” I appreciated the complementary and interfaith perspectives on what is, to me, a very depressing problem. The ordinary person doesn’t know what to do, and the lachrymose tone of many writings on the subject (who are, after all, environmental activists who see what is happening) can be distressing. Too, we are all beneficiaries of a economic system that contains injustices, and environmental destruction is one.

It would be amazing if we had more political leaders who inspired people to action on this issue. To use Ronald Reagan as an example of a very inspiring leader: had he been an environmentalist, how many Americans would have been inspired to step up!

The nature of science, too, can be a source for impatience. Scientists observe present phenomena and make predictions based on models suggested by the evidence, and the observations may change based on additional evidence, as was the case last week when predicted solar activity suggested a near-future cooling of the earth. These aspects of science–ongoing study, and the refinement of predictions–contributes to two popular responses to the science: scoff at it, or just wait and see what happens.

But for now, on this subject of climate change, I recommend to anyone interested in this subject to pick up a copy of this issue of Tikkun and read the articles, which are:

Michael Lerner, “It’s time to get serious about saving the planet from destruction” (pp. 18-19, 60-61).

Whitney A. Bauman, “Facing the death of nature, environmental memorials to coiner despair” (pp. 20-21, 61).

Charles Derber, “Hope requires fighting the hope industry” (pp. 22-23, 61-62).

Julia Watts Belser, “Disaster and disability: social inequality and the uneven effects of climate change” (pp. 24-25, 62-63).

Vandana Shiva, “Limiting corporate power and cultivating interdependence: a strategic plan for the environment” (pp. 26-27, 63).

Ana Levy-Lyons, “The banality of environmental destruction” (pp. 28-29, 63-64).

Janet Biehl, “Reducing auto dependency and sprawl: an ecological imperative” (pp. 30, 64-65).

Arthur Waskow, “Prayer as if the earth really matters” (pp. 31-33, 65-66).

David R. Loy, “A bodhisattva’s approach to climate activism” (pp. 34, 66-67).

Rianne C. Ten Veen, “Looking to the Qur’an in an age of climate disaster” (pp. 36-37).

Parth Parihar, “Dharma and Ahimsa, a Hindu take on environmental stewardship” (pp. 38-39).

Matthew Fox, “Love is stronger than stewardship: a cosmic Christ path to planetary survival” (pp. 40-41, 67-68).

Anna Peterson, “Climate change and the right to hope” (pp. 42, 68-69).

Peterson writes, “Most people in the United States genuinely care about the environment, and yet collectively we are still filling landfills with plastic, guzzling gas, supporting factory farms, investing in unsustainable companies, and electing officials beholden to energy lobbies.” In other words, we have values but our practices are different, in part because we lack a genuine hope, she writes. Amen! But using TIllich’s theology, she discusses genuine (as opposed to utopian) hope to build confidence in the possibility of incremental improvements.

Her article is a good complement to Levy-Lyons’ article that draws upon Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” in order to discuss the fact that ecologically damaging practices are normal for our culture, and that is how we are accustomed to living.

Derber puts blame on both liberals and conservatives. Republican leaders are one source of the denial message, and unfortunately 40% of Americans buy into this message. (In fairness, I do have a conservative friend who criticizes the science based on his own study of the topic.) But liberals have another kind of false hope: that the problem can be solved within our current political and economic system.

The pieces together develop ideas that could help change attitudes but also suggest different economic practices—the later of which are scary for those of us (like me) who though concerned live comfortably each day.

All the articles have some spiritual component, even if more general, but the pieces by Waskow, Loy, Ten Veen, Parihar, and Fox clearly bring in religious traditions on this subject.

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I was chatting on Facebook with three different people, all of us in a kind of post-Advent slump.

Traditionally viewed, Advent is a time of longing for Christ. We symbolically anticipate his birth but look toward his second coming. Then at Christmastide, we celebrate and honor his birth as well as the revelation of his divinity (Epiphany, or Theophany in the eastern churches).

But in actuality, we expend our celebratory energies during Advent, culminating in the multiple Christmas Eve services. Afterward, many of us begin to take down and box up our holiday decorations, and many pastors (at least in my own circles) take well-deserved time-off during some portion of Christmastide.

Rather than feeling guilty about not keeping Christmastide more festive, I wonder if we should simply recognize that our holidays have evolved to this point. Advent and Christmas are, already, a complex assortment of traditions: Christian, non-Christian religious, and secular/economic. The Christian liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent with the anticipation of a big, festive season, and then we can move into our new year with a fresh sense of Christ, even if we’re a little tired for a while.

*****

My previous post had to do with the grief and tragedy evoked on Holy Innocents’ Day. Looking through some of my books for blog ideas, I found some good thoughts in a favorite text, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser (New York: Doubleday, 1999). In one section, Rolheiser talks about the grief of recognizing life’s unfairness.

We know that life is unfair, but sometimes we have to “process” that fact. We had dreams but they didn’t work out, we’re disappointed, we don’t feel as valued as we’d like (p. 163). The prodigal son’s older brother is an example. His circumstance is not dire like the younger son’s. The older brother’s life seems pretty good! Yet he feels bitter, let-down, and left out. He feels no joy (p. 163).

How many of us can sympathize with the older brother! Life is unfair, but it is unfair in different ways for different people. We wish things were different in the way life has been unfair for us, while someone else may wish he/she had our lives!

Rolheiser suggests that we go ahead and grieve, because grieving helps us eventually to let the old things go. He calls this “letting the old give us its blessing” (p. 164). “We face many deaths within our lives and the choice is ours as to whether those deaths will be terminal (sniffing out life and spirit) or whether they will be paschal (opening us to new life and new spirit). Grieving is the key to the latter” (p. 164).

In John’s gospel, when Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus, Jesus tells her not to cling to her. Rolheiser suggests that Mary is trying to cling to what she has known and loved about Jesus–to cling the past. When she can grieve the Jesus she has known and open herself to the new circumstance, then she can receive a new spirit (pp. 164-165). (My own thought: you can see similarities of these ideas with the Buddhist teachings about attachment and non-attachment.)

I’m a very slow griever, unfortunately. But letting the past bless us, even the painful and/or abusive experiences, is to recognize that what has happened has happened, to accept the unfairness, to grieve, and then, hopefully, “to “attain the joy and delights that are in fact possible for us” (p. 164).

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Twenty years after the Srebrenica Children Massacre, two years after Sandy Hook, two weeks after the massacre at the school in Peshawar…. although the historicity of the massacre of the innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) has been disputed, we’re sadly able to know that such a thing could happen. These last several months we’ve been lamenting the deaths of individual young people, too.

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”

Holy Innocents’ Day is December 27 in the Marionite Church, December 29 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and December 28 in the Church of England, the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

The story in Matthew parallels yet another Gentile persecution: Exodus 1:15-22. Studying the Matthew scripture for a writing project, I wondered about the role of Rachel in this passage. She was Jacob’s beloved wife among the four women with whom he had children. Rachel was mother of the youngest, Joseph and Benjamin, but she died giving birth to Benjamin. So I wanted to dig deeper into Jeremiah’s passage.

I got online and found the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia. There, Tikva Frymer-Kensky writes, “Rachel, who died young, becomes an image of tragic womanhood. Her tomb remained as a landmark (see 1 Sam 10:2) and a testimony to her. She and Leah were remembered as the two ‘who together built up the house of Israel’ (Ruth 4:11). Rachel was the ancestress of the Northern Kingdom, which was called Ephraim after Joseph’s son. After Ephraim and Benjamin were exiled by the Assyrians, Rachel was remembered as the classic mother who mourns and intercedes for her children. More than a hundred years after the exile of the North, Jeremiah had a vision of Rachel still mourning, still grieving for her lost children. Moreover, he realized that her mourning served as an effective intercession, for God promised to reward her efforts and return her children (Jer 31:15–21). After the biblical period, ‘Mother Rachel’ continued to be celebrated as a powerful intercessor for the people of Israel.”(1)

I found another article that reflects upon Rachel, and the fact that she was buried along the road to Bethlehem. Please read this article by Simon Jacobson, which is a heartfelt piece about human dignity and Rachel’s concern for sufferers, very apropos for this day. http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/1414106/jewish/A-Mothers-Tears.htm

Notes:

1. Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “Rachel: Bible.” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women’s Archive. (Viewed on October 14, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rachel-bible>.

2. Jacobson, Simon, “A Mother’s Tears: Rachel weeps for her children.” The Jewish Woman: Chabad.org. (Viewed on December 28, 2014)
<http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/1414106/jewish/A-Mothers-Tears.htm>

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Wake Up, Cries the Watchmen: Bach’s Cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity

This coming Sunday, November 23rd, is the final Sunday of the liturgical year!

As I’ve written before, I purchased this 56-CD set of Bach’s sacred cantatas last fall. I listened to CDs 52-56 first (cantatas corresponding to Advent and Christmas), and then listened to 1 through 51, and so I’ve reached the end of my “journey” of listening this week as I arrive at CD 51, the cantatas for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The CD photo is of an old woman from Rajasthan, India, and the cantatas are: “Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott” (BWV 139, “Happy is he who can trust his God”), “Nur jedem das Seine!” (BWV 163, “To each only his due”), “Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht!” (BWV 52, “False world, I do not trust you!”). Added to these is the cantata for the seldom-occurring 27th Sunday: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 140, “Wake up, cries the watchmen’s voice”).

This coming Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, is also Christ the King Sunday. The theme of the three 23rd Sunday pieces is the question posted to Jesus concerning paying taxes to Caesar. One can stretch that meaning to affirm that Christ is our true ruler above all others, whether emperor, premier, or fussy Congress. BWV 139, which Gardiner writes exists in parts that have to be augmented rather than a complete score, is filled with contrasts between the sincere trust of the believer to the raging of the devil to assurance in God’s care for the believer. Satan also figures in BWV 163, wherein the writer of the text, Salomo Franck who was a frequent librettist for Bach, connects the money of Caesar symbolically with the counterfeit currency of the devil.

BWV 52 returns to the theme of some earlier cantatas: the “false world” that cannot satisfy.

False world, I do not trust you!
Here I must dwell among scorpions
and false serpents.
Your countenance,
though outwardly so friendly,
secretly plots ruin….

For the opening sinfonia Bach uses a previous draft of the first movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto. Because the theme of the cantata is the disappointment of the world (compared to the true peace of God and Heaven), Bach seems to be drawing a connection between the everyday pursuits in which we’re all involved, with the assurance and lasting joy of “God’s companionability” (Gardiner).

Because Easter usually doesn’t fall so early to allow for a 27th Sunday after Trinity, it’s sad that Bach’s cantata for this day was thus seldom heard in his churches during his own day. BWV 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” is a long-time favorite and one of Bach’s most famous. “a cantata without weakness, without a dull bar, techincally, emotionally and spiritually of the highest order,” writes a musicologist quoted by Gardiner. In the CD notes the conductor describes several of Bach’s techniques, including a sense of telescoped time—in this case, the always necessary need for watchfulness. And since the theme is the coming of the Bridegroom in Jesus’ parables, “Bach has no compunction in stealing the clothes of contemporary operative love-duets” in his sacred music.

Listening to all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, on the weeks of the Sundays (or feast days) for which they were written, has been a lovely experience. I’ve an old 6-LP set of Bach’s Advent and Christmas cantatas, and I used to have a 2-LP set of popular cantatas like “Ein Feste Burg” and “Wachet Auf.” I’ve played these often over the years, and now I’ve listened to nearly 180 more. It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the lifetime accomplishment of Bach, for he wrote a LOT more music than this.

I’m having a difficult time writing concluding words for this “journey” of listening, because I’m not really done. Now, I want to go back and re-listen to pieces that were particularly beautiful and meaningful. I’m also reluctant to stop a project that has been helpful during a year of bereavement, a health scare, and some ongoing challenges. How wonderful to pause during the middle of each week, listen to beautiful music in the early morning, read the CD notes, glance at the birds outside, and let my mind and heart wander a bit. I want to find a comparable habit for the upcoming liturgical year.

Racial and social issues have been in the news of my community, St. Louis, during the past several weeks. As I write this, no one is sure what is going to happen next, but a grand jury announcement is imminent. (Thus I’ve posted this a little early.) I found words from the cantata “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied!” (BWV 190, on CD 56), that offer hope for times ahead.

Now Jesus grant that with the new year
His anointed one too may flourish;
may He bless both trunk and branches,
that their fortune rise to the clouds.
Let Jesus bless both church and school,
may He bless all true teachers,
may He bless those who hear His teaching;
may He bless both council and court;
may He pour over every house
in our town the springs of blessing;
may He grant that once again
both peace and faith
may embrace within our borders.
Thus we shall live throughout the year in blessing.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes)

******

Grace Much Greater than My Sins: Bach’s Cantatas for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity

Knowing that there were only two CDs in my “journey” to go, and with late-semester busyness at hand, I decided to listen to these last cantatas a little early. So the weekend of November 8-9 featured a lot of Bach music for me! Listening to Bach is a wonderful way to spend any day, however.

Bach’s cantatas for this coming weekend, the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, are: “Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht” (BWV 55, “I, wretched man, a slave to sin”), “Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?” (BWV 89, “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?”), and “Mache dich, mein Geist, beret” (BWV 115, “Prepare yourself, my soul”). The cantata for the 24th Sunday, included in this concert, is: “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60, “Eternity, O word of thunder”). This is CD 50 of the set, and the photo is of an older man, with a beautiful red beard, from Srinagar, Kashmir.

The Gospel lesson for the 22nd Sunday is Matthew 18:22-35, the story of the unjust steward. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that BWV 89 is Bach’s only (extant) cantata for solo tenor, and traces the journey of the steward back to his master. The steward is sorrowful and fearful about his situation. But the concluding chorale gives confidence to any of us who may be downcast about our sinfulness; grace and peace will come to us, thanks to the merciful Lord. BWV 55 makes a similar journey:

Even if hell had a bed
for me and my sins,
the wrath of God would still be there.
The earth does not protect me,
it threatens to devour that monster that I am;
and if I soar to heaven,
God is there, who judges me.

Yike! But as in Hosea, God wavers in executing judgment; Gardiner writes, “the music comes to a temporary halt at the end of each anguished question posed by the bass singer, representing God’s divided mind.” At the end, the believer has assurance:

I do not deny my guilt,
but Thy mercy and Thy grace
is much greater than my sins,
which I always find within me.

The beautiful BWV 115 concerns “the believer trusting and refusing to be blown off course by ‘Satan’s cunning’ (conveyed by a vigorous semiguaver bariolage figure) or the sounding of the last trump.” The singers take the roles of the “slumbering” sinner, the friend who is giving confidence, and the one (represented by the bass) making sure the sinner does not become complacent.

God, who watches over your soul,
detests the night of sin;
He sends you the light of His grace
and desires, in return for these gifts,
which He promises you in abundance,
but openness of spirit.

In 2000, when most of these cantatas were recorded, there were 23 post-Trinity Sundays (because of comparative lateness of Easter that year), but the season can have 27 Sundays, so as on some of the other CDs of the past few weeks, Gardiner and his musicians include other cantatas. This Sunday, the additional cantata is BWV 60 for the 24th Sunday after Trinity. Gardiner writes that Bach called this cantata a “dialogue between Fear and Hope.” The alto and tenor represent “the divided soul, the one wracked by fear of death and shaken by the terrifying sound of eternity’s ‘word of thunder’, the other sustained by simple trust in God’s mercy…” Gardiner discusses in some detail Bach’s technique for depicting this “dialogue. As one would expect, Bach gives victory to hope.

As I listen to these pieces, I think of a topic that we’ve been discussing in one of my classes: social justice. Ferguson has been in the local and national news. In our class, we’re focusing upon God’s distress over systemic sins like racism and poverty. If we were writing the texts of Bach’s pieces, we might be calling cities and national leaders to cease their slumbering and awaken to God’s judgment.

It’s a balance to walk: too great a stress on personal repentance risks neglecting social problems, and vice versa. Although the upcoming Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, it’s the end of the calendar year, when we can take stock of the previous months and contemplate next steps. How are we growing in our personal relationship with God? What about that relationship includes social service of some kind?

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

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Help My Unbelief: Bach’s Cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity

Three Sundays to go before Advent. My family and I have not started anything related to the holiday season, other than some early scheduling of events. In fact, our Halloween decorations are still up…

November 9 is the 21st Sunday after Trinity this year. Bach’s cantatas for this Sunday (CD 49 in this set) are “Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!” (BWV 109, “Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief!”), “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” (BWV 38, “Out of the depths I cry to Thee”), “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (BWV 98, “What God doth, is well done”), and “Ich habe meine Zuversicht” (BWV 188, “I have put my trust”). The CD photo is of a colorfully dressed young woman from Tibet.

The Gospel lesson of all four is John 4:46-54, the healing of the nobleman’s son, but the title of BWV 109 is Mark 9:24. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that Bach “sets up a wonderful series of antitheses to articulate the inner conflict between belief and doubt, and the way that faith is granted only after a period of doubt.” The conductor writes of the ways Bach musically sets up the conflict among the various numbers. For instance, in the third number, Bach depicts “the fearful quivering of the soul by means of jagged melodic shapes, unstable harmonies headed towards anguished second inversion chords, and persistent dotted rhythmic figures.” The cantata is a tempestuous journey toward faith and belief. For instance, the third number echoes Isaiah 42:3:

How uncertain is my hope,
how my anxious heart wavers!
The wick of faith hardly burns,
the almost broken reed now snaps,
fear constantly creates fresh pain.

But Christ knows that we are needful of his grace.

Compose yourself, doubting heart,
for Jesus still works wonders!
The eyes of faith shall witness
the healing power of the Lord;
though fulfilment seems so distant
you can rely on his promise.

BWV 38 continues the theme of the granting of faith, using the anguished Psalm 130. This cantata, too, “delays the provision and granting of help until the last possible moment,” after we have been through “signs and wonders” of sorrow and faith.

Though my despair, like chains,
fetters one misfortune to the next,
yet shall my Saviour free me suddenly from it all.
How soon will comfort’s dawn
succeed this night of woe and sorrow!

BWV 188, like two other cantatas from this late post-Trinity season, has a sinfonia drawn from a harpischord concerto. It is q quieter work, as is BWV 98, but likewise centering around the soul’s plea for faith and salvation.

God has a heart that brims with mercy;
and when He hears us lamenting…
His heart then breaks,
that He has mercy on us.
He keeps His word;
He says: Knock,
and it shall be opened unto you!
So let us from now on,
when we are in sore distress,
lift our hearts to God alone!

What things do you struggle with in your faith? I feel very fortunate that I’ve never felt so disappointed in or questioning of God that agnosticism, let alone atheism, were ever options. That’s partly because my childhood experiences with religion were mostly positive and thus provided a good foundation, and also, I worked on my faith and incorporated (even if haphazardly sometimes) prayer book readings, devotional reading, weekly worship, and reflective projects like this one into my weekly routine. I also ask other people for their prayers when things get rough. Busyness and “blues” would likely lead me off into spiritual dullness or deadness if I didn’t have these things. Other people have different or similar ways of nourishing their faith.

One of my struggles—although I think of it as an interesting quest—is to think of Christian faith in more universal terms. I love the idea that there are many paths to God, and thus I meditate on the similarities among world religions, while also affirming the uniqueness and power of Jesus Christ. For some people, this is a wavering of my faith, a contradiction. But I don’t see it that way.

My personal witness is that I see evidence of God’s guidance in my life over the long haul. Things in my life that were emotionally horrible and disappointing made sense in time (sometimes ten or twenty years later). Or, these difficult things that never made sense led to good things. I believe that the arcs and “story lines” of my life and my family’s demonstrate the truth of Romans 8:28. But I empathize with persons who don’t see such a thing in their own experience; plus, I acknowledge that there has been privilege in my life that made painful times never entirely devoid of hope and possibility. We should be careful not to assume that our own example should be normative for others.

The difficulties that Bach’s music explores are always timeless: life has struggles, temptations, grief, difficulties that we create and difficulties that are forced upon us. Faith can be very hard, especially when we have to be patient and wait for God when things are falling apart. Like the parent in Mark 9, we’ve just enough faith to ask for help. Knowing that God’s own heart breaks for us is a beautiful image, full of comfort and promise.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

******

O Great Wedding Feast: Bach’s Cantatas for the 20th Sunday after Trinity

As conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, the Gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding feast, which “prompts many figurative references to the soul as bride, to travel, to clothing and to food, such as Jesus as the ‘bread of life’.” The CD photo is a girl from Manang, Nepal. The wedding theme is used in all three cantatas. They are upbeat pieces to which I’ll return again.

In “Ach! ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe” (BWV 162, “Ah! I see, now as I go to the wedding”) Bach’s text gives us the dire consequences of being on the wrong side of the “wedding,” that is, failing to put on the clothing of righteousness that signals our belonging to Christ. It is all about preparedness: when Christ comes (or when we die), we need to be ready.

“Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen” (BWV 49, “I go and seek with longing”) begins, as did BWV 169 two weeks ago, with a sinfonia that is also a movement in Bach’s BWV 1053 harpsichord concerto II in E major. Beautiful piece! This cantata is musically and lyrically more lush since the words are a loving dialogue between the Christ and soul (between bass and soprano: Magdalena Kožená is the soprano here). As Gardiner points out, the language and situation evokes the love-language of the Song of Songs.

“Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” (BWV 180, “Adorn yourself, beloved soul”) is picturesque in different ways but, in keeping with the wedding theme, remind us of journeying to the wedding, the sight of the bride, the dancing and the feast. This is another occasion where Bach shows no concern for separating “sacred” and “secular” styles but instead writes dance music for a church service. But the key is not a wedding per se, but the need for the believer to be ready for Christ, to love Christ with one’s whole heart.

Rouse yourself: your Saviour knocks,
ah, open soon the door of your heart!
Though you in your rapture can
utter only broken words of joy to your Jesus.

How precious are the gifts of the sacred supper!
Nowhere can their like be found.
The things the world is wont
to deem precious are but glittering trifles;
a child of God desires to have this treasure and says:
Ah, how my spirit hungers,
friend of man, for Thy goodness!

A personal-Bible-study project that I keep meaning to do, is to gather commentaries and study Song of Songs. I’ve read the book but not in depth. It intrigues me that medieval monks dearly loved the book for its allegorical meaning of Christ and his church. For instance, many sermons by St. Bernard of Clairvaux are based on Song texts and extol the truths of Christian doctrine. To me, it’s beautiful love poetry between two people, but the symbolic reading has a long tradition.

I admit that it’s difficult for me sometimes to think of God’s love as affection. For all of the Apostle Paul’s epistolary expressions of love and concern, he also fusses and prods his congregations a great deal—and because my own parents could be fretful and scolding, it’s easy for me to think of God’s love for me tinged with disapproval. As downbeat as some of these post-Trinity cantatas can be, they also evoke God’s unconditional love for which the believer hungers.

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

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A Mighty Fortress is Our God: Bach’s Cantatas for the Feast of the Reformation

With only five posts to go, I’ll recap my year-long project one more time…. 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. The CD notes testify to the logistical challenges of moving a choir, orchestra, and recording equipment around to different cities, every single week.

During ensuing years, the cantatas have been available on 2-CD sets (first on Deutsche Grammophon and then on Gardiner’s own Soli Deo Gloria label). They are still available that way, and also 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 the cantatas in conjunction to the liturgical year. I began with the First Sunday of Advent and have stayed with the “journey” pretty faithfully all year.

October 31 is Reformation Day, and these cantatas were appropriately performed in the university church of Luther, the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. The CD cover photo, of a wide- and dark-eyed little girl, is from Kandahar, Afghanistan. One cantata is a long-time favorite on LPs, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80), based on Luther’s hymn.

The first piece is the festive “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild” (BWV 79), “The Lord God is sun and shield”). The pageantry of this commemorative piece even includes a drum beat that (as Gardiner writes) could imaginatively echo the hammering of the 95 Theses upon the church door. Gardiner describes the numerous techniques with which Bach creates a profoundly moving piece.

Now thank we all our God
with heart and voice and hands,
who doth work great things for us
wherever we may be,
who since our mother’s womb
and from our infancy
hath favoured us so many times
and continues so to do.

“Now thank we all our God” is the title of the second cantata (BWV 192, “Nun danket alle Gott”), a much smaller work with “modest instrumentation that nevertheless “provides an attractive contrast, an alternative and less bombastic approach to the celebrations.”

Back to “Ein feste Burg” (BWV 80, “A mighty fortress is our God”). In the CD notes, Gardiner writes that Bach revised the cantata three times before this late version, which he “constructed a stupendous and elaborate new contrapuntal opening movement,” without instrumental prelude. He points out that Bach uses Luther’s hymn in three different numbers of the piece, with the last number being closest to the tune with which we’re familiar. For a long time I had difficulty singing this hymn in church, because it had been sung at the funeral of a Lutheran pastor who had been a mentor. Bach’s setting of the hymn helped me move toward healing.

We can do nothing with our own might,
all too soon we are lost.
It is the righteous man,
chosen by God, who fights for us.

We who at baptism swore loyalty
on Christ’s bleeding banner,
his spirit conquers evermore.
Do you ask who He is?
He is called Jesus Christ,
the Lord of Sabaoth,
there is no other God,
He must hold the field.

But I owe a greater debt to Luther himself. Writing in my last post about New England, I thought to myself about days in the Yale library, where I loved to read from Luther’s works. I was a divinity school student, feeling lost and inadequate, struggling to find my way. Luther’s themes of sola fide, sola scriptura spoke deeply to me. I filled dozens of index cards (which I still have) with quotations and citations from his works. I wanted to learn his theology but most of all I wanted God’s unconditional love to “sink in.” Luther was a perfect teacher.

I read an article online (and unfortunately didn’t bookmark it) that raised the question of whether Reformation Day should be celebrated. After all, there is greater theological concord between the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches than in Luther’s day, and even Bach’s day. Plus, there have been several historical moments when the church experienced a reformation or a course-correction when it had strayed from the Gospel in some way. I believe that the way many dominations are addressing LGBTQ inclusion is a kind of contemporary reformation, and so is the hard work of churches (in my own community of St. Louis and others) to address the tragedies of racism. Reformation goes hand in hand with repentance and renewal.

So we could speak of “reformation days” that have happened and, by God’s grace, will continue to happen.

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

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Whither Shall I Flee: Bach’s Cantatas for the 19th Sunday after Trinity

The 19th Sunday after Trinity is coming up! Next is Bach’s Reformation Day cantatas, and then the 20th through 23rd Sundays of Trinity in November. Advent is fast approaching. My family brought home some Christmas cards from the Papyrus store yesterday; soon I’ll be starting on that late-November job. The CD for this Sunday features a girl from Herat, Afghanistan.

In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that the themes of this time (the last few weeks of the post-Trinity season) include “the thorny and intractable issues of belief and doubt, “the rejection of the world by the faithful and the prospect of eventual union with God – or the horror of exclusion.” But “Bach both softens and humanises the severity of the words while in no way diminishing their impact: he has an unfailing knack of being able to vivify the doctrinal message and, when appropriate, of delivering it with a hard dramatic kick, yet balancing this with music of an emollient tenderness.” Overall, the pieces for this Sunday are more pensive (though beautiful), in contrast to those coming up for October 31.

Right on cue, the title of BWV 48 is “Ich elender Mensch, wer wird mich erlösen vom” (“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me [from the body of this death]”, which is from Romans 7:24). The first part of the cantata depicts the healing miracle of Matthew 9:1-8, with all the misery both of illness and of sin-sickness. But the second part, as we’ve seen so often before in Bach’s works, turns to the praise of Christ, who (in answer to the misery of Romans 7:24) alone can save and heal us. Similarly, the second cantata focuses upon the healing of Christ for the misery of infirmity and sin. But here, the theme is the blood of Christ. This cantata is called “Wo soll ich fliehen hin” (BWV 5, “Whither shall I flee”). Gardiner writes that the viola obbligato reminds us of “the gushing, curative effect of the divine spring” of blood.” His likening of the power of Christ’s blood to agricultural preparations for crops makes me remember something I read quite a while ago: that Gardiner maintains a farm in addition to all his musical work.

The third cantata is “Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen” (BWV 56, “Gladly shall I bear the cross”). The piece is for orchestra, chorus, and solo bass. As Jesus occasionally crossed the sea of Galilee, all of human life is like a voyage across seas. The music carries us through waves and calm to affirm God’s ultimate salvation once we reach journey’s end.

Like last week, the cantatas for this Sunday are joined with cantatas for post-Trinity Sundays that could not fit on the 2000 liturgical calendar. A cantat for the 25th Sunday after Trinity is called “Es Reisset such ein schrecklich Ende” (BWV 90, “A terrible end shall sweep you away”). Not so calming as BWV 58, this cantata gives us the horrors of damnation, sung in arias for the men’s voices. What a relief when we cross the terrible threats and hopelessness faced by the unredeemed and affirm God’s rescue of those who believe.

When I hear the phrase “blood of Christ,” particularly as a stream that washes us, I often think of that old camp meeting song that I learned in childhood.

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s power in the blood, power in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful power in the blood.

Refrain
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

A very different kind of music than Bach’s, but a similar expression of hope that Christ’s power is sufficient for this life and that to come.

But the image of life as a sea voyage is another appealing theme from this week’s music. Bach’s music carries the text by Johann Frank for a lovely assurance for our faith.

My life on earth
is like a voyage at sea:
sorrow, affliction and distress
engulf me like waves
and daily frighten me to death;
my anchor, though, which sustains me, is God’s mercy,
with which He often gladdens my heart.
He calls out to me: I am with you,
I shall never leave you nor forsake you!
And when at length the raging foam is calmed,
I shall step from my ship into my own city,
which is the kingdom of Heaven,
where I with all the righteous
shall enter out of so great tribulation.

(As the CD notes indicate, all translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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God Alone Shall Have My Heart: Bach’s Cantatas for the 18th Sunday after Trinity

I’ve been feeling blue about “human nature” lately: people’s rudeness, thoughtlessness, sometimes outright meanness. I’m too sensitive about such things. A minor example among several: navigating a narrow street with cars parked along the curb, I had to stop and back up because the UPS truck was coming toward me fast, with no indication that he was going to slow down. You know how it is to feel “pecked to death by ducks” sometimes.

But I felt a strange peace when I read conductor John Eliot Gardiner’s notes for this week’s cantatas: the haughty and thoughtless treatment he and his musicians were accorded when they visited Bach’s own church, Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It wasn’t that I wanted Gardiner and his outstanding musicians to be treated poorly. But sometimes it jolts you into amused acceptance of human nature when you’re reminded that people are the same everywhere. (In other notes of this set, Gardiner describes the poor treatment to which Bach himself was sometimes subjected.) You might as well “roll with it” than be unhappy. Fortunately, Gardiner writes that the audience was visibly moved and grateful at the conclusion of the concert.

Two cantatas for this, the 18th Sunday after Trinity, are “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottessohn” (BWV 96, “Lord Christ, the only Son of God”), and “Gott soll allein mein Herze haben” (BWV 169, “God alone shall have my heart”). The CD photo is of a young man from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Gardiner comments that the first cantata, which makes beautiful use of the recorder, is based on the Matthew 22 text concerning the epithet “Son of David,” but Bach and the text also make a connection to Epiphany by praising Christ as the “morning star,” the guiding light for the Magi. As we’ve seen so often in these cantatas, the believer is depicted as one who longs for Christ but is weighed down by cares, griefs, and imperfection. But the love and acceptance of God for the struggling sinner keeps the believer hopeful and strong. The message of the second cantata is similar, with the reminder (which pertains to us who become discouraged at human nature) that love of neighbor is as key as love of God. I love the cheerful, opening sinfonia, and tried to remember where I’d heard it before. The music is also part of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto II in E major, BWV 1053.

In 2000, when nearly all these cantatas were performed and recorded, there were 23 Sundays after Trinity, out of a possible 27 (depending on how early Easter falls in a particular year). So included with the two cantatas for the 18th Sunday is a choral cantata for the 25th Sunday, “Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 116, “Thou Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ”). Interestingly, the text depicts Christ as helping us not only with the threats of Satan but the fearfulness of God the Judge. The Prince of Peace saves us because of his great love.
The final selection on this disc is BWV 668, the chorale “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (“I herewith step before the Throne”). This is legendarily considered to be Bach’s last piece and it was performed here (as Gardiner tells us in the notes) with the musicians gathered around Bach’s resting place at the church. A beautiful, a cappella piece!

I herewith step before Thy throne,
O God, and humbly beg Thee:
turn not Thy gracious countenance
from me, an anaemic sinner.

Grant me a blessèd end,
and wake me, Lord,
at the Day of Judgement,
that I might behold Thee forever more.
Amen, Amen, hear my prayer.

Only five more Sundays (and one commemorative day) remain in the liturgical year. As I’ve said in these posts several times, I started last December with CD 52, which are cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the liturgical year. Thus, I listened to the last five CDs of this 56-CD set first then went back to CD 1 (Christmas Day). Today I looked ahead, and I’m pleased that the last cantata that I’ll listen to on this “journey” (the last one on CD 51) is an old favorite for many of us: “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” BWV 140.

I think nostalgically to my first acquaintance with Bach’s cantatas: a 6-LP set (which I still have) conducted by Carl Richter, which I purchased from a used LP place during my student days. I also think of a 16-LP set of Bach’s complete organ works, which were cheaply-purchased in the 1970s from a mail-order house. Struggling away in Leipzig at his special calling, Bach couldn’t know the reach and influence of his music, across the centuries.

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

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Give Glory unto the Lord: Bach’s Cantatas for the 17th Sunday after Trinity

This Sunday is the 17th after Trinity. Bach’s cantatas for the day are “Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens” (BWV 148, “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His Name”), “Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost” (BWV 114, “Ah, dear Christians, be comforted”), “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden” (BWV 47, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be humbled”), and also the motet “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” (BWV 226, “The Spirit helpeth our infirmities”). The CD photo is from Kandze, Tibet. After this weekend, there are only six more Sundays in the post-Pentecost season.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that the gospel text for 148 is the story of Jesus’ Sabbath healing and the subsequent controversy. The text and Bach’s music focuses on the sanctity of Sabbath worship and the goodness of a day of rest. There was (and is) little rest for church musicians and preachers on Sunday. Bach’s Sundays were hectic. So the cantata looks to the Lord for help from our struggles, and notably calls us to enjoy a Sabbath repose in God’s goodness.

Continuing the theme of God’s help, number 114 also returns to a theme that has been so common among the cantatas of this season: God’s consolation for the downcast soul, anxious about the prospect of death, lost and discouraged in life’s bitterness. But just as the seed must die for the wheat to grow, so we must return to the earth and be transformed. God is strong enough to address our sorrows and will not fail to save us when death comes for us.

Meanwhile, number 47 returns to another theme from recent cantatas: the awfulness of the human condition and our vast need for grace. How could God take the form of such a vile creature as man? It’s a realization that shame us from our arrogance and jolt us to be humble and grateful for God’s salvation.

Jesus, humble my heart
beneath Thy mighty hand,
that I may not forfeit my salvation like Lucifer.
Let me seek Thy humility
and abominate all pride;
give me a humble heart
that I may be pleasing to Thee!

Not only does God save us, but God also intercedes for us through the Spirit when we can’t pray as we ought. The motet BWV 226 quotes from the Roman 8 text then turns to praise:

O heavenly ardour, sweet comfort,
help us now with joy and confidence
to remain steadfast in thy service,
and not to be deflected by affliction.
O Lord, prepare us by Thy might
and strengthen the feeble flesh
that we may strive valiantly here
to attain to Thee through death and life.
Alleluja, Alleluja!

A couple years ago I took some notes on the interrelated themes of holiness and God’s glory. Glory can mean honor/renown, or beauty/magnificence, or heaven/eternity itself. St. Ignatius’s famous motto was Ad maiorum Dei gloriam, “to the greater glory of God,” which I always took this to mean, “to increase God’s renown (through our devotion and service).” But the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner notes that we also share in God’s own life as we serve God.

The wonder is that God’s glory—a powerful and potentially lethal force as depicted in some of the biblical narratives—is also the power which guides, consoles, and rescues us. God is our place of Sabbath repose. In these days approaching Advent, imagine yourself as safe within the “place” of God. These weeks of post-Pentecost cantatas have been heavy on penitence and introspection, but the flip side is the tender, assuring care of God.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Ruler over Death and Life: Bach’s Cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity

Bach’s cantatas for the 16th Sunday after Trinity are: “Komm, du süße Todesstunde” (BWV 161, “Come, O sweet hour of death”), “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?” (BWV 27, “Who knows how near is my end?”), “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?” (BWV 8, “Dearest God, when shall I die?”), and “Christus, der ist mein Leben” (BWV 95, “Christ is my life”). The cover photo is from Ladakh, India.

I’ve felt sad this week because of the anniversary of my mother’s death, and I’ve been aware of friends on social media who are also struggling with the loss of parents (in some cases several years ago, but the hurt is still keen). One of my friends is dealing with the loss of her adult son.

So I looked at the titles to these cantatas, prior to listening to them, and I thought, “It’s depressing music this week.” Some of Bach’s post-Pentecost cantatas have been somber, but I anticipate returning to this week’s cantatas again, as I’ll return to those for Michaelmas earlier this week. These pieces are meditative and pastoral without necessarily being downbeat. In the CD notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes, “All four – BWV 161, 27, 8 and 95 – articulate the Lutheran yearning for death, and all but one feature the tolling of ‘Leichenglocken’, funerary bells. Yet for all their unity of theme, there is immense diversity of texture, structure and mood, and together they make a satisfying and deeply moving quartet – music that is both healing and uplifting.”

He writes that the use of triple time dominate in BWV 161, seeming to indicate the passage of time but also offers consolation. As we’ve seen and heard in other cantatas, the misery of the world causes the believer to welcome the redemption of Christ when physical death does come.

My desire
is to embrace the Saviour
and soon to be with Christ.
Though death crushes me
as mortal earth and ashes,
the pure gleam of my soul
will shine like the angels’ glory.

The cantata ends with the tune familiar from the hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” also prominent in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

In BWV 27, Bach uses “the slow pendulum strokes in the bass of the orchestra” to suggest time’s passage, “against this the downward falling figure in the upper strings and a poignant broken theme in the oboes provide the backcloth for the haunting chorale melody, interlaced with contemplative recitative.” Gardiner notes that Bach’s daughter Christiane Sophia (1723-1726) died shortly before the composition of this piece.

World, farewell! I am weary of you,
I wish to enter heaven,
where there is true peace
and eternal, stately rest.
World, you know but war and strife,
naught but merest vanity;
in Heaven there always reigns
peace, happiness and bliss.

While BWV 27 is deeply moving, the mood is a little brighter in BWV 8. We have the suggestion of funeral bells, but also a bass aria that affirms “Jesus’ summons to a better life” (as Gardiner puts it), and also a 12/8 gigue that Gardiner calls “unabashed dance music… with some of the swagger and ebullience of the finale from the sixth Brandenburg concerto.”

Ruler over death and life,
let at the last my end be good,
teach me to give up the ghost
with courage firm and sure.
Help me earn an honest grave
next to godly Christian folk,
and finally covered by earth
never more be confounded!

BWV 95 uses cornetto and oboes to introduce Luther’s version of the Nunc Dimittis. The hour of death will come eventually; and the sooner the better, for we will be with Christ. In the second to last number, the words “schlage doch bald” (“strike then soon”) repeat several times, expressing a longing to join the Lord in Heaven. (“Ach, schlage doch bald, sel’ge Stunde, den allerletzten Glockenschlag!” “Ah, strike then soon, blessèd hour, your last and final stroke!”). The cantata bids the believer to trust Christ that our destination–the next life—will be one of peace and joy after life’s struggles.

Christ is my life,
to die is my reward…
And if today I were told:
You must! I would be willing and prepared
to return my wretched body,
my wasted limbs,
mortality’s cloak,
into earth’s bosom.

I become weary of dealing with certain kinds of challenges, but I can’t say I ever get weary of living. The longing for Christ expressed in these cantatas is quite understandable but (for me) it’s something I feel most keenly when life is weighed down with trouble or sickness. A spiritual challenge, perhaps undertaken during the upcoming Advent season, is to let that longing “sink in,” emotionally and spiritually, during times of happiness, so that we’re happy in both the blessings of this life and the blessings of the life to come. Then, if life enters one of those awful periods of distress, we can address the situation while also having a strong faith in Christ.

To affirm “Christ is my life” isn’t just to affirm that Christ means a great deal to me. We participate in the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection—a realm of reality, so to speak, which is forceful and real for us today, even though the historical events happened long ago—-so that now, our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God. Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ” (Col. 3:3).

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

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O Prince of the Cherubim: Bach’s Cantatas for Michaelmas

Michaelmas, or (as titled here) the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, is a Western festival on September 29, near the fall equinox. (In the Eastern church, the archangels are honored on November 8.) Michael was the Archangel who defeated Lucifer and is one of the greatest angelic protectors. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner notes that Michael figures in both testaments, the Apocrypha, and the Qur’an as well. In Christian tradition he is “venerated both as the guardian angel of Christ’s earthly kingdom and as patron saint of knights in medieval lore, and, significantly, as the being responsible for ensuring a safe passage into heaven for souls due to be presented before God.”

In the CD notes, Gardiner points out that Bach took seriously the Book of Revelation, the concept of angelic armies, and “a cosmos charged with an invisible presence made of pure spirit, just beyond the reach of our normal faculties. …The concept of a heavenly choir of angels was implanted in Bach as a schoolboy in Eisenach, when even the hymn books and psalters of the day gave graphic emblematic portrayal of this idea; the role of angels, he was instructed, was to praise God in song and dance, to act as messengers to human beings, to come to their aid, and to fight on God’s side in the cosmic battle against evil.”

Not surprisingly, then, we have four pieces for this day: “Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft” (BWV 50, “Now is come strength and salvation”), “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir” (BWV 130, “Lord God, we all praise Thee”), “Es erhub sich ein Streit” (BWV 19, “There arose a war”), and “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg” (BWV 149, “The voice of rejoicing and salvation”).

BWV 50 is just over three minutes but is nevertheless (in Gardiner’s words) “breath-taking” and majestic. Not specifically for Michaelmas, the piece dovetails with the cantatas because the text is based on a portion of Revelation 12, where we read the defeat of the dragon by Michael and the angels.

Now is come salvation and strength,
and the kingdom of our God,
and the power of His Christ:
for the accuser of our brethren is cast down,
which accused them before our God day and night.

BWV 130 depicts the archangels in procession and in battle. The battle against the forces that vex us is not only in the past, but is ongoing. Gardiner writes, “Though there is brilliance aplenty in the steely glint of Michael’s sword (fifty-eight consecutive semiquavers for the principal trumpet to negotiate – twice!), this is not an episode in a Blitzkrieg. Bach is more concerned to evoke two superpowers squaring up to one another, the one vigilant and poised to protect the ‘kleine Häuflein’ against assault (cue the tremulant throbbing of all three trumpets in linked quavers), the other wily and deceitful (one wonders whether the kettledrums and continuo are perhaps intended to be on the dragon’s side?).”

The ancient dragon burns with envy
and constantly devises new pain
to break up that little flock….

Grant, O Prince of the Cherubim,
that this high host of heroes
may evermore
 tend Thy believers;
grant that the angels on Elijah’s chariot
may bear them up to Thee in Heaven.

As in 130, Bach uses trumpets to dramatic effect in BWV 19, along with intense writing for both the orchestra and the singers, to depict angelic protection of the faithful against the fury of Satan (the serpent, the dragon).

Praise God! The dragon is laid low.
The uncreated Michael
and his angelic host
have conquered him.
There he lies in the darkness,
fettered with chains,
and he shall no longer
dwell in heaven’s realm…

Let us love the countenance
of righteous angels,
and with our sins
not banish or even sadden them,
that they may be,
when the Lord commands us
to bid the world farewell,
to our great light,
our chariots to heaven.

BWV 149, meanwhile, is “festive rather than combative,” while using the same orchestral forces.

Ah Lord, let Thy dear angel
bear this soul of mine, when I die,
into Abraham’s lap,
and let my body sleep in its resting-place
most gently, free of torment and pain,
until the Day of Judgement!
And then awaken me from death,
that my eyes may behold Thee
in sheer joy, O Son of God,
my Saviour and my throne of grace!
Lord Jesus Christ, hear me, O hear me,
I will praise Thee eternally!

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of my mother’s death. I admit that angels are less a part of my spirituality than for Bach. As I work and rest, I think of the Holy Spirit as the closeness of God to me. But I love the image of the “safe passage into heaven for souls,” as well as the image of Heaven being filled with music and dance. A lovely quotation that I found online suggests that angels reassure us when our loved ones die, that they are safe now. I like that a lot. Perhaps I need to be more open to the idea of God’s presence expressed via divine advocates who, importantly, are also beautiful singers.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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What God Does is Well Done: Bach’s Cantatas for the 15th Sunday after Trinity

The cover photo for this week’s cantatas features Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan Girl,” not the famous picture but another wherein she covers the lower part of her face with her shawl. Those enormous green eyes of hers are recognizable. Photographer Steve McCurry, whose 1985 shot of Gula first appeared on a National Geographic magazine, took the pictures of the all CD covers in this set.

Conductor John Eliot Gardiner writes that some of Bach’s sacred cantatas contain “more darkness than light,” which is the case this week, too. There are four cantatas for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity: “Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz?” (BWV 138, “Why are you troubled, my heart?”), “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (BWV 99, “What God doth, is well done”), “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!” (BWV 51, “Rejoice unto God in all lands!”), and BWV 100 which is also entitled, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan.”

BWV 138 “charts the beleaguered Christian’s journey from profound distress of mind and soul, punctuated by (choral) injunctions to hold fast, to an eventual solidity of faith.” We’ve so often seen in Bach’s cantatas that distress: the believer’s confrontation with his/her sinful unworthiness, the believer’s heartache at the difficulties of life. As in the psalms, distress is more than matched by affirmations of God’s love and care. For instance, midway through this cantata, the struggling soul is assured of God’s providential care.

How can I calmly discharge my duties,
when sighs are my meat and tears my drink?

He can and will not forsake you,
He knows full well what you lack,
heaven and earth are His!

BWV 51 is generally a brighter cantata that “seems never to lose its glitter and charm – provided, of course, that there is a soprano and a trumpeter equal to its ferocious technical demands.” There is more of an emphasis here upon God’s blessings and greatness.

Rejoice unto God in all lands! Every creature
in heaven and the world must exalt His fame,
and we would likewise bring our God an offering now,
for that He has always stood beside us in affliction and distress.

BWV 99 and 100, with the same title and the same author of the texts, were written about a decade apart. (The “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” numbers reflect themes rather than chronology.) Gardiner discusses the similarities and differences between the two, both of which affirm God’s care, guidance, and faithfulness as we struggle through trials and our own faults. In the text of 100, the title repeats at the beginning of each number.

What God doth, is well done,
He will not deceive me;
He leads me on the proper path,
and so I am content
to enjoy His favour
and show patience.
He shall avert my misfortune,
He has the power to do so.

Given the cover photo, I thought of the 2002 National Geographic article about the photographers reunion with “the Afghan girl.” Her life has been very difficult, like millions of others in that part of the world. But she affirms that it was God’s will that she could be alive and located by the photographer. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text God has the power to avert misfortunate, but we also affirm that God stands by us if we remain in affliction and distress. We have to remain constant—and strong—in faith whether or not our adversity is removed. And who knows how God will surprise us with signs of providential care?

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Weak but Diligent Steps: Bach’s Cantatas for the 14th Sunday after Trinity

We’re halfway through September, with October and November to come in this post-Pentecost season. I miss the season of Kingdomtide, which was still observed in United Methodist churches when my family and I joined our local congregation in the mid 1970s. It added extra themes to the long period of ordinary time, and the name itself was pretty!

This Sunday is the 14th after Trinity Sunday. The cover photo of this CD, number 40 in the set, is from Tahoua, Niger. I had looked forward to listening to BWV 78, “Jesu, der du meine Seele” (“Jesus, who hast wrested my soul”), because my daughter’s choir in Ohio used to sing the aria “Wir eilen mit schwachen.”

We hasten with weak but diligent steps,
O Jesus, O master, to Thee.
Thou seekst to help the ailing and erring.
Ah, hearken, as we 
raise our voices,
to beg Thee for help!
May Thy gracious countenance smile upon us!

Wonderful memories of the choir’s performances in Ohio and also central Europe! The choir director noted that the melody is springy, to connote eagerness, but the continuo plods, connoting feeble steps that require divine help. The soprano-alto aria conrasts with the more serious themes and numbers of the cantata which, appropriate to the Lutheran theology of this season, emphasizes the dire human condition.

In the notes, conductor John Eliot Gardiner comments that, although Bach’s Trinity Season cantatas are full of Lutheran doctrine about sin and the fall and redemption, there is also a humanism in Bach’s consideration of the human condition. For instance, in “Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe” (BWV 25, “There is no soundness in my flesh”) the text is a little depressing in its depictions of sin and estrangement as a horrid sickness.

The entire world is but a hospital
where countless human beings
and even children in the cradle
lie gravely ill.
The one is tortured in the breast
by raging fever’s wicked desires;
another lies ill
with his own honour’s odious stench;
lust for gold devours a third
and hurls him into an early grave.

Christ alone can heal us of the leprosy of sin, but Gardiner goes into detail about how Bach’s music (including some extra instruments like recorders) depicts the healing process, giving listers an audible connection to the help they gain for their human struggles.

The third cantata of this Sunday, “Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich” (BWV 17, “Whoso offereth praise glorifieth Me”) has more of an emphasis upon the Lord’s goodness, although always in contrast to the human distress that urges us to seek and praise God’s surprising mercy. Gardiner particularly praises Bach’s music of the final chorale.

As a father has mercy
on his little children,
so the Lord does unto us wretches,
if we fear Him with pure childlike awe.
He knows this feeble race,
he knows we are but dust.
Just as grass from the rake,
a flower and falling leaves,
the wind only has to pass over it
and it is no longer there:
so man too passes,
his end is always near.

Autumn, when grass and leaves will indeed be gathered and discarded, is a time of meditating upon the transitory quality of life. The words of this chorale echo (perhaps intentionally) Isaiah 40, where we are assured that although “all flesh is grass,” the Word of God never dies.

This week, that image of “hospital” stays in my mind: the world as a hospital, and all of us “sick” in some way thanks to the human condition. To extend the metaphor, Christ is both physician and patient: one who has experienced the infirmity and sickness of human being, and the only one who can heal us as we need.

But I also love that image of “weak but diligent steps”. A couple years ago, I wrote on this blog about a CD of Arvo Pärt’s music, “In Principio,” on the ECM Records label. The liner notes describe the piece called “Mein Weg” (“my path”): “The title was inspired by a short poem from ‘Livre des Questions’, the magnum opus of the poet Edmond Jabès … My path has long hours,/jolts and pains./My path has peaks and sea-troughs,/sand and sky./Mine or thine… The image of life’s portentous sea-troughs seems to have found an echo in the work’s compositional fabric with its constant, dynamically differentiated upward and downward motion.”

The paths of life–including the spiritual path–filled with ups and downs, steps forward and back. Given the human condition, how could it be otherwise? So we look to the Lord, who never stops being compassionate toward us in our journeys.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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Cold Hearts of Steel: Bach’s Cantatas for the 13th Sunday after Trinity

“Sure enough, after the breezy pleasures of last week’s celebratory pieces – a brief reprieve – came the cold shower of our man’s resumption of the earnest process of musical exegesis.” Thus writes conductor John Eliot Gardiner (in the CD notes) of these cantatas for the thirteenth Sunday after Trinity Sunday. (This is CD 39, with a cover picture of a woman from Tibet.) Gardiner goes on to write that Bach sought to “forge audible links” between the scriptures and “the spiritual attributes of the texts.” This week, the texts are the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel, and also Galatians 3:15-22 which concerns faith and the law. But human beings are liable to evade both their responsibilities to the neighbor and to fail to keep God’s law.

During a 100-mile drive to Springfield, IL this week, I listened to these cantatas without first reading about them in the CD notes. I was moved by the wonderful opening to “Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben” (BWV 77 “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God”). Sure enough, Gardiner writes, “Here is one of those breathtaking, monumental opening choruses that defy rational explanation: how an over-worked, jobbing church musician, locked into numbing routines, could have come up with anything so prodigious and not, aswe have seen, in an isolated work, but as part of a coherent cycle of weekly works.” He goes on to describe in considerable detail the wonderful structure and musical devices used by Bach in a cantata focused upon the two great commandments: Love the Lord with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.

My God, I love Thee with all my heart,
all my life clings to Thee.
Let me but know Thy law
and be so kindled with love
that I can love Thee forever.

And give me too, my God,
a Samaritan’s heart,
that I may love my neighbour…
that I may not pass him by
and abandon him in his extremity…

“Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 33, “In thee alone, Lord Jesus Christ”) is more penitential concerning our inability to be obedient to the Lord.

My God and Judge,
if Thou shouldst question me upon the law,
I would be unable,
because of my conscience,
to answer one in a thousand questions.
I am weak in spirit and devoid of love
and my sins are grave and vast…

But (in an solo that Gardiner calls one of Bach’s most beautiful ones for the alto), in Christ there is mercy and salvation.

…Jesus hears my supplication
and proclaims me to His Father.
The burden of sin weighed me down,
but Jesus helps me anew with words of comfort:
He has done enough for me.

“Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo rennet” (BWV 164, “Ye who bear the name of Christ”) begins similarly with an assertion of the hardness of the human heart toward God and other people. Gardiner notes that this “dualism” between the divine compassion and human failure permeates all three cantatas. But the divine compassion can break through and make us like the Samaritan.

Ah! melt through Thy radiant love
the cold heart of steel,
that I may daily practise,
my Saviour, true Christian love;
that my neighbour’s misery, whoever he may be,
friend or foe, heathen or Christian,
may affect my heart as much as my own suffering!

I admit that I dislike the story of the Good Samaritan, though it’s a beautiful story with which I agree. But if I think, “Oh, I should pick up that hitchhiker; the Good Samaritan story compels me to,” I’m putting myself at risk. Yet the story invites soul-searching. Whom can I help, in my everyday circumstances? How can I put my faith into practice, in a powerful if not foolhardy way?

Part of it may be simply slowing down our pace and stopping to take time with people. I hesitate to make myself an example of anything, but the other day someone approached me to talk as I was standing by the elevator. The elevator arrived and I missed it, because it was more important in that moment to talk to the person rather than hurry to my next engagement. Through the mercy extolled in these cantatas, the Lord can show us ways to “be available” to persons as we go about our daily lives.

I had just been studying Luke 10 for another writing project. The writer of the commentary that I was reading pointed out that the lawyer’s question to Jesus (how he could gain eternal life) is coupled with the affirmation of the two great commandments, which in turn is coupled with both the Good Samaritan story and the subsequent story about Mary and Martha. The commentator noted that the Samaritan and Mary showed complementary sides of faith: being caring and merciful in an everyday circumstance, and being quiet and attentive to the Lord’s teachings.

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

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All Things Well: Bach’s Cantatas for the 12th Sunday after Trinity

We’re rolling along with the long season after Pentecost (or after Trinity, if you count from that Sunday, as Bach does). We’re beginning to enter autumn and are up to CD 38 of this Bach set; a man from Mumbai, India looks to us from the CD photo, all by the noted photographer Steve McCurry. After this weekend, we have eleven more Sundays till Christ the King Sunday (that is, the last Sunday before Advent), plus two feast days.

I’m listening to these cantatas for enjoyment and as a spiritual discipline for this year. But I was glad to read (in the CD notes by conductor John Eliot Gardiner) that this week’s cantatas are more celebratory than the previous weeks’, which had been heavy with themes of repentance, hypocrisy, and sorrow for sin (as Gardiner puts it, “the grim doctrinal preoccupations of the Trinity season”). Though suitably conscious of my own shortcomings of faith and life, I was beginning to wonder how I was going to get through several more weeks of penitential or scolding themes. But there will probably be more.

“Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 69a, “Bless the Lord, O my soul”) opens with (in Gardiner’s words) an “exultant” opening chorus and continues “to press all one’s emotional buttons” with the “sheer zest and rhythmical élan to lift one’s spirits.” With all three cantatas Gardiner goes into some detail about Bach’s musical techniques to convey a sense of joy this Sunday.

Ah, that I had a thousand tongues,
ah, that my mouth
were devoid of vain words,
ah, that I said nothing at all,
except that which was meant to praise God,
then would I proclaim the Highest’s goodness;
for all my life He has done so much for me
that I cannot thank Him in eternity.

The title of “Geist und Seele wird verwirret” (BWV 35, “Spirit and soul become confused”) continues in the first aria, in which the alto songs of the soul’s confusion at the miracles of God. All God’s marvelous works on our behalf amaze and enliven us, even renders us speechless.

God has done all things well.
His love, his faith
are new every morning.
When fear and sorrow oppress us,
He hath always sent us ample comfort,
for He watches over us each day.

“Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren” (BWV 137, “Praise the Lord, the mighty King of honor”). Gardiner comments that this cantata is in C major and is based on a thanksgiving hymn by Joachim Neander. The tune is familiar to many of us as that of the hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” Bach finds all kinds of ways, from “jazzy” to festive, to convey the joy of the hymn without being constrained by the preexisting form.

Praise the Lord, who has adorned you so exquisitely,
who has given you health, and guides you kindly;
how often in your distress
has merciful God
not spread His wings over you?

Writing of the opening chorus of BWV 69a, Gardiner writes, “This type of chorus makes one aware of how fine is the membrane (if indeed it exists at all) between Bach’s sacred celebratory music and his music for secular festivities: the birthday odes, or even the quodlibets sung by his family at their annual get-togethers.” This week I’m thinking about that, in connection to a discussion we had in our Evangelism class last night at the seminary where I teach part-time: How do we live in ways that show Christ, without hitting people over the head with our message? To put it another way, how do our sacred and secular activities flow together, so that in us, there is little or no “membrane” between the two?

Coincidentally, this morning a Facebook friend posted a comment by one of her colleagues, which also seems apropos. “Imagine if we viewed every activity as a holy, or potentially holy activity.”

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

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Inwardly, Outwardly the Same: Bach’s Cantatas for the 11th Sunday after Trinity

We’re up to the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, and a young man from Omo Valley, Ethiopia looks out from the CD picture on the next disc of Bach’s cantatas. These cantatas feature the Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená.

The text of “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (BWV 199, “My heart is bathed in blood”) is in the first person. Like some of Bach’s other cantatas with a similar kind of text, the listener is thereby placed within the drama of salvation. The author of the CD notes writes: “The eight movements rehearse the stages of redemption: an acknowledgement of the abomination of sin, the discomfort of remorseful tears, a plea for mercy, a confession of guilt, the blessed relief of casting sins onto Christ, and the peace and joy of reconciliation with God.”

I, Thy afflicted child,
cast all my sins,
as many as there are in me
and which terrify me so,
into Thy deep wounds,
where I have always found salvation.

“Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei” (BWV 179, “See to it that they fear of God be not hypocrisy”). We’ve heard other Bach cantatas in which the theme of hypocrisy before, and although Bach felt his calling to write cantatas to God’s glory was well fulfilled in Leipzig, he faced many difficulties in the city, including self-serving leaders and other difficult people. In the CD notes, we read, “One can imagine the Leipzig gentry, sitting in the best pews, becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the shockingly direct words hit their target: the strident tenor, above obbligato oboes and violin, ringing through the cathedral proportions of St. Thomas’s like a prophetic crow.”

He who is inwardly and outwardly the same
can be called a true Christian.
Such was the tax-collector in the temple,
who smote his breast in humility;
he did not look on himself as a saint.
Let him be, O man,
 a glorious example
in your own penitence…

“Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” (BWV 113, “Lord Jesus Christ, thou highest good”) is not as dramatic about hypocrisy as 179 but confronts the listener with the sorrow for our fallen nature—as well as the joy of Christ’s love and grace.

My piteous heart
beholds now, after many tears of pain,
the bright glow of Jesus’ eyes of mercy…
Gnawing conscience can no longer torment me,
now that God has pledged all His grace
to feed the faithful and the righteous
with heavenly manna,
if we but with contrite souls
come to our Jesus.

The story of the Pharisee and the Publican captures our imagination because the reversal: the good, blameless person (the kind of person most of us strive to be) actually has it all wrong, and the person who is blameworthy, lost, and distressed gets it right. (I dislike the way we use “Pharisee” as a pejorative term; the historical Pharisees helped save Jewish faith for the ages. But this particular Pharisee is Jesus’ example of a certain approach to religious faith.) Sometimes I think I have the self-critical heart of the Publican but, nevertheless, I strive to live like the Pharisee, respected and accomplished. Do I really have my heart wholly directed to God?

The answer is no. Even my “good works done in secret” are, to some extent, motivated by my need to be liked and affirmed. But we can take our inconsistencies and offer them to God in the spirit of distressed repentance that permeates this week’s cantatas. Like many psalms, the cantatas bring us back to the relief we experience in knowing God’s love.

(As the CD notes indicate, all English translations are by Richard Stokes.)

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