Harken to Blessing: The keynote of the New Age, the call to a New Life. As the Cantata sings: “Let Your Word for us, that bright light, burn for us cleanly and purely”. To some degree our Gospel challenges us with a rigorously heavenly demand, in the heart of our very earthly condition. To some degree Gospel brings us humility, because we realize we can never achieve its height. To some degree the Gospel reminds us of the call of Jesus to his own age, and the earliest church to their own, as instruction in the interim, their shared expectation of the imminent End of the Age.
Think of a set of Russian dolls, eight dolls held one inside the other. As John Wesley advised: “every sentence is closely connected with what precedes and what follows it”.
The outside largest carries drawn cheeks, the sign of despondency, acedia, depression. Remarkably, here is blessing. There are none so thin as those who will not eat, and none so loved by God’s Christ as those who carry the weight of emptiness. The poor in spirit. Perhaps Luke, who simply says ‘fortunate are the poor’, means to caution us, as does all Christian tradition, against the temptations in abundance of possessions, or positions for that matter. The call of wisdom to happiness.
The next biggest doll, just inside the outside one, has tears. Tears require love, first. A young woman or man, suddenly ousted from a friendship or love, may be overcome by tears, and shocked that he or she could be so overcome. Love is like that, especially when it leaves the room. When there is a tear in the garment of self-control, self-sufficiency—mercy!—tears flow, but one knows by the measure of pain the power of love. You do not know what you have until it is gone. But the verse attends more directly to our shared condition, to the mourning that we feel when see the world as it is, and contrast that sight to the vision of the reign of God. So those who mourn by spirit do so in part over the hurtful waywardness of the world. We ever keep before us the 20% of children in our land awaking in poverty, the 10% of people hunting for work, the vast and unnecessary indebtedness of students and others, the cries of the needy from far and near. Wisdom beckoning to the real, the present, the future happiness.
Open the next one. Those who mourn know emptiness, and prepare the way for the meek. Meek like Moses. Doll three has bright eyes, blue they are and bright. Good things come to bright eyed dolls who can wait a little. Those alive to what is given, what is offered, what is provided, those with empty hands, may just inherit something. Wisdom is the herald of happiness.
Inside patience one finds hunger, a desire for what cannot be had on the cheap. So look at this fourth doll, whose lips are pursed. If faith is worthless, where is worth? If the church is useless, where is hope? If the ministry if outdated, where is meaning? If preaching is not worth doing, can you tell me what is? Tight lipped hunger for what is right, in the long run, brings the just, out of a love of love itself, and the withered long suffering to await it. The wisdom of Micah calls to the happiness of Matthew.
Mercy is the water of spiritual life, the hydration required for existence beyond the animal kingdom. See the fifth doll here, who smiles. All of us are better when we are loved, and all of us are made right when we are forgiven. Wisdom brings happiness.
Poor in spirit, then those who mourn, then the meek, then the hungry for justice, and then the merciful. Like an oyster bearing a pearl, they shape the hard jewel of the purity of the heart, which Kierkegaard said was to will one thing. Philosophers seek purity of heart. Intellectuals seek purity of heart. Scholars seek purity of heart. Academics sometimes seek purity of heart. Love of wisdom evokes happiness of heart.
Now the dolls are smaller, harder to see, harder to hold. The peacemaker stands with arms open, spread abroad, and ready to embrace. Our cantata balances a New Year prayer for New Life, not only for the individual but also for the community, for both person and country, ourselves and our land. We desire an expression of faith that is amenable to culture, and we desire a culture which is acceptable to faith. The disciplines of non-violence, well beyond the spiritual strength of most of us most of the time, demand the denial of self-protection. Could there be blessing here? Remarkably, the gospel of truth says ‘yes’. Here too wisdom commands happiness.
Our last Russian doll is so tiny. Narrow gate, straight way. There is no expression we can see, no posture, no gesture. For the sake of the New Age, some have suffered persecution. To be reviled in a good cause, to be libeled in a just struggle, to be harmed in a righteous conflict, somehow, it is hard to see how, but somehow is to receive a blessing. May those who are preaching across the country, and who with courage and counting the cost, enter the pulpit to announce freedom and grace, facing the challenges of this age, may they receive blessing, the blessing that comes with costly truth spoken. Here the persecution surrounding and threatening the primitive church may have made a later Matthean incursion into an inherited sermon: a tenor solo following a contralto aria, evangelist overtaking oral tradition.
Dr. Jarrett, as we listen to our cantata today, what notes of blessing and phrases of fortunate and sounds of grace shall we expect?
Written for the Sunday of New Years, when the church celebrates the naming of Christ in the temple, this cantata numbers among the many observances associated with the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The message of today’s cantata is direct and simple:
In the New Year, we need but call on the name – the name – of Jesus in each step of our lives, from beginning to end. And when we pray, it is through the name of Jesus that our petition approaches the throne of grace.
From the first movement, we sing a hymn – or fugue, in this case – in praise of God’s name. And as if we’re joining the celebration in the middle, there is no introduction. The fugue begins directly with the tenors’ statement of the subject. This corporate hymn of praise takes on personal, individual expression in the tenor arias that follows. The aria is bursting with assurance and bravado both from the tenor soloists and the two violinists whose bows never stop moving in the whole movement.
The central movement of the cantata is given to the alto, who forms a New Years Resolution of sorts about how and when to call on the name of Jesus.
The second aria captures the omni-presence of Christ in our lives – if we but call on his name. This soprano aria embodies the beauty of a life of faith and trust in his holy name.
The baritone then explains to us the ways in which we are taught to invoke the name of Christ, specifically when we pray. The smallest voice can reach the highest heaven through Christ redemptive power, a power available to all who but call on his name.
Our cantata draws to conclusion with a final chorale, here in festival form. The trumpe
ts and timpani return from the first movement, and the chorus of the church comes to life in a dance-like middle section.
The music is confident, assured, and bold from beginning to end. A mirror of the boldness and assurance offered through life in and through Christ Jesus. Here Bach gives musical voice to our New Year, and an exhortation to bear the name of Jesus each day throughout the year and through our earthly lives.
“Turn your blessing upon us. Give peace to every outcome.” The Cantata looks forward both to personal sanctification and to social holiness, blessings both individual and collective.
Hence, we have a ‘short summary of the teaching of Christ’. Harken to a voice of blessing:
“A voice sure of being heard, and musical, because it was the command not only of authority to obedience, but of wisdom to happiness”.
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music