Transfixed with Bach

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Mark 9: 2-9

Rev. Quigley: This morning, we join the apostles; as they ascend the mountain, we climb the steps of Marsh Chapel’s gothic nave. We join Peter, James, and John; as they take some time apart with Jesus, we turn up the dial in our car radio, or pour a second cup of coffee in the quiet of our kitchen. We follow their gaze up the mountainside as they wonder what they will see; our eyes, or our mind’s eyes, are drawn up and up through the sanctuary, from sacred places to sacred faces, and finally to the great openness of the vaulted ceiling above. This is Transfiguration Sunday.

There is an anticipation, an excitement, a buzzing about a vibrant church on a Sunday morning: chatter from small study groups, the rustling of robes as choristers dress, the caffeine-rich scent of coffee brewing, the rhythmic sounds of worship leaders saying a brief prayer before service begins. You will find all this and more at 735 Commonwealth Avenue any week, but a few Sundays of the year this atmosphere has even more heightened energy, on holy days such as Christmas and Easter, of course, but also for the few Sundays annually in which the rich sounds of a Bach cantata anchor our service of worship and praise.

Elisha, too, is full of energy, and anxiety this morning. Along his last walk with his mentor, standing as signposts of the spectacle to come, companies of prophets like a Greek chorus foretell of a vision of an ascension. Like Elisha, we have our own company of prophets with us today, who with their voices and instruments will summon us to keep watch, and to perk up our ears, to hear the message that Bach can bring to us today.

1 Corinthians 12 says that each of us is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good; some are given the gift of tongues, and others the gift of interpretation of tongues. Now, music is its own language, so as is our custom, we have our Director of Music,

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, with us this morning to interpret for us what we are about to hear.

Dr. Jarrett, what signposts will we hear this morning?

Dr. Jarrett: Thank you, Rev. Quigley. Today’s cantata is one of Bach’s great musical triumphs, first performed in October of 1725 for Reformation Sunday. The opening movement depicts the triumph of the new way – Luther’s way, that is – in a most exuberant, muscular – even militant – display of counterpoint and brilliance. The opening orchestral material, extending for an astonishing 45 measures before the chorus entrance, introduces all the thematic material of the movement, including a broad march and a strictly treated three-voice fugue. The cantata features some of the most difficult horn parts in Bach’s entire output, depicting the glory of the battle won. Perhaps the most surprising element of the opening movement is the unrelenting presence of the timpani in a most extraordinary part. The timpani’s rambunctious pounding calls to mind Luther’s bold and precocious nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door.

The second movement, sung today by Gerrod Pagenkopf, proves Bach’s ability to set a similar text in a completely different fashion. The meter of the music with the oboe obbligato present us with a relaxed, elegant pastoral image of God as protector. For the third movement, Bach seems to have recognized that we haven’t yet heard one of Luther’s great hymns. But he delivers a tour de force like no other. The horns and timpani return with their triumphant music from the first movement as the choir and orchestra sing that most famous hymn, ‘Not thank we all our God.’

After the chorale, the cantata takes the anticipated introspective turn for how we continue to fight the battle each day in our contemporary lives. Like the disciples with Jesus on the mountain top, the baritone praises God for the revelation of truth through Word and Incarnation. The recitative concludes with a prayer for hope of salvation from those who do not yet know God. The duet introduces the only elements of doubt in the entire cantata. Here the soprano and bass lines, sung by Kira Winter and Thomas Middleton, cling to each other amid the threat of the darting unison violin line. Only once do they lose each other as the text depicts the harsh raging of the enemy. The cantata ends with a standard four-part chorale setting, but with the two horns and timpani crowning the movement.

Though a Reformation cantata, we find resonance with today’s liturgy and texts. We hear the steadfastness of the apostles at Jesus’ side on the mount in the staunchness and assurance of the opening movement. The presence of the fugal material reminds us of the law of Moses and Elijah. And the presence of the fugue with the broader homophonic music reveals the fulfillment of the prophesy and Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah. We detect Elisha side by side with Elijah in the soprano and bass duet. As we recall the Reformation story, and revisit in the mind’s eye a burgeoning movement toward religious freedoms, we sing again ‘Now thank we all our God.’ Our convictions are transformed, transfigured, and renewed in the grace and redemption of God’s love and might.

Rev. Quigley: Transfiguration is not quite like the class taught at Hogwarts by Professor McGonagall; it is not about turning a cat into a teacup with the flick of a wand. Transfiguration in our gospel reveals the divine within the human, the extraordinary within the ordinary. As in our cantata, we see the different modes of Christ, both the triumphant and the pastoral. This is not unlike our gospel today. The author of Mark, more so than his fellow gospel-writers, portrays for us a down and dirty Jesus. This Jesus has a tendency to spit when healing, he has a strange affinity for dirt, he touches lepers, he curses out fig trees, and he falls asleep in the back of boats. But today, Mark reminds us that Jesus is also the Christ, by foretelling the glory and power of the resurrection.

I think that many of our most powerful spiritual experiences are little transfigurations. We hear a familiar, beloved hymn tune sung in a full-chorused and orchestrated cantata. It reminds us of singing in our home churches, and the new, bright assurance of faith washes over us more powerfully than it first did decades ago. After three, fifteen, fifty years of marriage, we look across the table at our spouse, and the light catches them just right. They are not as beautiful as the wedding day, they are more beautiful, because we have caught a tiny glimpse of the divine spark of our Creator in them. A single conversation at work or at school, and we finally see that we can make an impact; all the callouses (on our hands or on our minds) can change people’s lives, and perhaps for the first time, we discover the intersection of our passion and the world’s need in our sense of vocation.

So this morning, we sit transfixed, receiving Bach’s inspired gift even as he sits beside us, contemplating the same divine majesty. We will have to come down the mountain soon enough, and then we will have to go back into the rhythms of our lives. But something will be different, and even though we know words will fail us, we know something will have to change. Something will have to be shared with others. Mark knows this; Mark’s gospel is known for what biblical scholars call the “messianic secret.” Jesus does something spectacular, and then he demands it be kept secret until after the resurrection. The purpose of the messianic secret in the gospel is much debated, but I find a little Markan humor in it, that the news about Jesus is too good not to share, and time and again people cannot keep the secret.

The irony of life’s transfigurative moments is that no words will properly describe them, but they are so powerful they demand to be shared with others. So this morning, we sit, with the disciples, and with Elisha, and with Bach, unsure of what we will experience and even less sure what we will do afterward. But we sit, transfixed, and know that we are about to experience something of the divine, of the extraordinary revealed within the ordinariness of our lives.

Amen.

~The Rev. Jen Quigley, Chapel Associate
Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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