The Bach Experience

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Dean Hill:

Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God”

 

                  We tend to want rather instant results.  Rapid feedback, metrically based, positive and solid—these are the sorts of outcomes we prize.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we do and desire so.

 

But in a larger sense?

 

Ministry in particular and life in general require a long view.   The planting of seeds.  The lighting of candles.  The casting of empty nets.  The waiting, and waiting and waiting.  It is a long wait to live by faith, hoping against hope, and trusting the invisible to vanquish the visible.  Easter is the announcement of the victory of the invisible.

 

Thomas, poor Thomas, remembered for his very human desire for the visible, the tangible, the metrically based, positive and solid, verifiable knowing—picks up the monicker, Doubting Thomas.

 

Thomas.  Logos.  Nicodemus.  Samaritan Woman.  Lazarus.  Paraclete.  BELOVED DISCIPLE.  Thomas.  Where did all these figures come from?  Not one every seen or heard in the rest of the New Testament, particularly not in the other gospels.  Whence?

 

The strange world of the Bible is at its strangest in the Fourth Gospel.

 

But Thomas is not just the doubter.  Thomas, alone, Thomas, more than any other, Thomas, of the silk road, Thomas of the so named Gospel, Thomas of our reading today, Thomas alone perfectly summarizes the whole of John, saying of the crucified and risen One:  ‘My Lord, and My God’.  Thomas is not just the doubter.  Thomas is the true believer, too.  The Son of Man is both Earthly Lord and Heavenly God.

So we have some reason to wait, some basis for the long view, some heartfelt humility as we move forward through the ages.

 

To live in faith is to build schools in which you will not study, though your grandchildren might.  To live in faith is to start churches in which you will not pray, though your grandchildren might.  To live in faith is to plant trees under which you will never take a siesta, though your grandchildren might.

 

Herman Melville worked in a government office most of his life, having written the greatest of novels, Moby Dick, whose popular appreciation came well after Melville’s death.

 

Ludwig von Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony, without the capacity to hear it, to hear its beauty, its power, its wonder.

 

Daniel Marsh moved this University out to the banks of the Charles river, and constructed buildings, including this very Chapel, later named for him,  but did not live long enough, though he lived a very long life, to see just how much Boston University would change and grow.

 

Alistair Macleod, eulogized this week as an author, ‘not in a hurry’, who left behind one novel and one ample collection of stories, all set in Cape Breton, will never fully know how meaningful his beautiful prose has been to so many of us.

 

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his magnum opus, gathering together over time material older and newer, and giving us one the greatest artistic, musical works of all time, perhaps the very greatest, a portion of which we shall hear together in a moment.  Bach never heard the B Minor Mass in lifetime.  Bach never lived to hear the greatest of his works performed.

 

Dr. Jarrett, what Bach did not hear, we shall.  At the conclusion of this year’s tour de force, this year’s celebration of Bach, here and there, in NYC and in Boston, and by radio and internet the world over, what are we about to hear?

 

Dr. Jarrett:

We come this morning to the fulfillment of a year-long survey and study of Bach’s greatest work – the Mass in B Minor. Many would even argue the B Minor Mass is humanity’s greatest work! In this final section of the B Minor Mass, we hear Bach’s Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and the famous Dona Nobis Pacem. We hear some of Bach’s earliest music, the Sanctus written his first year in Leipzig in 1723, more than 20 years before it found final resting place in the B Minor Mass. Mirroring Isaiah’s six-winged Seraphim, Bach scores for 6voices, the only such instance in his entire output of vocal writing.  Caste as a grand and bold exultation at the throne of the Almighty, we have truly entered a musical Holy of Holies. The Osanna that follows surpasses the Sanctus in texture, expanding six voices to eight in double chorus, exclaiming their Creator’s Praise in joyful dancelike shouts of Osanna. From the largest complement of voices, Bach next scores for his most intimate in the entirety of the Mass with the Benedictus. Only three members of the orchestra accompany the lone tenor voice. The delicacy of the flute line and the tenderly sung tenor, bring us to the humility of the Savior, entering Jerusalem on the donkey, the meek and mild manger, and ultimate humility of the cross.

The Agnus Dei brings us another intimate moment of austere devotion. We are fixed and transformed by Christ on the tree, the emblem of suffering and shame.

In the fall we knelt together in supplication for the Kyrie, a moment of corporate pardon and affirmation of grace. In December we rejoiced in the nave of Bach’s Mass with that great hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo. IN February, we affirmed our faith at the crossing of word and table with Bach’s Nicene Crede. Today, Bach invites us to the High Altar, transformed by the Holy of Holies. Emboldened and renewed, we take up the cross, sent forth into the world in an eternal quest for God’s peace – Dona nobis pacem, pacem, dona nobis.

 

Dean Hill:

 

With your help, and that of the choir, and especially that of Bach, we have learned some things.

 

(From Scott Fogelsong): (The mass) offers music lovers a dear and faithful friend.  Like certain other beloved choral works—Handel’s Messiah comes immediately to mind—its grandiose scope never overwhelms the intimate humanity at its core.  Thus we cherish it, not only as a masterpiece, but also as a mirror that shows us the saints that lie within.

 

The entire Mass might be assembled from re-purposed material.  We may never know for sure.

 

Bach never heard a performance of the completed B Minor Mass.  “The greatest work of music of all ages and all peoples” (Nageli).

 

What part of the symphony of your life, or mine, will be played, enjoyed, celebrated only after you are not able to hear it?  What gift of inquiry that causes an inspiration to vocation?  What gift of wealth that endows in perpetuity some form of the good, the true, the beautiful?  What gift of progeny that continues a genetic and biological trajectory in life?  What gift of institutional, institutionalized improvement that makes this world a better place?  What song of yours will others be singing when you are long gone?

 

Marilyn Robinson traces the emergence of her faith, in part, to a long ago Sunday morning:  “One Easter I went with my grandfather to a small Presbyterian church in northern Idaho where I heard a sermon on the discrepancies in the gospel accounts of the resurrection…I was a young child… yet I remember that sermon…I can imagine myself that primal Easter, restive at my grandfather’s elbow, pushing my nickels and dimes of collection money into the tips of my gloves…memorably forbidden to remove my hat…It seems to me I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him…I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention all around me…and I thought everyone else must also be aware of it…Only in church did I hear experience like mine acknowledged, in all those strange narratives, read and expounded…(227)…Amen (the preacher) said, having blessed my life with a lovely thing to ponder.”

 

          Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God”

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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