The Bach Experience

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James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

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Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dr. Jarrett.

(Dean Hill)

Dr. Jarrett.

Alumni Weekend itself is a two level drama, a stereoptic, bifocal collision of past and present, of hope and fear, of what we expect on the one hand, and what we experience on the other, expectation and experience never quite becoming equivalents.

On Alumni Weekend you walk past a classroom where you heard something new. As was once said by a famous baseball player, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again’. You see a teacher’s office where you learned the hard news about a midterm result. You pass by a tree under which you hugged or kissed your then boyfriend or girlfriend.   Your memory is quickened by the spatial, locational power of a sunset on a river, or a trolley bell ringing, or the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd. You watch and you see.

As Yogi Berra also said, ‘You can observe a lot just by watching’.

But all these memories are held in a new way, in a second level recollection, that of today as today looks at yesterday.   You enter a restaurant and where others simply see a television, you see a television on which you watched and heard 7th BU President John Silber interviewed in 1980 on 60 minutes by Mike Wallace. You look out over Nickerson field while others watch soccer, and you remember a football game. (Oops…). You sit in Marsh Chapel as the sermon meanders on toward its inevitable conclusion, or what you hope will be its proximate conclusion, but you hear some other voice once uttered here, or a song once sung here, or a prayer once dropped with a full heart into the prayer request box.

Three honored alumni yesterday spoke in this manner. ‘BU became my passport’. ‘At BU I grew up’. ‘Here I was taught that the authority of the highest idea should prevail over the idea of the highest authority’. (Not who has the idea, but what idea is best; not power but truth.)

Time and space are not quite as absolute in determination of our being as sometimes we think. It helps to have a bifocal, stereoptic vision, a two level drama, of sorts.

That is the nature of the New Testament, shot through from Matthew to Revelation with apocalyptic language and imagery. Our Holy Scripture, both Holy and Scripture, is both heaven and earth.   It is both sacred and secular, at the same time, both divine and human. Its Word walks with human feet and sings with divine voice. Its word faces earth: Syria—200,000 dead, 4 million refugees, 7 million dislocated. Its word sings with a divine voice: each one of these is a child of the living God.

(By the way, the apocalyptic warnings of Mark 9 are not to be taken literally. We know this. We know about hyperbole. Even the convoluted hyperbole of a famous ballplayer describing a once favorite restaurant: ‘Nobody goes there any more—it’s too crowded’. Let us pause one good moment to recognize that, and why, we do not understand the Bible as utterly inerrant and divine. The Bible is inspired and so inspires us, and is our first point of reflection, prototypical but not archetypical—first but not exclusive in the church’s long history of the search for truth. These verses, harsh and judgmental, need careful interpretation. So Matthew cuts half of them, in his use of Mark 20 years afterward. So Luke cuts all of them in his use of Mark 25 years later. Even Mark himself shifts the weight from fear to hope, even in this passage, as he wrestles to interpret what he has inherited, from whatever source: be salt, have peace among yourselves, who is not against us is for us.)

So it is particularly appropriate this special Sunday that we hear a cantata, a beautiful gem of sacred music, that begins its life as an ornament of secular gaiety, that began its life as music by which to feast and dance and revel. It began as joy. And then it was transformed, so that ‘our joy could be complete’ (Jn 15:11).

Charles Wesley wrote hymns, many of which we still sing, and found the music, the melodies and harmonies, in the sung music of his day, did he not? St John of the Cross, the greatest of Spanish mystics, whose poetry strikes the heart to this day, composed his lyrics with the help of Italian, pastoral love poetry, did he not? The author of the Song of Solomon, who wrote a torrid, fierce, erotic ballad of human of love, would perhaps have been bemused to see how quickly Judaism made of it by analogy the love of God for the covenant people, and how quickly Christianity by analogy made of it the love of Christ for his church, we she not?

In our time, wherein the attempt to embrace the secular with the sacred, to express a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith, to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety, has become so marginal, pitiable, nearly a lost cause, of a sudden, this Sunday, Come Sunday, we have Bach’s secular music magically, alchemically made sacred, in this beautiful 18 minute poem. For all our fears, of heaven and of earth, it does ring out a note of hope, does it not?

Dr. Jarrett, for what shall we listen today, we who remember St. Augustine’s proverb, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage’?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Dean Hill.

(Dr. Jarrett)

Dean Hill….

This year at Marsh Chapel, our annual cantata series surveys Bach’s musical-sermons for Easter, beginning today with Cantata 66: ‘Rejoice, you hearts, fade away, you sorrows.’ Our cantata dates from Bach’s first year as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, a period of remarkable industry and accomplishment. Bach’s greatest achievement in those weeks was surely the composition and first performance of the St John Passion heard just days before the cantata we perform this morning. For Easter Sunday morning that year, Bach revived an earlier work – Christ lag in Todes Banden, which we will perform later in this series. For Easter Monday, he again drew on earlier material, written in 1718 for the birthday celebrations of Prince Leopold of Cöthen. With a reordering of movements, the addition of a final chorale, and fitted with a new text, the resultant cantata marks the splendor of Easter with great joy, dance, and, as we shall see, no shortage of the human dialectic – hope and fear.

Bach’s text was the story of Jesus’s appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus from the 24th chapter of Luke. As you’ll recall, the story depicts some fairly thick-headed disciples, in shock over the fate of their Jesus rebellion, and still grief-stricken from his betrayal and ultimate demise. Only when the traveler breaks bread with them do they realize he is their risen Lord.

Marsh Chapel congregants have come to understand that the cantatas, just like sermons, follow a structure, not just musically – choruses, recitatives, arias, and chorales – but also theologically: from opening an chorus of praise and joy, to more explicit exegesis from soloists, moving toward reflection on the human condition both personal and corporate. Typically, the cantata concludes with a four-part chorale setting attaching the newly composed music to cherished and beloved hymns of the faith.

The key element of the older cantata from 1718 was a dialog of two allegorical characters, Bliss and Fame. For Easter Monday 1724, these characters became Fear and Hope. And in their material, we find the central human predicament – a willing spirit, thwarted by the will of the flesh; a spiritual aspiration weighed down by a human frailty; the promise of redemption tinged by doubts that we are unworthy. Or as in Mark 9, we wish to be salt, but have we lost our saltiness?

As you listen this morning, note the joy of the opening movement a bright dance in a triple meter. Caste as a large-scale da capo chorus, the middle section sung by alto and bass foreshadows the theme of anxiety and fear, heard poignantly in descending chromatics. In the bass aria – the most direct nod to the Emmaus story – listen for the lighting bolts of string arpeggios at the words, “Jesus appears”. And as the alto and tenor sing their dialogue, observe the remarkable layering of these voices and their texts at the same time – truly reflecting our own complicated condition. In the final duet, listen for the spirited violin obbligato, played today by our concertmaster Heidi Braun-Hill. It’s as if the violin is the voice of the Refiner’s Fire, enflaming our hearts towards Love’s fiery-hue. The final chorale, though exultant with threefold Alleluias, concludes with a solemn Kyrie eleison, as if to say, “Look up from the Grave, but stay fixed on the Cross.”

After the atonement and self-reflection of Lenten and Holy Week observances, only the radiance of the Risen Lord can redeem. The tomb is empty, the stone is rolled away. Will my faith be strong enough to roll the stone of my own heart away? Can Christ restore my saltiness? Or will my fear outshine my hope?

Rejoice, you hearts, fade away, you sorrows, the Savior lives and rules within you. You can drive away mourning, fear, anxious despair. The Savior revives his spiritual kingdom. Alleluia!

Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Dr. Jarrett.

(Dean Hill)

Dr. Jarrett.

Hope indeed has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are. And courage to see that they do not remain as they are (Augustine of Hippo).

Our collegium, and our choir, and our congregation offer out into the unseen world around a dynamic dialogue, of heaven and earth, of sacred and secular, of divine and human.

It has become quite difficult to do so.   A Christ against Culture fits easily and well with a popular Christianity, Bible drenched, which rejects the world around. Harder it is to think, speak and sing of a Christ in Culture, a Christ transforming Culture. So slips away the religious commitment. So also, from the side of the society, there grows an unwillingness to admit of the value of propositions that are not verifiable but may well be true. Harder and harder it is to say ‘if thine heart be as mine, then give me thine hand’, or ‘in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity’. Or, as today, ‘have peace among yourselves…who is not against us is for us’

Yet here these are today, interwoven. As we hear at the end of the cantata, fear and hope, both so deeply human, sing around and around each other. As we hear in the Scripture—who is not against us is for us; be at peace with one another.

Maybe, among other things, this is why the current Papal visit has made such a resounding though perhaps only partly articulated impact. Here is a religious voice, speaking in the halls of government. Here is a sacred person, addressing the nations as united, in the United Nations. Here is a representation of the Holy, riding the streets of the most secular of cities. Not the church mumbling its prayers behind closed doors; not the culture, its government and its authority and its society, stumbling ahead with its decisions apart from a final horizon. But sacred and secular singing together.

Maybe, among other things, this is why there are still a few University pulpits, whose calling it is to remember and to remind that the point of education is helping people. What makes this University unique is its capacity to harness learning to help people. Education is meant to help people. Period.

That is. One one hand, it is good to know as Einstein showed that gravity is a manifestation of the curvature in space-time resulting from the presence of matter and energy. On the other hand, it is great to see that insight and others like it making space, in new inventions and discoveries, for safety, for progress, for care, for health. Helping people.

Just for a moment. A heavenly hope embracing an earthly fear, both real, both true. Just for a moment, this morning, prayer, soul, eternity, faith, heaven, judgment, salvation, love, God.

I truly fear the darkness of the grave\I do not fear the darkness of the grave

I lament my Savior is now torn from me\I hope that my Savior is not torn from me

RAH: I truly fear the darkness of the grave\SAJ: I do not fear the darkness of the grave

RAH: I lament my Savior is now torn from me\SAJ: I hope that my Savior is not torn from me

This music, this Scripture, this day, this week, this life, just now, they do give you a sense, for all our fears, that hope survives and may just prevail. After all, did not Mr. Berra also say, ‘it ain’t over ‘til its over’?

A colleague and friend, Rev. Rick Black, said this week: ‘When people hear us they should think, Things are not as bad as we think they are, and these folks are helping to make things better.

Herein perhaps we find the valence of the dominical sayings,

He that is not against us is for us. He that is not against us is for us.

and

Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.

Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.

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

&

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music, Marsh Chapel

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