The Bach Experience

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Mark 13:1-8

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Dr. Neville

Dr. Jarrett, Bach’s cantata, “Bleib bei uns,” or “Stay with us,” worries a very old theme, the need for light.  It is hard to think of a time when the troubles call for light more than now.  The incomprehensible violence, the tragic deaths of innocents, the rage that knows no containment, of the Paris terrorist attacks has cast the world in darkness.  They were acts of war by a regime that does not distinguish its politics from religion, though by no means are those acts of war condoned by other Muslim regimes.  Will France of necessity declare war on the Islamic State?  How can that war be fought if the Islamic State soldiers live among people whom they have conquered?  Will NATO go to the aid of France?  Will the US? How can our Middle Eastern neighbors in Europe and the US not be under suspicion? Will such suspicion turn friends into enemies?  These are political and moral problems.  But the depths of the troubles press against the limits of our very being and so these are religious problems, for all sides, including us.  Where is the light in these increasingly dark times?

The metaphor of light arises on the first page of the Bible, as the very first thing God says: “Let there be light.” And there was light.  This implies that darkness is the primordial, the aboriginal, situation.  The narrative also implies that prior to speaking, God is just part of the darkness.  Presumably God could have eliminated the darkness altogether, but instead arranged the light and darkness in the alternation of day and night.  So darkness is always with us or just around the corner.

In biblical times there was much debate among both Jews and Christians over whether God and God’s speech are one thing or two.  On the one hand, in the human analogy we ordinarily say that a speaker and the speaker’s speech are one; a human being is an agent or actor and speaking is one kind of acting.  Perhaps we can conceive of God on the analogy of such an agent, existing in some sense in the darkness before light as an agent ready and able to speak, but just not yet.  The difficulty with this analogy is that the creation of the world, beginning with light distinguished from darkness, is such a vast change that it is difficult to think of God as an agent at all without some equally primordial world to work on.  God is radically changed by becoming a speaking God whose first words create light.

On the other hand, many people have allowed that there are two things, God not speaking prior to creation, and the divine Word that comes into being as God speaks and in fact structures the whole of creation.  This view was elaborated in the sayings of Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, who affirmed that she was present with God at the creation but complained that people did not pay enough attention to her and did not live in the light of God’s creative Word, which had moral connotations.  The Prologue to the Gospel of John lays this out in a familiar way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  (John 1:1-5)  According to John, Jesus was the incarnation of the original divine Word spoken by God in creation and the condition for all things created, a Word characterized as light.  The Word of God came into being as God spoke it in creation; it was phrased for human beings in the Sinai covenant, though too many people rejected it; it was present in common sense as Lady Wisdom, but too many people ignored it. So then God caused this Word to become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the foundation of John’s theology, and it generally won the day in Christian theology overall.  To say that Jesus is the Light of the World, in the sense Bach’s libretto meant it, is to say that he is the embodiment of the divine Word in creation that begins by saying “Let there be light.”

Dr. Jarrett, Bach seems to buy into this identification of Jesus with the Light of creation, although in our cantata there still seems to be a troubling darkness for which the Light of Christ needs yet to cover.  Is this right?

Dr. Jarrett

The second in our series of Easter cantatas is “Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden” – ‘Stay with us, for evening comes.’ Scored for choirs of oboes, strings, and voices, Bleib bei uns draws both title and subject from the 24th Chapter of Luke in which Jesus appears to a group of disciples on the road to Emmaus.

As we have come to expect from Bach, the full range of human experience and emotion is everywhere explored and considered. And, as much as Bach acknowledges human frailty, the doubt of our conviction, and the daily crisis of faith, he provides clear paths for musical and theological reconciliation. Consider the Bach passion settings – in particular, the St Matthew Passion which we perform later this year in February – Bach provides an astonishingly accurate mirror of our human circumstance. He knows how each day, we become Judas, or a Peter, or a Pilate. In today’s cantata, we connect instantly with the hapless disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Stricken with grief that their leader has been tragically cut down in the events just days before in Jerusalem, their eyes remain blind to the true identity of Jesus until he breaks bread with them – a theological reminder of Christ’s presence in the sacrament.

But references to the Luke 24 story remain allegorical in Bach’s 1725 cantata for the second day of Easter. Here, Bach focuses on the sadness, fear, and even anxiety at the loss of Jesus. In a sense, Bach connects us to the end of the John Passion as Jesus has been laid to rest in the tomb. With sarabande rhythms and a melancholy C Minor, the final chorus ‘Ruht wohl’ lays an elegiac garland on the heavy tomb stone. In cantata 6, the same C Minor music reveals the crisis of loss with low pulsing string parts, all of which yields to a frenetic fugue depicting both the disarray of the Jesus movement, but also our growing fear as darkness encloses.

The progression of arias begins with a courtly petition for Christ to stay longer. With alto oboe and alto singer, the entreaty is marked by both an upward ascent in the vocal line to accompany the text ‘highly praised’ and descending whole-tones to depict the encroaching darkness.

The central aria is a chorale setting, reminding us that Word and Sacrament are, indeed, the light. And the final aria, scored for tenor and strings, reminds us that the image of Christ and his passion are the surest way to avoid the pathways of sin.

The theology, of course, is that even though Jesus ascends to heaven, having fulfilled the prophesy, we are shored up by the Holy Spirit, and the promise of Jesus’s return. But the challenge of daily faith is very difficult without the true presence of Jesus. How will we continue? How can we remain Christ-like in our living without his daily presence? The answer is the renewal, affirmation, and cleansing purity of word and table, table and word.

Though we perform an Easter cantata today, the extraordinary need for the light of Christ to dispel the gloom and shroud of sin, calls us to an advent penitence. In the timeless words of the Psalmist: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

Dr. Neville

Yet we seem to have little light for our path these days.  This is why it is so important continually to advert to those things that bear the light, even in dark times.  The sacrament of the table habituates us to gratitude and hope, even when we don’t pay it much attention.  The Word in scripture, in preaching, and of course in the founding structure of the world solicits our attention to the important things even when it is obscurely understood, mumbled, and apparently incoherent.  What are the important things in a crisis riding on blind terrorism?  To remember that our first thought about enemies is that they need to be loved by us.  To be kind always, which includes sharing the grief of those under attack.  To contain rage with disciplined moderation.  To insist, against all our darkened passions, that moral and religious judgment belongs only to God.  To understand that what little light we have allows us only fallible plans and purposes in matters of war and peace.  To wait in hope for the joy that comes in the morning when the light of creation dawns again.  Amen.

–Rev. Dr. Robert Neville, Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology, Boston University

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

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