The Bach Experience

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1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Matthew 25:14-30

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Preface

Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’.  He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’.  He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name’.  He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.  He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us!  Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship.  Come and join us in this season of remembrance!  Come, especially today, amid the beauties of Bach and the rituals of Thanksgiving, to remember your humanity, fragility, mortality…eternity.  Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Bach today, and the Scripture every day, sing out to us:  God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human.

Longing

 The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow. The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow.  So, Shelley.

El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality. El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality.  So, Unamuno.

Our cantata today sings of heaven.  The cantata sings out for what lasts, matters, counts.

Lao Tze wrote:  The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it. The reality of the vessel is the shape of the void within it.

At the heart of the human being there is a longing for God, for heaven, for eternity.

Pause for a minute.  Sometimes that longing has an overture in other forms of emptiness, of lack, of longing.

One autumn, following a brief pastoral conversation, you could see lingering on the leaf pocked porch step, a woman at young middle age.  For a variety of reasons, common enough, in her whole life she had really no real friends, until by grace in the years before, and by grace in the church of Christ, she had found a friend, made a friend, become a friend, been befriended by another woman her own age, with children of the same ages, husbands of the same baleful tempers, parents of the same haunting failings.  She had a friend.  If you have friend, one is a great number in a lifetime, then you know.  But in June her friend moved a long way away.   Come November, there was that ache, that emptiness, that longing, that ‘shape of the void within’.  To date, no other friend has come along to fill that void.

And you?  Can you conjure your own such longing?  If only I had finished my degree.  If only I had fallen in love.  If only I had really discerned a calling.  If only I had kept that other job.  If only I had more loving parents.  If only I could put words to the pre-dawn presentiments of what I think is faith.  If only someone would notice that I can be a good pal.  If only I could shake off this daily anxiety.  If only someone would publish my book.  If only I could get the grace to forgive what he or she did to me.  If only my parents would see my beloved as I see him.  If I only I could wake once with a smile.  If only he would see me as I really am.  And you?  Can you conjure your own such longing?

The more proximate longings can prefigure the ultimate longing, in its own full way unspeakable but not for that reason any less real.

The desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow, the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow.  El anhelo de la inmortalidad. The longing for immortality.

Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human.  Pastoral experience in the main shows that most of us most of the time do not fear death, but we do fear.  What we fear is the death of our loved ones and the death of our dreams. What we fear is the death of our loved ones and the death of our dreams.  Maybe something like that is behind Matthew’s rendering of the inherited parable today, his anger, his burning mean-spirited dyspepsia.  Said a faithful Anglican a few weeks ago: ‘How much longer do we hear from Matthew and the dark side?’ Not long, not long.  Yet Matthew’s recognition of the human failures in the human condition we do recognize in our own years of humiliation. The longing, that heaven shaped soul emptiness, that desire—anhelo—abides.  How does Bach sing this today?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Singing

In this year’s Bach Experience, we have been focusing on cantatas Bach composed in his first weeks in Leipzig as cantor at St. Thomas. His task was to provide a musical explication of the day’s lessons alongside the sermon. These cantatas, comprising solo arias, recitatives, choruses, and chorales, with librettos using both scripture and free poetic texts, typically last about 20 – 30 minutes. In this context, it was Bach’s task to work through the theological ideas at hand. Each cantata is masterpiece in miniature, and we continue to marvel at the astonishing invention, creativity, and complexity revealed note by note.

Cantata 95, ‘Christus, der ist mein Leben’, takes up one of the most difficult but ubiquitous themes of Bach’s day: how to reconcile and countenance our mortality. Our program annotator writes: Consider that pre-Enlightenment Germany saw death and devastation in the Thirty Years’ War unknown to Europe since the fourteenth century, and that Bach himself was orphaned at age ten and lost his first wife and ten of his twenty children. Death was all around; the promise of immediate salvation cultivated a cultural longing for it and served as a powerful call to faith.”

Serving to teach, remind, and also comfort, Bach drew on four different familiar hymns or chorales that serve as the foundation for this seven-movement cantata. These tunes and texts serve as a beacon to the believer — a tuneful and memorable transmission of theology: Christ, He is my Life, To die is my gain; To it do I surrender myself, With joy I go yonder. / With peace and joy I go there according to the Will of God. Death has become my sleep. / I would bid you farewell, You evil, false world. In heaven it is good to dwell. / Since Christ is arisen from the dead, I will not remain in the grave; Your last Word is my ascension, Death’s dear You can drive away. For where You are, there do I come, That I may always live and be with You; Therefore I depart with joy.

These chorales establish the orthodoxy around which the believer can begin to reconcile his own personal response and call. Musically, the four chorale setting also offer a composition guide to the possibilities of setting chorale tunes. The first is set as an orchestral chorale fantasia with each phrase of the chorale set off by exuberant motives from the oboes and strings in G major. The second, heard as the concluding section of the first movement, casts the chorus in counterpoint with the oboes and and horn set over a more rhythmic, walking bass line. The soprano soloist takes up the third chorale, in a little aria that becomes a sweet devotional song with two oboes d’amore in unison encouraging her song. The cantata concludes with a four part setting of the fourth chorale in an expected way, with the notable additional of a fifth voice as descant in the fist violin part.

The most remarkable music of the cantata is reserved for the tenor soloist, who, through his clarity of faith, teaches Bach’s congregants a possibility of their personal attitudes toward mortality. His music in the central aria is sung almost in spite of the music of the instruments, which seem to proceed on their own clock. The aural image here is one of funeral bells, or a glockenspiel in a bell tower. The strings play entirely pizzicato, or plucked, throughout, and the organ remains silent. You can imagine this sound as the inner workings of the clock played in precise and regular patterns and rhythms. On two, the two oboes play their melody in parallels. The missing third note of their chords is obscured in the pizzicatos of the first violin part. And, to my ear, this further contributes to the ‘mechanized’ sound of this music – a Leichenglock or funeral bells. The tenor joins up musically with the instruments every time he sings the words “blessed hour”, singing the third or missing note in the oboe pattern. There are so many choices here from the composer revealing a musical reality the likes of which only a Johann Sebastian Bach could imagine.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Praying

Some of you have been reading again the Confessions of St. Augustine, in Sarah Ruden’s new translation.  Like the music of Bach, the music of his poetic prose, his prosaic poetry, lasts and matters and counts.  Augustine lifts our eyes from earth to heaven, from the visible to the invisible, from the daily to the divine.  Bach does the same.  Augustine in powerful particularity, teaches us again to pray.  In a word, for him, prayer is thanksgiving.  All right, in four words, prayer is grace, courtesy, respect, and gratitude.  Prayer is not a spiritual hockey puck, hit by slap-shot toward the masked goalie God.  Prayer is being thankful, giving thanks, bespeaking gratitude.  Howard Thurman knew this so well.  As the student choir Morehouse College sang, to honor Thurman’s birthday, in prayer, we give thanks.  So, each year, at Marsh Chapel, on this Sunday, so close to his birthdate, on this Sunday, so close to our nation’s holiday, on this Sunday, so set apart to honor the grateful, we offer Thurman’s Thanksgiving prayer.  You may, by the way, take it from the website to your own Thanksgiving table, should you want need or like. Count it our annual public service!

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives

Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies

And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger on by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment

To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:

The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,

My desires, my gifts;

The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence

That I have never done my best, I have never dared

To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind

Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the

inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the

children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music 

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