The Bach Experience

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Mark 9:2-9 

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Hill

Last Sunday our worship service of Word and Table conclude with the singing of an old hymn, written by a Massachusetts minister J. Edgar Park, who was President of Wheaton College, Massachusetts. He was born in Belfast, Ireland, March 7, 1879 and had his theological studies at New College, Edinburgh, The Royal University, Dublin, and Princeton Theological Seminary. His principal pastorate was in the Second Church of Newton, Congregational, West Newton, Massachusetts, which he served 1926 to 1944, going from there to the Presidency of Wheaton. He was the author of many books, including one of the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale.

You may not in fact remember the hymn we sang, to conclude our service, which is not any detriment to or criticism of you. The hymn title is ‘We Would See Jesus’, number 256 in our venerable Methodist Hymnal, which Hymnal is about to be revised this coming year with all the attendant disagreements, disputes, and ultimately, we trust, a happy and useful outcome for the use of singing Methodists near and far. One of our own faculty here at Boston University is a member of that committee.

The hymn fits our readings from Mark, and fits Epiphany, the season out of which we come, and traces the ministry of Jesus.

We would see Jesus, lo! His star is shining, above the stable while the angels sing

There in a manger on the hay reclining, haste let us lay our gifts before the King 

We would see Jesus, Mary’s Son most holy…

We would see Jesus, on the mountain teaching…

We would see Jesus, in his work of healing…

We would see Jesus, still as of old he calleth ‘Follow me’… 

In a few simple verses, the hymn traces the earthly ministry of Jesus, birth, growth, teaching, healing, calling.   This is the Jesus most of us most of the time are most comfortable with, and the Jesus, one could add, that most seminarians prefer to study, the Jesus of parables, of the lilies of the field, of the various healings, of the preachments in valley and on mountain—in short, the human Jesus. This is the Jesus known and heard in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with some occasional exceptions, like today’s reading. We can fairly readily approach this Jesus, we would see him as the hymn says, in the verses and chapters of the Synoptic Gospels.

Now pause, for a moment, and hear again the Gospel today, which is none of this. The Mark 9 Transfiguration is like an invasion of the gospel of John into an other-wise happy earliest Gospel of Mark. A high mysterious mountain. Strange choices about booths. The sudden acclamation of Elijah and Moses. A blinding light. MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM. The Holy. Suddenly not just a teacher or preacher or healer or rabbi, but…This is the Jesus of your life and death. Death makes us mortal, facing death makes us human. This is the Jesus of whom it is said, ‘My Lord and My God’. This is the Jesus to whom we turn in the Lenten challenges, whether or not they come in Lent, the Lord of life and death.   So, our Charles Wesley hymn, in a few moments, is quite different: Christ whose glory fills the skies, Christ the true the only light, Sun of Righteousness arise, triumph o’er the shades of night, Dayspring from on High be near, Daystar in my heart appear

It is this holy grace, this gracious holiness, to which we turn our ears, not our eyes, on the Sundays, like this one, upon which we hear the Gospel as spoken, but also as sung: A day is coming that will judge the secrets [of humankind], Before which hypocrisy may tremble. For the wrath of His jealousy annihilates What hypocrisy and cunning contrive.

                        Dr. Jarrett: how shall we listen, this morning, with particular and careful attention, to today’s cantata?

 

Jarrett

 Thank you, Dean Hill. At first read, the texts of today’s cantata surely align more with the MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM depiction you’ve just described. Cantata 136 warns of the day of judgement when our own hypocrisy and cunning-ways threaten to undo us. The bass soloist tells us that the heavens themselves are not clean, and that all are struck by spots of sin, brought upon us by Adam’s Fall. These depictions endure for much of the cantata, until, mercifully, we are reminded that Jesus’s wounds cleanse and redeem. In the final chorale we sing that even a drop of the Blood of Jesus can cleanse the entire world. The image is one of humankind ensnared in the Devil’s jaws, set free and at liberty by the blood of the lamb.

Bach’s anonymous librettist was surely trying to amplify the themes of the lessons heard earlier in the Leipzig service — for Bach these were lessons from Romans and Matthew. They call the Christian to live according to the spirit, not the flesh, along with an admonishment to beware false prophets and hypocrisy. These are the subjects of the internal movements – two recitatives, an alto aria, and a duet for tenor and bass. Bach highlights a few words here with extended melismas for the singers: erzittern or tremble referring to the sinner on judgment day, vernichtet or annihilate describing the wrath of God’s jealousy. In the duet, as if to number our spots of sin, Flecken is set as a melisma. Later in the duet the redeeming Strom or stream of Jesus’s blood is similarly treated, all of which offer aural anchors throughout these two remarkable movements.

A typical cantata libretto draws on several sources for texts. The internal movements were most often newly written poetic texts by someone in close working relationship with Bach. It’s in these texts we find the most theological exegesis worked out. Most often the cantatas concluded with a Chorale by one of the famous Lutheran hymn writers, frequently by Luther himself. The opening movements were typically direct quotes of Scripture, drawing on the Psalms more than any other Biblical source. Bach follows this exact design in Cantata 136, opening his cantata with the 23rd verse of Psalm 139: Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. In the German: “Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz; Prüfe mich, und erfahre, wie ich’s meine.” Modern German translations of the Luther Bible replace erfahre with erkenne. Regardless, listeners can recognize these four imperative verbs that begin each line, imploring God’s true examination of our inmost thoughts.

Hill

I rely with gratitude on John Ashton, a great NT scholar, to keep the Jesus of Mark and also the Jesus of John, who makes an invasive appearance here in Mark 9, both before us. Both Christmas and Easter. Both Life and Death. Both teaching and crucifixion. Both healing and resurrection. Jesus both human divine, both Mark and John, both Mark 1 and Mark 9.   Both ‘We would see Jesus’ and ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies’. Both last Sunday and this Sunday.

No doubt the Synoptic Gospels held their place; but for them Christianity might well have rapidly vaporized into some form of speculative Gnosticism. It did not; the parables of the kingdom and the Sermon on the Mount continued to be regarded as indispensable elements of the Christian message, and—more importantly—the Jesus who preached them remained ever present to the Christian consciousness. 

To most modern eyes the portrait painted by the Synoptists is both both simpler and more attractive.   It is the portrait of a man with a special relationship with God, whom he addresses by the intimate name of Abba, Father…He was a man of his time; his teaching and preaching, even his healing miracles, can readily be placed in the context of first century Palestinian Judaaism. If he were suddenly to reappear as he really was he would no doubt seem to us, in Albert Schweitzer’s phrase,’ a stranger and an enigma’, but a recognizable human being nonetheless.

Not so the Johannine Christ (we add, here, not so the Christ of the Transfiguration). He does not belong to this world at all: it is almost true to say that he enters it with the purpose of leaving it. He is a pre-existent divine being whose real home is heaven. He enters an alien world with an unprecedented confidence and assurance, knowing who he is, where he comes from, and where he is going…He orchestrates his own passion…he can read Pilate’s heart. There is about him no trace of uncertainty. Master of his fate, captain of his soul… his head bloodied but unbowed, he never had to confront either the fell clutch of circumstance or the bludgeonings of chance. (Ashton, 1991, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 239)

 Well beloved, that is, there is a full and deep mystery here, an unfathomable, an uncanny deep, right here in our Gospel, of the sudden appearance of a Jesus who would fit well in John, but not so well in Mark. And is that not, for us, come Sunday, this Sunday, in the hearing of the word and music, a part of our needed reminder, a reminder about the limits of life, about the mystery of life, about the God gift of life, given us well beyond our capacity to understand it? Perhaps we can carry from the beauty and holiness of these precious gospel and musical moments, a sturdy reminder of the great strangeness, the great mystery, the great, tremendous, yes, unearthly voice and presence and grace of our Lord, who comes to us, this morning, interrupting the rest of his more human appearance in Mark, with this scene befitting John, and interrupting our forgetfulness about mystery. In that spirit, let us pray:

Gracious God, Holy and Just

Thou from whom we come and unto whom our spirits return

Thou source of Wisdom, fount of Wisdom, well spring of saving Wisdom

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

That we might listen

That we might hear

That we might understand

That we might listen, hear and understand before we analyze or criticize

Make of us, we pray, an addressable community

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

That we might polish our proclivity for the second thought, the second try, the second chance

That we might expect to uncover a latent goodness, latent in others and in ourselves and across this great, though troubled, globe

That we might become good in ways that become the Gospel

Make of us, we pray, a benevolent community

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

Alive to spirit, alive to love, alive to grace

Take away from our souls all strain and stress

Let us breathe again, breathe deeply, breathe the soulful breath of life

Make of us, we pray, a soulful community

For we have gathered and bear witness to Jesus, our beacon not our boundary.

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

 

 

 

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