The Bach Experience

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Luke 18: 31-43

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Gospel

Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Luke, our third gospel, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.

You will remember from last Sunday that Luke loves history and Luke loves theology and Luke loves compassion and Luke loves the church.

Bach’s music surrounds our Gospel from Luke 18.  Here Luke has returned both the content and to the outline of Mark’s Gospel, which, as we saw last week, predated Luke by 15 years or so.  From this point forward, more or less, Luke will stick to Mark’s course, or outline, for the Gospel through the triumphal entry and through the week of challenge, and through the passion of the cross, on to resurrection, the theme of the music today.

If you will, pause a bit, speaking of grief, to see how Luke changes, supplements, reduces and applies what he has inherited to his own time—another decade than Mark’s, another community than Mark’s, another setting than Mark’s, another pastoral moment than Mark’s.  What good news that in the Bible itself there is such freedom, fungibility, flexibility and creativity! The presence in absence of Jesus Christ, risen, whose Spirit dwells with the church, did not in any way appease in full the haunting grief of his death, his ignominy, his sacrificial, tragic death.  Faith is born in grief. Faith is awakened in grief. Faith is quickened in grief. Faith is made in grief.

Luke omits the blind man’s name, given in Mark as ‘Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus’.  He may have done so because this is a phrase from the department of redundancy department, that is, the Bar means son, so Son of Timaeus Son of Timaeus is repeated repetition.  Luke wants an orderly account, befitting his love of history.

Luke then adds the new fact or stylized memory or pure imaginary addition that a ‘multitude’ was passing by, a great throng.  He may have done so because he wanted to emphasize the power and glory of Jesus’ ministry, and to brighten and expand the response to Him during his earthly preaching, teaching, and, here as elsewhere, healing.  Further, rather than simply choosing to ‘call’ the blind man forward, here the Gospel has Jesus ‘command’ him forward. No mere suggestion is made for this audition, but a commandment to come. Luke wants a certain kind of Christ, befitting his love of theology.

Luke leaves no doubt as to whose power and influence have made this miraculous healing possible.  In Mark, we hear simply that faith has made the man well, ‘your faith has made you well’. In Luke, ‘Receive your sight!’, and then the same statement connecting faith and salvation.  One’s wellness, one’s salvation—here we can draw a direct line to Bach and Luther—is by faith, by faith alone, by grace, by grace alone. Luke wants no shadow between the passion of Christ and the compassion of Christ.

Luke here, as well, makes space for the expansion of the church.  ‘And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God’. What is a private moment in Mark becomes a public display in Luke.

You will remember from last Sunday that Luke loves history and Luke loves theology and Luke loves compassion and Luke loves the church.

Dr. Jarrett, as you have lovingly and compassionately done for us now over many years, can you help us approach the audition of today’s cantata, with appreciation of both history and theology, a passion for compassion, and a regard for the church, through the ages?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

As much as the Gospel lesson from Luke 18, our point of departure this Bach Sunday is Paul Eber’s 1582 hymn ‘Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott’ or ‘Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God.’ Bach’s librettist draws literally and poetically on eight of Eber’s stanzas, connecting Luke 18 to Luther: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”, said the blind man; Jesus in response, “Your faith has saved you;” and so Luther teaches, “Sola Fides, Sola Fides!” We have now just sung two stanzas of Eber’s hymn, whose melody, texts and message, imbue Cantata 127 not just in name, but bar by bar, word by word.

For the interior of the Cantata, Bach calls on a tenor to set the predicament in a recitative describing how in our own failings, our depths of grief, our final hour, it is our faith, just as the Blind Man, that draws us to Christ’s Passion and the assurance of his redeeming grace. The soprano and bass take up the cause at this point in two of the most astounding arias in all the cantatas. In echo with a heart-rending oboe obbligato, the soprano brings us without fear to our final: The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. In the background, the plaintive oboe and soprano lines weave together supported by two recorders and continuo marking an unrelenting and unwavering pulse, the inevitable tick of time. In the middle of the aria, the soprano seems to engage with the tick of clock: Call me soon, O funeral bells, I am unafraid of dying, For my Jesus shall wake me again! As the soprano sings the word for funeral bells — Sterbeglokken — the sprockets and gears of the clock seem to come to life in five measures of upper string pizzicato.

The bass draws us one level closer to life in eternity, with invocation of the last trumpet and the harrowing day of judgment. As the earth’s foundation are shattered and sunk in ruin, Jesus will be our advocate and redeemer: Believers shall survive forever; they shall not be judged, and shall not taste eternal Death; Cling to Jesus for your salvation.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

Grief

Jesus meets us today out of the pages in St. Luke, our third gospel, and clothed in the radiant beauty of a Bach Cantata.  It may be, for you, this Lord’s Day, that his appearance, in word and music, takes the form of honest grief, honesty about grief, good grief.

Out of all manner and mixture of feelings, grief, usually unnamed and unspoken, can bring us to worship.  We do not come usually or specifically to church to grieve, unless, perhaps in attendance at funeral or memorial services.  We do not say, slipping into the pew, today I am here to grieve, in grief, grieving. Grief is bigger, miles higher and longer than that, beyond depiction, beyond description.  Yet alongside us, walking alongside us, come Sunday, it may be, paces grief, our grief.

Grief is a sacrament.  It has a mysterious cast and quality to it, something well afar from our own control, like the grace given us in the Gospel, in that way.  Nor is it enough for the preacher to utter the word ‘grief’ for us to greet grief ourselves, of a Sunday morning, on personal terms. Here is where memory may come in.  The memory of a partially remembered verse, or homily, weeks later, may trigger something that then allows you to say to yourself, Well my goodness, that is what this is, this mid-winter something alongside me:  it is my grief. You don’t have to count Citizen Kane your favorite or only favorite film to recognize the cavernous, celestial, capacious range of grief.  Grief takes years.

One of the reasons that over more than a decade here at Marsh Chapel we have tried to preach with notes as well as letters, with music as well as words, on Bach Sundays, is just around this corner.  The music may release from the semi or sub conscious that which has blocked healing, blinded salvation. Resurrection music may bring remembrance that itself is a mode of resurrection. Robert Hass says the movement of grief has something in it of the desert’s bareness and of its distances.

Listen to his sly poem, variations on a passage in edward abbey

A dune begins with an obstacle—a stone, a shrub, a log,
anything heavy enough to resist being moved by wind.

This obstacle forms a wind shadow on its leeward side,
making eddies in the currents, now fast, now slow, of the air,

exactly as a rock in a stream causes an eddy in the water.
Within the eddy the wind moves with less force and less velocity

than the airstreams on either side, creating what geologists call
the surface of discontinuity. And it is here that the wind

tends to drop part of its load of sand. The sand particles,
which hop or bounce along the earth before the wind,

begin to accumulate, creating a greater eddy in the air currents
and capturing still more sand.

It’s thus a dune is formed.

Viewed in cross section, sand dunes display a characteristic profile.
On the windward side the angle of ascent is low and gradual—

twenty to twenty-five degrees from the horizontal. On the leeward side
the slope is much steeper, usually about thirty-four degrees—

the angle of repose of sand and most other loose materials.
The steep side of the dune is called the slip face
because of the slides
that occur as sand is driven up the windward side
and deposited on or just over the crest.
The weight of the crest
eventually becomes greater than can be supported by the sand beneath,
so the extra sand slumps down the slip face
and the whole dune
advances in the direction of the prevailing wind, until some obstacle
like a mountain intervenes.

This movement, this grand slow march
across the earth’s surface, has an external counterpart in the scouring
movement of glaciers,          

and an internal one in the movement of grief
which has something in it of the desert’s bareness
and of its distances. (repeat)

Here is our affirmation:

It is enough that faith knows

That Jesus stands by me

Who patiently draws near His passion

And leads me too along the arduous path

And prepares for me my resting place

 

It is enough that faith knows

That Jesus stands by me

Who patiently draws near His passion

And leads me too along the arduous path

And prepares for me my resting place

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

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