The Rev. Dr. Robert Hill
A.1. ‘This third cantata of Marsh Chapel’s Bach Experience continues the overarching theme of arrivals that permeate the four cantatas this season: in the fall, we celebrated the birthday of John the Baptist and the Ascension of Mary; in April, we will celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This morning features Bach’s Cantata, composed for the Feast of the Purification and first performed on 2 February 1725. The Purification commemorates Mary’s return to the Temple forty days after giving birth to Jesus in accordance with Mosaic law; the sense of Jesus’ arrival is crystallized, however, by the words of Simeon, whose prophecy of death soon after meeting the Messiah has remained one of the most enduring poetic and musical texts in all of Christianity. Those words, also known by the Latin Nunc dimittis, are set here by Bach in a combination of Martin Luther’s chorale translation and an anonymous libretto’s extrapolation of the corresponding chorale verses’ themes, a technique we have seen in the other chorale cantatas’ (from today’s notes).
A.2. For a moment, let us hear Matthew in concert with all the gospels. They are each very different, but in the acclamation of resurrection and cross, they partly converge. So the grace and power of Bach this morning, are amply justified: ’(The Gospel writer) himself had a vision overwhelming enough to eliminate the painful and humiliating aspects of Jesus’ passion and to replace them with signs of exaltation and glory, so as to compress the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday into a single momentous happening, the defeat of the prince of this world and the victory of Christ’ 193 (Ashton). Recall Matthew, and his community of faith:
A.3.Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus and expanded the ‘points into stars’…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One. So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness. The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity. (199) The… portrait of Christ …is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204). (John Ashton, op. cit)
A.4. Beloved, the Sermon on the Mount is an interim ethic, meant first and foremost for those to whom Jesus preached and with whom Matthew taught. These words, Matthew 5: 21 and following, fit a time when intense expectation predicted the culmination of history in apocalypse, the end of time, not sometime, but Thursday after lunch, or Friday morning. Hence the stark hyperbole here. Hence the rigorous ethic here, pending the eschaton, a teaching ad interim, awaiting, soon and very soon, the return of the Lord. We know hyperbole when we hear it, eyes plucked and hands cut off and so on, no matter the witness of Origen. We know also the wrestling with hard choices, here cast in first century white heat, as in the stricture against divorce, though even here with a caveat, for with Scripture and tradition who know and affirm the need on occasion for divorce, for the sake of the institution of marriage itself. These words from 85ad are not meant to be taken out of 2000 years on ice, only to let them thaw and eat them raw. Sickness would ensue. No, they need preparation, cooking, heating, seasoning, and careful presentation. Originalist interpretation is as much a failed project in biblical hermeneutics as it is in constitutional law.
A.5.Glory! As F.C. Baur put it: ‘The essence of Christianity is the revelation of the glory of God in the only Son of the Father, the fullness of his grace and truth disclosed in him who was made flesh—wherein all the imperfections, limits, and negativity of the law…are absolutely transcended’ (204). What has the Bach Cantata, in all its glory, today to say of and too this all?
Dr. Scott Jarrett
B.1. Today’s cantata explores not just Salvation by faith, but the extraordinary Wonder of the Light of Christ come to save. Written for the Feast of the Purification of Mary, Bach’s anonymous librettist focuses on the wonderful story of Simeon’s encounter with the Christ child in the Temple – the lesson from ten days ago in our calendar.
B.2. The opening movement is as solemn as it is elegant. Set in a dance-like 12/8 time, this e minor opening chorus might remind the listener of the famous opening chorus of the Matthew Passion. The movement’s motives are heard first in dialogue between the solo flute and oboe before other instruments and voices have their chance at the melody. The Chorale itself was well-known to Bach’s listeners, and his special treatment of the phrases toward the end dealing with the Calm and Quiet of Death’s eternal sleep surely wouldn’t have gone without notice.
B.3. The central portion of the cantata sets two arias and two recitatives. And as we might expect, the theological journey moves from the most personal to the corporate, indeed global. Perhaps the most astonishing movement in Cantata 125, Bach’s aria for alto soloist is also the longest clocking in at nearly eleven minutes. The aria is scored for solo flute and oboe, with a lightly pulsating continuo line, and Bach indicates that the keyboard player is not to outline any of the harmonies, but simply double the cello part. The flute and oboe begin as a duet, but the inclusion of the alto solo completes a trinity of highly ornamented concertists. With an obvious nod in the libretto to Simeon’s old and failing eyes, the light of Salvation at having seen his Savior shines clear. Here Bach draws us in to his remarkable sound world – delicate and suspended as we ponder the Wonder of our Salvation.
B.4. By intentional contrast, the bass soloist stirs us from this enthralling music in an accompanied recitative that weaves both libretto and Luther texts in a well-hewn sermon. The wonder of the Light of Salvation takes on a new opulence in a fantastic duet for tenor and bass in which the Light of Christ shines as a global radiance, an “unfathomable and uncreated Treasure of Goodness” – not just for Simeon and Bach’s Lutherans – but a universal assurance of grace.
The Rev. Dr. Robert Hill
C.1. On a Cantata day devoted to arrivals, where are we, and at what portal do we arrive? We are looking back, now, on a decade of progress, across this land of the free and home of the brave: cultural freedom, economic progress, recession bailout, gulf cleanup, attempted bipartisanship, gay marriage, expansive health care, immigration prudence, measured peace, renewable energy, supported community colleges, presidential grace, rhetorical excellence, wars ended, a Nobel Prize, some racial progress, opposition to guns, a denuclearized Iran, Paris climate accords, international respect, personal perseverance, presence in trauma (here in Boston too), and exemplary leadership. But now we are looking forward, now, to a decade of laborious redress: With students at BU—Be You—we will need to be: bold, kind, tough, wise, true, lean, strong, good, sharp, smart. But when? And then, how? Matthew is concerned with false prophets and false brethren, in five parts: discipleship, apostleship, hidden revelation, church administration, judgment. We shall need the sense of glory, of joyful transcendence, of abandon, of play—yes even that found in the aftermath, say, of a fifth Superbowl—to empower and nourish us along the hard path of the next decade, a decade of humiliation that may lead to humility, a decade of crucial but tedious committee level leadership development that may lead to progress, a decade of gradual recognition, slowly, on the part of millennials and baby boomers together, that culture matters, civil society matters, organizations matter, institutions matter. And so do votes.
C.2. Late last Sunday night the words of Peter Berger, a generation ago, may have come to mind: ‘Both in practice and in theoretical thought, human life gains the greatest part of its richness from the capacity for ecstasy, by which I do not mean the alleged experiences of the mystic, but any experience stepping outside the taken for granted reality of everyday life, any openness to the mystery that surrounds us on all sides. A philosophical anthropology worthy of the name will have to regain a perception of these experiences, and with this regain a metaphysical dimension. The theological method suggested here as a possibility will contribute to this rediscovery of ecstasy and metaphysics as crucial dimensions of human life, and by the same token to the recovery of lost riches of both experience and thought’ (A Rumor of Angels, 94). Such ecstasy makes space for generosity.
C.3 In fact, and in conclusion, the eye of the Lord today rests for a moment upon a genuine generosity. You are generous people! If we follow his gaze our eyes too may rest for a moment upon genuine generosity. We too by the lenses of the Scripture may for a moment see what Jesus sees, imagine what he imagines, today. His vision may shape our own. Then in his light we may see light. Follow in the mind’s eye for a moment the angle of vision, the dominical angle of vision, now registered for us and all time in St. Matthew’s generous gospel, Chapter 5. Hum the tune, some months after Christmastide: Do you see what he sees? He sees and honors genuine generosity. Can we do otherwise? The next time you are tempted, as you consider a generous act, to think that no one sees, that no one shares, that no fruit falls, remember today’s gospel, be reconciled…then come and offer your gift. Follow the eye of the Lord, resting for a moment today on generosity. He teaches us about visible generosity. He delights us with religious generosity. He persuades us of the power of generosity.
C.4. Such generosity as had our 16th President, whom, this February 12th, we may recall, just weeks before his death. As Lincoln put it: (March 4, 1865 (in passim))
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first…On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came…
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Invitation to Discipleship (the Rev. Dr. Robert Hill and Dr. Scott Jarrett)
Rev. Dr. Hill: Whence cometh our help?
Dr. Jarrett: From the Lord who made heaven and earth. The Creator. The Ground of Being. The God beyond God. The invisible, unknowable, unutterable, unattainable. The first, the last beyond all thought. The Transcendent.
Rev. Dr. Hill: What is the point of our lives?
Dr. Jarrett: To worship God and glorify God forever.
Rev. Dr. Hill: How is this possible, in the face of silence, darkness, mystery, accident, pride, immaturity, tragedy and the threat of meaninglessness?
Dr. Jarrett: By walking in the dark with our Transforming Friend, the Transcript in Time of who God is in eternity, the gift of the Father’s unfailing grace, our beacon not our boundary, the presence of the absence of God, Jesus Christ our Kyrios.
Rev. Dr. Hill: Given our failures, our gone-wrongness, our sin, what daily hope have we, as those who hope for what we do not see?
Dr. Jarrett: Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Where there is freedom, there is promise. There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe. There is a self-correcting Spirit of Truth loose in the universe.
Rev. Dr. Hill: How do we follow the trail of the Spirit?
Dr. Jarrett: By tithing, by ordered Sunday worship, by honest faithfulness in our relationships.
-Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music and
The Reverend Dr. Robert Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel