Our apprehension of Bach’s cantatas this year highlights resurrection. The day of transfiguration is perfect for such an acclamation. It may be that Mark, first, and then Luke, following Mark some two decades later, entwined this marvelous and mysterious moment into the life of Jesus, when it had originally been an experience of his resurrection following Easter. It may have been replaced, or placed ahead, to argue that what the primitive Christians found in their own experience, and acclaimed in their own preaching, and felt in their own hearts had, here it is suggested, been known even in his lifetime, if only to a few, if only in the rarest settings, if only up on a mountain. ‘Many interpreters hold that the narrative was originally an account of an appearance of the Risen Christ to Peter James and John that has been moved forward and made an incident in the life of Jesus” (IBD loc cit.) Belief in Jesus’ Messiahship, it may be, grew out of belief in his resurrection. Whether pre or post Easter, then, the Transfiguration is either a premonition of resurrection or a recollection of resurrection, and both finely fit our music today. Resurrection is the preaching of the gospel of love, spoken and heard. The Gospel is the word and possibility of love in unloving, unlovely, love-deprived world. Resurrection is the experience of love divine, all loves excelling.
“We want to mark the places and preserve the moments where we have encountered God’ (Ringe, loc cit). On the mountain, on the mountain, on the mountain…
You are following Luke well this year. Notice how roundly he changes Mark, here, too. Notice Luke’s Additions: the admonition to pray; the use of the term exodus (departure); the allusion to coming death and ascension; Peter is heavy with sleep; Jesus called not rabbi but master; not my Beloved but my Chosen (not beloved); the reminder and explanation that the disciples kept silence (as in Mark’s messianic secret—an admission in a way that the story only emerged after the resurrection.)
The other alternative is Matthew, who copies Mark nearly word for word. No, Luke has gone his own way, and given us the Lukan view of Transfiguration, later than that of Mark, different from that of Mark, fuller than that of Mark. What do Luke’s additions amount to?
What others have seen and heard is meant to inspire us to see and hear, in prayer. Luke regularly and steadily supplements the narrative with additional moments of prayer. The most activist of the gospels is also the most passive, the most prayerful. Likewise, the whole ethos of exodus is emphasized in Luke. Yes, life is a journey. Yes, the journey of faith includes risk, distress, and pain. Yes, the sojourn in the wilderness is a cost of leaving the fleshpots of any Egypt, just as winter is the cost for summer. Then, Peter awakes (the KJV has it better). He wakes up to the Resurrected, who, for Luke is not merely teacher (rabbi) but master (Lord), a metamorphosis from Mark to Luke that is similar in shape to the internal metamorphosis in John alone. He is the Chosen, emphasizing purpose, intention, mission, and election—emphasizing the church. It is a rare titular depiction of Jesus—Chosen. Chosen from many? Chosen for reason? Chosen as a celebration of divine will? In favor of viewing this story as originally a remembered experience after the resurrection which has been transplanted into the life of Jesus to show that the experience of the church really did have historical antecedents is the explanation that know one really knew about this because the disciples kept the secret. Luke is settting things right for the long haul. Prayer to nourish for the long haul. Journey as a metaphor for struggle over the long haul. Lordship, a higher and hierarchical Savior, to strengthen weakened knees and souls for the long haul. The presence of the divine will, soon for Luke to emerge in the body of the Church, to guide all for the long haul. Luke advises us to be ‘in it for the long haul’ whatever ‘it’ is. Luke gives Divine confirmation of Jesus’ Messiahship. It places into the history of Jesus what the later church believed, believes, knew, and preached. See: even during his life a few people knew and saw what we know and see.
One wonders, Scott, how best to hear resurrection in today’s music?
When I read the stories of Jesus, I am constantly struck not by Jesus’s actions but by how the people around him react: I remember Simon when I think of Jesus in the temple; I remember Peter when I think of Jesus in Gethsemane; I weep with the beloved disciple and marvel with the Centurion when Jesus is on the cross; my own inner-Thomas is revealed when I hear of Jesus in Emmaus. And here, too, it’s not that Jesus enjoys a nice visit with Moses and Elijah while on a mountain hike, but rather that Peter misses the point, requiring the Lord to set him straight in a cloud. And then my mind wanders to the notion of God speaking through the fog of Cloud. Should I listen for God more on cloudy days??
Well, now I’m just like Peter on the mountain top, wandering and missing the point, and in my own sermon!
As Dean Hill mentioned in his opening, our series this year survey’s Bach’s musical sermons celebrating the Resurrection Story. Today’s Cantata, No 31 “Heaven laughs, Earth rejoices’ was written early in Bach’s career during his period in Weimar. He takes full advantage of Weimar’s instrumental possibilities and the literary gifts of resident poet Salomo Franck.
The structure of the Cantata may be understood in three distinct sections: The Resurrection Story retold by Chorus and Bass; The Charge to the Believer heralded by the Tenor; and finally, the Believer’s Affirmation of the Charge. And just as in the Biblical stories, we move quickly from Jesus’s resurrection to our own foibles and possibilities in relation to Jesus. The central images to watch and listen for are that of Vine and Branches; Tree of Life with limbs and branches; Christ as head, we as limbs; the cross as ladder to heaven; and, of course, the grave of sin. Typical of the theology and imagery of the time, our life on earth is depicted as the grave, a chamber of the sin of Adam’s inheritance. We eagerly await the final hour in which we shed the mortal coil of sin, and, through resurrection by the spirit, reach life everlasting, arms outstretched to the risen Savior at the gate of Heaven.
Musically speaking, brilliance is everywhere on display in our cantata today. Festival scoring for trumpets and drums, joyous opening sinfonia paired with a thrilling opening five part chorus, three diverse arias proving the composer’s gifts and skills, and a sublime and delicate final chorale with heavenly descant.
Once again, Bach brings us to a mountain top, his own Castle of Heaven. Bach’s music offers a glimpse of that moment when we, too, will be transformed, joining heaven’s angels in the radiant, joyous glow of Christ Jesus.
The Shekinah, the cloud, the presence, on the mountain, shadows us today. We want to bear that mystery in our present, in our person, do we not? Tittle: ‘as he faced the possibility of suffering and death his mind reverted to the great figures of Israel’s past…let us place ourselves under the influence of Christ and even we sill be transfigured…something of his glory will shine in our hearts and appear in our faces and show forth in our lives’.
The Shekinah, the cloud, the presence, on the mountain, shadows us today. Sometimes, later in life, we realize what was going on, earlier in life. So, Robert Hayden, African American poet, in the line of Hughes, Baldwin, Ellison, and all, writes and remembers and rejoices. Here is a poem written by Hayden, remembering his youth and his father:
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Then with cracked hands that ached
From labor in the weekday weather made
Banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
And slowly I would rise and dress
Fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
Who had driven out the cold
And polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?
(By Robert Hayden)
The Shekinah, the cloud, the presence, on the mountain, shadows us today. The necessary freedom, and the disciplined grace, of Luke’s gospel firmly accosts us with the daily need, the daily task, the daily prospect, the daily adventure, the daily promise, the daily existential, lonely, windswept mountain top liberty of faith in the resurrection. Back at home, it may be, for those present this morning, or there at home, it may be, for those listening today there is transfiguration awaiting, a resurrection beckoning, a faith and gospel lying in hiding, ready for action. Write that letter. Sign that check. Make that call. Read that verse. Forget that hurt. Watch. Fight. Pray. Live rejoicing every day.
He comes to us as one unknown,
a breath unseen, unheard;
as though within a heart of stone,
or shriveled seed in darkness sown,
a pulse of being stirred.
He comes when souls in silence lie
and thoughts of day depart,
half-seen upon the inward eye,
a falling star across the sky
of night within the heart.
He comes to us in sound of seas,
the ocean’s fume and foam;
yet small and still upon the breeze,
a wind that stirs the tops of trees,
a voice to call us home.
He comes in love as once he came
by flesh and blood and birth;
to bear within our mortal frame
a life, a death, a saving name
for every child of earth.
He comes in truth when faith is grown;
believed, obeyed, adored:
the Christ in all the scriptures shown,
as yet unseen, but not unknown,
our Savior, and our Lord.
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