April 17

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

John 10:22-30

Click here to listen to the meditations only

Dean Hill

So let us keep the festival whereto the Lord invites us; Christ is himself the joy of all, the Sun that warms and lights us.  By his grace he doth impart eternal sunshine to the heart; the night of sin is ended.  Alleluia!  (So wrote Martin Luther in 1524).

You will see down the street a block, outside the BU Academy, a new photograph commending the Academy.  A young woman, with face upturned, radiantly smiles and casts a long look, eyes beaming, into an unseen future.  It is a striking, even staggering image, the look of Easter.  Behold there the look of promise, hope, freedom, openness, courage, excitement, joy, and peace.

Lent is for preparation and discipline in living.  Easter is for living.  We are not meant to live in Lent.  We are meant to live in Easter.   For this reason itself and alone, it will have been excellent practice for us to have heard all Easter cantatas all year, here at Marsh Chapel, where we are blessed with the finest University Chapel music anywhere in the country.   Your life is made for and meant for and marked for meaningful freedom, joyful growth, loving service, and personal peace.  You are a child of God, one for whom Christ died, and in whom His resurrection is intended to dwell.  If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, then you will be saved.  Confession is an act, uttered by the lips, and lived in the spirit.  Belief is a matter of the heart, embraced in the dark, and carried forward in the light.   

Think about the novelty of Marsh Chapel Community Ecclesiology, one of several ‘new ways of being church’.  You are in one sense‘The Church of the UnChurched (students, radio listeners, occasional attendees, those returning to faith, pod cast people, all)’.  God is doing a new thing.   You come Sunday, you listen Sunday.  Sunday opens the rest of the week for living.   Then you live in community and University in the three other ‘ships’, other than worship—discipleship, fellowship, and stewardship.  This wide berth of freedom can be a great challenge, but is also a magnificent gift, for those with ears to hear.  As WS Coffin so often said, ‘God gives us minimum protection and maximum support’.

Our Holy Scripture, the prototype of every type of struggle in life, breathes us life.

Psalm 23 forever proclaims a Good Shepherd, a shepherding goodness forever available, always possible, eternally present.  Goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days of my life.  But such shepherding, incarnate, requires human time, effort, voices, notes and donations.

Acts 9—we still are reading Luke, but have jumped to the second season for a time, his full history, the Acts of the Apostles—accounts a dramatic healing, a raising like that of Lazarus, but this time at the hands of Peter, not of Jesus.   Our teacher reminded us that the one-to-one things are the most important, the personal things count most.  Tabitha!  Rise!  Please do not become lost in the mystery or magic of these multiple acts in Acts.  Here the Scripture attests strongly and simply to real healing, the potential for real help, in real time.

Revelation 7 begins with tribulation, suffering.  There will be a time, a place, a setting when the Shepherd will guide the thirsty to springs of living water, when the Shepherd will meet the sorrowful and wipe away every tear from their eyes, when the Shepherd will find the hungry and feed them all, when the Shepherd will embrace the thirsty and slake their thirst, when the Shepherd will wash with mercy and peace the robes of tribulation and suffering.   Now this is aspiration not actuality, right now.  We are hoping for what we do not see; we are seeing in a glass dimly; we are holding treasures in earthen vessels

John 10:22-30 makes audible the voice of the Shepherd, and so the sheep may know that voice, they may hear and they may know and they may follow.  This Spiritual Gospel of John is so lastingly redolent with the Divine Presence!  We are in good hands, and so we are able to bear one another’s burdens (H Smith).

John Wesley taught us: “Do all the good you can, at all the times you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can”….and… “Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”

Dr. Jarrett, for what shall we listen, this Eastertide, as the beauty of Bach’s Cantata addresses us?

Dr. Jarrett

Our cantata this morning is one of the most famous in all Bach’s output. One of his earliest cantatas, Christ lag in Todesbanden, or Christ lay in Death’s Bonds, sets all seven verses of Martin Luther’s 1524 hymn in a remarkable display of invention and variation, within an overall symmetrical design of proportion and elegance so familiar to us from this composer.

The text depicts the epic battle of life over death, redemption versus destruction — the Paschal lamb roars as the Lion of Judah. Bach scored his cantata for strings only, including two viola lines, and achieves an astonishing degree of variety and color with such limited instrumental resources. Here are few things to listen for this morning:

  • Each verse ends with a refrain of Hallelujah. Note the variety and possibility of emotion explored with each of these refrains, from the frenetic energy of the first alla breve, the doleful Hallelujahs of the soprano and alto, the chorus’s scurrying refrain as the epic battle falls away; or the pealing, rounded Hallelujahs of the soprano and tenor in the final festive duet.
  • If you follow a translation or word book, note the opportunities to stay fixed visually, aurally, and theologically on the Cross. The Cross becomes the ultimate emblem of victory over sin.
  • In the central choral movement, listen for the fantastic depiction of the battle: soprano, tenor, and bass voices scrape and thrash around each as Death Gobbles Death in scathing mockery.

In many ways, Christ lag is the best connection of  the joy of Easter with the glory of Christ’s passion. The focus is not on the disciples, mourning the loss of their leader, nor is the focus on our human frailty clinging to the hem of Christ’s garment. The victory of the cross and the triumph of love is our theme, Christ as Victor.  

“So we celebrate the high festival with joy of heart and delight, which the Lord radiates upon us, He himself is the Sun, that through the splendor of his Grace illuminates our hearts completely, the night of sin has disappeared. Hallelujah!”

Dean Hill

The few Bach Easter works, as Mr. Kostrzewski reminds us, exude and exemplify ‘an air of humility that remains ever present, the music and the libretti constantly referring to the Passion as the gateway to the Resurrection’.  Yes.  The Resurrection follows but does not replace the Cross.  Luther: crux sola nostra teologia, the cross alone is our theology.  Mr. Wesley was converted to full faith under the hearing of Martin Luther’s exposition of Romans 8, on rainy Sunday evening in London, May 23, 1738.  We still live in two worlds.

We live in a glorious, wonderful world. There are at least 100 billion galaxies besides our own (NYRB, 3.16).  The universe is expanding, and the rate of that expansion is increasing.  Every second over 600 billion particles called neutrinos penetrate every square centimeter of your body. The visible universe is the sideshow:  the important stuff is invisible.  We live in a glorious, wonderful world.

We live in a suffering, violent world.  Examples abound. Dr. Jonathan Haidt ‘denies that reason ordinarily plays any part in motivating moral judgments, seeing it rather as a post-hoc means of justifying the intuitions we form quickly and unreflectively.’  He reminds us that we struggle with:  Care vs harm; fairness vs cheating; loyalty vs betrayal; authority vs subversion; sanctity vs degradation; liberty vs oppression.  Our world sometimes boils down to Hobbes’ single hope, during a life that is ‘solitary, nasty, poor, brutish and short’:  avoid conflict.  After 83 waterboardings of Abu Zubaydah, what was the result?—NOTHING.   70 million in USA have some form of criminal records (Globe 4/12/16). 30% of NFL players suffer dementia.  We live in a suffering, violent world.

Easter, in Gospel spoken and sung this morning, Easter in resurrection and cross, cross and resurrection, resurrection and cross, promises us that we can do what we need to do: we can live in both worlds, transforming the latter and translating the former, transforming suffering and violence by translating glory and wonder into insights for healthy, happy living.

In a season when our country seems to be going through a form of political and cultural psychosis, we may be able to help others by modeling together this balance, living in both worlds, with this Resurrection song, bell and tale: ‘The worst thing is not the last thing’ (F Beuchner).  The Marathon survivors in worship on Friday at Old South Church, so attested, and so heard in the sermon by former Governor Duval Patrick.  Balance.  As Pope Francis argued last month:  the conscience of the believer is inviolable, so we want to form consciences not replace them; Eucharist (say worship, say faith) is not a prize for the excellent, but nourishment for the weak.  Balance.  As Luther wrote, ‘faith holds the door against death’.

It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended; the victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended.  Stripped of power, no more it reigns, and empty form alone remains; death’s sting is lost forever.  Alleluia!  (So wrote Martin Luther in 1524).

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

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