April 26

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 1:17-23

Luke 24:13-25

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The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

There come episodes in the course of a battered lifetime that place us deep in the shadows.   If the shadow is dark enough, we may not feel able to move forward, for our foresight and insight and eyesight are so limited.  We may become bound, chained, held.   

Right now, if the view along an empty Commonwealth Avenue this morning is any clue, we are in the heart of such experience, deep and dark, today, surrounded by a swirling pandemic, which shows no immediate abatement.

You may have known this condition before, this condition—of confusion or disorientation or ennui or acedia.  You may know it still.  The death of a loved one can bring such a feeling.  The loss of a position or job can bring such a feeling.  The recognition of a major life mistake can bring such a feeling.  The recollection of a past loss can bring such a feeling.  The disappearance of a once radiant affection, or love, for a person or a cause or an institution can bring such a feeling.  And now, April 26, 2020, the shared experience of distance, of loss of rhythm, of disorientation not just distance, comes to mind in Sunday fullness.

And how to speak and think of these things? Over the years you may have grown frustrated by your own mother tongue in various ways.  English places such a fence between thought and feeling, when real thought is almost always deeply felt, and real feeling is almost always keenly thought.  We need another word like thoughtfeeling or feltthought.   Anyway, you, well beloved, by nature and discipline live the thoughtfeeling gospel, and for that we are lastingly thankful.

Be it then thought or feeling or thoughtfeeling, there do come episodes, all in a lifetime, that place us, if not in the dark, at least well into the shadows.  You may have known all about this at one time.  You may know it still.

Come Sunday, some snippet of song, or verse, or preachment, or prayer, or, especially today a line from the Cantata, it may be, will touch you as you meander about in the dim shadow twilight.  Hold onto that snippet.  Follow its contours along the cave of darkness in which you now move.  Let the snippet—song, verse, sermon, prayer, line—let it guide you along.  So you may be able to murmur: ‘I can do this…We can make our way…I can find a handhold or foothold…We can hope and even trust that the Lord heals the brokenhearted…I can make it for now, at least for now, for the time being.’   It is the power and role of beauty, verbal or musical or liturgical or communal, to restore us to our rightful mind, our right thoughtfeeling.

 Today the epistle, the Gospel and the psalm lift a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.   It is this lift for living which beauty, especially the beauty of holiness, and particularly, this morning, the beauty of holy music is meant to provide.  Here, at Marsh Chapel, right for a moment today, this Sunday, we want to accentuate Truth, for sure, and Goodness, for sure.  But we don’t want to leave behind beauty.  Beauty can heal.  In our work with demons.  In our quiet and contemplation.  Beauty, in the case of this morning, the beauty of Bach, often has the power to shake us loose, to set us free.  Or, at least, to give us grace in a grim time, grace in a viral time, grace in an anxious, depressive time, grace to get by.  To make us, as in Luke 24, not just followers but also witnesses. ‘They told what had happened on the road, and how he had been make known to them in the breaking of the bread’.

And on a personal note, I look forward with eager anticipation to the gathering up time, one fine day, when our congregation will not be remotely virtual, but beautifully, beautifully actual.  Like the psalmist, my soul longs and my heart cries out in the void and silence of this time of distance for the healing presence of the divine.  

Dr. Jarrett, how shall we listen, both on the radio and in person, most fully to be immersed in today’s Bach experience?

Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett

Bach’s cantatas take their names from the first line of text, and today’s cantata, No. 74 sets verse 23 of John 14: ‘Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten’ or Whoever loves me, and keeps my Word. Bach originally conceived of the cantata for use on Pentecost Sunday in 1725, where we find the Holy Spirit come down to ignite the movement among the Disciples that would become the Church. The Disciples and followers of Jesus had remained stunned, suspended in disbelief that their movement and leader had been cut down so devastatingly. Today’s lesson of Jesus’s appearance on the road to Emmaus finds the Disciples in the initial stages of their grief, no doubt deep in their own ‘thought-feeling’. 

Though a cantata for Pentecost, there is surprisingly little reference to the Holy Spirit, but rather a focus on Jesus’s promise to return, and that faith will create a dwelling for Him in our hearts. The cantata is rich with arias – four total. The first two arias are the more personal – almost a dialogue between the ardent believer and the reminder of the words of Jesus. These mutual assurances exchanged, the final two arias turn outward t the Church and beckon us to follow suit in making room for Jesus within our hearts. Both of these arias find their vigor with representations of the earthly trials each of us face in a life of faith, but also a reminder of the sufferings Jesus himself endured. You can’t have a Bach cantata without a reminder of the Passion and the snares of Sin, afterall. 

Musically speaking, Cantata 74 is many things. The opening movement is unified by the motive of the first words, rather than a Chorale tune defining a structure. And for a movement with festival trumpets and timpani, the bluster is replaced with elegance and confidence of stride. At the outset there seems an error in order or at least an imbalance of arias and recitatives, but there is a clear internal structure that features a single recitative between each of the two aria groupings. Those two recitatives serve as musical and theological connectors to the arias on either side.

Within these eight movements, we hear extraordinary variety from Bach, from the winsome Soprano solo, and anxious Bass continuo aria that hints at our own doubt of Jesus’ promise, to the Tenor aria that nearly takes flight, and the blazing bravura of the final Alto aria. Here we have musical and theological reminders of both Penance and Atonement, but also the assurance of Love and Grace.

And on a personal note, as we enter our seventh week of disciplined societal distance from one another, I, like those disciples, remain stunned and stunted by the loss of contact with the divine. For me, that divine contact happens when we make music together, our nobler selves revealed enjoined in the grace of music’s art. Like the psalmist, my soul longs and my heart cries out in the void and silence of this distance for the healing presence of the divine.

Dean Hill: Our Gospel lesson from Luke, brought as an interlude into our yearly reading of Matthew, reminds us of the healing power in ordered worship.  First, in a recitation of the gospel.  Second, in an interpretation of that Gospel.  Third, in a communal engagement of the gospel, in the common bread of the church, in the common cup of the church, in the common life of the church.  ‘They knew him in the breaking of the bread.’  For some, the emphasis will fall on the knowing; for others, the emphasis will fall on the thanksgiving, the Eucharistic bread broken.  For some, the what.  For others, the how.  For all, come Sunday, come this Lord’s day, the possibility of new life, even if dimly perceived, even if shadowed.

Dr. Jarrett: For those, that is, who have walked past a graveyard or two, for those who have walked the valley of the shadow of death, for a world searching for enough common ground to allow a common hope, for a nation reeling from a winter and spring of worry and loss, for you today if you are in trouble, and who are worried today about others and other graves and other yards, and who have seen the hidden viral traps, the unforeseeable viral dangers, and steel jawed viral snares of life, there is something encouraging about this Easter song:  “They knew him in the breaking of the bread”

Dean Hill: Emmaus Road brings a hymn of the heart, one you sing when you are not sure, but you are confident.  Not certain, but confident.  Not certain but confident.  You can be confident without being certain.  In fact, a genuine honest confidence includes the confidence to admit you are not sure.  Faith means risk.  Isn’t that part of what we mean by faith? If we had always certainty we would not need faith.  Once you are on the road, you have to choose between walking forward and slinking away.

Dr. Jarrett: For those today, for instance, trying hard to think through what the rest of 2020 might be like, those in the thick of unexpected transition, the Word has this support for you, the gift of the next step:  the gift of getting by, getting through, getting out, and getting home, not pausing to worry about the small stuff. This song is one for that point on the road when you just have to go ahead, not seeing yet too far down the road.  You are not sure.  But you sense a presence, and receive the courage to take one more step.

Dean Hill: Step forward.  Go about your discipleship:  pray, study, learn, make peace, love your neighbor, agree to disagree agreeably, let everyone be convinced in his own mind.  The random remains random.  We shall face our challenges in our time.  We shall face a common illness, infection and virus with a common faith, a common hope and a common love.  Just this:  we need not face them alone, but in the company of the Gospel, and its interpretation, and its community engaged together, one day in Eucharist, say, one day in music, say, one day in service, say, but every day with an uncanny sense of the presence of One Risen.

Dean Hill and Dr. Jarrett: In the name of the Resurrected Son, and of the Creating Father, and of the Abiding Spirit:  Now with the mind of Christ set us on fire, that unity may be our great desire.  Give joy and peace, give faith to hear your call, and readiness in each to work for all.

The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

-Dr. Scott Allen Jarrett, Director of Music

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