Wednesday, January 30, 2008


This week, I am officiating or participating in four funeral services. This is nearly overwhelming, and my spirit is feeling the strain of looking mortality and grief in the face day after day. Bach's cantata for the third Sunday after Epiphany, BWV 156, "Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe" (I am standing with one foot in the grave) is a godsend on a week like this.

I am standing with one foot in the grave
Do with me, God, according to your goodness,
Soon my ailing body will fall in,
help me in my sorrow,
come, dear God, if it please you,
what I request, do not deny me.
I have already set my house in order,
When my soul must depart,
take it, Lord, in your hands.
Only let my end be happy!
Everything is good, when the end is good.

This poignant appeal for God to care for one facing his earthly demise reminds us all that our lives are in his hands. Every heartbeat, every breath is a divine gift. Unless the Lord returns in our lifetime, we will all walk through the door of death someday. "Everything is good, when the end is good."

May God bless every ending and every new beginning in our lives.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


One of Bach's cantatas for this Sunday is BWV 3: "Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid" (Ah God, how many a heartache).

Ah God, how many a heartache
I meet with in this time!
The narrow way is full of affliction
by which I must travel to heaven.

Each piece after this introductory chorus is like a short Biblical psalm, which moves from lament to praise, from trouble to triumph, from distress to rest in God's salvation and endless love, revealed in Jesus. For example, the bass aria:

Although I may feel hell's anguish and pain,

yet always in my heart

there must be a true heavenly joy.

If I may only mention Jesus' name,

that can pierce even through immeasurable sorrows

as if they were a light mist.

Likewise, the splendid soprano/alto duet aria:

When cares press upon me,

I want in joy

to sing to my Jesus.

Jesus helps to bear my cross,

therefore I want to say in faith:

it is always for the best.

The Gospel lesson for the day is the story of Jesus turning water to wine (John 2.1-11). As our Lord turned the tasteless water in stone pots into the best of wine so that those attending the wedding might be blessed with joy, even so he can transform the difficult passages of our earthly journey into times when we can experience "the fellowship of His sufferings" (Philippians 3.10).

Like the Bible, Bach forces us to be realistic about life and its troubles. He and the psalmists encourage us to have the conversations with God that can ultimately help us find a way to praise him.

"In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

Saturday, January 12, 2008


In many Christian communities today, the first Sunday after the Epiphany is when we remember Jesus' baptism. The readings in the traditional lectionary, however, point to the story of the young man Jesus in the temple (Luke 2.41-52). This account reflects the third of Mary's Seven Sorrows, a traditional devotion that recalled seven grievous episodes in Mary's relationship with Jesus.

Bach's cantatas for this Sunday are meditations on this Scripture. BWV 154 begins with a poignant cry, "Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren" (My dearest Jesus is lost!). Any parent who has felt the sudden panic of having a child disappear from sight can relate to this rush of emotion. The words take us beyond these tender human bonds, however, into the spiritual angst of feeling that one has lost contact with God.

My dearest Jesus is lost:

Oh word that brings me despair!

Oh sword that pierces through my soul,

Oh thunderous word in my ears.

After a lovely chorale describing what Jesus means to the faithful and the deep longing for his presence to fill their hearts, the alto lifts up an aria, pleading with Jesus to appear once more.

Jesus, let me fnd you,

do not allow my sins

to be thick clouds

where to my horror

you will be hidden from me.
Appear again soon!

In the depths of winter, dark days and chill winds can mirror the gloom of spirits trudging through life without a sense of Christ's presence. Bach seeks to rouse us, to make us feel the urgency of Jesus' earthly parents, to leave our plodding caravans and call out for him until he answers and comes home with us again.


In Bach's Epiphany cantata BWV 248 (VI), the evil heart and treachery of Herod is contrasted with two pieces that portray worshipers in the presence of the infant Jesus.

The sweet and confident music of these pieces carries an important message for us: in the midst of a dark and sometimes dangerous world, there is a place of refuge and rest where we may gain strength and courage to face our battles. In worship, our eyes are opened to another, transcendent reality, a spiritual realm where the infant Christ, so lowly in human appearance, is Christus Victor, our triumphant Savior and Lord.

As we worship in Christ's presence we discover, "All is well, and all is well, and all manner of things shall be well" (Julian of Norwich).

First, we hear a chorale that brings to mind the magi offering their gifts to the infant King:

I stand here beside Thy manger,
O, babe Jesu, my life,
I come, bring and give to Thee
that which Thou hast given me.
Take it, it is my mind and spirit,
heart, soul and mettle, take them all,
And may it please Thee well!

And then, a tenor aria that speaks for Mary:

Now may you proud foes be affrighted,
what fear could you awake in me?
My precious, my treasure is beside me here!
You may appear as grim as may be,
threaten to lay me low completely,
but lo! my Saviour dwells here.

The sweet presence of Christ calms our fears. As we focus on our Lord in worship, we gain strength to face the foe with confidence.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Where to Find Bach Cantata Texts...

I will be using various sources for the English translations of Bach's cantata texts on this site. Most of the time, they will be drawn from liner notes of the performances to which I am listening. However, one source that you can use for reference any time is Z. Philip Ambrose's site, which contains the texts of Bach's complete vocal works.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Part six of Bach's Christmas Oratorio was to be performed, "For the Feast of Epiphany." This feast recalls the story of the Magi who followed the star, met with King Herod, and then went on to Bethlehem to worship the Child. The text for this cantata is from Matthew 2.7-12, where the evil-minded Herod meets with the Magi, who have come to Jerusalem to inquire about the newborn King. Bach sees this encounter as a paradigm for the spiritual struggle between the forces of darkness and light.

The cantata begins with a chorus expressing trust in the Lord for refuge in the spiritual battle that rages.
Lord, if proud enemies rage,
Let us then in steadfast faith

Look to thy might and help.

We will put our trust in thee alone,

So may we withstand unharmed

The talons of the fiend.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


I am starting this blog near the beginning of Epiphany. The Church Year began over a month ago, with the Advent and Christmastide seasons. If you would like to read through some studies and meditations that were written during Advent, you can find them at my Advent Thoughts site.