I’m taking to heart Steve’s admonition to not be an Advent snob. So much so that I’m jumping right past Christmas to talk about Lent.
Pastors and worship planners are, in general, well-versed in living in liturgical anticipation. We’re planning Epiphany services when the congregation starts to sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and when the 12 Days of Christmas are over, we’re hoping we’ve got our choir music picked for Easter.
But this year I’m getting my seasons crossed for an additional reason.
The choir I sing with is performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Saturday night. This remarkable work is composed of six cantatas, each intended for performance on a different feast day of the Christmas season. The work was first performed in 1734, and it incorporates music from a number of different sources, including three secular cantatas Bach composed in 1733 and 1734, and a number of Lutheran hymn tunes, including the tune “Herzlich tut mich verlangen” which he also used in his St. Matthew Passion of 1729.
This tune was originally published in 1601 as a court song by the Renaissance composer Hans Leo Hassler. In 1613 the tune was attached to a funeral text, “Herzlich tut mich verlangen.” By the time Bach was composing the St. Matthew Passion, the tune was associated with a well-known Lutheran hymn text: “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” This hymn is a translation of a medieval poem attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, translated into German by Paul Gerhardt in 1656, and then into English by the American Presbyterian minister James Waddel Alexander in 1830. It’s his translation you’ll find in most English hymnals today, accompanied by Hans Leo Hassler’s tune, harmonized by J.S. Bach. That translation begins, “O sacred head, now wounded.”
This hymn is so deeply associated with the season of Lent that it’s a rather bizarre thing to be singing it in December. In the St. Matthew Passion, the tune and words fit. “Passion Chorale” is now another name for the tune.
But when it shows up as Chorale No. 5 in the 1st Cantata of the Christmas Oratorio, there’s nary a mention of the passion of Christ. The German translates as such:
How shall I embrace you,
and how encounter you?
O desire of the whole world,
O adornment of my soul!
O Jesus, Jesus place
the torch near me yourself,
so that what gives you pleasure
be known and familiar to me!
The tune comes back at the very end of the oratorio, as the concluding chorale of Cantata No. 6, the Epiphany Cantata. In this Cantata, the Evangelist relays the story of the Magi traveling to see the Christ Child, and Herod’s scheming, and God’s deliverance of the Magi, ultimately leading to the triumphant declaration that Christ – not Herod – is king. The soloists conclude their recitative – “How can hell frighten now, what can the world and sin do to us, since we are safe in Jesus’ hands?” – to be replaced by a trumpet – a herald – whose joyful, dancing solo is woven in and out of the choir’s proclamation (which is a bit more poetic in the German…)
“Now you are well avenged
upon the horde of your enemies,
since Christ has pulverized
what was contrary to you.
Death, devil, sin and hell
are weakened once and for all;
the place of the human race
is next to God.”
The story of Christmas, as told in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, is one of victory over death, the devil, sin, and hell. And is such because the story of Christmas is not the end of the story, but the beginning.
The Incarnation makes possible everything that comes after. Christ can take on the sins of humanity because he became human. Because he was born, he can die. And in his death, he defeats death, and brings humanity eternal life.
So maybe it’s not so strange to sing a Lenten tune in Christmas. Or to hear echoes of Christmas as we journey to Calvary. In December, 2017, my dad wrote his own reflection on the Christmas Oratorio, and his experience hearing this specific final chorale. He wrote,
“Five times [this tune] comes up in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (composed seven years earlier.) Now here, Bach, the master of inversion, turns it upside-down with a new text for Christmas and a joy that knows no bounds.
“Whether aware or not, there was no mistaking the feeling of this transformation in my heart. And forever subconsciously its influence continues. How can I sing the Lent song now without feeling the hope of the first coming and the finality of the second that shines through this “Christmas Oratorio” setting? This is the domain of music and Bach, to show us what is and what might be and how it all fits together. By investing in this richness we come to know, more deeply, that it is death which makes birth possible.”
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