Bach’s Oratorio on a Sunday Morning
Theology can be so subtle. Yesterday, at my congregation, St. Paul’s, Des Peres, MO, I had the privilege of participating in and listening to the 4th part of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the section for The Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus. In the second section, the Recitative for Bass and the Soprano voices of the choir, the librettist (writer of the words) and Bach have the Bass sing: “Thy name inscribed upon my heart shall cause the fear of death to vanish.” What Bach does to the words musically is masterful: the word vanish trails away in sixteenth notes going down the scale. The music accents the reality that death and the fear of it disappear when the name of Jesus is traced before our eyes and upon us. Here is art in service to faith. Subtle, yes. But profound. Death vanishes. I have no fear, even in the midst of not knowing what a New Year may bring (joy, sorrow, life, death). And the high art of Bach’s music proclaims this to all those who hear it and take to heart what God says.
But should we fear that high art, like the music of Bach, might die within the church? I am not as concerned about it’s death within the culture because art serves a different purpose in the culture than it does in the church. In the church art is in service to the life of faith and the glorification of the Creator. It is intended to proclaim the Word of God, in the Oratorio’s case the life-giving Name of Jesus, and thus enliven and sustain the faith and life of the people of God. It is intended to praise the God who creates, saves, and empowers for full human life. To do so with beautiful and complex art like that of Bach requires resources: money, time, space within the building, accomplished instrumentalists, trained church musicians, dedicated singers, and clergy educated about and sympathetic to the role of art within the church. Not every congregation has such resources. But there are those that should and must dedicate the resources to it and endeavor to pull it off.
But why? To thrill us! I mean that. Such artistry proclaims the beauty of the Trinity, the beauty of the earth, the beauty of man-made instruments, the beauty of the human voice. Such artistry opens a window into the beauty of a world that is too often dirty, brutish, hellish, and deadly. For instance, I would find it hard to bear with the often hellish lives of persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ without the music of Bach, Mendelssohn, and others. Such artistry discloses to us that even those things we humans devise can be beautiful. And, perhaps most importantly, such artistry reminds us that even in the midst of death, life has us surrounded. The life of a beautiful God and His beautiful Son, named Jesus.
That’s why the church must keep the beautiful song (and all the artistry) of the church’s past alive for the future. And the only way to do so is to sing it. In church. As a living song for the people of God to hear. Only when it is sung in the assembly of the baptized, for the baptized, do we perceive the beauty of God, of His Son, and of our lives together in Him. And may their song not die. May such musical exultation thrill us and our spiritual children until the Lord of beauty comes again.