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.

[FMP width=”480″ height=”360″][/FMP]

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.





3 responses to “Bach’s Oratorio on a Sunday Morning”

  1. Tim Koch Avatar
    Tim Koch

    Art within the church is expensive. You alluded to this when you said that not all churches have the resources to dedicate to this endeavor. It’s not just music though, as you well know, good banners, subtle and theologically rich architecture, intricate stained glass windows, vestments, paraments, and even the paschal candle all cost significant money. Even if church has the resources, it is constantly beset by that wonderful economic term ‘opportunity cost.’

    The question will inevitably get asked at some congregational meeting or voter’s meeting, ‘Is this really the best use of our money?’ ‘Couldn’t this money be better spent by giving it to the poor/missions/parsonage upkeep/squirreled away in the event of an emergency?’

    “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…” Even if you get most of the parishioners on board, the wily serpent will whisper dissent among visitors. Like the tourist who visit’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome and leaves disgusted with the church for its reckless use of resources.

    We live in a society that sincerely believes that form follows function. For a fascinating and helpful discussion about the “form follows function” idea in Western Civilization, read the very small and short book “Beauty” by Roger Scruton (BH39 .S384 2009).

    As if these issues weren’t troublesome enough, musicians face another challenge or roadblock. They are often accused of making it all about the ‘performance.’ It’s an accusation about their motivation. The naysayer will think/say “They are only doing this performance—and that word ‘performance’ drips from their mouth like acid—to receive praise for themselves” People often can’t even appreciate the high art music in church because of this reason.

    There are a lot of challenges to maintaining high art within the church no doubt.

    I very much appreciated your article. To advocate for art within the church is often a challenging role. Nevertheless, pastors need to nurture this “sensitive-to-the-arts” type of thinking among their parishioners. It’s often a long and uphill battle, but it’s worth every step.

  2. Jeff Kloha Avatar
    Jeff Kloha

    My family worships at St. Paul’s, and my daughter is one of the musicians who plays for these special services. The “cost/benefit” analysis is always necessary, but I can tell you that worship last Sunday was “worth it” — not an every Sunday kind of thing, of course, but I suspect that if worship in our congregations were regularly characterized by excellence, beauty (whatever you want to call it, and in whatever genre is local), then discussion of pitting “outreach” against “inreach” would go away. Had it not been New Year’s Day, this would have been the perfect opportunity to invite some of my non-Christian friends to worship.

    As to expense (and as the parent of two musicians), let’s not forgot about the family’s role in this. The expense of eight years of lessons (so far), countless hours driving kids to lessons, rehearsals, performances, etc., is quite large. We decided to make that investment, and now the church is benefitting. My daughter has decided, though, that her current flute (her second) is not good enough anymore. She’s probably right, but there is another “cost/benefit” decision we need to make — at least she’s not asking for a tv or a car!

    1. Tim Koch Avatar
      Tim Koch

      That reminds me of when I asked my parents why our family never had a Nintendo growing up. ‘Because we spent all our money on your piano lessons and straight teeth’ they said. And you can be sure the church has benefited from my parent’s use of their money.

      I wouldn’t know how to incorporate up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, select, start into my ministry. But I’ve gotten quite a bit of use out of my musical education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *