Jesus lost and found

Another preview of Sunday Cantata.

Bach didn’t write any cantatas for the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, so this Sunday’s offering is for the First Sunday after the Epiphany. The libretto meditates on the Gospel selection from Luke 2:41–52, where Mary and Joseph lose the 12-year-old Jesus—and then find Him in the Temple, where He had been all along.

The unknown poet whose text Bach set takes the idea of losing, searching for, and finding, Jesus as his theme and spiritualises it: transposing Mary’s distress to the soul who has lost Jesus on account of his own sin—and then finds Him where He had been all along: in Word and Sacrament. All good CA VII stuff!

Here’s a little taster: first, the start of the opening tenor aria, with anguish and distress in every note, every diminished chord, every dramatic pause:

My dearest Jesus is lost:
Oh word that brings me despair,
Oh sword that pierces through my soul,
Oh thunderous word in my ears.

Then part of the penultimate movement, a delightful duet for alto and tenor solo, rejoicing in the happy conclusion (and proving yet again, if it were needed, that no composer does joy quite so splendidly as Bach!):

How happy I am, Jesus is found,
Now I am troubled no more.,
He whom my sould loves,
Reveals Himself to me in hours of joy.
I want never again to abandon you, my Jesus,
I want constantly to embrace you in faith.

The soloists are Gerd Türk, tenor, and the incomparable Robin Blaze, counter-tenor. The recording is from Vol. 17 of the complete cantata cycle from Bach Collegium Japan.

They shall all come from Sheba

This week’s episode of Sunday Cantata presents another gem, BWV 65: Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (They shall all come from Sheba), written for Epiphany 1724.

The libretto focuses on Isaiah 60:6, from the historic Epistle (these days, the Old Testament) reading for Epiphany. To whet your appetite, here’s the start of the first movement, a choral fantasia. Bach magnificently creates an atmosphere of exotic solemnity—it’s not hard to imagine an oriental caravan of camels making their way to Jerusalem from the East.

Another highlight is from the fifth movement recitative. It expresses a thought that’s familiar in the English speaking world from the final stanza of Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter—but what a difference the proper distinction of Law and Gospel makes.

Here’s Rossetti:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

Not bad—but would benefit from a bit of a footnote, or at least a context beyond the rest of the poem (which focuses mostly on the marvel of the creator as a helpless infant).

Here’s Bach’s librettist (identity unknown):

Do not despise,
O light of my soul,
My heart, which I humbly bring to You,
For it holds such things
Within itself
As are fruits of Your Spirit.
The gold of faith,
The incense of prayer,
The myrrh of patience;
These are my gifts,
Which you, Jesus, shall evermore
Have as your own and as a gift.
But give Yourself to me also,
And make me
The richest man on earth;
For, when I have you, I must
Inherit the greatest riches in abundance
One day in Heaven.

Tune in this Sunday at 3 am, 11 am, 3 pm or 9 pm (GMT), or afterwards whenever you like through the programme page.

Sorcerers from the East

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on 5 January 2012
Epiphany (observed)
Matthew 2:1–12
To hear the sermon, click hear to go to the Our Saviour website.

It’s commonly known to anyone who cares to notice: the Western world is changing, it’s changing rapidly, and much of it is not for the better. Society is fragmenting, families are breaking up, the economy is a mess, immorality and godlessness march on at speed. Darkness is called light and light darkness. These are the classic signs of the beginning of the end of a great civilisation.

But perhaps the one thing that worries many people most is the feeling that our civilisation is being taken over by another. Many Christians are among those who are particularly concerned about the threat from Islam, the growing number and influence of Muslims in this country and in the West in general. While churches are being abandoned, Mosques are being built. Immigration past and present have brought a once-distant and ‘foreign’ religion to our doorstep and into the centre of our communities. It may not be particularly visible within a square mile of the present location, but you only have to drive a few minutes along the coast to encounter the reality.

Continue reading Sorcerers from the East

Epiphany Eliot

Here’s a treat for the Epiphany season: a recording of T.S. Eliot reading his Journey of the Magi. There is something wonderful about the grimness of the seemingly tangential reality of the journey, the pointed pun, and the focus on … oh, hear and read it yourself. It helps to understand that focus to know that this poem was written not long after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity.

Click here to go to the Poetry Archive.