Music in Lent
Happy Birthday Bach! (March 21, 1685) Fortunately we don’t have to, but if we did have to choose just one composer as the greatest, I suspect J.S. Bach would come to many people’s minds. He took the tools of his time – the instruments, musical forms and compositional techniques – and brought them to their fullest potential. And he did this while working under deadlines while trying to please grumpy clerics and noblemen, without ever attaining much fame or fortune. His enormous musical output is the pinnacle of the Baroque musical period. Personally, I would be humbled to simply nurture a house plant to its full potential, much less an entire period of music history. I play a lot of Bach and will never tire of these attempts to eavesdrop on his conversations with God, because that is what Bach’s music always feels like to me – a conversation between God and a musical genius.
Joy might not be the first word that comes to mind during Lent. This is the liturgical season of muted responses, introspection, and greater awareness of our sinful states after all. I take joy very seriously, though. Maybe that’s why I love the serious joy of Bach so much. Joy is quite different from happiness. We are choosing to be joyful when we choose to have hope, to see good, to believe that God loves us. If Lent teaches us nothing else, it is that we have every reason to hope. Darkness and sorrow are not God’s plan for us. And where there is hope there can be joy.
For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Peace is my last gift to you, my peace I leave with you;
Peace which the world cannot give, I give to you. (John 14:27)
The first is a text sung by the 11:15 choir last week. The second is a text that will be sung on Maundy Thursday. It is a great privilege to be able to sing about those things we believe in most deeply, such as the God-given gifts of life and peace. We know, and even science agrees, that when we sing, the words are more easily understood and remembered. The choir at 11:15 has been singing the psalms on behalf of the congregation this Lenten season, and perhaps hearing them sung can allow them to be heard anew. But singing about our beliefs is only a step on the path to living our beliefs. Jesus promises a peace that this world cannot give. Our best selves work hard to bring about the kinds of peace within families and communities that this world can give.
The communion hymn this coming Sunday, 649 in The Hymnal 1982, begins with the words O Jesus, joy of loving hearts. Its text asks Jesus to chase the night of sin away and to be the source of calm in our lives. There is joy to be found in that hope.
Sonya Subbayya Sutton
Interim Director of Music