This Sunday, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Although it may not come to mind when thinking of the major feast days of the church calendar, this day commemorates a very important occasion in the life of Christ. Jesus’ baptism begins his ministry as the Messiah, and God even speaks through the clouds announcing Christ’s authority as teacher. Interestingly, the last Sunday of the Epiphany season also features the voice of God coming from a cloud – this time on Mount Tabor, the mount of the Transfiguration.
From a musical perspective, everything reflects the themes of water and baptism. Our prelude, Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707), is an ornamented chorale tune (hymn tune) based on a hymn that has Christ’s baptism as its subject. Buxtehude was a famous organist in his own time, and may other organists traveled to study with him. Most famously, a 17 year old J. S. Bach (1685-1750) set out on a 248 mile journey, entirely on foot, to study with Buxtehude. In general, Buxtehude is regarded as one of the most important German Baroque period composers before Bach. In Sunday’s prelude, listen to how beautifully and expressively Buxtehude sets the chorale melody. The piece almost conjures images of Christ journeying to the Jordan river to more publically embrace his mission as the Son of God.
At the offertory, the choir will sing a simple Civil War era hymn, Shall We Gather at the River. While this piece may seem simple or even trite in some estimations, it is greater than the sum of its parts. Robert Lowry (1826-1899) penned the text in the latter days of the Civil War when pondering scenes from the Book of Revelation. The text focuses on the theme of water and is based on the image of the river of life proceeding from God’s throne. As you know, Revelation is filled with surreal depictions of the end of time, as well as possibly coded messages to Christians living during the time in which it was written. Such a simple hymn as Shall We Gather at the Riverseems to stand in contrast with the grandeur of the water of life as depicted in the Bible, but therein lies its beauty. Written from the perspective of ordinary people, believers, the congregation of the faithful, or in other words, people like you and me, Lowry’s text encourages us to press on in our faith journey. Lowry invites us to press forward toward the goal of heaven that we might all one day gather as one family beside the river of the water of life. As the choir sings this piece, listen to the beautiful simplicity. Here, in this selection, we do not hear the voice of God thundering nor do we see the heavens opening, but we hear a very human profession of faith in these great mysteries and in the unity of believers through baptism.
Some of our hymns this week may be new to you. While I try not to schedule too many unfamiliar hymns in a given week, please bear with me as I learn which hymns are known to the congregation. This is certainly an important part of directing a music program - learning the congregation’s repertoire. You are always welcome to email me if there is a favorite hymn you haven’t heard in a while. If it’s possible, I will work it in when thematically appropriate. This week, our hymns reflect the themes of baptism and darkness shattered by light. We sing this week of the identity of Christ and the fellowship of Christians. As we go forth from church, I hope we will be uplifted by our music to go into the world to live radically beautiful lives in service of God and each other.
Finally, you are all invited to attend our first ever Epiphany concert. Starting this week, we will experience three distinct and interesting programs. Our concert this week, Hildegard, Howells, Hook & Hastings, features music designed to entrance and uplift. Come experience musical depictions of timeless themes. Join us at 4:00 P. M. in the church as we celebrate stories of trial and redemption. For more information, visit our website or read our newsletter and bulletin. We hope to see you there!