These are the first words you'll hear at our Eucharist this week, the First Sunday of Advent. As the weather grows cooler and the days shorter, our prayers and hymns are noticeably different. O come, O come, Emmanuel, Rejoice! rejoice, believers, Come, thou long expected Jesus, and Sleepers, wake! are all hymns that let us know something special is happening, and we need to be ready. Especially of note is the Call to Worship/Introit this week. Our choir will sing these after the prelude and before the processional hymn during the weeks of Advent and the Christmas season. Sung a cappella with a handbell obbligato (continuous, repeating motive), these pieces help set the tone for our services.
The prelude, offertory, and communion pieces are all by J. S. Bach, this Sunday. Personally, I tend to think of Bach as the quintessential Advent composer because of the unique character and color his Advent music features. Especially of interest, the offertory is a soprano aria from his Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Savior of the nations, come) cantata. The cantatas generally feature a high sense of drama and devotion, but some really stand out. A translation of the soprano aria is featured below.
"Open thou, my heart, to Jesus. He will come and enter there! Though I be but dust and ashes, still will I be not despised, but find favor in His eyes, that He came to dwell with me. O, how blessed I will be!"
This text illustrates the posture of the Christian soul during Advent. Remembering the quasi-penitential roots of this season, the text references that we are "dust and ashes," and this may remind us of Ash Wednesday. This kind of text is typical of Lutheran prose of the era. It is important to note that Bach didn't write the text of his cantatas, only the music. This particular text is by Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756) and is intended for the First Sunday of Advent. Listen to how the lyric smoothness of the soprano's melody flows along while the accompaniment "bounces" around with barely-contained excitement. To me, this is an example of the accompaniment adding additional expression to the personality of the vocalist. On the outside, the singer accurately portrays the meaning of the text, but inside, there is a joyous energy at the closeness of the Savior. It is important to remember that the texts of Bach's cantatas were written during the period after the 30 Years War, a conflict that was perhaps the bloodiest European conflict prior to World War One. Consequently, one observes a deep longing for heaven mixed with a rather dim estimation of worldly grandeur in these texts.
During communion, I will play an organ solo by Bach based on the hymn, Wachet auf! This setting was actually a tenor section solo movement from another cantata of the same name. The graceful counter-melody mixes beautifully with the hymn tune much in the same way as Jesu, joy of man's desiring. The graceful bass line, in quarter notes, symbolizes progression of time, or the footsteps of the Savior, in my opinion. Bach uses this plodding rhythmic bass figure quite often in pieces referencing a journey or the coming of Christ. Bach was quite a numerologist and a symbologist, and I believe his music is very conducive to personal theological and metaphorical interpretation.
As we prepare for the celebration of Christ's Incarnation in this season of Advent, we are surrounded by images of watchmen, traveling, staying awake, and crying out for salvation. Let us help you have a meaningful Advent this year. Please remember to attend our Lessons and Carols service on December 6 at 4:00 pm and our Wednesday Noon Concerts on December 9 and 16. Advent is a wonderful season. Let's make the most of it!