As we think on these things, our music is intended to help us find our own answers to the questions and inspirations before us. Our choir anthem during the offertory is one we also presented on Sunday, November 16, 2014. We presented, Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) as a way of imploring God to look upon our hearts and not judge us harshly for our failings. A perfect example of how one piece can apply to many contexts, we sing the same anthem this week out of a sense of awe and wonder at God’s call to us. In Psalm 139, the psalm for this week, the psalmist declares, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.” Later, in the Gospel, Nathaniel is compelled to follow Christ after the surprise of finding that Jesus knew him before they had even met! As the choir sings this great anthem, listen to the sense of wonder and imploration inherent in the music and words. As we continue our Epiphany discernment, how poignant are these closing words of Purcell’s anthem, “Suffer us not at our last hour for any pain of death to fall from Thee.”
The bright star that led the Magi at the beginning of this season has now become a metaphor for Christ himself, the Morning Star. During Holy Communion, we will sing a most historic and widely circulated Epiphany hymn, How bright appears the Morning Star. Both the text and tune (possibly adapted from an even older hymn) were penned by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) and published in 1559. Known as a Meistersinger (Master Singer), a guild of Germanic poets, lyricists, and musical composers active from the 14th through the 16th centuries, Nicolai, much like Martin Luther (1483-1546), wrote both the text and tune for many of his hymns. The great chorales of the Lutheran Reformation, of which this is a prime example, often portray Christ as a conquering king, a triumphant warlord striding the field of battle and vanquishing the Devil, thereby winning the souls of believers. To make sense of this in our day when these warlike images are favored far less, we need to understand Reformation era “Germany” (really a loose conglomerate of war-torn city-states at this time). For further reading on this, I would recommend Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner. It is sufficient for our purposes to say that Germany was a perilous place where death was readily visible and a part of everyday life. It was a place where people lived on the edge of disaster and at the whim of tyrants, disease, and nature. The great chorales (hymns) helped the congregation sing their fears away in a manner often different than today. They wrote as those who cry out on the precipice of life and death. They write of a God-hero. Below, read the second and third verses of our communion hymn:
Though circled by the hosts on high,
He deigned to cast a pitying eye
Upon his helpless creature;
The whole creation’s Head and Lord,
By highest seraphim adored,
Assumed our very nature;
Jesus, grant us,
Through thy merit, to inherit thy salvation;
Hear, O hear our supplication.
Rejoice, ye heavens; thou earth, reply;
With praise, ye sinners, fill the sky,
For this his Incarnation.
Incarnate God, put forth thy power,
Ride on, ride on, great Conqueror,
Till all know thy salvation.
Alleluia, alleluia! Praise be given
Evermore, by earth and heaven.
In closing, thank you to all who attended our first Epiphany concert last week! This week we continue with I lift my eyes to the Mountain Dulcimer, an educational program featuring Jessica D. Comeau, an award-winning dulcimer player. Jessica will show us the multi-faceted nature and techniques used when playing the dulcimer. Her program features music from the middle ages right up to the present day, and she will play, sing, and talk to us about this wonderful instrument and its surprisingly diverse repertoire. The concert also has a spiritual theme chosen by Jessica: Be still and know. As we bask in this season of discovery and discernment, come and see how you may be moved by this program.