All are invited to the next Vespers service celebrated at First Lutheran Church, for the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Virgin Mary on Saturday, February 2, at 5pm (prelude begins at 4:40pm).
The feast of the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Virgin Mary is one of the oldest on the liturgical calendar. It celebrates the occasion on which Jesus’ family underwent both the ritual purification God required of women who have given birth (Lv. 12) and the redemption of the firstborn (Ex. 13:12–15), both of which were to happen 40 days after his birth—hence, the feast of the Presentation and Purification falls each year on February 2, 40 days after Christmas. The account is remembered more for Simeon’s appearance than anything else, and it is that to which we owe the beautiful canticle of Simeon, the Nunc dimittis: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…” (Lk. 2:29–32). Martin Luther paraphrased Simeon’s canticle as a chorale, sung as the processional hymn this evening: “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart.” Simeon’s canticle introduces one additional aspect to the feast, that of “Candlemas:” it is an ancient and laudable custom that the Church blesses on this day all the candles to be used at the altar and in torches over the following year (this naturally does not apply to the Paschal candle, which is consecrated at the Easter Vigil). This custom recalls how Simeon in his canticle acclaimed Jesus as “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” Candlemas is the “unofficial” end of the Christmas season: while Christmas proper is twelve days long and is followed immediately by Epiphanytide, the parallel of “40 days of Christmas” to the 40 days of Lent and the 40 days between Easter and the Ascension is an attractive one. (In many locales, household Christmas decorations remain up until February 2.)
In a nod to the “extended” season of Christmas, this evening’s prelude includes Christmas music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Dieterich Buxtehude, the latter of whom succeeded Franz Tunder (the composer of today’s Hauptmusik) at the Marienkirche in Lübeck. Especially notable is Buxtehude’s Klag-lied on Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. The five-part piece is actually two parts with a closing chorale. Each of the first two parts is repeated upside-down. J.S. Bach’s setting of Christum wir sollen loben schon (today’s recessional hymn) is a remarkable treatment of the melody and the text. It places the melody in the alto voice, one of only a handful of organ chorales in the entire repertoire that do so. It is as if Bach is trying to hide the melody within the texture, in the same way that Jesus was “hidden” in Mary’s womb. Likewise, the extreme range of the piece—using almost the entire compass of the Baroque organ—depicts the first line of the original Latin text for the hymn: “From the hinge of the rising sun, to the farthest edge of the earth.”
Johannes Eccard’s Maria wallt zum Heiligtum falls into what we might perceive as a curious space between hymn and motet: the text is strophic, and there is a discernible melody in the top of the texture, but motivic imitation is a more important element than in the typical “four-square” hymn harmonizations to which we are accustomed. This space was relatively new in Eccard’s time: Lucas Osiander’s Cantional, the first hymnal with the melody put in the top of the texture, was published in 1586. Osiander’s harmonization of “From East to West,” Bartholomäus Gesiuis’s harmonization of “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart,” and Michael Praetorius’s “My Soul, O God, Gives Praise to Thee,” all heard this evening, are examples of this new kind of cantional-style hymn arrangement. Osiander’s rustic note-against-note style contrasts with the slightly more complex Gesius and the more refined Praetoriuis, but in this case Eccard surpasses them all in polish. Eccard’s text is an example of an exegetical motet: it depicts the Biblical account of the Gospel for Candlemas, and then explains its significance and impact for its hearers. The music fittingly walks the line between restrained joy and peaceful resignation to Simeon’s (and our) impending death in an almost magical way.
The Hauptmusik (principal music) by Franz Tunder is what we would describe today as a single-movement cantata, though in seventeenth century language it would be more aptly termed an aria. Two bass soloists sing through the text of the Nunc dimittis and Gloria Patri (the customary termination for Psalms and canticles at the daily Offices) accompanied by five stringed instruments. The five-piece band of two violins, two violas, and a violone with continuo is an extremely common instrumentation for such a piece in north Germany in the late seventeenth century, and Tunder and his successor Buxtehude produced many “cantatas” using this arrangement. The interplay between the soloists and the violins is particularly delightful, and Tunder uses his bass soloists to full effect, calling for both high and low extremes in range.
The recessional hymn, “From East to West, From Shore to Shore” is the first seven stanzas of the Latin hymn A solis ortus cardine by Coelius Sedulius, a 5th-century poet. It is an Abecedarian hymn—that is, each stanza begins with the next successive letter of the Latin alphabet. Luther knew this hymn well, having sung it since he was a boy chorister, and throughout his career as a monk and priest. He translated it into German as “Christum wir sollen loben schon.” The music is an ancient plainsong melody. When the sixteenth-century reformers rendered Latin hymns in German, they simply retained the melodies verbatim, and that is exactly what we have here. Praetorius’s setting of the final stanza (which serves as this evening’s postlude) places the chant/chorale melody verbatim in long notes in the pedal (see if you can follow along!), while increasingly complex figuration plays out above. At the end, the figuration reaches a dizzying pace, reflecting Praetorius’s reputation as a virtuoso organist.
The subject matter of the text is the Incarnation and the birth of Christ, and its significance. The text features numerous oxymorons, using self-contradiction to reveal paradox: “Behold, the world’s Creator wears the form and fashion of a slave; our very flesh our Maker shares, His fallen creature, man, to save. … A maiden, in her lowly place, became, in ways beyond all thought, the chosen vessel of His grace. … He Whose bounty feedeth all at Mary’s breast Himself was fed. … To shepherds poor the Lord Most High, the one great Shepherd, was revealed.” Oxymoron is an important rhetorical device used by biblical authors, theologians, and in historical preaching, and it aptly describes the many ways God has intervened in history. The Incarnation is probably the most significant of these ways. The Word of God, that same living and active Word of “let there be…” that made the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1:3, was made into flesh, to pitch His tent among us poor sinners. Who could possibly invent such a tale? Who could comprehend it? And in that one Person of Christ, people saw with their own eyes the very glory of the Father Himself, as Jesus says later in His life: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” The significance of this action by God to redeem His fallen creatures can scarcely be over-emphasized. Luther’s own reverence for the Incarnation is evident in a fantastic anecdote he related:
The following tale is told about a coarse and brutal lout. While the words “and was made man” were being sung in church [during the Nicene Creed], he remained standing, neither genuflecting nor removing his hat. He showed no reverence but just stood there like a clod. … Then the devil stepped up to him and hit him so hard it made his head spin. He cursed him gruesomely and said, “May hell consume you, you boorish ass! If God had become an angel like me and the congregation sang, ‘God was made an angel,’ I would bend not only my knees but my whole body to the ground. And you vile human creature… you hear that God did not become an angel but a man like you, and you just stand there like a stick of wood!”
May we all have such a reverence for the mystery of the Incarnation as it is revealed to us in the Scriptures and confessed by Simeon and by the music of Candlemas.