By Wesley Hill
A few weeks after a Lutheran theologian joined the faculty of the evangelical Anglican seminary where I teach, he said something to me about his experience of daily chapel that lingers in my memory. “It’s strange not to be singing the liturgy,” he said. “The words have a different quality somehow when they’re said rather than sung.”
“[N]obody sings like [Lutherans] do,” writes Garrison Keillor. Singing with Lutherans is “one of the main joys of life, along with hot baths and fresh sweet corn.” No doubt that indisputable fact partly explains my new colleague’s nostalgia. But he was, I think, also trying to form a theological question, birthed out of his long experience of using the Lutheran Book of Worship. From his childhood, most of the collects he had prayed in church services had been sung or chanted. Now, in a low-church Anglican setting, saying the office had given him a slightly discomfiting occasion to reflect: What am I missing? What does musical prayer mean?
I thought of this little exchange recently after attending a magnificent performance of J.S. Bach’s B minor Mass. For part of my sabbatical this year, I spent a few weeks in England, and when I saw that the New Cambridge Singers and the Cambridge Baroque Camerata would be performing Bach’s last triumphant masterwork in the vast, dim, Oxford Movement-inspired chapel at St. John’s College, I knew I would not miss it. Much as I have loved listening to John Eliot Gardiner and the late Sir Georg Solti’s recordings over the years — solemnly authentic and brightly fleet, respectively — hearing this music performed live in a space where I had knelt for Evensong on previous days was a privilege not to be forgotten.
By far the most moving moment of the performance was at the very end of the Symbolum Nicenum (that is, the Nicene Creed — Bach the Lutheran takes as his libretto the text of the Latin Mass). There has been a light dance of choral layers for the part of the creed that declares belief in “one baptism,” but as the rest of the phrase appears — “one baptism for the remission of sins” — the sunny polyphony grows dark. The choir no longer jumps nimbly from word to word. Now it broods at a much slower pace, elongating the word peccatorum, as if to stress the endless extent of our sins.
“Doubt has suddenly been cast over the very possibility of our sins being remitted.” That’s how John Eliot Gardiner, best known for his conducting of Bach performances with period instruments, glosses the “slow stretch of probing and unstable bars and … series of murky modulations” that precede the creed’s final article: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum et vitam venturi saeculi (“And I await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”).
At that point, when one might expect the minor keys to stop descending and the tempo to increase, they do not and it does not. As the words “I await the resurrection” appear, the music remains somber, unrelieved by any uplifting melodies or brightening chords. Gardiner calls this “the most precarious stage in Bach’s Mass,” speculating that Bach was perhaps setting to music his struggle with doubt in the possibility of life after death. “This could be one of the few times Bach felt Luther’s terror of death and found a way, perhaps even a need, to express it in music.”
Many Christians today might identify with Bach’s refusal to express musical assurance at this point in his Mass. The poet Christian Wiman, who is devoted to the Christ of the cry of dereliction on the cross, is reticent when it comes to the resurrection. In his “meditation of a modern believer,” My Bright Abyss, he circles around his ambivalence toward traditional notions of an afterlife. He worries that so-called conservative and liberal versions of heaven alike involve projecting what we love most about this life onto a cosmic screen, thus emptying heaven of its strangeness and challenge and filling it with our limited, often misguided fantasies. He quotes a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping that warns us away from any conception of heaven that would eclipse the life we are living now, drawing this conclusion: “If piety forbids one to imagine any afterlife that makes this life seem altogether inferior, then piety essentially forbids one from imagining any afterlife at all.”
It is a fraught business to speculate about a possible eternal future, and it easily devolves into sheer escapism. After admitting his difficulty with accepting traditional Christian pictures of a future resurrection, Wiman concludes cryptically: “Life is not life without an afterlife, and there is no afterlife beyond the life we treasure and suffer and feel slipping from us moment by moment.”
There is something recognizably human in this, which believers who are more traditionalist in their theological commitments than Wiman is should be able to identify with too. Even C.S. Lewis — no mainline liberal he — stressed the limited nature of all our conceptions of the resurrected state. “The scriptural picture of heaven,” Lewis says in his 1942 sermon “The Weight of Glory,” is “just as symbolical as the picture which our desire, unaided, invents for itself; heaven is not really full of jewelry any more than it is really the beauty of Nature, or a fine piece of music.” We bump up against the soaring wall of our ignorance every time we try to imagine what life beyond death might be like, and this limitation, in addition to inspiring humility, may also lead to profound uneasiness or terror.
Bach, in his B minor Mass, does not shy away from such thoughts. At what is, according to Gardiner, “the eschatological crossroads of the entire Mass,” Bach plunges his listeners into the dark uncertainty of what it might mean to expect our own transformation at the end of history and eternal life with God. But nor does Bach stay there. With “frisky arpeggios,” as Wilfrid Mellers calls them in his book Bach and the Dance of God, we hear in the Et exspecto “an extraversion as naïve as that depicted in the resurrection paintings of Stanley Spencer, or of the medieval painters who were his model.” Bach’s sonorous doubt has at last given way to unalloyed reveling in the hope of what N.T. Wright describes as “life after life after death”: the deathless but embodied life with God that the Gospels depict with their stories of Jesus’ empty tomb.
One feels here that — contrary to what skeptical believers might fear — Bach is not simply effacing the ambiguities and trials of life as we now know it with a pacifying promise of something better to replace them. The galloping, buoyant music of the final moments of the Symbolum Nicenum in Bach’s Mass emerges from its dark, languorous preceding movement; the confidence of the hope would not be fully itself without the honest pain of that prior moment. One also feels that the converse is true as well, however: that that prior moment, the moment when the music keeps descending farther and farther into the depths of human sin and doubt, would have no redeeming quality were it not accompanied by — or, perhaps more precisely, overcome by — the radiant confidence of the music’s crescendo at resurrectionem mortuorum.
There are depths of sorrow and assurance, it would seem, that cannot be reached without music. Take it from my Lutheran colleague. Take it too from the Lutheran Bach.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.