Oh, My Son! Sacred Music at the Death of a Child
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
— Easter Acclamation
During my tenure at Naval Air Station Lemoore (central California), I had the privilege of participating in the annual Child Remembrance Ceremony, in recognition of October as Child Loss Month. As part the ceremony, those who had personally experienced the death of a child (in utero or otherwise) were kind enough to share their stories of grief and hope, followed by the lighting of votive candles in memory of those who have departed this world in the faith. In addition to these faith stories, I was privileged to share one piece of sacred music with the assembly, along with an appropriate hymn or prayer. Though I am no longer part of the Lemoore community, these wounded healers are forever in my heart for sharing their stories, which stand in vivid theological contrast to the current promulgation of abortion as a “reproductive health option.” In recognition of the reality of child loss, please join me to explore the work “When David Heard” by Eric Whitacre (b. 1970), an appropriate hymn by St. Ephraim Syrus (ca. AD 306–373), and a simple funeral chant on the words Jesus spoke after the death of Lazarus.
Cantatas over Coffee: J. S. Bach Cantata 130, "Lord God, We All to Thee Give Praise": Cantata for St. Michael and All Angels (1724)
Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.
—Martin Luther’s Daily Prayer
Among the principal feasts of Christ in the church year, few are more beloved in the Lutheran tradition than St. Michael’s and All Angels (hereafter “Michaelmas”), with the possible exceptions of Reformation and All Saints. Two competing (or are they complementary?) theories might explain the choice of September 29th for this festival: the dedication of a church by the same name in ancient Europe, and/or the passing of the fall equinox, resulting in shorter days and longer nights, an allegory of the end-times battle between good and evil. The Scripture lessons were Revelation 12:7-12 (Michael’s end-times battle with the ancient dragon) and St. Matthew 18:1-11 (angels behold the face of God as part of their care for God’s children). In Bach’s Leipzig, St. Michael’s Day was also one of the quarterly occasions on which “rents were levied and agreed in northern Europe, the start of the new agricultural year for many people and, in Leipzig, the day of one of its three annual trade fairs” (John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, p. 457). Theologically, the day called for what Jonathan Green describes as “a flashy and brilliant cantata” (A Conductor’s Guide to the Choral-Orchestral Works of J. S. Bach, p. 289), but the other commitments of the day might explain why Cantata 130, while unmistakably festive, is also one of Bach’s shortest cantatas.
Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.
— Psalm 119:54
The August 2020 issue of “Lifted Voice” is the 50th installment of this online column on sacred music. Almost every one of these issues has been edited by Dr. Jane Schatkin Hettrick, Professor Emeritus in Music at Rider University, and best known to many of us as Director of Parish Music at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY.
From thine altar, O Lord, we receive Christ,
in whom our heart and flesh rejoice.
— Antiphon for Corpus Christi
Psalm 84 is a hymn of the sons of Korah, descendants of Moses’ nephew. Korah once led a revolt against Moses and died, along with all his co-conspirators, when God caused "the earth to open her mouth and swallow him and all that appertained to them" (Num 16:31–33). His children, however, did not die (Num 26:11) and went on to serve as porters of the Temple (1 Chr 9:17–19), with special responsibility to care for God’s house, including the baking in pans for the meat-offering (Lev 2:5). These vital roles in the stewardship of God’s house, in addition to rescuing the family name, are reflected in the Psalms by the sons of Korah: 42, 44–49, 84, 85, 87 and 88.
When we consider the 6th commandment, it seems that often times we think only in terms of NOT doing something. Perhaps the main thing that comes to mind is either abstinence or adultery, both of which are negatives. However, there is much more going on here, and the virtue of Chastity points us to the full richness of this commandment.
On Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Sacred Music for the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin
O wondrous interchange! The Creator of mankind,
taking upon Him a living body, vouchsafed to be born of a pure virgin.
— Antiphon for the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the history of sacred music, it is difficult to pinpoint which text outside of the Psalms has been more frequently set to music: the Mass or the Magnificat. The appeal of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) lies in the catholicity and continuity of the text, since it is being sung somewhere around the world at every second of every day. The Magnificat, however, is not far behind the Mass in Christian devotion. The miraculous story of the infancy narrative in Luke 1 and 2, the uniqueness of Mary’s place in the story of salvation, and the rich vocabulary in the Magnificat have given it a rightful and prominent place in the story of sacred music.
From the womb of one aged and barren was brought forth John, the Forerunner of the Lord.
— Antiphon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
In an article entitled, “Praying the Psalms with Jesus and His Body,” Thomas W. Winger makes the intriguing observation that the Codex Alexandrinus, the most important Greek manuscript of the fifth century, follows a common pattern of appending canticles to the 150th Psalm. These additions include the canticles of Luke 1 and 2: Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis (CTQ 84:1-2, p. 123). The inclusion of Lukan canticles at the end of the Psalter suggests (or does it prove?) that the canticles of Luke 1 and 2 are part and parcel of the referent of St. Paul’s admonition to sing “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19). In simple terms, the canticles of Luke 1 and 2 are part of our “A List” hymns, not to be neglected. In our ongoing exploration of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24th, six months before Christmas) gives us a chance to focus on the Benedictus (St. Luke 1:68-79).
And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity. . . .
— The Athanasian Creed
Helmuth Rilling, one of the most respected conductors, scholars, and teachers of the music of J. S. Bach (1685-1750), describes the importance of Bach’s cantatas: “J. S. Bach’s church cantatas are the center of his lifework . . . to know Bach, one must study his cantatas” (quoted in the Foreword to Melvin P. Unger, Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts). This is most certainly true. The passions and oratorios were performed for festive occasions, but Bach was obligated to provide (not necessarily compose) a cantata for every Sunday and feast day of the church year, except for a few Sundays in Lent and Advent. In the interest of exploring the vast treasure of Bach’s 200 extant cantatas (another 100 were lost), I am pleased to introduce my occasional column, “Cantatas Over Coffee,” beginning with Cantata 129, “The Lord, My God, be Praised,” originally written for Trinity Sunday.
There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come,
No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.
— Isaac Watts
Psalm 23 is perhaps the most beloved and well known of all psalms. Martin Luther summarizes the content of this Psalm:
“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O Children of Jacob, are not consumed.” —Malachi 3:6
Things change. Sometimes this is good. Wisdom is earned with age and experience. It can’t be downloaded straight into our brains. In the same way, we teach the young people to put off childish things to prepare for the responsibilities of adulthood. Anthony Esolen in his recent book, Nostalgia, calls this “organic change” or changes that unwrap and unveil the full potential of one of God’s creatures. It’s change that delights in a baby taking her first steps, for instance. But when change attacks God’s gifts of life, like the institutions of the family and church, it is evil. This is change that tears down creation, despises God’s work of redemption, and stains God’s work of sanctifying our souls.
For the faithful who have gone before us and are with Christ,
Let us give thanks to the Lord: Alleluia
—Liturgy of Evening Prayer
All Saints’ Day is the most comprehensive festival among days of commemoration. Indeed, the Feast of All Saints encompasses the entirety of the great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded (Heb. 12:1). It holds before our eyes a great multitude which no man can number, of every nation, tribe, and language, who have come “out of the great tribulation [and] washed their robes . . . in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9, 14). All Saints’ Day shares with Easter Sunday an emphasis on the resurrection. It overlaps with Pentecost in its emphasis on the ingathering of the church in its universality. Finally, and especially fitting for church year from November 1st through the Last Sunday in the Church Year, it shares with the last three Sundays of the church year an end-times focus on the life everlasting. This connection between All Saints’ Day and the end of the church year has not been lost on the great composers for the church. Three sacred choral works, arranged in biblical order, are fitting for the Bride on All Saints’ Day and through the end of the church year.
Buxtehude + Bach + Brahms
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone / And rests in Him unceasing.
—Paul Speratus (1484–1551)
The text of the hymn “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” hails from Paul Speratus. In a progression that is remarkably similar to Luther’s life, Speratus was forced to leave two parishes in Roman Catholic territories for preaching the right doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ. He received his doctorate from a major university and later became one of the first priests to openly marry. Speratus was condemned by the Catholic faculty at Vienna, imprisoned for a time under King Ludwig, and in 1523 came to Wittenberg, where he assisted in the preparation of the first Lutheran hymnal. It is no surprise, then, that the first Lutheran hymnal, the Achtliederbuch (“Eight Song Book”), contains the earliest hymns of both Luther and Speratus
The Lord, the King of Archangels: O come, let us worship Him
— Invitatory for the Common of Holy Angel
The name of the archangel St. Michael means “Who is like God?” He is mentioned in the book of Daniel (12:1), Jude (v. 9), and Revelation (12:7). He serves as the angelic helper of Israel in the battle against all forces of evil. The narrative in the Epistle for The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (hereafter “Michaelmas”) describes Michael’s final casting down of Satan, the enemy of God’s people, an end-times victory made possible by Christ’s victory on the cross. St. Michael is often associated with Gabriel and Raphael, the other chief angels who surround the throne of God, although only Michael is specifically described in the Scriptures as “the archangel.” Since Michael and all angels are “charter members” of the heavenly choir, there is no shortage of sacred music for Michaelmas, including choral works by Bach, Mendelssohn, and Willan.
St. Paul says that we do not grieve “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Our Lord lives. Death and grave, our old enemies that used to devour everything, have been put under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). The nature of our hope and what we can say about our Christian friends and family who have died in the faith is the subject of this brief article. There are three passages that I want you to know and with which I want you to become familiar. Knowing them will help you think and speak about death as a Christian. You won’t have to utter the same empty platitudes about “going to a better place.” You’ll be able to speak an articulate hope founded on the Scriptures and made real by Jesus’ victory over the grave.
A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
— Jeremiah 31:15
During the past three years as Command Chaplain at Naval Air Station Lemoore, CA, I have had the pleasure of participating in the annual Candle Lighting Ceremony, sponsored by our Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Group (hereafter “Child Loss Group”). Every October, as part of Child Loss Month, these wounded healers gather in our chapel to light a candle, to tell their intensely personal stories of loss, and to listen to sacred music for the occasion. With my forthcoming transfer to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, my association with this group will soon end. As I look back on all that they have shared with our Navy family, I would like to broaden the audience and pay tribute to them by sharing with you, the reader, the three sacred choral works that I shared with them over the past three years. Each work was originally written as a trumpet in the darkness for those who weep for their children.
On Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: "Lord, Thou hast been our Refuge" (Psalm 90) by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
He who daily remembers that he will die is one who easily despises all worldly things.
— St. Jerome
Psalm 90 (please see the text below the video link) is the only Psalm attributed to Moses, perhaps written after the people sinned in the wilderness, or possibly at the end of his life. Martin Luther summarizes the theology of this Psalm:
Death is . . . the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.
The reader may recall from the April 2018 issue of “Lifted Voice” that we explored music inspired by the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last Sunday (April 7, 1945) before his martyrdom in the death camp at Flossenbürg. Two days later Bonhoeffer was hung from the gallows for his alleged involvement in an unsuccessful plot to kill Hitler. The disposition of his remains is still unknown. Two weeks later the Allies liberated the camp. In another week Hitler committed suicide and the war in Europe was over. His twin sister, Sabine, did not hear about his death until May 31. As late as July 23, Bonhoeffer’s parents, Karl and Paula, had only heard the rumor of Dietrich’s death, although they were aware of the death of their son Klaus. Meanwhile, two pastors and Dietrich’s dear friend, Bishop George Bell, organized a memorial service for brothers Dietrich and Klaus, which was held on July 27 at London’s Holy Trinity Brompton Church (please see the image above). Bishop Bell arranged for it to be “livestreamed” in Germany, which served as confirmation for Bonhoeffer’s extended family that he was dead. Three sacred choral works from this memorial service will serve as the focus of this issue of “Lifted Voice”.
On Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs:
Welcome to Around the Word
Around the Word paints a Biblical and joyful picture of teaching and life. We have our Bibles open, and we believe with simplicity what the Lord speaks there. We endeavor to have a thoughtful and generous, historical and current approach to the Lord’s word, understanding that theological integrity is the best way that we can serve the church at large.
We are Lutheran, that is, we let the Law and the Gospel echo in the full voice with which God speaks it, and we are on the lookout for error because we love to hear the truth, the life-giving voice of Jesus. So we care about their families and their neighbors and the world, both in this life and in the life to come.
We are working to recover the joy and delight of doctrine, of the Gospel.