“How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?” (J. S. Bach)

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

Warm-fuzzy North Park Center

.

.

.

I had a couple of problems this morning.

First, I wanted to look at my copy of the piano-vocal score in (a stultified) English translation of the J.S. Bach Christmas Oratorio. I can’t find it. It’s on a shelf or in a box or in some other place I put it for safe keeping when I moved to this apartment 11 years ago. I probably have not looked at it since then.

I wanted the English words of the 5th movement of the first section. I could reconstruct them from memory except the 5th and 6th lines. I must have looked at 20 websites before I found the words. I found one recording of a (not professional) choir singing it in English, but I can’t make out the words as they sing.

Searching for the score did accomplish one thing for me. I put a whole bunch (more) CDs and DVDs of operas, extended musical works, and movies (the complete Godfather, for example) into boxes to take out of here. Any such recording I have not listened to or watched since I moved here 11 years ago is going! I obviously don’t need them.

The words of that chorus of the Christmas Oratorio are warm-fuzzy words about Christmas, particularly about the faithful’s response to the birth of the Baby Jesus.

How shall I fitly meet Thee
And give Thee welcome due?
The nations long to greet Thee,
And I would greet Thee, too.
O Fount of light, shine brightly
Upon my darkened heart,
That I may serve Thee rightly
And know Thee as Thou art.

Lovely Christmas sentiment, No? Yes, of course. The words have been sung from the 17th century onward to a lovely and sweetly introspective tune by Johann Crüger. Similar to “Away in the Manger.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet might say.

Bach used a different tune. The tune everyone in America who uses a church hymnal knows as “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Hans Leo Hassler, contemporaneous with Crüger.

Black Friday, greeting him

Black Friday, meeting him?

These words traditionally go with that tune—or some similar translation.

O sacred head, now wounded,
defiled and put to scorn;
O kingly head surrounded
with mocking crown of thorn:
What sorrow mars thy grandeur?
Can death thy bloom deflower?
O countenance whose splendor
the hosts of heaven adore!

My guess is 99% of the people who attend a performance of the Bach Christmas Oratorio in the next two or three weeks will think the tune is just lovely, a nice way to sing about the Baby Jesus. Even those who recognize the tune will not be jarred by it. How could J.S. Bach compose anything other than grandeur and elegance?

So it’s not jarring to sing about meeting the baby to the tune most of us know for words about the baby’s eventual murder?

Let’s not belittle Bach’s power as thinker and composer. I don’t know if he was the first composer to marry those sentimental words with that gruesome tune, but I know that to anyone listening with anything other than their most uncritical and unconscious ears and mind, that movement of the Christmas Oratorio is shocking. Just shocking.

Who sings songs about an unjust execution as a lullaby to their children?

The other problem I had earlier today was the news that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby. Who gives a (insert your own word here) that Kourtney Kardashian had a baby? Well, there, I’ve cheapened whatever argument I was making. And what does it say about us that anyone other than her family even knows her blessed news?

And now I wish I were a philosopher or a great preacher or theology professor or even one of those people who gets to speak ad infinitum helping PBS raise money. Or perhaps a TED speaker. I want to preach. If I had standing to do so, I’d say something like this.

Isn’t it sad that—taken as a whole—we as a people are more interested in how we should fitly meet the Baby Kardashian than how we should meet anything related to truth, goodness, beauty, or other noble pursuits. I won’t speak about theology or religion because I frankly can no longer get my head around those kinds of ideas.

Old Sebastian Bach knew a thing or two about us. We have this elaborate ritual of warm-fuzziness and camaraderie (“mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together”) that makes us feel more generous than we have any right to feel about ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we actually believe in the [original] “reason for the season.” We all participate in the orgy of “spending and pretending.” Pretending we love everyone, when what we really want is to keep our economy on track. I don’t need to say all of this.

Everyone who has more than 30 seconds to be reflective knows it.

So Old Sebastian Bach stuck this hymn into his Christmas Oratorio, right in the first section. The choir (and presumably the congregation at St. Thomas, Leipzig) sang these heart-warming, goose-bumpy words about meeting the Baby Jesus (or the Baby Kardashian).

But if you’re paying attention, you realize he’s tricking you into singing also about police brutality in Ferguson, MO, about our desire to change the law so we can carry murder weapons openly in Texas, about the estimated 300,000 kids in North Texas who live in food insecurity. And I won’t mention (because most people—even those who might agree we need to sing about murder and hunger—absolutely do not want to think about it) the racism that so pervades our culture that we who are in charge of things can’t even see it.

In place of the words to the Christmas Oratorio I find news of Kourtney Kardashian’s baby—at least partly because those words are lost in piles of stuff I don’t need. Stuff that makes me feel warm-fuzzy, protected, successful, while I ignore the homeless black man sitting yesterday a couple of yards from the gate to my apartment complex.

“O sacred head. . .”
BigHeartMinistries

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: