The Unity Light – RPC Music Notes, Sun 19 Jan 2020

The Amen from Bach’s Advent Cantata BWV 61 “Now come, saviour of the nations” is based not on that tune, but on the Epiphany Hymn “How brightly shines the Morning Star.”

It is no coincidence that, around the world, festivals of light like Christmas, Hanukkah, Divali, Kwanzaa (and many more) cluster around the time of the winter solstice – the emerging return of light to a world that has descended into darkness.

Epiphany, both the 6th of January and the following season, ends the classical twelve days of Christmas. Along with its traditional focus on the learned Magi from eastern lands who seek a newborn king in Palestine, another icon has emerged in the themography and music of Christian Worship – the star that led them on their journey, and more broadly the image of light as antidote not just to darkness, but to a host of other woes (including, but not limited to, evil, ignorance, paganism and atheism).

Epiphany, the beginning of Jesus’ mortal ministry, like the Day of Pentecost that ends it, represents the expansion of the faith of Israel into the broader world. The star’s emergence in heathen lands has long been employed as a symbol of evangelism. Ironically our December Christmas is likely because of a world already celebrating the light of winter solstice (rather than newly receiving the Light of Christ) at this time.

A musical incarnation of this we see today at RPC is Bach’s choice to end his Advent Cantata BWV 61 “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” with a beautiful Amen based on the Lutheran chorale “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” prominent throughout today’s service. In the title of the Cantata’s foundational hymn Jesus is identified as “Saviour of the Nations” (in older translations it goes so far as to say “Saviour of the Heathen”), and so the connection to the arrival of the Magi at Jesus’ birth is unmistakable, as Bach, a devout Lutheran, sought musical symbolism to accompany text settings in all of his church music, and the Cantatas in particular.

Viewing all this it also seems no coincidence that the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity also falls in the Epiphany Season. First proposed in 1908 but really emerging on the international stage in 1948 with the founding of the World Council of Churches in the aftermath of World War II, it gathers notoriously divided Christians in the service of an annual theme of prayer and action. As we observe this remarkable occasion, let’s remember the growing light shining down upon, not just upon us hopefully united Christians, but also upon those of many other faiths in this holy season.

-CD

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