It is the first Sunday in Lent. The title of today’s cantata is “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God). The cantata was written for Reformation Day, but that won’t fall on a Sunday until 2021, and I can’t wait that long to give you one of Bach’s best-loved cantatas. And as we will see, the text relates nicely to today’s Gospel reading — and many congregations will be singing the Martin Luther hymn today that is the basis of the cantata. Listen to Bach’s cantata and rejoice:
The most recognizable iteration of the melody, from Luther’s hymn, is contained in the final chorale at 23:20 of the recording.
Luther is said to have uttered these words: “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” These words ring true to me, especially because musical works — Bach’s cantatas in particular — have played a primary role in bringing me back to the church.
Today’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:9-15, and describes Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan:
The Baptism and Testing of Jesus
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Jesus Announces the Good News
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Last week’s Gospel reading concerned the Transfiguration of our Lord — another milestone of Jesus’s life, and another one where a voice came from the heavens, proclaiming that Jesus is God’s son. We have already heard verses 9-11 this church year, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, but now we carry on the story to Jesus’s temptation and the proclamation of good news.
The text of today’s cantata is available here. The theme of fighting Satan is also apparent in this cantata, making this an appropriate cantata for the occasion. The opening chorus speaks of God being a fortress against “the old, evil enemy … and his horrid armaments”:
Our God is a secure fortress,
a good shield and weapon;
He helps us willingly out of all troubles,
that now have encountered us.
The old, evil enemy
is earnestly bent on it,
great strength and much deceit
are his horrid armaments,
there is nothing like him on earth.
A recitative proclaims God’s victory in “the war against Satan’s host”:
Only consider, child of God, that such great love,
which Jesus Himself
with His blood signed over to you,
through which He,
in the war against Satan’s host and against the world and sin,
has won you!
Do not make a place in your soul
for Satan and depravity!
I have given up both alcohol and chips for Lent — a double sacrifice that I’m sure we can all agree is very close to spending 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan! OK, maybe not quite — but close, right?
I’ve been criticized for bringing you only Bach in these Sunday posts. I’m going to continue to present Bach cantatas, but I’ll give you some other music when it relates — and today is a perfect example, because one of my favorite composers, Felix Mendelssohn, used the same Martin Luther hymn as the basis of the fourth movement of his “Reformation Symphony”:
The entire symphony is available there for you to listen to, but I have set it up to begin at the fourth movement, so you can hear the stirring melody used in Bach’s cantata. It begins in the flute, spreads to other woodwinds, and is gradually taken up by the full orchestra. At 27:42, there is a stirring rendition of the theme to close the symphony. The symphony was labeled Mendelssohn’s Fifth, but was actually his second, and is not performed nearly often enough.
If you’re interested in hearing a beautiful performance of Luther’s hymn sung in English, there’s this performance by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
UPDATE: A commmenter explains the meaning of the Arabic letter in the video, as to which I was previously ignorant:
The Arabic letter is a “nun,” for “Nazarene.” ISIS militants spray-painted it on the homes of Christians to mark them for terror and then seizure of their property. Some Westerners have adopted it as a symbol of solidarity.
UPDATE x2: If you don’t have time to listen to anything else, make sure to listen to the duet at 19:12. It is one of the more beautiful passages Bach wrote — and that’s saying something.