And, on a geeky note, as a person who likes very much to interact in my own writing with the writings of others, I was tickled to learn that in Jesu, Meine Freude was Bach's own interaction with an existing hymn by the same name written by Johann Franck. Bach begins with Franck's text and weaves it together with passages from the eighth chapter of Romans, blending a sermon with music which will deliver it straight to the heart.
On the evening of the concert, which was held at the Catholic church downtown, Paul and I were so eager that we got there 50 minutes early. This gave us plenty of time to read the program, which provided historical background as well as the English translation of Bach's German and Haydn's Latin. I knew that Bach was a Lutheran and a man of vibrant faith. The program notes, however, seemed to be written from a secular perspective. I say this mainly because the writer seemed puzzled that what Bach had written as a "memorial to the recently departed" could sound so "celebratory." What really struck me about this, and the reason I bring it up, is that this person clearly struggled to find a context for Bach's joy in the face of death:
"The Lutheran ideal of death as a release from the pains and difficulties of life's suffering is more easily understood when we examine the lives of those in times, places, or situations other than our own. The 18th-century perspective on death must surely have been affected by the frequency with which it was confronted. Bach himself buried more than ten of his children."Indeed! Bach fathered twenty children, seven with his first wife and thirteen with his second. Out of the twenty, only half survived to adulthood. I understand what this writer is getting at. It is true that we, overall, are living longer and easier lives. But regardless of our "time, place, and situation", the fact remains that the death rate has not changed since Bach's day, and, truth be told, life is still full of suffering for the majority of those living it. Even so, by and large, suffering or not, we fight tooth and nail put off death for as long as we can. Death was the great enemy of man in Bach's time and it remains so today. In fact, as a Lutheran, and a man devoted to Scripture, Bach would not have viewed death merely as a release from the hardship of life. He believed that death was serious business, not because it was the end of life, but because after it came God's judgment, "the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works..."(Rom. 2:5b,6).
No, to find the key to Bach's triumphant tone in the face of suffering and death, and to find the key for our own, one need only listen to the words of his music.
In Christ, all of life has meaning. In Christ even suffering can be rich. In Christ there is triumph over sin and victory in death. The answer to it all is Jesus, My Joy! When Jesus is your joy in life, He will be your joy in death as well.
*There are other English translations available on the internet. I've merely copied the text provided in the concert program.