In the old days when ministers held communicants classes – nowadays new believers tend not to come in batches- I had a class of ten young people and one man in his eighties. When I asked them to say why they had decided to take this step now, he answered, “I thought it was time to study for my finals…”
Maybe it’s time for me to do the same. This week for example I’ve been busy as a locum minister and therefore been too tired to write a blog. It’s not so very long ago that I was working almost full-time yet hardly ever missed a blog. W.B Yeats asked in a poem, “Who could have foretold / that the heart grows old?” I think my heart is reasonably young, but my brain?
These intimations of mortality have been encouraged by hearing on the radio a short extract from Bach’s Cantata 82, which sings of death in the character of Simeon, the faithful old man who received and blessed the child Jesus when he was presented in the Temple, saying:
Now Lord you let your servant depart in peace
according to your word
for my eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared in the presence of all people:
a light to enlighten the Gentiles
and to be a glory of your people Israel.
Bach’s text takes this incident and generalises it as a moment in the faith of all believers:
Ich habe genug,
Ich habe den Heiland, das Hoffen der Frommen,
Auf meine begierigen Arme genommen;
Ich habe genug!
It is enough.
I have held the Savior, the hope of all peoples,
In the warm embrace of my arms.
It is enough.
Ich hab ihn erblickt,
Mein Glaube hat Jesum ans Herze gedrückt;
Nun wünsch ich, noch heute mit Freuden
Von hinnen zu scheiden.
I have seen him,
My faith has impressed Jesus on my heart;
Now I wish this very day
To depart from here with joy.
Ich habe genug.
Mein Trost ist nur allein,
Dass Jesus mein und ich sein eigen möchte sein.
Im Glauben halt ich ihn,
Da seh ich auch mit Simeon
Die Freude jenes Lebens schon.
Laßt uns mit diesem Manne ziehn!
Ach! möchte mich von meines Leibes Ketten
Der Herr erretten;
Ach! wäre doch mein Abschied hier,l
Mit Freuden sagt ich, Welt, zu dir:
Ich habe genug.
It is enough.
My one consolation is this:
That I am Jesus’ beloved and he is mine.
In faith, I hold him.
For in Simeon, I already see
The joy of life to come.
Let us go forth with Simeon!
Ah! if only the Lord
Would free me from my body’s enslavement;
Ah! if indeed my liberation were soon,
With joy I would say to you, O World,
It is enough.
Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen,
Fallet sanft und selig zu!
Slumber, my weary eyes,
Fall softly and close in contentment.
Welt, ich bleibe nicht mehr hier,
Hab ich doch kein Teil an dir,
Das der Seele könnte taugen.
O World, I will linger here no more.
For indeed, I find nothing in you
Pleasing to my soul.
Hier muss ich das Elend bauen,
Aber dort, dort werd ich schauen
Süßen Friede, stille Ruh.
Here I am resigned to misery,
But there, there I shall feel
Sweet peace and quiet rest.
Mein Gott! wann kömmt das schöne: Nun!
Da ich im Friede fahren werde
Und in dem Sande kühler Erde
Und dort bei dir im Schoße ruhn?
Der Abschied ist gemacht,
Welt, gute Nacht!
My God! When will I hear that precious word: “Now!”
Then I will depart in peace,
And rest both here in the humus of the cool earth
And there within your bosom.
My departure is at hand,
O World, good night!
Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod,
Ach, hätt er sich schon eingefunden.
With gladness, I look forward to my death,
(Ah! if only it had already come.)
Da entkomm ich aller Not,
Die mich noch auf der Welt gebunden.
Then shall I escape all despair
That still enslaves me now on earth.
I guess that although I’ve always liked this Cantata for its music, I often dismissed its text in the past as a typical piece of Lutheran piety, dating from an era when life expectancy was about half what it is now. This time however, I began to study the piece, by listening to a variety of recorded versions, of which my favourites are by Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau and Lorrraine Hunt Lieberson. As I listened, I realised that Bach had found an interpretation of Simeon as the man who knows he has fulfilled his purpose on earth, the task for which he has been born, and is therefore free to approach his death as a sleep and a liberation from the ills of life. Of course, all of this is the product of his faith in Jesus, whom he has held in his arms, as the Messiah expected by his people, who will open faith in God to all people.
The first aria expresses Simeon’s sense of fulfillment in the ambiguous words, It is enough, which cover both the burdens of life and the unique joy of holding the infant saviour, who is impressed on his heart by faith. The second aria is a lullaby which urges the believer to accept much- needed rest and peace. The final aria dances its way towards death as the end of all unhappiness. It is an astonishing work of art for a comparatively young composer, depicting a complex character with great brevity through profound and varied music. It also has the grace of simplicity – more than 250 years after its composition it still invites the listeners to enter a musical world which is strange yet like enough the world they normally inhabit to pierce the heart with its truth. Is it possible that the death which I have always seen as an enemy, can in certain circumstances, be a friend?
But surely it’s a con to compare my experience of life with that of Simeon, who has carried Christ, the hope of the world in his arms? Yes, it is; yet the insidious music asks me if my years are not enough for me. Whom have I lifted in my human arms, if not Christ, the One present in all my loved ones and all my needy ones? Have I not seen him and is he not impressed on my heart? As I begin to open myself to this truth, the music delivers its most terrible invitation, that I may close my tired eyes and find rest. I didn’t know how tired they were until the invitation to rest was made and repeated with such gentle insistence, breaking my instinctive distrust of anything other than a resolved endurance. Then finally, having seduced me into an acceptance of final rest, the music wakes me up into a new kind of courage, which allows my spirit to keep dancing on the way to the “now” of death, whenever it comes. A tiny alteration, the movement from a the minor key of courage into the major key of victory, happens in the very last note of the cantata.
Perhaps this is the kind of memento mori (reminder of death) which can help me to live creatively as an older person. It asks me what more I can want than what I’ve been given; who has been handed into my arms if not Christ; how much I need rest; and how little death is to be feared, in the dance of faith.