Bach’s Cantata “Christ lag in Todesbanden” is the first ever cantata I heard performed live by a group of young women and men (one vocalist and instrumentalist to apart), on Easter Sunday afternoon at the English Church in the middle of the historic Begijnhof in the center of Amsterdam. That was in the late 1990s, a time of profound change in my own personal life.
It began with the experience, during the thirty days of Spiritual Exercises in the final stage of my formation as a Jesuit just over one year earlier, of being given the clear sense of a Voice speaking deep within me: “You are my beloved…”. What the experience initiated was the process which ultimately led to my leaving the religious community (after conversations with fellow Jesuits and superiors which I consider to be the best ones I ever had).
So it was that, hearing Bach’s Easter Cantata, I found myself not only in a late 14th C church in the middle of Amsterdam, but also in the middle of the process which another former Jesuit once described as “being firmly planted with both feet in mid-air”. I knew in my heart, but not yet fully in my head (the journey from the heart to the head is the longest ever) that, as a God’s beloved gay Edgar, I could no longer adhere to, let alone represent, official Catholic Church teaching, and that this meant that, at some point in the future, I would leave the Jesuits – not knowing at all when that would happen, what would come next, where I would be, and how my life would look like.
It took time to let go of those unsettling considerations, and instead to only, and fully, allow myself to be freed of “death’s bonds” and entrust myself to the One Who “brought us life” here and now - each day, minute, second, breath. As Eastertide moved into Whitsunday and then on into “ordinary time” (well, sort of ordinary) clarity came to me while presiding at Mass on Christmas Day, at the breaking of the Bread. Allowing myself to be freed from“death’s bonds”, I realized that this means to become, like and with Jesus,“born”, “incarnated” as God’s beloved as the one I am (in response to Divine “I Am Who Is”). Through the time that followed I spent lots of time with a dear uncle and aunt, who, as I found out, proved to be wise counselors to me each time I stayed with them. One feat on every Sunday: playing a Bach cantata CD. I heard many cantatas that way.
Later, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and working as a hospital and hospice chaplain, I listened to Bach cantatas in the car very often (marvelous when stuck on the Bay Bridge!). The Journey unfolded and continues. It has led me to here and now in the midst of the community called Emmanuel. As we emerge out of Covid tide, longing for what we call “normal”, the one thing that is sure beyond any doubt is that nothing is “normal” these days. War is raging in Europe, democracy and the values we fought for and consider well-established are increasingly under attack, while economic uncertainly poses a real danger to political and societal stability here and in many places around the world. It feels to me like we are very much “firmly planted with both feet in mid-air”, with no sure foundation to be safe on.
Yet The One Who Breaks Death’s Bonds and Who BringsLife is the One Suspended In Mid Air, with arms stretched wide on theCross. The Ground which our feet long for is the Holy Ground which seems to elude us, beckoning us to take the nextstep, suspended in mid-air, as the act of resistance against everything and everyone promising to be the true foundation (often the imaginary glorious past heralding a glorious future – oblivious to the Present [One]). I think of today’s Bach Cantata as the creative and faithful response of gratitude to the Holy One Who, through the Word/Gospel and Eucharist throughout Eastertide, invites us to follow and do likewise (equipped with Holy Spirit on Whit Sunday, to be sent out into “ordinary time” in the here and now of our “anything-but-normal”-normal world): “Fear not” - “Are you hungry? Come, eat” –“Do you love me? Love. Be loved”. It feels to me like Bach nudges us to do this singing (always on, yet not limited to, Sundays). Not only Cantatas, but anthems, hymns, song. I like the fact we sing all stanzas here at Emmanuel. And, when I can, I join Emmanuel Music’s singers in the final Choral. I hope we can sing Choral together, all of us, at the end of a Cantata in the future, in English, before we are sent out into the world among the people around us.
I am convinced Bach would happily approve. Thus set free, we become bringers of Life to one another and everyone around us.