J.S. Bach on Michaelmas

292 years ago tomorrow, on the Feast of Saint Michael, the people of Leipzig gathered in their churches to celebrate this holy day, one of the principal feasts in the Lutheran church year. One good reason to show up to church, other than being very pious, was to hear the latest holy day cantata written and directed by the local composer—Johann Sebastian Bach. Faithful Lutherans sat in their pews and listened to Bach’s choir ring out ES ERHUB SICH EIN STREIT, translated, “There arose a great fight”. These opening lines introduced the great heavenly battle between Michael and the dragon, Satan, recounted over the course of the first movement.

Bach’s cantata for the Feast of Saint Michael, or, as we call it in the Anglican tradition, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, is, of course, brilliant. Bach integrates the readings from the lectionary into the cantata, weaving scripture and traditional teaching on angels into a musical tapestry that rewards listening and re-listening. Indeed, ES ERHUB SICH EIN STREIT walks the worshipper through the key roles St. Michael plays in scripture, vividly illustrating the centrality of angels both in salvation history and the life of the individual believer. 

In contrast to Bach’s robust angelology, we tend to think of angels as plump five year olds who sit around plucking their harps and flapping their wings. For that image, we have the Victorians to blame–as for most of our overly-sentimentalized errors of theological imagination. As Philip Jenkins puts it:

In modern times, angels often seem to represent a kind of religious kitsch, a spirituality Lite. Historically, they were anything but that, and they still inspire real devotion among orthodox and seekers alike.

Bach–and the church fathers–help us re-imagine angels, introducing us to four roles that angels play, or four reasons we should give thanks for St. Michael and all angels. In other words, four reasons to feast today on Michaelmas.

First, we give thanks for St. Michael and the angels because they wage war against Satan and his minions. As Bach’s opening movement puts it, “That raving snake, the infernal dragon storms against heaven with furious vengeance. But Michael vanquishes the foe, and the host that encircles him overthrows Satan’s ferocity.”

Icon_Archangel_Mikhael_722x1024This lyrical take on the passage in Revelation reminds us that we are not Manicheans: that we are not in the middle of a struggle between God and Satan. Far from it! There isn’t a dark side and a light side. There is God, and creatures. Satan is not God, only evil, he is a creature, and his counterpart, St Michael, is also a creature. And he is a creature that defeats Satan! This truth puts Satan in his place. God’s angels do battle with evil, and are part of his inevitable and complete triumph over it. Angels remind us, then, of the unsubstantial nature of evil–of its impermanence, and even its unreality.

The second reason we give thanks for angels is that they protect the souls of the faithful. The Church Fathers are quite clear that every believer is entrusted to an angel. This is something we’ve actually held on to pretty well, in our understanding of guardian angels, although we tend to reduce this to protection from physical harm, as if angels were another set of parents. The Fathers put more emphasis on the ways in which angels assist us in our spiritual life. As theologian Jean Danielou notes in his wonderful book, Angels and Their Mission, angels guide us in our “spiritual ascent up to the threshold of union with God.” The Fathers, whose theology of angels is very well summarized in Danielou’s little book, taught that angels assist our sanctification in many ways: they reprimand us, they bring us to penitence, they assist us in our prayer. Indeed, one of the most venerable teachings in the Church Fathers on guardian angels is that they protect our souls from “troubles within and without.” In other words, they bring us peace. St. Hilary writes that God has given us angels because he knows that we are like little children. Hilary writes “Our weakness is such that, if the guardian angels had not been given to us, we could not resist the many and powerful attacks of the evil spirits.” In Hilary’s image, we are little children, who could easily give way to fear or despair, but Christ, as a loving father and friend, does not leave us alone, but provides us with companions. He gives us his peace, not merely in word & sacrament, but also in the presence of his angels.

In Bach’s third movement, the soprano sings that because the angel of our Lord encamps around us, “We can in safe repose before our enemies stand.” This points to a truth that we sometimes forget in our understanding of guardian angels: that our enemies are not yet removed. We will, in fact, face temptation and suffering. We may battle depression or anxiety. We will face troubles within and without. Even so, we can rest. Indeed, one implication of this theology is that we do not know of the untold times our souls have been preserved from overwhelming despair through the ministry of our angel of peace. We do not know the harm we have been preserved from because angels dwell in our walls.

As a musical aside, Bach scholar John Eliot Gardner points out that the composer uses the high brass in contrasting ways: in the opening chorus they ring out the “scale and significance of [this] apocalyptic encounter”, but, as Gardner notes, “in the tender E minor aria for tenor [the trumpets evoke] the ever-watchful protection afforded by the guardian angels as they wheel around in the stratosphere.” The high brass, brash and blaring in the first instance, and slow and soft in the second, reveals a profound mystery: those same mighty creatures who battle Satan and his demonic hordes are those who come close to us to bring peace to our childlike souls. This a beautiful paradox, and one that Bach shows us through his trumpets.

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The third reason we give thanks is that angels teach us to sing. This musical instruction happens primarily in the liturgy, as we quite literally participate in the heavenly liturgy of the angels. This is made explicit in the preface to the Sanctus: “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name.” St. Chrysostom taught that while the Gloria is the chant of the lower angels, “the Sanctus is the chant of the Seraphim; it leads into the very sanctuary of the Trinity,” and thus the Sanctus should only be sung by the baptized. Now, we don’t differentiate in this way, but consider the enormity of this teaching: we have been taught the song of the highest order of angels, those who sing it in the very presence of the Triune God. We have been initiated into this mystery.

This teaching reminds us that in our worship, the real action is not here. We aren’t creating something, manufacturing rituals to give us an emotional high or a warm sense of community. Rather, we are adding our voices to the heavenly song. As Ambrose puts it, we are always worshipping as a “twofold Church,” the church on earth and the church in heaven. We add our voices to a song that resounds throughout the cosmos, harmonizing with all of worshipping creation.

In Bach’s fifth movement, the tenor sings “Stay, you angels, stay by me! Walk on both sides of me, that my foot may not slip! But teach me also here your great Sanctus to sing and to sing thanks to the Most High!” The same angels who wage war on our behalf, who protect us from trouble within and without, instruct us in joyful music-making. Whenever we raise our voices in song, we show ourselves to be good students of the angels.

Fourth, and finally, we give thanks for angels because they minister to us at the hour of death. The ministry of angels at death is quite explicit in scripture, particularly in the parable of Lazarus, which we read on Sunday. The church Fathers elaborate on the profound, all-encompassing ministry of angels to the dying. First, at the hour of death, the angels gather and surround the believer. As Gregory the Great taught, the death of a saint is a fearful mystery to angels, but they gather around the deathbed to sing heavenly hymns, which are so beautiful, according to Gregory, that they “fill the soul with so divine a joy that it does not notice the sufferings of death.” Upon the death of the believer, the angels carry her soul to the heavenly city, guiding it and assuring that it has a peaceful journey. On the way, the angels protect the soul, scattering any demons who would seek to block it or do it harm. Finally, at the gates of the city, the angels of heaven gather to meet the procession and welcome the soul into her rest.

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This teaching reassures us that no soul who belongs to Christ is lost. All to whom we have said goodbye–every beloved father, faithful husband, or unborn baby, is carefully carried by Christ’s angels into its heavenly rest. This teaching also reminds us of the friendly love of Christ for his own. The once-forsaken Son of God, who suffered and died for us, does not leave us alone as we suffer, nor alone as we pass into the unknown of death. Rather, he sends his friends to our deathbed, surrounding us with song, guiding and protecting us on our journey to him, and offering us a warm welcome into his home.

Bach knew of suffering and death. He grew up an orphan. In 1720, six years before he wrote ES ERHUB SICH EIN STREIT, his first wife died suddenly while he was traveling. He would remarry, and have thirteen children, but he buried seven of them before they reached adulthood. At age 65, he went blind, and four months later, due to complications from his second eye surgery, died.

In Bach’s theology of angels, we do not find little cherubs who play their harps in an innocent paradise, nor do we find good-luck charms that will protect us from suffering or loss. Rather, we find mighty warriors who confront evil on our behalf, who keep us from despair, who teach us how to praise, and who will walk with us when we finally, and inevitably, taste death.

Bach’s final movement has the feel of a minuet – dramatic, slow, methodical, as the choir sings a closing prayer:

“Let thine angel with me go
on Elijah’s chariot red
and my soul well protect,
Like Lazarus after his death.
Let it rest in thy bosom
Fill it with happiness and comfort,
Until my body comes out of the earth
And with it reunited be.”

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