J.S. Bach – Grandeur & Worship

I attended J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra over the weekend.  The title of the program was “Grandeur and Worship.”

In order to fully appreciate Bach, one must hearken, that is pay respectful attention to every note.  Hearkening puts one in the proper attitude that the Church has toward her Lord.  When the Church gathers together in assembly to receive gifts from her Lord, she hearkens to His Word.

The Mass begins with the Greek Kyrie:

Kyrie eleison.   Lord have mercy.
Christe eleison.  Christ have mercy.
Kyrie eleison.   Lord have mercy.

The music itself is an impassioned and anguished cry for mercy.   I have nothing, I am nothing, I deserve nothing, Lord have mercy.  My hands are empty, my heart is empty, I am empty, Christ have mercy.  I have transgressed your Law, I am a sinner, I deserve eternal damnation, Lord have mercy.   The Kyrie is a hard listen, but it well conveys the Church’s anguished cry for mercy.  Mercy is never deserved.

Then suddenly the full chorus stands and exults: Gloria in excelsis Deo, Glory to God in the highest!  The brass section (symbolic of royalty) trumpets the arrival of Christ who comes into our presence bringing gifts of unmerited forgiveness and unconditional love.

Throughout, the Mass is clear that it is God who brings gifts to His Church, and she responds with only thanksgiving.  It is God who saves, God who rescues, God who takes away the sins of the world, God who makes us holy, God who makes our hearts overflow with thanksgiving, and who fills our mouths with praise and our hearts with His love and righteousness.

That is true worship.  It is not an “our worship service” where we sing mostly about ourselves and how we praise God, nor is it a “worship service” where we merely sing vague generalities about how God is great, but rather it is a true worship of God for what God has done specifically in Jesus Christ:  He was crucified, He took away the sins of the world, He cleanses us, He will raise the dead, and He will reign over the world to come forever and ever.

True worship is not our service.  True worship is our response to God’s service.  For “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:28).  In the Kyrie we are empty and in need.   In the Gloria we are filled by God.

In Bach’s native German there is a word for the Lutheran Church service: Gottesdienst.   In English the literal translation is “God’s service.”  Any true gathering of the Church is about what Christ has done, is doing, and will do: the gathering is around Christ and His service.

My favorite part was the Sanctus chorus: the Holy Holy Holy.  Even our glorification of God is His gift to us.  We hearken and receive His gifts of forgiveness and love and glory.  Truly the Lord is Holy, Holy, Holy.

The program was glorious.  Gottesdienst.

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