This is a conintuation of the thoughts in J.S. Bach – Grandeur and Worship.
Lord have mercy vs. Glory to God on high
The first half of Bach’s Mass in B Minor consists of the Kyrie and the Gloria. The Kyrie is an impassioned cry for mercy, and Bach’s music reflects the depths of our anguish:
Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.
Christe eleison. Christ have mercy.
Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy.
Three times we ask God for mercy. Three times represents the depths of our need for mercy and the fact that God is three persons in one God.
The Kyrie is hard on us. We do not want to admit to sin. We do not appreciate being called sinners. We do not want to be in the depths, nor call out of them for mercy. We are happy to skip straight to the Gloria. The Gloria is fun and happy: Christ has arrived, He loves us, He loves us unconditionally.
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God on high.
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
And on earth peace and good will to men.
Nonetheless, we cannot fully appreciate the Gloria without the Kyrie. We cannot fully appreciate forgiveness, if we do not appreciate sin. We cannot have the true Gloria without the true Kyrie.
Bach takes us on this complete journey. Through music he communicates the truth that we are lost and condemned by God. He makes us feel the stress of this truth and the anguish of repentance. It is a hard listen. The Kyrie is uncomfortable. It is supposed to be uncomfortable. It is supposed to shake us out of our complacency. It is supposed to be a “wake up call.”
Only after the Kyrie can we truly exalt in the Gloria. Only after understanding our desperate need for forgiveness can we fully appreciate His fulsome and free forgiveness.
Bach is trying to do more than entertain, he is trying to enlighten. He is communicating truth. Not all truth is entertaining, not all truth is delightful and fun, and not all truth is good news. But the truth sets us free. An especially hard truth is needed to set us free. The sinful man in chains does not want to hear about his chains, but we need to know of our bondage if we will ever be free.
So the next time we are in church and the liturgy seems dreary because the music is in fact a little bit dark, let us try to understand the truth that is being communicated. Most churches do not have the musical talent necessary to perform Bach, but the truth is true whether it is communicated eloquently by Bach through a full symphony orchestra & chorale or rather modestly through part-time organists & guitarists. The eloquence of the messenger does not change the truth of the message.
This is one concern about the trend of some “church growth” type “contemporary” worship: It skips the message of the Kyrie. It skips the hard parts. It skips the hard truth. It skips the truth we do not want to hear, but need to hear. For the sake of entertainment and emotional delight, it changes the message.
The Gloria without the message of the Kyrie is a half truth. Without a cry for mercy, our worship is mere Pharisaism. The Pharisees thanked God for everything except mercy. They gloried in their own personal gloria. (Luke 18:9-14). However, the one who gained the most from his time at the Temple was not the one who felt the most uplifted (the Pharisee), but rather the one who went home before God justified (the tax collector).
The Lord God says:
“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”
— Isaiah 66:2.
Like Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the Church is not essentially about entertainment, it is about enlightenment. The Church is about proclaiming the Truth. The Truth sets us free. Because the truth is not always fun and easy, we do not trust anyone whose proclamation of “truth” is pure entertainment; if we do, we will lose both freedom and truth.
The message that church should be an enlightenment, might be a hard truth; but only after passing through the hard truths of the Kyrie can we truly arrive at the Gloria. And the Gloria is indeed glorious.
In the Mass in B Minor, Bach’s Gloria is over twice as long as his Kyrie, and he concludes the entire program with the words Soli Deo Gloria: “to God alone be the Glory.” The Gloria is God’s alone. The cry for mercy of the Kyrie is ours. Christ our Bridegroom unites us together, and takes our Kyrie to be His own, and gives us His Gloria.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!