In 1749, Johann Sebastian Bach was 64 years old and had written over 1000 pieces of music through his lifetime, pieces for organs, orchestras, and choruses. By modern accounts, he was nearly blind and suffering from illness that would bring him to his passing within the next year. Over the last decades of his life, Bach composed the various sections of his Mass in B minor, setting the complete Latin Mass to music. His different personal compositional styles and different historical musical styles are seen within the hour-and-a-half musical masterpiece that today is considered one of the very greatest choral works of all time.
As he lay dying in 1749, Bach decided to rewrite one final section of the B minor Mass, the “Et incarnates est” section of the Creed. Bach had already written music for this portion of the text as part of the preceding Soprano-Alto duet. That duet sets this portion the text that we will recite shortly in the Nicene Creed:
“We believe in on Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.”
In 1749, this sick, blind 64-year-old decided to throw out the last page or so of the duet and write a new chorus for the text that follows. Unlike the duet which is in a major key, G major, “Et incarnatus est” is in the tragic, lamenting key of B minor, one of only five movements in the B minor Mass that is actually in B minor. The entire chorus sings the words:
“By the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man”
“Et homo factus est”
“And was made man”
In Bach’s massive catalogue of compositions, this is generally thought to be the last piece of music that the composer ever wrote for choral voices. “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria virgine; et homo factus est.” “And was made man.”
I am not really an expert on Bach’s life or composition and so I apologize if any of my music history is off. But I am a singer and was fortunate enough to have rehearsal on this Tuesday afternoon when I rehearsed the B minor Mass with the Harvard University Choir. It had been a long day since returning back from the Marathon on Monday. I hadn’t any time to put my thoughts in order and was feeling anxious and tense. In that moment, in our first rehearsal with strings, Bach’s music calmed me. And moved me. “Et homo factus est.” “And was made man.” The Creed continues, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” I imagined this aging, blind composer at death’s door, coming to grips with the suffering of this Earth and connecting to God through the shared suffering of Christ on the cross. Christ was made man to share with us in our suffering on Earth, to experience the pains and trials that we face as humans.
In today’s familiar Psalm, the Psalmist tells us that the Lord is with us at all times, even when “we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” For Christ suffers with us, in pain, in death, in sorrow.
I must say, when I agreed to preach on a Sunday evening, as has become the custom of graduating Presidents of the Chaplaincy, I did not expect to speak after a week like this one. When Luther gave me an out to give up this pulpit on this challenging Sunday, I was tempted to take him up on it. How could I speak on Good Shepherd Sunday following a week like this one where we, the sheep, had felt so abandoned by the shepherd? How could I talk about the experiences, shared, but also unique, of such intense fear, sadness, and anger? How could I come to grips with the fact that my city had been the focus of such an act of terror?
And obviously, I don’t have answers. But I do know that Christ is with us in our losses. In the words of Henry Baker’s paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm that we sang,
“In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me”
And we remember that though Christ suffered and died on the cross for our sake, but that is not where the Easter story ends. After all what would Bach’s “Crucifixus” be if it were not followed by an “Et resurrexit”, that is “And he rose.” The Good News of Easter is that Christ’s story and our story is more than pain and suffering. We remember that we are promised eternal life with Christ in the Resurrection.
But how do we reconcile this faith in eternal life with the intense darkness of a week like this past one. The Good News of the Easter Season is not just about the future. There was indeed Good News in this terrible week. We find examples of God’s presence over and over again in terrible situations like Boston experienced this week. We have by now all heard stories of heroic actions taken by people in the immediate aftermath of the bombing on Monday. In the videos of the explosion, we saw people running towards the explosion to help others who had been hurt. I learned about another hero yesterday while watching the First Pitch during the Red Sox pregame ceremonies. Matt Peterson was an off-duty firefighter who ran towards the blast site to rescue a little boy who had lost his leg. He was one of many who carried people to safety, gave blood, or helped however they could. In such acts of love and compassion, we see the Good News of the Easter season. But even though I know this, I struggle to sort through the conflicting emotions and feelings. How can we see any glimmer of hope when we are surrounded by suffering and confusion.
On Monday, I skipped my classes to watch the race and was hanging out near the 25th mile, near Fenway Park, when the two bombs exploded. I had no idea what had happened until I started receiving texts from people asking me if I was okay and what was going on. It seemed impossible to believe at first, but we started walking back towards campus, deciding right away not to take public transportation. I was overwhelmed as I tried to sort out what was going on and what my friends and I should be doing. I first tried to contact my brother James since I knew he was hanging out near the finish line. Fortunately, he was back at Northeastern by this point and was able to contact me and my parents to let us know. I got in touch with my parents relatively quickly as well. In the confusion of busy signals and failed texts, my roommate Michael managed to get a text to my father before I did and I sent one to his mother as his cell phone battery died.
Even once I crossed the river, the situation continued to overwhelm me. I was safe and so was everybody that I knew. But it was immediately clear that dozens, if not hundreds, were hurt and that at least two people were dead including an eight-year-old boy. My phone continued to buzz with texts asking me if I was alright and if I knew what was going on. I received just as many texts that read “Love you” that had never felt more heart-felt and sincere. Sadness, relief, anger, sympathy, fear, and love all swept over me, in a cloud of contradictory emotions.
This whole week has continued to be a confused jumble of these feelings. I continued to feel uneasy and afraid. I mourned for those who had died, lost limbs, or suffered other injuries. But I also spent more time talking about love, feelings, and life with friends and my girlfriend than I normally do. I got lunch with my brother James on Tuesday and stayed in touch with him throughout the week. Amidst the craziness, I managed to find moments of peace and happiness.
When I awoke Friday morning, the news brought out conflicting feelings and emotions in fuller force. Violence had exploded in our city again, a police officer was slain, and the situation was only more confusing, if anything. Reliable information was a challenge to come by for hours. Harvard was shut down in lockdown. The streets were eerily empty and anxieties ran even higher than they had on Monday. As we learned about the two brothers, we felt upset, mad, confused, and disturbed. Sirens and bomb threats terrified us.
But again, at least for me, the day was more than one of darkness and despair. There were moments where it felt more like a snow day than anything else. No one tried to read or work. Tutors cooked food in their suites for students. I watched two movies. I spent the entire day with those closest to me at Harvard and stayed in touch with those beyond our campus. Students genuinely appreciated the dining hall staff, the police force, and each other far more than on a normal day. It was a bizarre day, but not a day without joy or love, or even without fun or laughter.
When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured at night, I felt relief. I hoped for some sort of justice. I was satisfied that our law enforcement had successfully pulled off their manhunt. But I felt very uneasy. Confused and perhaps further saddened. How could a 19-year-old that lived within two blocks of one friend, had worked at a Harvard pool with another friend, and had played one-on-one basketball with a third committed such hateful acts? He seemed like such a normal American citizen. He had wrestled at his high school, won a scholarship, and liked to play FIFA. It doesn’t fit for me. I could feel no joy at Facebook statuses of “Got him” or consider going out to the parties that had been rescheduled in celebration of his capture. I did not – and still do not know – how to react. An unclear muddle of thoughts fills my head.
But I am trying to accept that it is okay to feel conflicted and confused at times like this. That is part of what makes us human. And it is in these moments that we can reach out to God and feel the Holy Spirit. The Lord is with us in green pastures and he leads us beside still waters. The Lord also walks us through the valley of the shadow of death with his rod and his staff. And sometimes we are not sure whether we are in the green pastures or the valley of shadow. Maybe we can be in both places at the same time. We can experience the suffering of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.
The Lord is my shepherd. Christ is also the Lamb of God. Christ gives us eternal life. Christ also suffers with us. The shepherd protects and guides us, but the shepherd also feels our pain and fear. And as Christ is in all of us, we must all feel each other’s pain and also protect one another. We look to the hope of a new day, but that does not mean that we cannot mourn and lament. We can live with both contradictions. We pray today for the families and friends of Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzhi, and Sean Collier and remember their lives which were cut too short. We pray for all those injured in the events this week, especially those that are still in the hospital. And we pray that we can continue to find hope and peace in God. We pray the prayer from the end of Bach’s B minor Mass, “Dona nobis pacem.” “Grant us peace.”