Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Hope of Christmas

Guess where I was this morning? (Hint: Not in Kentucky.) Can you tell from the front door?

Yep, it's the Duke Chapel. When I heard that their choir was performing all six stanzas of Bach's chorale "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" this morning, I knew I had to be there. I sure wasn't going to pass that up! Whenever I'm on the Duke campus, I am reminded of the great cathedrals I've been privilege to visit in Europe, including Notre Dame in Paris, St. Peter's in Rome, and, of course, my personal favorite, the Basel Cathedral, where Becky and I enjoyed so many choir performances and organ recitals when we lived in that lovely city on the Rhine. I don't know why they call the Duke Chapel a "chapel." 

It's like calling Notre Dame a "shed." 

When I arrived the carillon was playing. How beautiful. 

I don't know how many performances of great sacred music I've heard here through the years. Maybe a hundred. Once I even heard a concert where all three of the chapel's organs were played, though not at the same time. 

Anyone else love organ music? The acoustics in a cathedral this size will take your breath away. 

One always loves to hear the music slowly reverbating into a faint echo. 

Purists insist that Bach's choral music should always be performed in the original German. I tend to agree. Why hear something in a translation when you can listen to it in the original? (Shameless plug for my beginning Greek class starting in 3 weeks.) Here's the German and the English translation. The chorale did a magnificent job with their German diction. Clear as a bell! 

Bach wrote this piece for the first Sunday of Advent in the year 1714. It was one of his favorite chorales. Remember that church music in those days was a form of "musical preaching" -- music that was artfully composed to create a sermon in sound. The theme of this cantata is hope. Just read the words of the fifth stanza: "Though I am only dust and earth, he does not want to scorn me but to see his pleasure in me so that I become his dwelling." This will be my tenth year celebrating Christmas without Becky. It seems like such a small thing, but it's everything. For so many of us, hope is all that's left when your world comes crashing down around you. Hope is light in the deepest night. Hope is a foundation upon which to place our foundering feet. Matthew wrote that the nations would put their hope in Jesus. God knows our hopes. I hoped for a 70-year long marriage, and he gave me widowerhood. But there are no mistakes with God. He is making all things new, working tirelessly to draw the best out of bad situations. I can almost hear God laughing at me, not in scorn or derision, but the amused chuckle of One who can see the end from the beginning. And suddenly life doesn't seem so crazy after all. There's hope in the face of all this darkness. The hands who hold me are the hands that hurled the stars across the night sky. As Bach's cantata says, he is the Savior of the nations who made earth his home so that I might become his dwelling. Why not cry then, "Amen, amen! Come, Lord Jesus, crown of gladness; we are yearning for the day of your returning!" 

This Christmas my heart is full. Full of hope and light.