Lamb of God, have mercy on us. . .Lamb of God, grant us peace. . .
The opening and closing verses of O Lamb of God Most Holy! (O Lamm Gottes) serve as bookends–our Introit and Amen–in worship this morning. Christ as Lamb of God, the one to whom we cry for mercy and peace, is certainly one of the most powerful images in all of Christendom, pervading the theology and the music of centuries. Because of its central place in the salvation story it is, in fact, difficult to overstate the historical significance of the chorale O Lamm Gottes. A setting of the Agnus Dei text written by Nikolaus Decius around 1541, this became the standard Lamb of God response used in the German Lutheran liturgy. Though Decius was a monk, he was attracted to the ideas of Luther and became part of the Protestant Reformation in Germany; he also had Calvinist leanings. The tune O Lamm Gottes was adapted by Decius from a plainsong dating from the 13th century. Through the centuries, composers have used this serene melody as a musical theme. At the beginning of Bach’s powerful St. Matthew Passion, the O Lamm Gottes cantus firmus (melody), sung by a boys choir high above the rest of the orchestral/choral action, immediately points listeners to the Lamb of God high up on the cross–this is, in fact, the central theme of the Passion story, and Bach wastes no time getting to it.
This morning’s preludes and 8:30 offertory feature a number of famous, well-loved O Lamm Gottes organ settings by Bach and Pachelbel. In these, the cantus firmus is clear, and the surrounding texture serene, creating an atmosphere perfect for meditation and reflection. O Mensch bewein’ is another iconic German chorale which, like other great hymn tunes on Lenten themes, points an accusing finger directly at guilty humankind, urging all to repent of the grievous sins that cost our Savior such anguish. Bach’s beautifully ornamented setting from his Orgelbüchlein is one of the true gems of the organ literature, never failing to bring tears to the eyes of players and listeners alike.
At 11:00 worship, our Junior Choir picks up on the Lamb theme in a slightly different context. In Natalie Sleeth’s enduring anthem, Feed My Lambs, Christ is talking directly to us, urging us to keep vigil over His lambs here on earth, to take care of others as if we were caring for Christ Himself. Christ is the Lamb of God, but He is also the Shepherd of His flock, and we are shepherds with Him.
Also at 11:00, our Chancel Choir sings a wonderful setting, by Jennifer Stammers, of the famous Isaac Watts text, Alas, and did My Savior Bleed! Rather than use the traditional tune associated with these words (Martyrdom, which we sang in worship recently), Ms. Stammers came up with an original tune which cleverly alternates between the darkness of F minor and the serene joy of D-flat major. Ms. Stammers’ tune is reminiscent of an American or English folk tune, placing these beloved words in an entirely new context and helping us see them anew.
This morning’s congregational hymns also shed light on the meaning of the cross, and on Christ’s terrible suffering and death. Though our opening hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (Hamburg), is extremely familiar, the other two are decidedly less so. The emotionally compelling African-American spiritual, He Never Said a Mumbalin’ Word, forces us to behold the silent suffering of Christ the Lamb. The basis for this text is found in Isaiah 53:7: "He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He did not open His mouth." Here, African-American slaves expressed their admiration for Jesus when He suffered persecution without a word of complaint. They, too, had been rejected and beaten without a chance to say a word in defense of their humanity. Throned Upon the Awful Tree, with a powerful text by John Ellerton, was written for Good Friday in 1875. The anonymous tune has enjoyed a dual history; it is claimed by both Wales and France, and its somber darkness serves as the perfect vehicle for this equally dark text.
Today’s postlude, Bach’s Christe, aller Welt Trost, is the second piece in Bach’s grand Kyrie series from Part III of his Clavierübung. Together with the Agnus Dei, the Kyrie eleison is perhaps the most common, yet profound, litany in all of Christian liturgy. These litanies are also foundational in much of great sacred music. Here, the cantus firmus appears in the tenor line, and Bach’s music is a profound reminder of the comfort and hope to be found in Christ, who transcended the anguish of death for us.