Introduction to BWV 106 “God’s Time is the Best of All Times”

[special_heading title=”Introduction to BWV 106 “God’s Time is the Best of All Times“” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]A reading from Psalm 90, one of the texts upon which the cantata is based.   Listen for God’s Word.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.

You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”  For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.  You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. 

The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.      

So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. 

The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

On All Saints, we light candles to remember and give thanks for those who have died, as we commend them to God’s eternal care.   The church uses candlelight to mark other occasions as well–for the birth of a baby and her baptism; as a couple celebrate their union; we have remembered the deaths of those killed in gun violence by lighting votives as we pledged ourselves to end it; as a prayer for peace on Christmas Eve as the whole congregation lifts candles against the night.  Every Sunday a single candle represents the One whose presence shines in all the times of our lives—in laughter and tears, in the sweet and the terrible–past, present, and future.

The cantata this morning is a passionate plea to live wisely every day of our lives, even amid certainty of our death.  In fact life and death are tightly linked in the wider context of God’s time, the “best of all times,” as the Biblical text from which the cantata takes its title puts it.  Composed when Bach was only 22 years old for the funeral of his uncle, the music reflects the poignancy of his grief[callout_box title=”Today is the gift we have been given; it is the best time to act with courage and faith and love.” subtitle=””]and the yearning of unanswered questions as well as deep trust in God’s good purposes.                                  

The cantata devotes almost equal time to both life and death.  You’ll quickly be able to distinguish one from the other by contrasting melodic themes ranging from heavy and ominous with descending chromatic scales, to rising runs and rich, joyous harmonies.  While the reality of death will not be denied, here it is portrayed as a peaceful and welcome sleep, in communion with the Holy One.

But it doesn’t get there easily.  With a howl of pain born of stark judgment, hear the chorus hit the wall with the pronouncement, “Human, you must die!”  Yet listen for the prayer that floats high above, countering this death sentence with a plea for divine presence–O come, Lord Jesus.  One by one the voices and instruments drop away and the soprano is utterly alone–a stunning moment unique to all Bach’s cantatas.  In the vulnerability of our mortality Jesus meets us as one of us; human in every way, yet possessing Divine power.  The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.  The terror death wields is mitigated by the promise that life–not nothingness—is the final outcome.  Blessed rest, and peace at the last.

Time figures prominently throughout.  Chronologically, our lives are short and swiftly pass.  But Bach also presents time as “Kairos” –God’s time—a vibrant spiritual awareness of the essential beauty and possibilities of each day.  Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in paradise” demand our attention now, not just in a blithe hereafter.

So we savor each moment because we have more to do with life than merely “save” it.  Today is the gift we have been given; it is the best time to act with courage and faith and love.  At the heart of Christian faith lies a mystery: In life and in death we belong to God.  At the outer limit of our comprehension we are held closely in the cantata’s concluding chorus, a shout of glorious triumph which melts into quiet trust, a final–almost whispered–Amen, Amen, Amen.