On the Third Day of Christmas

Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" was first performed in Leipzig during the Christmas season of 1734-35. Or at least that's when the magnificent final version was heard. But much of the music had been heard before in other guises.Scholars tell us that much of the music was "parodied:" Bach employing music he had already written, much of it for secular purposes, and transmuting it to the new sacred text. In many ways Bach's art exemplifies the notion of "recapitulation," so central to the theology of St. Irenaeus: in Christ all the good of creation is brought to fulfillment. Pointedly, Bach only used parody from secular to sacred compositions, never from sacred to secular.The result, in the "Christmas Oratorio," was so seamless that, as one critic writes, "the basic emotions of all the choruses and arias correspond so perfectly to the sacred text that there is no distance at all between text and music."The third cantata of the "Christmas Oratorio" is entitled "Herrscher des Himmels," "Lord of Heaven." Its narrative recounts the shepherds' journey to Bethlehem in response to the angelic tidings. As in all the cantatas, the Gospel proclamation is punctuated rhetorically by affective application to the believer's own spiritual quest, his or her hopes and fears.In the third cantata, besides drawing upon some of his previous work, Bach composed a new aria specifically for the third day of Christmas, the feast of the Beloved disciple. Here are the words sung by one of the shepherds beholding the child and Mary pondering all these things in her heart:

Schliesse, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder//Fest in deinem Glauben ein.Lasse dies Wunder der goettlichen Werke//Immer zu Staerke deines schwachen Glaubens sein!My heart, enclose this blessed miracle firmly within your faith//Let the wonder of God's workEver strengthen your weak faith!

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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