Why is this the most frequently recorded of all Bach’s cantatas? Its beauty, no doubt. My wife, Laurel, and I surely were overwhelmed by this gentle but powerful song of faith – this is one of the few Bach cantatas that does not have a chorus — played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on a dark and rainy October afternoon.
We joked about the words of the cantata afterwards, on our way to a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. Ich habe genug! That doesn’t mean, “I’ve had enough,” I reminded her. No, Bach speaks in the present tense. “I have enough.”
Contrast my own response to many of the trends of our society these days. More than once, in recent years, I have had the impulse to say “I’ve had enough.”
I read the papers each day not because I want to, but as a habit or a discipline. There’s Ebola in West Africa. There’s the climate crisis and the Middle East. There’s the atrocious fact that the poor keep getting poorer all over the world. Not to speak of continued police violence directed at African-Americans in our own country.
Then there’s the sometimes vicious 24-hour TV news cycle. Referring to the Ebola epidemic, the Drudge Report called Obama – “President Obola.” I watched most of a TV debate by the candidates for the Senate in New Hampshire, during which the Republican, Scott Brown, announced that if his candidate, Mitt Romney, had been President, not Obama, we wouldn’t have had an Ebola crisis today! Somehow Obama is responsible for Ebola!
Stop the world, I want to get off! I’ve had enough.
On the subway to the concert, Laurel had her own intense moment of agitation. At the Park Street station, the MBTA had changed the track it had used for years to the Symphony stop, without putting up any signs. As we sat there then, waiting for the right train to arrive on the wrong track, we almost missed the beginning of the concert! The Bach! “I’ve had it!” Laurel said, no doubt thinking of the countless bureaucratic idiocies of our technologized world today.
I’ve had it? I’ve had enough?
Bach, in contrast, sings in the present tense. I have enough. Clearly this is a voice from a bygone age of faith. On the other hand, many citizens of our age of unfaith cannot help but want to listen to Bach’s moving personal testimony, as often as possible: “I have enough,/ I have taken the Savior,/ the hope of the righteous,/ into my arms….”
Bach was by no means some naïve, childish prophet who believed that things are better than they look or that things will get better and better. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) affected four generations of the Bach family, and was a vivid memory. Bach himself lost a number of children — and wives — to various accidents of history during his relatively long life.(1685-1750) Nevertheless he announces to his world and to his God in this, the most intimate confession of his faith, “I have enough.” I don’t need anything else!
Bach is working with the church’s lectionary here which features the story of the old man Simeon in the temple, who cradles the infant Jesus in his arms, and sings these words (as I remember them, from my own childhood): “Lord, now lettest thou, thy servant, depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
This is how the first aria of Ich Habe Genug begins: “I have enough,/ I have taken the Savior,/ the hope of the righteous,/ into my arms;/ I have enough!/ I have beheld Him,/ my faith has pressed Jesus/ to my heart;/ now I wish, even today/ with joy/ to depart from here.”
This amazingly gifted church musician, greatest perhaps among all the great composers, utters so powerfully and so movingly this simple statement of trust. Like Simeon, he is now ready, even eager to die. And, turning the image around, he envisions this astounding journey “into the cool soil of earth,” where he can rest in “the lap of Jesus.”
So Bach sings, with the words of some unidentified poet (himself?): “My God! When will the/ lovely ‘now!’ come,/ when I will journey into peace/ and into the cool soil of earth,/ and there, near You, rest in Your lap?”
Of course, as I leaned forward to listen, I recalled that in a few weeks I would mark my 79th birthday. My remaining days on this good earth are relatively few. Where am I going? What am I to do with the rest of my life? How am I to pray? Am I ready to depart and be with Jesus in the cool soil of the earth?
Laurel and I have decided that our ashes are to be interred in the Hidden Garden (so we call it) behind our old farm house in southwestern Maine. I have written at some length about this story. Our ashes will be dug into the cool soil of the earth at the foot of a grand, albeit still young, purple beech, which we planted there, marked by a small Celtic Cross which we also placed there. That to me, inspired by the testimony of witnesses like Bach, is where Laurel and I can rest in the lap of Jesus. Not in some far off heaven, far removed from this earth.
This means that I can begin my day tomorrow with joy and resolve, as I hopefully will be inspired to do: to engage a world which often drives me to say, “I’ve had enough.” with abandon, because, deep within, I know that I have enough.
Thank you for your thoughful reflections on JS Bach, IMHO, THE greatest of composers. One of my three people were I lucky enough to go back into history that I would want to meet.
Having spent a few hours today on one of his organ pieces, after 45 years of playing, he still amazes me the absolute lack of waste, extraneous notes in his works. Deceptively simple, but grounded in a great faith. If we could live with the same sense of absolute lack of waste, how much greener and better we would all be.
Thanks again for the psoting;