Last September, my wife and I visited for the first time the famous Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany, where the greatest Baroque composer, Johann Sabastian Bach (1685–1750), served as Thomaskantor.
The Russian Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, himself an accomplished composer, describes Bach as a “universal phenomenon” whose music “transcends confessional boundaries”.1
I have long admired the work of this Lutheran composer who has given the world some of the most beautiful and theologically rich cantatas ever composed, and I have written a number of essays on his work. In this brief article, I would like to highlight the theme of Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) in Bach’s oeuvre by focussing especially on his majestic Passion According to Saint John (BWV 245) and the Easter Oratorio (BWV 249).
Following Luther, Bach makes it very clear that our deliverance from the bondage to sin and death is made possible only by the sacrifice that Christ willingly made at Calvary. If Christ had chosen not to offer His life for our salvation, we would forever be lost.
Thus, in the middle of the trial in the Saint John Passion, when Pilate, who found no fault in Jesus, sought to release him, the chorus sings:
Through your imprisonment, Son of God,
has our freedom come;
your prison is a throne of grace,
the refuge of all pious men;
if you had not become a servant,
our servitude would have lasted for ever.
The most moving part of the Passion is surely the narration of the death of Jesus on the cross. The Evangelist in the recitativo simply announces: “And He bowed His head, and gave up His ghost.”
As the lifeless body of the Messiah hung limp on the cross of Calvary, a torrent of questions floods the mind. These are captured in great bass solo that follows immediately:
My dear Saviour, let me ask you,
now you are nailed to the cross
and yourself have said: It is finished,
am I free from death?
Can I through your pain and dying
Is the whole world redeemed?
This aria ends with these words: “You can, for pain, say nothing, / yet you nod your head / and say, in silence, yes.” The chorus immediately proclaims the resurrection: “Jesus, you were dead, / now you live for ever.”
This has prompted Jaroslav Pelikan to assert that “in the Saint John Passion the resurrection is an integral part of the story, for it was through Good Friday (when the Saint John was intended to be sung) and Easter, taken together as a single action, that ‘Christus Victor’ had conquered.”2
Bach’s Easter Oratorio begins with an invitation to rush to Jesus’ tomb, not in sadness, but in joy because Christ has risen:
Come, haste and run, O nimble feet;
Go to the cave which shelters Jesus.
May laughter and cheerfulness
Come with your hearts,
For our salvation has been raised from the dead.
Unlike the Passions which follow the account of the Gospel, the Easter Oratorio improvises, creating conversations that are not found in the Synoptics. But the main theme of Christus Victor clearly resonates throughout.
Towards the end of the Oratorio, Bach puts these triumphant words onto the lips of the apostle John:
Because our Jesus lives again,
And our hearts,
Just now dissolved, immersed in sadness,
And set their sights on songs of joy;
For now our Saviour lives again.
But it is the concluding chorus that really brings out this leitmotif:
Praise and thanks
Shall always be, O Lord, Your song of praise.
Hell and the Devil have been overcome,
Their gates have been destroyed.
Rejoice, O tongues of the redeemed,
So that it will be heard in Heaven
Open, O heavens, your glorious vaults,
The lion of Judah victorious approaches.
As we celebrate Easter, let us renew our faith in our Saviour and Lord who has vanquished sin, death and the devil. And as we continue to fight the fight of faith, let us pray this prayer (from the Saint John Passion) that we too may share in the victory of our Lord:
Help us, Christ, Almighty Son of God
By Thy bitter anguish
Faithfully our course to run,
Every sin to vanquish;
Teach us, Lord, Thy grace to know,
Guide our weak endeavour,
Our Redeemer’s praise
To show thankfully for ever.
1Hilarion Alfeyev, “Music and Faith in My Life and Vision”, https://president.catholic.edu/archive/inauguration/hilarion-alfeyev.html#Full_text.
2Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986), 115.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).