A Bach Vespers Reflection for Palm Sunday
The following is a reflection delivered at Bach Vespers, Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sunday, April 10, 2022.
I have a small bronze figure that sits on the mantel in my living room. My father gave it to me. It is mounted to a large, chunk of heavy rock connected by a small bronze rod. The rod is hidden from most viewpoints, so the figure appears to be flying.
The bronze figure is Icarus, the Greek mythological character. You may be familiar with this story. Icarus’ father was Daedalus, the creator of the famous Labyrinth on the island of Crete. Daedalus and Icarus were imprisoned by King Midas within the labyrinth. Midas carefully controlled the sea around Crete, but the wise Daedalus developed a plan for escape: he fashioned two sets of wings from feathers, string, and hot wax for him and his son to use for their escape. Prior to their attempt, Daedalus warned Icarus against hubris, and that he should not fly too low, lest the water dampen the feathers, or too high, as the proximity to the sun would melt the wax.
The wings worked, and they flew from the island. However, young Icarus grew giddy with the sensation of flight and began to soar higher. He flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he plunged into the sea where he drowned.
Today’s cantata was first performed in 1714 in Weimar where Bach had been Court Organist for six years. On March 2 of that same year, Bach received a promotion to Concertmaster of the Court orchestra. Palm Sunday fell on March 25, just three weeks later, and Bach composed this cantata to celebrate that feast day. It also conveniently featured him extensively on the violin part, celebrating his recent appointment. Besides Bach’s Passion settings which were all performed on Good Fridays, this is the only cantata he wrote to be performed during the Lenten season.
In some ways, Palm Sunday is the abbreviated version of Holy Week. In a short time, we witness the enthusiasm of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with waving palms, and soon after we stand in lamentation at the foot of the cross. It is a remarkable journey, moving from celebration to sorrow. While today’s cantata encompasses much of that journey, as you will hear, it clearly leans into the joy of the day. As it should. We know how the story ends.
As I studied the cantata over the past weeks, I kept coming back to the bronze Icarus in my living room. It is different from most artistic representations of the myth. It is common to see depictions of his tragedy, his fall, and his failure.
But my Icarus is different. Instead of showing him as he falls, it shows him just moments after his first leap from the rock: his strong arms extended, his wings outstretched, his head lifted upward, with an expression of pure joy. It shows him in the intoxicating thrill of flight. It is the instant of escape, the instant of freedom, and the instant of promise. It is a moment of triumph.
Like my Icarus, Bach’s Palm Sunday cantata is concerned with the triumph. It is not the passion story. There is an acknowledgment of what is to come in the sixth and seventh movements, as you will hear, but the joy of the opening and closing choruses is infectious with exultation.
So is there an Icarus in this story? You might think I am suggesting that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and crucifixion are parallels to Icarus’ flight and fall, but I don't think that is the case. Jesus had no illusions about where that parade was leading him.
No, the Icarus of Palm Sunday, the victim of hubris…is us.
Earlier this morning, the congregation of St. Thomas gathered outside on the steps of our church. We sang “Hosannas” together and waved palm fronds and retold that first story of Palm Sunday. The sun was wonderfully bright and shined down on our faces, and we radiated joy to one another.
We processed into our church, and only moments later told the second story. And now, the same people who shouted “Hosanna” earlier, now cried out, “Crucify him.” We can see ourselves turn from the thrill of joy to the demand for justice. We witness the mob mentality, and how quickly our cheers turn to jeers.
The story of Palm Sunday is, in part, the story of us. Our frailty, our weakness, pettiness, and tendency to ugliness. That is the hubris that leads to our plunge.
What are we to do? Allow me to suggest a good start from the book of Micah:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
That is we are called to be just, not judgmental; to show mercy and forgiveness mercy rather than contempt and hate. And we are to walk humbly with God, carrying the joy of promise and the joy of triumph with us. And as the closing chorus says:
Then let us go into the Salem of joy,
accompanying the King in love and sorrow.
He goes before
and opens the path.