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“Bach Cantata BWV 105 is one of his gigantic masterpieces” (Craig Smith). It is also a work that vividly describes the experience of Anfechtungen that was so much a part of Martin Luther’s spiritual experience.
Dr. Chris Armstrong described an Anfechtung, a sharp sense of spiritual abandonment and despair Luther often felt:
Historian David Steinmetz describes the terror which Luther experienced at these times as a fear that “God had turned his back on him once and for all,” abandoning him “to suffer the pains of hell.” Feeling “alone in the universe,” Luther “doubted his own faith, his own mission, and the goodness of God—doubts which, because they verged on blasphemy, drove him deeper and deeper” into despair. His prayers met a “wall of indifferent silence.” He experienced heart palpitations, crying spells and profuse sweating. He was convinced that he would die soon and go straight to hell. “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.’” His faith was as if it had never been. He “despised himself and murmured against God.” Indeed, his friend Philip Melanchthon said that the terrors afflicting Luther became so severe that he almost died. The term “spiritual warfare” seems apt.
In a three-part article he wrote, Armstrong also reports the “dark night” experiences of C.S. Lewis and Mother Teresa in terms of Anfechtungen.
Today’s cantata, “Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht” (Lord, do not pass judgment on your servant), portrays this experience and coming through it by the word of the Gospel with musical brilliance and deep emotion.
CHORUS: Lord, do not go into court with your servant.
For before you no living person is just.
ALTO: My God, do not reject me,
while I bow in humility before you,
from your face.
I know how great is your wrath and my crime,
that you are at the same time a prompt witness
and a just judge.
I state my confession freely to you
and do not throw myself into danger
by denying, by concealing
the errors of my soul.
SOPRANO: How tremble and waver
the sinners’ thoughts
while they bring accusations against each other
and on the other hand dare to make excuses for themselves.
In this way a troubled conscience
is torn apart through its own torments.
BASS: But fortunate is the man who knows who is his guarantor,
who sets aside his guilt.
Then the sentence of condemnation is done away with,
when Jesus moistens it with his blood.
He himself fastens it to the cross
He will of your goods, body and life,
when your hour of death strikes,
to the Father himself give over the account.
Even though your body, that is carried to the grave,
may be covered with sand and dust,
your saviour opens for you the everlasting tabernacles.
TENOR: If only I make Jesus my friend,
then Mammon has no value for me.
I find no pleasure here
in this vain world and earthly things.
CHORALE: Now I know you will quiet
my conscience, that torments me
Your faithfulness will fulfill
what you have said yourself:
that on this wide earth
no one should be lost
but should live for ever,
if only he is full of faith.
Because this cantata describes a journey of the soul from darkness to light, I have included a recording of the entire work, so that you can experience the journey for yourself.
But I have also isolated a remarkable movement from this cantata — the soprano aria, “How tremble and waver the sinners’ thoughts,” so that you can hear how skillfully Bach uses a musical setting to draw the listener into the experience of the Anfechtungen.
Craig Smith writes how “the soprano aria with strings and oboe but no bass instruments creates a world shaking with fear.”
This is a remarkable example of how Bach can get to the inner psychology of spiritual abandonment, while at the same time raising remarkable beauty from the ashes.