The story of Abraham, Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, is a story of faith. God’s covenant with Abraham, that he would be the father of multitudes, of many nations, is, Paul says, rooted not in the Law, which would be given much later, to Moses, but in faith. Abraham trusted the Lord, even trusting the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a son when they were well into their nineties, so old that Paul says Abraham was, “as good as dead.” So old that, the child Abraham and Sarah would conceive, would be named “Isaac,” laughter, because Abraham’s response to being told he and Sarah would have a son was to laugh at the absurdity and God joined in the joke. It may not seem very faithful though, to laugh at God’s promise. If you read the story of Abraham, you will also see that he was constantly questioning and negotiating with God. How then, do we define faith?
I am someone who loves to have music on in the background while I work. I pick music to shape my mood. It drives Katherine nuts, because I tend to want high tempo, upbeat music that she describes as “filled with noise.” Over the course of my life, I have transitioned from cassette tapes to CDs. I even briefly had a minidisc player, buying into a format that many have forgotten and more never knew existed before finally succumbing and buying an iPod and now, of course, everything is streaming.
It is then, a strange thing for me to consider that access to music, even through something as simple as radio, which has been a constant in my life, is still relatively new. I suspect few of us noticed last November 2 as the centennial of commercial radio in the United States quietly passed us by. The first commercial radio broadcast in the United States was November 2, 1920, as KDKA, in Pittsburgh turned on and started broadcasting election results. Perhaps we will have more of a celebration this coming October 8, as we mark 100 years since the first live broadcast of a football game, when our own WVU travelled to play the University of Pittsburgh
It is hard for me to think about a world before radio, especially as radio followed quickly on the first recordings. If we go back much more than that one hundred years to the first radio station, we quickly reach an era where music was exclusively a live event, and where the ability of artists and composers to be paid for their work was substantially more limited.
For much of history, the church was one of few organizations where musicians could find employment. At times, some countries even limited musicians to ecclesial employment. Handel’s “Messiah,” the source of the soaring Hallelujah chorus is the result of these limitations. Handel wanted to write an opera in the style of the continental musicians, but Victorian Britain frowned on such excesses, and so the only way Handel could write an opera was if he made it about Jesus and wrote it to be performed in a church and not on a stage. This reality makes it difficult to assess the beliefs of many classical composers. Were they devout Christians, or were they just working where there was work to be had?
Bach is one of few exceptions to this uncertainty. We know Bach was a deeply committed Lutheran. One major source of the historical certainty of his faith is a three-volume study Bible filled with Bach’s own notes and, in a few places, corrections, though there are a few places where his correction is, well, not correct. He was not a Biblical scholar, and it appears his corrections are based not on study of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but on comparisons between this study bible and other German translations from which his children would read.
We also see Bach’s faith in his music. Yes, Bach spent much of his life employed as a church musician, and so naturally wrote a great deal of music for churches. And yes, in the period in which Bach was employed in a Calvinist court, where there was no music in church, Bach did not write sacred music. But we see his faith in his composition in two ways. First, in his final years, as he was entering a semi-retirement, the piece he kept coming back to, constantly reworking, was music for a worship service, now known as the Mass in B Minor, though Bach would die before ever hearing it performed.
The second is something you might have noticed if you were paying attention to the prelude. The prelude is in a minor key, but it ends on a major chord. This is something that is characteristic of Bach’s music. Music shapes our moods, not just in tempo, but in the key. We hear minor keys as sad, introspective, mournful. We hear major keys as happy. This makes music in minor keys appropriate for the church season of Lent, a season of reflection and introspection. Bach though, inserted his faith in his music. Many of the minor key pieces Bach wrote ultimately resolve into a major chord because that, for Bach, is faith. The faith that God will always redeem the sorrow into joy.
Bach does not refuse to write in a minor key. Bach knows that sorrow is present, is a reality in our earthly lives, but Bach knows as well that God works through even those moments. God works through even the darkest times to bring us to light.
That is the key to faith for Bach. That is also what Peter forgets in today’s Gospel lesson. Our lectionary reading from Mark includes the first time Jesus tells the disciples about what will happen to him, the first time Jesus talks about his coming arrest, trial, execution, and resurrection. Peter is distraught. Peter is angry. Peter pulls Jesus aside and, per the Biblical text, “begins to rebuke him,” which we can read as “begins to yell at him” because Peter’s faith does not allow him to move through the crucifixion to the resurrection. Peter only hears that Jesus will be tortured and killed by the Romans. Peter’s faith gets stuck in the minor key.
This is why Jesus then shuts down Peter, accusing Peter of being a temptation—for that is what Satan means, a temptation or one who brings temptation—because Peter is falling into perhaps the second greatest temptation we still face. The first is the temptation to control, often through money and power. The second is the temptation to despair, to surrender, to leave the melody in a minor key. Peter does not believe that the resurrection will follow, does not believe that Jesus is more than Peter’s friend and teacher.
This is what breaks faith. Abraham’s faith endured and was made stronger through his doubts, his questions, and yes, his laughter. Questioning God is a component of faith throughout the Biblical witness. Peter’s problem is not that he questions Jesus, it is that he is ready to give up. Peter does not doubt; Peter despairs.
As Lent continues, we can continue to spend our time in the minor key, but let us always remember what Peter did not, we live in the promise that the music will resolve to a major chord with the coming of Easter.