The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger at Holy Ghost Lutheran Church, Bergholz, NY, for a Bach Vespers on Palm Sunday, 25 March 2018. Bach’s cantata 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (“Heaven’s King, Be Welcome!”), performed in the service, was originally composed for Sunday, 25 March 1714, when the two liturgical occasions also coincided. (The text of the cantata is included below the sermon.)
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Lk. 1:35)
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ:
As the bulletin notes, the cantata we’ve just heard was most likely the first Bach composed after being promoted from organist to concertmaster at the chapel of the duke’s castle in Weimar. Frequently damaged by fire, the castle was renovated in the baroque style by Duke Wilhelm IV in the 17th century, just before Bach’s birth. When the duke died in 1662, the castle came to be known as the Wilhelmsburg. Duke Wilhelm himself, a pious Lutheran, had invested much theological thought into the centrepiece of his new castle: its chapel, the very room where Bach would first perform this cantata. Although it, too, was later destroyed by fire, we know what it looked like from architect’s drawings and a remarkable painting. The chapel was modest in size, meant only for the royal family and their guests, about 100 feet long and 40 feet wide. What was remarkable, though, was its height—at 90 feet tall it was nearly as high as it was long. Above the altar stood a canopy holding the pulpit and topped with a sort of spire that ascended all the way to the ceiling high above. Decorated with cherubs, it evoked Jacob’s ladder on which angels descended from heaven with God’s gifts and ascended with mankind’s prayers. It was the point where heaven was open. The spire, as it scraped the ceiling, led to the musicians’ gallery four storeys above, just beneath a dome painted like the heavens. The pipe organ stood directly above the pulpit and altar far below, with the singers and instrumentalists gathered around the gallery’s opening, behind a railing that doubled as a music stand. During the Lutheran divine service the music descended as if “from heaven above”, filling the chapel with the songs of the eternal banquet. And so Duke Wilhelm dubbed his new chapel Der Weg zur Himmelsburg, “the way to the heavenly castle”.
Now, if the chapel had been named after Bach had performed there, we might be tempted to think it was the genius of his music that made it a “heavenly” space. But the Himmelsburg’s name was more than just a figure of speech. Long before Bach graced the organ bench, the old duke understood that something truly divine was going on there, that heaven and earth were meeting in that space—not through the music itself, but through the altar over which that Jacob’s ladder stood. To understand what the duke was getting at, we need to go back a few thousand years to another “heavenly” chapel, built in the wilderness from the rich spoils of Egypt. Now, it’s the way of all pagan religions to reach up to God, seeking some way to please Him and gain His favour; and so they create monumental structures like the Buddhist temples of the far East, the minareted mosques of the near East, and the stepped pyramids of central America, all of which mimic the blind arrogance of the ancient tower of Babel. But Moses didn’t reach up to God; he didn’t conjure a place of worship out of his vivid imagination; nor did he even copy the ancient pyramids of his native land. He let the Lord reach down to him.
God first called Moses to the top of Mt Sinai, where he saw the glory of the heavenly worship (Exodus 24). And then God gave him the pattern to reproduce the worship of heaven here below: the Tabernacle (Exodus 25ff.). God unfurled the heavenly blueprints and commanded Moses to make it exactly as he saw it: a space 100 cubits long and 50 cubits wide enclosed by fine curtains, with the holy place at one end. In its outer room the holy place held the lampstand giving the light of God’s Word, the table of the shewbread teaching that God was feeding His people, and the altar of incense symbolising their prayers ascending to Him. And in the innermost chamber, at the very heart of the holy of holies, was the ark of the covenant containing the evidence of God’s faithfulness: the tablets of the Law, the jar of manna, Aaron’s miraculous rod. On that ark the high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices to make atonement for their sins, drawing man and God back together. Above the ark stood angels with their wings extended to form a throne for the invisible, Most High God. The angels, as on Jacob’s ladder, signified that at this very spot, the gap between heaven and earth was bridged. From that throne God would speak to Moses, and through Moses to His people. There God would meet them. And to show that He was really there, at its dedication God descended on the Tabernacle in a glorious cloud (Ex. 40:34-35). This was the point where heaven and earth touched, where the worship of heaven was opened to His people. This was the original Himmelsburg.
Today, as we celebrate the remarkable coincidence of Palm Sunday with the Annunciation of Our Lord, we’re brought to the great focal point between the old Tabernacle and Duke Wilhelm’s chapel. For it’s most certainly not a coincidence that the angel Gabriel described the entrance of the holy Son of God into Mary’s womb as an “overshadowing”. John describes the same event in His Gospel this way: “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us; and we have seen His glory, glory as of the one-and-only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14). As the glory of God descended onto the Tabernacle in a cloud, God simultaneously revealed and concealed Himself. He came to be with His people; but He hid His divine glory in a cloud so His holiness wouldn’t burn them up. It was a kind and gracious way for God to come to them. And so, too, when the Son of God made His move to enter creation and redeem it, He came not with the power and glory that was His by right; He didn’t come in the way the angels see Him in heaven above, where even they have to hide their faces with their wings; but He came in quietness and humility. The Spirit of God cast a shadow over the tabernacle of Mary’s womb while He knit the divine Son to human flesh in the tiniest, humblest embryo of human life. And so Mary’s womb became the meeting point of heaven and earth, the place where God Himself came to be present with us, to speak to us, to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, to live among us as our servant. And He came to enter Jerusalem to die for us, like the high priest on the Day of Atonement who walked through the sanctuary’s curtain to sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the ark. But this high priest entered with His own blood, and He tore open the way to heaven once and for all.
I wonder whether Bach’s librettist meant to make a play on words when he scripted the opening line of Bach’s first cantata to be sung in the Himmelsburg: “Himmelskönig, sei willkommen”, “King of heaven, welcome!” What made it “heaven’s castle” was the presence of the “heaven’s King”! It was a resounding re-statement of Duke Wilhelm’s pious belief that his castle’s glory paled in comparison with the glory of heaven, that his reign in Saxe-Weimar was but a faint reflection the heavenly King’s rule, that his royal blood gained him nothing in the eyes of God until it was transfused by the royal blood of Christ Himself at the altar that stood under Jacob’s ladder. All human pride, even the pride of kings, must fall to the ground before Christ, thrown off like the cloaks laid before Jesus on Palm Sunday. And so our faithful poet takes up the song of the pilgrims that day, “Welcome, King of heaven!” and puts it on the lips of the contemporary Christian. We sing it ourselves each Sunday when we hail Christ’s coming in the Body and the Blood with “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” And our churches become “heaven’s castle”. The Holy Spirit overshadows our hearts and Christ enters in through the sacramental gifts. We kneel at the altar rail as if we are the Palm Sunday donkey or the cloaks thrown beneath Christ’s holy feet, for there at the altar Christ comes also upon us. And as our rider and guide, He leads us along the Weg zur Himmelsburg, the “way to the heavenly castle”, where the eternal banquet awaits us with music to rejoice our hearts for ever. Amen
CANTATA NO. 182
Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182
Johann Sebastian Bach
2. Chorus: King of Heaven, welcome, Let us also be your Zion! Come within, You have taken our hearts from us.
3. Recitative (bass): Behold, I come, in the Book it is written of me; Your will, my God, I do gladly.
4. Aria (bass): Powerful love, great Son of God, which has driven You from the throne of Your glory, so that You, for the salvation of the world, might be offered as a sacrifice, which You have authorised with Your blood.
5. Aria (alto): Lay yourselves beneath the Saviour, hearts that are Christian! Wear the spotless garment of your faith before Him, your body, your life, and your desires should now be consecrated to the King.
6. Aria (tenor): Jesus, through good and bad times let me journey also with You! Though the world scream only “Crucify!”, let me not run away, Lord, from Your cross’ standard; I will find crown and palm here.
7. Chorale: Jesus, Your passion is pure joy to me, Your wounds, thorns and shame my heart’s pasture; my soul walks on roses when I think upon it; grant a place in heaven for me for its sake.
8. Chorus: Then let us go into the Salem of joy, accompanying the King in love and sorrow. He goes before and opens the path.