Having celebrated with music and incense the glorious Pentecostal feast, I suddenly found myself unceremoniously dumped into “The Ninth Week in Ordinary Time.” Or at least that is what my iBreviary announced, in a decidedly low key, when I opened it.
Immediately there came to mind the story related by Peter Hebblethwaite in his biography of Paul VI. On the Monday after Pentecost in 1970, the pope, preparing to celebrate Mass, was surprised to find that green vestments had been set out. Puzzled, he asked: Where were the red vestments for the Octave of Pentecost? He was dismayed to learn that the Pentecostal Octave had been abolished on his authority. A modest beginning of the Reform of the Reform might well restore the Pentecostal Octave so that we might, “lente ac suaviter,” relish and digest the feast.
Until that blessed day comes round, we have at hand, happily, an antidote to depression: Johann Sebastian Bach’s sublime Pentecost cantatas. There are four for Pentecost or Whit Sunday, three for Whit Monday, and two for Whit Tuesday.
John Eliot Gardiner has recorded all of Bach’s cantatas for the liturgical year in a series of splendid albums on the Soli Deo Gloria label. Not only are the performances excellent, but each album contains Gardiner’s own comments on the cantatas. These are not only musically informative, but theologically insightful.
Cantata 68 for Whit Monday is titled “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt” (“God so loved the world”). It contains a rollicking soprano aria, “My faithful heart, rejoice, sing, be glad.” As so often, Bach took an aria he had composed for another occasion and seamlessly adapted it to its new setting and purpose. Gardiner says of the aria that “it is surely one of Bach’s most refreshing and unbuttoned expressions of melodic joy and high spirits.” Just the thing to counter the drabness of “Ordinary Time.”
But Bach, astute student of the liturgy and of human nature, did not simply end the piece with the last words sung by the soprano. Instead, he added an instrumental coda, including two more instruments in the ensemble, almost as if (as Gardiner says) Bach felt “the singer’s words were inadequate to express the full joy at the coming of the Holy Spirit.”
Exactly. Call it a “coda” or an “octave”—we need more than merely ordinary time. We need festal time, to express our full joy at the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Fr. Robert Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.