Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by JS Bach—the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution.
At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of eleven hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah”.
As we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics—we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. Continue reading →
I had the privilege, today, of preaching at the memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Joseph McLelland, former Professor of Religious Studies at McGill University and Faculty member of The Presbyterian College. I share that sermon here.
Over these past few weeks, as I spent a bit of time surveying the life of Joe McLelland, it struck me what a relative novice I am in the world of ministry and in the world of the academy – wet behind the ears, really! In the year of my birth, Joe had already served fifteen years in ministry – in the year of my birth, he had already 15 years into his academic career here in Montreal. When Joe was publishing his early essays and was teaching his first classes at McGill, I was, as my wife and I have taught our kids to say, still only in the mind of God. This is to say, among other things, that his academic career was full, that his contributions to church and college were many, and that his faithful service to the church was long.
When I arrived in Montreal for theological studies at The Presbyterian College in 1999, I encountered Professor McLelland, as I have mostly known him. And the first memory I have of him comes from the community lunches held each Wednesday at the college. During those lunches Professor McLelland and Professor Bob Cully would sit across from each other exchanging smart-ass comments that kept all of us much entertained. There is a real gift in that, it seems to me – the theology professor as human – if I may, the theology professor as smart ass. This is a theologian, after all, who would write essays with titles such as “The Comic Society,” and “In Praise of Crocodiles.” This is a theologian who could write that “the art of clowning is the humane art in which we find our way to the center, the definite place at which God promises to meet us.” Continue reading →