The Fifth Evangelist

Today the church remembers a quintessential Lutheran theologian who took seriously Luther’s quip that “singing is praying twice,”: Saint Johann Sebastian Bach, Theologian, Composer, and Musician.

Saint Johann was born in Thuringia in the late 17th Century to a family of musicians. By the age of eighteen he was already a valued composer excelling on many instruments. He started his formal musical career as the organist of New Church at Arnstadt and the parish of St. Blasius in Muhlhausen where he married his wife Maria.

In 1708 he was offered the post as court organist and chamber musician to the Duke of Weimar, and this is where he would gain international fame and began composing chiefly for the organ. In 1714 he became in concertmaster, and held a number of other prominent positions in subsequent years, growing in fame, stature, and ability.

In 1720 his wife Maria died, and in 1721 he would marry Anna Magdalena Wulcken, a famous singer who served as his muse for a number of his most famous pieces.

From 1723 until his death he was the cantor of St. Thomas School and director of music at both St. Thomas and St. Nicholas in Leipzig while also lecturing a the University there. Were you to wander into St. Thomas or St. Nicholas in these days you would have heard most of his inspired compositions for the first time; his music was primarily meant to be played within the local congregation and the worshiping assembly.

Saint Johann saw his calling not primarily to music, but to the Divine inspirer of all sound. He was deeply spiritual, devoutly religious, and his faithfulness produced nearly two hundred cantatas for every Sunday and multiple offerings for High Holy Days.

B Minor Mass, the St. Matthew Passion (first performed at St. Thomas Church on Good Friday in 1729), and Concerto for Two Violins (my favorite) still ring throughout churches, concert halls, and iPhones around the world today.

Bach was the parent of twenty (yes…twenty) children between his two marriages. At his death he was given the title, “The Fifth Evangelist” by Archbishop Nathan Soderblom (see July 12th for his saint day). On the 200th anniversary of his death (1950), his body was moved from the churchyard of St. John’s to the site where he did most of his work, St. Thomas in Leipzig. Many flock to see the site still today.

St. Johann is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that the arts have long been the primary medium of the faith. We must encourage young artists to take up the craft of music, composition, poetry, and choral direction, and we must pay them well for their wonderful work.

They are, after all, primary ministers in this world.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon written by Br. Robert Lentz

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