Bach was clearly interested in religious questions. He owned an impressive collection of theological books, and he made annotations in his copy of the Bible. But that isn’t enough to draw up a profile of his faith. Which of his theological books did he really read (which books on our own shelves have we read)? What exactly did he believe? While we cannot reconstruct Bach’s faith, we can try to understand the religious context in which he lived and how it might have shaped his music.
The religious language of Bach’s time was drenched with emotional images: Christ as the bridegroom, the believer as the bride; the heart as the dwelling-place of the divine; the relationship of God and mankind was understood as a sign of deep love.
We find this language all over Bach’s works: “The St. Matthew Passion” begins with a majestic chorus that welcomes the suffering Lamb of God as the “bridegroom,” and later the soprano sings in a deeply emotional aria “Out of love my Savior is willing to die.” In the “Christmas Oratorio,” the alto admonishes the church to prepare for the arrival of the “bridegroom” and later we hear the bass sing, “Tell me, most beloved, how may I glorify you?”