Words to Keep Close

Martin Jahn (c. 1620–c. 1682) is probably not a name with which you are familiar, and that is perfectly fine.  For to be honest until yesterday I was not familiar with his name either.  Allow me to rectify that for both of us, gentle reader.

During the Offertory at Sunday Mass, our choir performed what is commonly referred to in English as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by J.S. Bach.  However instead of using the English adapted lyrics, with which most of us are familiar, particularly around the Advent and Christmas season, the choir sang the words of the original, earlier text by Jahn.  Fortunately, our parish music director prepares handouts for Mass each Sunday containing not only the listing of the hymns which the congregation will be singing, but also the texts of the pieces which the choir sings during communion, etc.

Reading the unfamiliar words to this very familiar music, I was struck not only by their intimacy, but their hopefulness in the face of suffering. Admittedly, all translations are but an approximation of an original text.  As anyone who has studied foreign languages knows, some of the subtlety of meaning is lost when a work is adapted to another tongue.  That is particularly true in areas such as poetry or in lyrics, for oftentimes a composer has deliberately chosen a certain word or phrase to express a host of ideas in an economy of language.

However even in their admitted imperfection in English, this short, simple reflection of one man’s love for Christ is powerful in its sincerity: it gets down to the heart of the matter. If you have ever been in the place where Jahn clearly must have been, in order for him to be able to so succinctly express the nature of worry and pain overcome by hope and love, then this will speak to you, or to someone you love who may be going through a tough time.  (And if you have not experienced such things yet yourself, just wait.)

In short, these are words to keep close.

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe,

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe, o wie feste halt’ ich ihn,
daß er mir mein Herze labe, wenn ich krank und traurig bin.

Jesum hab’ ich, der mich liebet und sich mir zu eigen giebet,
ach drum laß’ ich Jesum nicht, wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.

[Translation]

Well for me that I have Jesus, o how strong I hold to Him,
that He might refresh my heart when sick and sad am I.

Jesus have I, who loves me and gives to me His own,
ah therefore I will not leave Jesus, when I feel my heart is breaking.

Cristo

Detail of “The Descent from the Cross” by the
Master of the von Stauffenburg Altarpiece (c. 1454-1460)
Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France

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