Verse two is devoted to describing the power of Death.
The text is dark, full of despair and hopelessness as the universal human condition is revealed in its devastating sin and impotence. In alchemical terms, this might be considered a “blackened” stage.
Verse three tells of the coming of Jesus to undergo Death as a substitute for our having to do so (a connection to the sacrificial lamb of Yom Kippur), and reminds us that all that remains of Death is a powerless image.
Verse four, the center and pivot point of the cantata, is also at the crux of Christian theology. It describes the battle between Life and Death and the ultimate defeat of Death.
Verse five is the correlative of Verse three. It reveals the Easter Lamb “roasted in fervent love”—an allusion to the victim which feeds the believers, becoming the Passover meal and the Christian sacrament of communion. The mark of the blood on the door is held up against Death, and those under its protection cannot be harmed. The “roasting” suggests the calcination stage of the alchemical work.
Verse six corresponds with Verse two by its opposition. It is bathed in light and life; the work of deliverance from Death has been achieved. Alchemically, here we have achieved the “Perfection”, the complete transmutation of the base material into imperishable “Gold”.
Verse seven shows the alchemical “Projection”, a continuation of the Believer’s life after deliverance from Death. The Christian prospers (eats well, lives well) on the life-giving food of the (Christian) Passover bread (in Christian communion, the bread is Christ’s body—the Paschal Lamb—with the paradoxical, simultaneous symbol of the Passover bread). We are reminded that the old leaven, the yeast from the previous batch of sourdough, the old way of life, will not be present because the new grace, life as a delivered people, supplants it. Our souls will be sustained only by the new food, Christ (the Paschal Lamb, the bread of life). This verse not only sums up the story that was projected in verse one but projects a continuity of being, an on-goingness that leads beyond the experience of the chorale itself and into the world, transformed by the passage into life, secure in spiritual immortality. This is the verse that the congregation would join in singing, further projecting the message beyond the cantata into the lives of the faithful.
Bach's "Christ lag in Todesbanden", BWV 4 Cantata
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, Ton Koopman, director