There is no better way to meditate this week leading up to Easter than with J.S. Bach
Being in the “over-seventy” age-bracket and stuck at home due to COVID-19, I decided to do something I hadn’t done for years: listen to J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion right through, the full two hours and forty-four minutes in the Netherlands Bach Society performance on YouTube. And what a magnificent performance it is!
You don’t have to be a Lutheran or even a Christian to enter into the profound and intense humanity of this drama in which, in the words of the high priest, that “it is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). In his setting Bach has wisely followed the traditional liturgical practice of having the Evangelist, or narrator, chant the actual words of the gospel in a kind of recitative, so that we always know when St. Matthew is speaking. All of the other spoken parts, including Jesus, have their own voices.
Bach also uses the soloists and choruses to comment on the action, and it is here that we enter a musical world of raw emotions, pain and failure, of anger, sadness and joy as we hear the story of a just man sacrificed for others. In the early Chorale, Herzliebster Jesu the choir asks, like a Greek chorus, “Beloved Jesus, what have you done wrong, that they have pronounced so harsh a sentence?” So many prisoners of conscience today, suffering under cruel, oppressive regimes, must ask exactly the same question.
Nowadays Matthäuspassion, to give it its German title, is often performed in the concert hall, or if it is in a church, it is usually in a non-liturgical performance, like the Netherlands Bach Society performance I mentioned above.
It’s easy to forget that it was the parishioners at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig who first heard this music in 1727 in a specifically liturgical setting—at the Vespers service on Good Friday evening. With the whole text in German the congregation could follow easily and, to keep them involved, Bach threw in some well-known hymn tunes, like the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, loosely translated nowadays as “O Sacred Head now Wounded”.
But the strength of both the Matthew passion narrative and Bach’s music is that it opens us up to a universal reality, a story that reaches out and can touch everyone, whatever their belief. This is so different to contemporary culture that is individualistic, self-engrossed and self-referential. In Matthew’s story of Jesus suffering and death, as mediated to us by one of the greatest musical geniuses of Western art, we perceive so many aspects of ourselves.
But every story has a particular context and Matthew’s gospel comes out of a Jewish community that had converted to Christianity, probably living somewhere in northern Galilee or southern Syria. It’s pretty clear that by the time the gospel was written—either just before, or soon after Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD—that Jewish Christians were being expelled from the mainstream Jewish community, which may account for Matthew’s attacks on “the Jews” and especially the scribes. Perhaps he was a former scribe himself?
This is reflected in his account of the trial and death of Jesus where he blames the high priest and the Jewish leaders for the crucifixion. The Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate is portrayed more sympathetically, even though the evidence is that he was given to brutal outbursts, and that he acted opportunistically in handing Jesus over to the executioners.
Essentially Matthew presents Jesus as the long-expected messiah of the Jewish people, while at the sane repudiating the notion that he was in any way political. The background to the gospel is the Jewish revolt against the Romans and the brutal war which eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Matthew has Jesus explicitly repudiating a political role. When Peter bluntly says “You are the Christ (i.e. the messiah), the Son of the living God,” Jesus “strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (Matthew 16: 16,20). Not only is he not political because all he expects is failure, suffering and death in Jerusalem at the hands of “the chief priests and the scribes” (Matthew 16:21).
If not a political messiah, then what? Actually, a messiah that offered a radical alternative. “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever would save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
He had already told his followers: “You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). As the Jewish critic George Steiner says in his marvellous intellectual autobiography, Errata, “Christ’s ordinance of total love, of self-offering to the assailant, is, in any strict sense, an enormity. The victim is to love his butcher. A monstrous proposition. But one shedding fathomless light. How are mortal men and women to fulfill it?” That certainly remains the basic question for Christians.
As death approaches for the crucified messiah, Jesus feels abandoned by God. “And about the nineth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46). The nineth hour is mid-afternoon and Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, a prayer that would be well-known to the Jewish Christians of Matthew’s community. It is a cry of anguish but not of despair, for as a good Jew, Jesus knows that the Psalm goes on to say “He (God) did not hide his face from me, but heard me when I cried to him” (Psalm 22:24). In a sense Jesus is expressing that even in the most terrible situations there is always an element of hope, of meaning.
“And then Jesus cried out with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit” (Matthew 27:56). After betrayal and political expedience, after all the violence and horror Jesus simply cries out and dies. In Mark’s gospel it is far more dramatic than ‘cried out with a loud voice’. Here Jesus ‘screamed’ or even ‘shrieked’. Whatever, it was not a peaceful death.
But back to Bach: He finishes with a glorious Chorale addressed to Jesus: “When I must depart, do not depart from me. When I must suffer death, then stand by me! When I’m most full of fear…then snatch me from the terrors.”
The coda to Matthew’s gospel, describing the resurrection, answers the chorale’s request. One who understood this was Gerard Manley Hopkins. His poem, That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection is a complex sonnet, written in July 1888, just eleven months before he died aged 45. Depressed by his surroundings in Dublin, he falls into despair, but then he stops himself.
“Enough! The Resurrection … Away grief’s gasping / joyless days, dejection.” Everything in nature must die, as Christ died, in order to be transformed by resurrection. Death is the process through which all creation passes. “Flesh fade and mortal trash Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire leave but ash.” But in the resurrection, all is transformed:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Paul Collins is a writer, historian and fan of Bach.