Drum muß uns sein verdienstlich Leiden recht bitter und doch süße sein.
So his meritorious Passion must for us be truly bitter and yet sweet.
Where I live, the weather almost always gets drizzly around Good Friday. But the clouds aren't darkening like they are in winter. Usually, Daylight savings has already hit and the sun's angle makes the overcast seem brighter than usual. I can't help but thinking that's appropriate. Rainy weather is sad, but at the beginning of spring, it's bright.
As one wise guy once said, I don't think Bach's music needs justification by the weather. But I still think rainy weather fits it perfectly. J. S. Bach's music for the season of Lent serves its description of "Bright Sadness" so perfectly. And so, every year, my family sits around the couch with blankets and sleeve notes and reads along with the German of the Bach's St. Matthew Passion and glances at the English translation alongside. For whatever reason, it never fails to be a rewarding experience, but something concrete jumped out at me this year.
As usual, a lot of things collided all in a flash in my mind, things that I could momentarily connect, but there's no guarantee that I can do it now, like I'm trying to. That memory of M. C. DenHoed asking him why I sent him a piece of opera, when I had sent him Geduld from the St. Matthew Passion. I was utterly taken aback. Opera and Bach had never even occurred in my mind as overlap. Also, my Latin teacher, correcting a student's translation of "Merry Christmas" - the student had put something like "Happy Birth of Christ", and the teacher wisely pointed out that it wasn't the birth of Christ, it was the feast of the birth of Christ. And this quote of Paul McCreesh, whose recording we listened to this year - "All Bach's music, fast or slow, has an almost visceral connection with the dance. Why should we require the first chorus to be slow and solemn, when it is above all else celebratory? There's an almost ecstatic desire to share in the retelling of the Passion story."
There's tension in any feast like Christmas or Easter or Good Friday. But especially with Good Friday. We're Christians. We're immersed in the Bible and so we know what will happen. Even if we weren't Christians we would still know what happens. The tomb is empty. Prophecy is fulfilled. Things are really glorious. But on Good Friday, we're asked to remember the crucifixion. Our Good Friday services are somber and sad. This really bothers some evangelicals because they can't stand the tension. They think that the faith is all about the Resurrection (rightly), so why bother with the sad stuff? But this only shows that they are remembering Good Friday and its events. Not celebrating them.
Celebrating a Church holiday involves two things. Remembering it as a historical fact through the text that we're given - this is almost like the literal or grammatico-hitsorical level of hermeneutics. We just read the Gospels and refresh our minds as to the events and spend a day on this one and a day on that one. If we had this alone, we wouldn't feel the tension because we would know to just turn the page and read about the empty tomb. The second level of celebration is an allegorical, typological, sacramental and eschatological level. Mary Magdalene, Peter, Judas, and even Jesus are you. Allegorically, insofar as they embody abstract things like humility, restoration, treachery, and perfection. But, even better, you are a type of them. You're Mary Magdalene, a converted disciple who was demon-possessed. You're Peter, constantly showing signs of frailty but becoming loyal once again. You're even Judas sometimes and constantly attaining Jesus. Jesus, especially, is the character you become sacramentally through Baptism and the Lord's Supper and eschatologically, as we become the spotless bride of Christ and become one flesh with Him. Aways down the road.
And this is where that tension comes from. You're simultaneously in the story and out of it. You're a character in the book and you're reading the book. You're Frodo on Mount Doom once again, still as excited as ever - or more so - but this is the eighth time you've read Lord of the Rings. That's what a true celebration of a feast feels like. That's why, as the text to St. Matthew Passion puts it, his meritorious Passion must for us be truly bitter and yet sweet.
In approaching Bach's Passion, it's important to think of yourself as a congregant in the Lutheran Church of the early 18th century. The piece begins with a chorus, flung between two choirs, the first of which says,
The second choir immediately responds,
Then, if you were that congregant sitting in the pew, you would hear floating above the complex polyphony a familiar hymn, O Lamm Gottes unschuldig (O guiltless Lamb of God). This is an amazing moment, because you realize that Bach isn't just making these melodies spontaneously. He's made them exactly so that they would fit inside the hymn.
This language should connote something. If it doesn't, you should be worried. Bridegrooms and daughters is definitely the language of Song of Solomon and the language doesn't disappear throughout any of the piece. Certain arias are almost reminiscent of St. John of the Cross.
This language, the words of a lover, trips up a lot of modern listeners, primarily because they suffer under the delusion that Bach's music is highly personal. John Taverner remarked that Bach's music “is so concerned with the personal Christ, not the cosmic Christ.” Taverner, however, misses the Lutheranism of the day. In this schizophrenia we've set up, it's easy to see how the woman who sings the aria with Solomonic imagery is you plural. As a congregant, you are participating, along with the rest of the congregation, in a communal act of worship, which is embodied in this soprano singing. We are the Bride of Christ corporately, not individually. What Bach is not doing is setting up an erotic relationship between himself and Christ. We are corporately singing a love song to Christ.
And, you can't mention St. Matthew Passion without mentioning possibly the most famous piece from it (and from a lot of other Bach works). Again and again, the tune to "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" comes up in the piece. But this song was originally a love song. A folk tune. Bach changed that. Is that coincidental?
This corporate nature of the characters within the Passion story is nowhere more potent than in the Passover narrative. Using the exact text of the German Bible, Bach puts the Scripture in a free-flowing recitative.
Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.
And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began everyone of them to say unto him,
Lord, is it I?
And, then, immediately, in a familiar hymn tune to the Lutheran congregant,
It is I. I should atone,
My hand and feet
Bound, in hell.
The scourges and the fetters,
And all that Thou didst endure,
That has my soul earned.
When listening to this, it feels a bit like Inigo must have felt when Fezzik put his head in the bowl of cold water and then in the bowl of hot water. Or when your teacher just explained something really amazing that you're having trouble keeping in your head. Things feel like they could pop at any moment. But that's the feeling of this dual reality in the liturgical setting - the feeling of being a character in the book and reading the book. It's like Aeschylus or Sophocles' chorus, but considerably more frightening, considering we believe these things are true. This hymn - It is I - that the Lutheran congregation might have even sung with the choirs and organ - would immediately press the corporate and communal reality of the Gospel into their faces.
This strange tension comes out in more grotesque ways as well. One aria is sung by Judas, just after the chief priests have told him to get lost with his 32 that he wants to give back to them. He sings,
See, the money, the wages of murder,
The lost son throws at you,
Down at your feet.
The "lost son" reminds one of Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, and, in keeping with the logic of previous arias, we have to assume that Bach wants us to be Judas in the story too. That's rather uncomfortable. But it isn't necessarily untrue. There's the same convincting sting that comes, like the Chorale "It is I." Strangely, however, the aria sung by Judas is perhaps the most exuberant in the entire Passion.
What bothers most people about the St. Matthew Passion is its ending. The final text from the Gospel used is "So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch." And watch is exactly what a Lutheran congregant goes home to do. The final chorus is a solemn and dissonant piece that still retains the dance-like quality of the very first chorus. There's an undeniable sense of let-down and anti-climax. You've stopped it before the eagles have come to pick up Frodo and Sam. And you're waiting until Sunday morning to watch the rest.
But you still come away happy, on one level. And this is why it is not simply a nice thing for us to be joyful and sad at the same time. It's a must. His meritorious Passion must for us be truly bitter and yet sweet. It's sad, obviously, because you are still a character in Christ's Passion, eating with him, putting him on trial, executing him, and burying him. But it's joyful because you know what happens. And, again, this tension is not an optional thing in a liturgical setting. This post is not primarily descriptive. I'm prescribing something, not describing something. This schizophrenia is the Gospel. It must be truly bitter and yet sweet.
(Originally posted on Pontification Ad Nauseam.)