Can there be anything more dramatic than a man proclaiming the absolute power of the Love, seeing into the eyes of his enemies and submitting calmly and willingly to martyrdom to prove his faith and to convince his followers that they are right to believe in what he has said? To profess the ultimate sacrifice to set an example? To die so that others could live sometime somewhere in a better, more peaceful world? Hardly.
Unfortunately martyrdom has taken a negative connotation since self-proclaimed martyrs have started to blow themselves up to kill a maximum of innocent civilians deemed to have the wrong faith. They confound martyrdom and terror, and unfortunately unreflected journalism perpetuates this erroneous image.
A message so strong…
To the people living in Judaea, be they Jewish or Roman, the sacrifice of Jesus must have been an impressive show of personal strength. A message so strong that by spreading through archaic social networks it became the foundation of a new religion that would eventually outlast the Roman gods and conquer first the Near East, later Greece, Italy, Southern and Western Europe and many centuries later the Americas – usually not by means as peaceful as the new religion’s message. The ensuing conflicts produced hundreds of martyrs – mainly monks slaughtered by “pagans” – and it remains questionable that those monks just sat down to discuss peacefully religious issues as Jesus did in front of Pontius Pilate.
…amplified by Bach’s music
Christians all over the world celebrate Good Friday today to commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion and the powerful message this act of sacrifice sent through the Roman Empire. Johann Sebastian Bach has composed in the first half of the 18th century a work that takes up this powerful message, the Passion according to St John (BWV 245). [Bach’s] “setting [of the work] succeeded in amplifying the theological substance of the narrative in a musical cosmos full of verbal and musical references”, writes Carsten Hinrichs in the booklet accompanying the amazing recording by Ricercar Consort, which I highly recommend. The work was first performed in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig on Good Friday, 7 April 1724, for the first time since Bach’s appointment as Kantor.
A five-stage drama
I permit myself to quote Hinrichs a second time to explain the structure of the work: “The […] Passion involves four types of text: narration, contemplation, prayer, and exhortation. The narration is the text of the Gospel, which depicts the action in the classic five stages – Hortus (up to the arrest of Christ), Pontifices (before the high priests), Pilatus (the trial), Crux (the Crucifixion), and Sepulcrum (the entombment) – with the interaction of the dramatis personae and the people.” The arias are the believer’s commentary on these events, expressed in meditation and interpretation, according to Hinrichs, while the congregation as a whole, represented by the chorus, reacts in reverent prayers.
Stirring and genuine
If you have a sense for all things spiritual, Bach’s Passion according to St John is a must. If you take the time to listen consciously to this extraordinary work, at some point you will enter into trance and relive the emotionally most disturbing drama just as if you had been an eyewitness. I am aware that Bach’s Passion according to St Matthews is better known, but the Passion according to St. John surprises by its more dramatic character. If the Passion according to St Matthews has the more refined music, the Passion according to St John feels more genuine and stirring – at least to me, the infidel that I am.
© Charles Thibo