Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Reflections on the St. Matthew Passion - by J.S. Bach

I am currently in Peoria performing the solo oboe / English Horn parts for the Peoria Bach Festival's performance (this Thursday and Friday) of The St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach.  This may very well be my last professional engagement as an oboist and what a way to go out.  This piece is HARD and very taxing.  But it is also very rewarding.  As a Lutheran Christian, who also happens to be a Pastor, there is no work that has the kind of beauty of both text and music as this work.  It is deeply moving and Bach's ability of weaving multiple layers together along with his mastery of word painting makes this piece a captivating piece indeed.  Below is a reflection I wrote on this piece back in April of 2008.  I had just attended a week long intensive study/discussion of this work in Houston and I arrived back on home on Maundy Thursday and was scheduled to preach on Good Friday.  The sermon was written in Houston in between sessions.  This reflection is based on that sermon.
In March (of 2008) I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Houston entitled "Redemption and Human Freedom in Bach's St. Matthew's Passion."  It was a wonderful 3 days of exploring what is one of the great musical masterpieces in the history of western music.  But more than that it was the first time I had really studied the text to this work.  I have performed this work on several occasions over the course of my 30+ years as a professional oboist.  But, I had never done more than quickly read through the text.  What I discovered this past week in Houston is that the text is a rich and beautiful work of poetry which focuses the work on the cross of Christ, but nevertheless has a very distinctive theological foundation.  The text is by the 18th century Lutheran Pietist and Pastor Christian Friedrich Henrici sometimes known as Picander.  The Passion setting was composed for performance on Good Friday during the liturgy of the day.  It tells the story of the passion using the scriptural text from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and this is sung by the Evangelist, who serves as narrator.  Interspersed between the sections of scriptural narrative are a series of arias which comment on the text, choruses and chorales or hymns for the congregation to sing.  It is in the arias primarily and some of the choruses where the theological heart of the work is found.In my Good Friday sermon I quoted the first chorus and it is here that we find the 1st theological point - namely that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes the sin of humanity onto himself.  "See!  "Where?" (responds the 2nd chorus) - there... look as Christ goes forth carrying his cross.  2. And who is responsible for this?  We are!  It is our Sin that Christ has taken on and it is because of us that He goes to the cross.  3. And why - for one reason: Love.  From aria #49: "Out of love, my savior is willing to die, although He is not guilty of a single sin..."  It is this amazing love, this wondrous love which lay at the heart of the Passion account itself and of this work.  4. And because of God's overwhelming love for us he has taken the consequence of our sin onto himself and enables and empowers us to follow him; to carry our cross.  From aria #57: "Come, sweet cross, I wish to say, my Jesus, give it to me always!  Should my suffering ever prove too great you will help me carry it."  And, 5, finally, we apprehend his love and grace and this incredible gift through our trust and faith (final chorus).

There is nothing new here - this is the core of our faith - but it is a core which is focused on the cross!  In our society the prevailing religiosity and what passes for Christianity is all too often focused on glory and power; focused on Easter at the exclusion of Good Friday.  How many churches in our own community don't even hold Good Friday services?  During his sermon on Palm Sunday, 2008 Bishop Peter Beckwith (now retired Episcopal Bishop of the Springfield Diocese) stated unequivocally that "without Good Friday, Easter becomes trite and irrelevant."  The power of Easter comes when we both experience and acknowledge the centrality of the crucifixion.  Christ redeems us on the cross; God's great love is revealed on the cross; our faith must be focused on the cross.  Only then, only when we have entered into and experienced the darkness of Good Friday can we with joy and conviction cry the words of the Easter proclamation.

As we continue our pilgrimage during this season of Easter (and throughout the church year) may it be informed and given meaning by the cross of Christ.  In the words of the boy's choir in the first chorus: "O lamb of God, innocent, sacrificed on the wood of the cross, always patient and meek, even when you were forsaken!  Had you not taken on our sins we would have perished.  Have mercy on us, O Jesus!"  Amen!  He is risen! He is risen indeed!

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE the St. Matthew...we studied it in depth in our doctoral conducting seminar last fall. Best wishes, Blake, for a phenomenal performance. Break a leg!