What language shall I borrow?
The first four books of our Christian scripture, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John devote a very large amount of their account of Jesus to the events of Holy Week; those events between Palm Sunday and Easter. It is a crude measure, but simply to look at the percentage of the chapters; Mark 37%, Matthew 28%, Luke 21% and John 28%. This is a huge part of the gospel.
And the tradition of recounting the narrative in spoken parts may have been anticipated even by the Gospel writers themselves.
And we have all these world traditions from the Greek Passion by Nikos Kazantzakis, to Oberammerau, Germany that take place, and the procession through the streets of Romance language nations of tronos or floats with scenes from the passion of Christ.
Is it possible to do justice to a narrative so holy, vast and significant?
The reading of the Passion, as we did this evening in church, dates back to the 4th Century of our common era. It has been musically intoned from the 8th Century onward. By the 16th Century it was being presented in musical settings composed by serious musicians, called Passions.
What all of these presentations have in common is that they enable participation at a deeper level than hearing alone. They include both speaking and hearing the words, they invite actions, many presentations include embellishing the story and some dramatize through sculpture, acting and costuming. The addition of music asks for deeper emotional engagement. And there is poetry. The truth of the gospel requires that we stretch our language.
The hymns in the service tonight are from the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, and Bach has used each of them at some point in a passion. I was touched last Saturday by the Masterworks presentation of St. Matthew Passion, with soloists, chorus and symphony orchestra. As our music director, Maureen Holmes, who was among the singers, said to me, “Bach is so church.”
This was in comparison to Handel’s Messiah, (from the same era) which deals with similar themes and is far more familiar. “But Handel was theater,” Maureen continued. For me, where Handel is heroic Bach is more reflective, tender, devotional and personal. Bach is more religious.
The moments last Saturday that touched me especially were when a soloist singer and a soloist musician – violin or flute, would present a moment of reflective poetry about some piece of dramatic action. As in, just after Judas betrays his friend Jesus.
Is there a sermon in here somewhere?
The Passion of Christ asks us to stop and ponder how imperial forces grind human beings for instructional purpose, to show who is boss, and calls us to feel compassion for each person as a child of God.
Years ago in the basement of the Church of Peace there was a public community forum of candidates for judge and Walter Braud was one of those under consideration. There was the typical “tough on crime,” question about young adults doing bad things. And the question was asked by a Euro-American and Walter is African-American.
To his credit Walter said something like, “You know, I find it hard to make a general statement about what we ought to do with young people as a category. When I am defending such a young man, and they usually are young men, I will often have a grandmother or mother or aunt call me. They will say, ‘I know he did something wrong, but he is basically a good boy who got in with the wrong crowd. He needs to learn not to do these things again, but please, don’t let it ruin his whole life.”
Well, Walter did not win the election to be a judge, but he was later appointed a judge, and he is a good one.
The passion narrative of Christ invites us to be reflective, devotional, tender and personal. Each one caught up in the machinery of empire is an individual and child of God. At our best we are considered not as a category of humanity; our fate should not be a matter for public spectacle to teach society a lesson. – to show society who is boss.
As a teen I read the 1951 historical novel Spartacus by Howard Fast, and the moment I remember was when the slave revolt that Spartacus had led was defeated and 6000 slaves were crucified along the Via Appia, in 71 BC, stretching from Rome to Capua. This spectacle of state sponsored terrorism was supposed to be a warning, or as we moderns tend to call it, a “learning experience” for society – to show that the Roman empire was large and in charge.
There is no shortage still of those who witness public executions, or those who kill folks to make the point of how powerful they are.
While those who die as a learning experience for society may not be the Son of God, each is a child of God. A person who has a mother and a grandmother. One who should be considered reflectively, devotionally, tenderly and, personally.
The language of the Passion should guide us to Compassion.
Amen and amen.