[ by Charles Cameron — ffor whom the music lingers longest in the soul ]
Yesterday, Maundy Thursday in the western ritual calendar, the Christ washed the feet of his disciples after the Last Supper, and instructed them to do likewise. Today, the day called Good Friday, the Christ, scourged and bone-weary from dragging the wood chosen for his cross uphill to a place called Golgotha or Skull, is finally nailed, hand and foot, hands and feet. and raised up with a mocking inscription above his head proclaiming him King of the Jews in three languages -– and in his almost final gesture on earth, forgives the soldier who has just applied hammer to those terrible nails. He dies – “gives up the ghost” – and then the three days of a prophesied and clearly impossible return from the tomb open before us – a cliff-hanger like no other.
Our western civ loses a lot if we are unable to have, in the cycle of our 24/365 lives, such a moment of suspense, which IMO cuts deeper than any doctrine. Deeper than doctrine, too, is music, which reaches far beyond the bounds of verbal belief. Thus one of western music’s greatest treasures: Bach’s telling of Christ’s passion, as written by Matthew in his gospel. Pause a moment – pause a couple of hours – pause at least long enough for Bach’s great finale – and then wait, if the Christ story can still move you, wait with aching, with dread even – or as Bach suggests, rest with the resting Christ, take consolation in the promise of his resurrection.
Bach’s finale, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, WIki explains:
The work is closed by a grand scale chorus in da capo form, choir I and II mostly in unison for the first part Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (We sit down in tears), but in dialog in the middle section, choir II repeating Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh! (“Rest gently, gently rest!”), choir I reflecting: “Your grave and headstone shall, for the anxious conscience, be a comfortable pillow and the resting place for the soul. Highly contented, there the eyes fall asleep.” These are the last words (before the recapitulation), marked by Bach himself: p pp ppp (soft, very soft, extremely soft).
Bach’s complete Matthew Passion, a Lutheran choral setting for today’s evening service:
And the end, in Matthew’s telling:
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.