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April 8, 2009
Column #1,441
Bach's "St. John Passion"
By Mike McManus

On Palm Sunday I attended a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. John Passion," which moved me more deeply than any music I've ever heard.  The music itself is less lyrical than "The Messiah," with fewer recognizable melodies.
But the words reveal the soul of a deeply spiritual man. Bach once said, "Music's only purpose should be for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit."

As he began composing on a blank piece of paper, Bach would write, J.J. ("Jesu Juva" or "Help me, Jesus)," reports Patrick Kavanaugh in his book, "The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers." At the manuscript's end, Bach wrote: I.N.J. ("In Nomine Jesu"  - in the "Name of Jesus.")

Like Bach's more popular "St. Matthew Passion," most of the sung words come from the Gospel account of the arrest of Jesus, his trial by Pilate, and his crucifixion. There is great drama in the story, with various characters sung by different soloists.

However, what is arresting is the chorus' commentary on the action. 

A band of officers from the chief priests and Pharisees come to arrest Jesus, accompanied by Judas. Jesus asks them, "Who seek ye?"

The chorus sings, "Jesus of Nazareth!."

"I am he," Jesus replies, stunning the group who step backward. Jesus repeats his question, and identifies himself again.

The chorus sings, "O great, boundless love, that hath brought Thee to this path of martyrdom! I lived among the worldly in contentment and pleasure and Thou must suffer."

(Isn't the chorus speaking about most of us living in contentment and pleasure?)

When asked by Pilate if he were "King of the Jews," Jesus replies, "My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight…"

The chorus laments: "With what to compare Thy compassion;
How, then, may I repay thy deeds of love with any deeds of mine?"

At times, the chorus doubles as a crowd, jeering at Jesus with his crown of thorns: "Hail, King of the Jews."  Later they urge: "Crucify Him, crucify Him!"

When Pilate says, "I find no fault in him," the chorus sings, "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend."

However, what I found haunting are the chorales that are the "conscience of the piece," as Patrick Kavanaugh puts it. Jesus says to his mother, at the foot of the cross, "Woman, behold thy son!" referring to John, and to John, he adds, "Behold thy mother!"

The Chorus comments, "He had a care for everything, in his last hour.
He took thought for his mother still, and assigned her a guardian.
Oh, mankind, exercise righteousness, Love both God and man.
Then die free from pain, and grieve not!"

After Jesus dies, we hear this Chorale:
"Jesu, Thou who wert dead, Now livest for ever.
In my last agony, Nowhere will I turn but to Thee
Who hast redeemed me. O my beloved Lord!
Give me only that which Thou hast won. More I do not desire."

The chorus thus speaks for me and perhaps you.

Joseph of Arimathaea courageously asks Pilate that he might take the body of Jesus and bury him in a new garden tomb, "wherein was never man yet laid."

Now the chorus sings:

"Rest in peace, you holy bones, which I will no longer mourn.
Rest in peace and take me too, to rest."

Bach once wrote that "Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence."

I find Bach's music, written four centuries ago, to be Godly. The finale Chorale, makes us witnesses who long to join Jesus in time:

"O Lord, let they dear angels carry my soul when my end comes,
To Abraham's bosom;
Let my body in its resting chamber, gently repose, without pain or grief,
Till Judgment Day! Awaken me from death, that my eyes may behold Thee
In all joy, O Son of God, My savior and my Thone of Grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, hear my prayer,  I will ever praise thee!"

Michael McCarthy, the conductor, wrote in a Program Note, "If you found yourself looking into your own face, then I suspect this is what St. John, J.S. Bach, and we would have hoped."

Bach was blind at the end of his life. His last work, dictated from his bed, was a chorale, "Before Thy Throne I Come." 

       Surely, he made it!

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