It had been a long Lent. By the time the people gathered together in the church on Good Friday, they were ready. They had been made ready by weeks of prayer and fasting, by weeks of self-examination and denial, by weeks of scripture and sermons that had finally, finally, led them to this place – to the tiny garden on the side of a hill where Jesus sat in the darkness among an ominous tangle of olive trees. It was here, in this garden, that the people finally were able to pick up the Passion, to hear the story that was the culmination of their long Lenten journey.
But it was more than just the mere telling of the Passion that these people hungered for. Because these were not just any people, and this was not just any Lent. This was Lent in Leipzig in 1724, and these people had gathered for Vespers in the Lutheran Church of St. Nicholas to hear the new St. John Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. They hadn’t heard any instrumental music in church since the season of Lent had begun, and for these people, who were used to a weekly diet of carefully crafted cantatas, the time when they were forced to abstain from these orchestral delights always felt terribly bleak and barren. 1724 was Bach’s very first Lenten season in Leipzig, so there must have been more than a little curiosity about what this feisty and brilliant composer might offer the congregation this year. Had they gotten their money’s worth? Would this new Passion work? – and by that I mean, would Bach’s setting of the St. John Passion help them to truly join Jesus in that garden, to enter fully – mind, body, and soul – into this story that they had waited so long to hear?
It is clear from listening to the St. John Passion that Bach knew exactly what the people expected of him and of this particular piece. The Bach scholar Michael Marissen has written that Bach’s role in Leipzig is best described as a kind of “musical preacher,” and it is this preaching, this active and very personal engagement with the Passion, that is so compelling in the St. John. Bach not only set the entire Passion according to St. John (in German, of course), he also carefully placed other poetic texts within the narrative to help connect the listener to the action. Bach’s goal, clearly, was not just for you to hear the story but for you to get inside it, to live it – to imagine what it was like in the garden or at Gabbatha or on Golgotha, and to experience an emotional and a spiritual response to what happened there. The whole point of the Passion was to feel something – to feel the cries of Crucifixion from the crowd, to feel the tenderness as Jesus gave Mary and the disciple John into each other’s care, and – most importantly – to feel how our own wretched brokenness made this sacrifice necessary in the first place.
Let me give you an example. At the beginning of the Passion, when Jesus is being questioned by the high priests, one of the servants strikes Jesus with his hand after an answer that he deems to be disrespectful. Here Bach pauses the action and interjects a chorale, a hymn. At the beginning of this chorale, the choir is indignant, singing, “Who was it who hit you this way, Lord? Who treated you so badly – you haven’t done anything wrong!” But then the singers realize the painful answer: they are to blame – “It is I, I and my many, many sins, who have caused this misery for you.” The singers, and, by proxy, the congregation, can no longer simply stand outside the story looking in. With this one masterful stroke, Bach has placed the people on the inside. They are now a part of the action, they are a part of the cause; they are truly viewing the story from the inside out. And so faced with their facts of their own complicity in the suffering of Jesus, how can they not feel something?
Even if you didn’t hear the Bach St. John Passion performed here last weekend or study it with us over the past five weeks in our Sunday forums, even if you’ve never heard of this piece in your life, I’m guessing that you can imagine what this deep emotional connection to the Passion text feels like. Because this is exactly what we experience here on Good Friday, in this liturgy. We enter into this bleak and barren space, stripped of anything that sets it apart as holy, we watch the sacred ministers prostrate themselves before the altar, we hear ancient texts set to ancient tunes – all of which is intended to position us squarely within the events of this day, to help us find our place here, and tie us to that first Good Friday thousands of years ago. We have just knelt in silence as we reached back through the centuries to that horrible empty moment when Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, breathed out all of the air in his battered lungs and was still. In a few moments we will take the last few steps of our Lenten journey as we walk to the very foot of the cross, bend ourselves before the holy weight that hangs upon it, and kiss the feet of the figure who took it up for all of humankind.
More than almost any other service of the church year, the liturgies of Good Friday are intended to make us not just think about something but feel something. When we look at the wounds and the bruises that this suffering servant has borne for us, we are invited to feel something. When we cry out with the psalmist, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” we are invited to feel something. When we live the long, dusty walk to the cross; when we hear the mocking, the scourging, the shame; when we wonder if there is any sorrow like our sorrow; we should feel something.
But if we go out of this church on this day satisfied with the fact that we have felt something, we leave this liturgy unfulfilled. If this day is for us just about feeling sad, or empty, or overwhelmed and humbled, then we have left something out. Good Friday cannot just be about the way we feel; it cannot be just for us, because our Lord’s sacrifice was not just for you and me and for the faithful few who remained at the foot of the Cross, but for the whole world. Today must also, then, be about those who are out there and how we connect with them. Good Friday cannot be just about what we feel; it must also be about what we do.
What will we do? What will we do in response to this Good Friday? As we hear about the prisoner Jesus, mocked and tortured by his captors, what will we do for prisoners here in our country, or for prisoners of conscience around the globe? As we hear about a religious community divided against itself, what will we do for the Church here and in the world? As we hear about a Roman government corrupted by cruelty and unchecked power, what will we do for our own government to help it maintain an open heart to the world and to its own people? As we hear about an angry mob of powerless and manipulated people, what we will do for the oppressed around the world? What will we do for those who are persecuted for their faith? What will we do for those who have no faith, who are betrayers or who are betrayed, who suffer loss and mourn? What does Good Friday encourage us to do in response to how it makes us feel?
This question, and our response to this question, is at the heart of this holy day. Good Friday, of course, does offer us a powerful emotional experience, but the power of this is day is not just that it allows you and me to imagine what it was like on Golgotha in the first century on the first day of Passover but that, in the words of the author of Hebrews, this day “provokes us to love and good deeds.” Our emotional response to the story of Christ’s Passion can actually strengthen our ministry if the way we feel on this day breaks our hearts open to love more freely and more fully – to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, and to love one another as Christ has loved us – by doing acts of service and mercy in his name.
This may feel like a tall order. There is so much that can be done – where do we start? Well, starting where Bach did is always a good idea. Bach began each new composition by writing “Jesu juva” at the top of the score – Jesus help me. Jesus, help us to feel something in this liturgy today, and help us to imagine how you might use that feeling to accomplish something in us. On this Good Friday, help us to be moved, not just emotionally, but moved out into the world to strengthen the Church, to feed the hungry, to heal the brokenhearted. From your cross, from the tomb, Jesus, help us. And to God alone be the glory.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
Good Friday, April 6, 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia