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The score

Good Friday during J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion

14 April 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

On returning from a sojourn in his house in France with mutual friends, I enquired of a friend how it had all gone. ‘Wall to wall Monte‘bloomin’verdi’ he replied – though possibly less politely. The BBC saw fit to give us total immersion in Beethoven last summer, and in Bach before Christmas, though Mozart currently is administered in ‘gradual release’ form, rather than wall-to-wall. However, there is no denying the success of awakening a passion for Bach and Beethoven, and grabbing attention, by their total immersion method. And we too, today, have opted and consented to set aside three hours to experience afresh the old, old story, via the genius of Bach, rather than the brevity of 10 minute versions. That the John Passion was first performed on Good Friday (1724) of the same year this church was being finished, prior to its consecration in 1725, provides a lovely further link.
St. John’s is a very positive account of the old, old story, of Jesus and his love. The hour has come, the hour of glory and fulfilment when the cross shines forth in mystic glow. The stranglehold of sin and death, afflicting humanity, is to be confronted in its bitter worst, and overcome. Jesus’ great prayer is that his disciples all be one – one in the love of God, in a world that does not know Him, and received him not. The image of total immersion, can serve for the incarnation too, as God immerses himself in human flesh. Love itself is robed and clothed in flesh, and the logic of this leads to the ultimate sacrifice, as the great high priest claims victory, over sin and death. The Lamb of God trailblazes the way of truth and life, and ensures safe passage for the sheep. It is accomplished.
At the moment we are at half time in today’s performance. Luckily not having to compete with football matches as local churches had to on Good Friday in Tottenham a few years ago…the only Premiership match today is this evening between Man United and Sunderland. But, given we are at half time; the obvious question is…what’s the score?

I’ve already referred to the score according to St. John, and not dwelt on the sufferings of Jesus, as he is whipped, and mocked, slapped and jeered, and has a crown of thorns scored into his scalp, before the nails are driven in, as a revolting public spectacle. The worst must be to have been abandoned by those whom he loved, and isolated (from his own perspective) even from the love of the Father. The wisdom of tradition encourages a constant re-reading of the score, lest we forget. There is no need to be fixated on the mechanics of his death, but if that is important for you, there’s Mel Gibson, and other films, and countless gory Spanish counter-reformation statues that might help. But, I ask again, what’s the score? What is Bach’s own score?

As we are hearing, the biblical story is told employing recitative, with the various characters used to dramatic effect, and to move the action on swiftly. The arias provide emotional and spiritual commentary, often coloured, and highlighted by individualized instrumentation. The chorales would have been identifiable, and well known to Bach’s contemporaries, thus offering the reassurance of familiarity…these up to date numbers are woven into the old, old story. And then, finally, are the great impressive choruses supporting and framing the whole structure. Most revealing of what the score is from Bach’s viewpoint, are the non-scriptural texts, deliberately chosen to focus on personal responsibility – upon me and my sins. When the chorus asks (please excuse my German) “Wer hat dich so geschlagen?” (Who has struck you so?) toward the end of Part I, the answer is unequivocal: “Ich, ich und meine Sünden, Die sich wie Körnlein finden, Des Sandes an dem Meer” (I, I and my sins, which are as many as the grains of sand beside the sea).

We come then, to ourselves, who, though not at the same stage in temporal terms, are nevertheless all, in a sense, at half time. The half time of ‘what’, is yet to be revealed, and, regardless of our beliefs, whether we are at half time on the way to eternity, or the release of oblivion, we might ask ourselves…what’s the score? What direction, what plan, what progress…or maybe what scores with ourselves, and others, with life or God, need healing and reconciliation, rather than settling? So I end with that question ‘what’s the score at your half time’? Or even…I imagine…for some people…‘What’s the game’?
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