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Behold the man!

St Matthew Passion Good Friday 2003

18 April 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Contemporary theologians tell us that simply to read the Bible is the first stage of interpretation - because we inevitably bring to our reading our own assumptions and presuppositions. A liberal humanist might see the death of Jesus as a tragedy, a miscarriage of justice, perhaps saying something about the human condition. Someone with a non-Christian religious background might see it as the all too common fate of those who speak the truth boldly and fearlessly. But the Christian cannot read or hear the passion story without reference to the events which follow in the Gospels - the story of the resurrection. We all bring our own religious insights to bear on the drama of the passion, though in today’s world it may be that someone here in church today is hearing the story for the first time and without any presuppositions at all.

Today’s work itself, of course, offers its own interpretation, and in two distinct ways. First, there are the non-biblical texts which the librettist, Christian Friedrich Henrici, has added to the Biblical text. Often highly emotional in style, these reflect the influence on Lutheran orthodoxy of the Pietist movement with its emphasis on an intimate and personal relationship of the believer to Christ. That marvellous opening chorus alone speaks of Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Lamb of God. A later chorus intensifies the personal intimacy, I will here beside thee stay; scorn not this stand I make; from thee will I not hide me if thy dear heart should break.

But throughout Bach’s own fair copy of The Passion, the words of scripture are inscribed in red ink, and the German scholar, Friedrich Smend, observed that even he who only casually glances through this manuscript must time and again be impressed by the unique way in which this text is emphasised. Obviously Bach is interested in nothing but the word of scripture.

But nevertheless it is Bach himself who makes the most significant interpretation of the biblical text and that is through the sublime music in which he presents it to us. The combined chemistry of biblical text, Pietist commentary and musical expression adds up to a deep spiritual experience which is timeless. It is a healing energy which assists the growth of the human interior quest for spiritual fulfilment in any and every age.

As we hear the very first note of the opening double chorus we are transfixed by that sound, that one note. It simply vibrates within and (if we remain conscious throughout, paying attention and not letting our minds wander) that vibration stays with us and penetrates us in such a way that the entire Passion gradually becomes the story of our lives as well as that of one particular human being. In other words, the compassion flowing from the combination of poetry and music overcomes the duality that characterises so much of human life. All of this happens quite independently of whatever religious creed we may profess - if any.

The soaring entry of the chorale ‘O Lamb of God’ - the musical line so simple - seems to speak of the complexity of human life on this earth in all its wonder, sorrow and beauty. I wonder if there is a message for us here today in time of war. The Passion shows us clearly what is wrong with humanity but it does not judge us; it invites us to look deeply into the human condition.

Of course, the universal dimension of the story is focused, as it must be, in the particular sufferings of the man Jesus. And what a story this is - the intimacy of the Last Supper with his disciples, the agony in the garden, the betrayal, the arrest and the two mock trials, the scourging and the crucifixion. One moment stands out for me in this drama, recorded only in St John’s account, when Pilate brings out Jesus to present him to the crowds. Jesus wears the imperial purple of a Roman soldier’s cloak; he is crowned with thorns and has a reed for a sceptre. Pilate presents him with the words Ecce Homo! usually translated, Behold, the man! But it could be translated equally as Behold, man!

In Jesus, the Christian sees humanity at last as God our loving creator made us, reflecting his image and likeness, obedient in all things to the Father’s will, truly and without reserve loving God and neighbour. Such a man is cast out to die beyond the city wall. Is it true then, that mankind cannot bear too much reality? Is there too much reality in the humanity we see in Jesus? Must his story, therefore, be the story of the Passion? It seems it must.

At evening in the coolness blest

Was Adam’s Fall made manifest…

Now peace is made, we are by God reprieved,

For Jesus has his cross achieved.

His body sinks to rest.
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