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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Walking into Easter

Today in the Cathedral we held our Easter service Stations of the Resurrection. This was an hour long procession round the Cathedral (no sitting down). Each station symbolised an aspect of the Easter story. At each one we stopped to hear a Bible reading, listen to the choir and turn our reflection into a short prayer. As we walked between stations we sang favourite Easter hymns. We ended the journey round the shrine of St Cuthbert, the spiritual heart of the Cathedral. Afterwards there were festive drinks and nibbles in the Chapter House.

Walking is such a powerful symbol of life. And because new life begins on Easter Day, a processional journey to celebrate it is a good way of walking into its meaning. There's a lot of movement in the Easter stories we read this afternoon. We heard about the women who made journeys to Jesus' tomb in the early morning of Easter Day, only to be shocked to find it empty. We heard about the two forlorn disciples walking back from Jerusalem to Emmaus who were joined by the stranger who turned out to be the risen Lord himself. We heard about the invitation to go to Galilee where they would meet him.

It takes time to absorb what Easter means. It's too big to take it all in on Easter Day: that's why we have 50 days of Eastertide in which to make the truth of resurrection our own. I love the idea of walking into Easter, discovering how with each step of the journey it grasps hold of us, becomes more and more a part of us. 'We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song': but we have to give ourselves time to learn how to sing it. Indeed, it surely takes a lifetime to plumb the depths of this Easter music, this new song of the gospel.

In our Cathedral, there is a wonderful Easter garden in the Galilee Chapel. It is in a big cave-like niche. To one side is an immense disc like a huge mill-stone that has been rolled away. The grave-cloths are folded up on the ground; there are jugs with anointing oils, shrubs to recall the garden and at the rear of the cave the three crosses of Golgotha. It is a startling and beautiful image of Easter. We stood there and heard the story of the empty tomb, the place where everything is transformed, where all things become new.

Later we sang the Easter hymn 'Jesus lives'. And I thought of Clive, my daughter's partner who drowned a year ago tomorrow. And of so many people who are hurting, and of the pain of the world that is sometimes beyond bearing. Yet 'even at the grave we sing alleluia': that's what Easter means. Today we walked a little further into believing that 'death is swallowed up in victory'. And tomorrow, and every one of the 50 days, we shall take a few more steps on the journey of Easter when life begins again.

Monday, 23 April 2012

The French Elections: a village perspective

On St George's Day, we have the results of yesterday's presidential elections in France.  The final standoff in May will be between Hollande and Sarkozy.  It is the first time in recent history that an incumbent president has not come out in front at round one.  Hollande has the edge, not least because the larger centre and left parties will throw their weight behind him. The real shock of Sunday was the perfromance of the far right Front Nationale: Le Pen secured almost 20% of the national vote.  This is deeply worrying for France and for Europe: France could be a bellwether for the rest of us.  And it is worrying for Sarkozy because it's far from clear that even he turns up the anti-immigration rhetoric, these anti-European, anti-Euro voters will switch allegiance to him at round 2.

On our hill-top in France as in every town and village, bill-boards went up 2 weeks ago with affiches for all the election candidates. Each candidate had their own board.  In an intended or unintended irony Sarkozy and Le Pen occupied spaces at the left hand end of the line, while Hollande was well out on the right.  I know this because the faces of these politicians were staring directly into our house: they greeted us as we opened the shutters each morning and eyeballed us each time we went out.  They were installed by 'official election poster officers' (as their yellow vests proclaimed them to be).  By Friday when we departed, Hollande's had already been defaced - only lightly (it might have been someone sharpening a tool on his physiognomy).  But it indicates the right-wing tendencies of our department.  Sarkozy expected to do well here, and he did. 

In France, the President is directly elected by the nation's voters, not by deputies.  The electoral college is each commune: every city, town or village.  The statutory election posters set up in every commune are supposed to inspire Athenian-style political debate in the streets and squares.  I can confidently say (since the supposed agora was opposite our front door) that hardly anybody even stopped to look at them let alone stand there and argue.  I did watch one pair of young men walk up the line of candidates discussing each one, but the way they were pointing to their faces and hair-styles suggests that this was not a profound political expression of the demos at work. If it had been an impassioned political debate, we would have known about it: you can hear most of what passes in the street from inside our sitting room.

I was in fact struck by how little debate there seemed to be in the village in the 2 weeks before the election.  Despite the barrage of media coverage, villagers did not seem preoccupied with the political and economic future of their country.  So it was a surprise to learn last night that the turnout in the village was as high as 80% of the 300 or so souls who have a vote.  This seemed typical of small villages in that part of France from what I have been able to ascertain.  It was no surprise that Sarkozy came out in front, though his lead over Hollande was not huge.  It was a relief to know that Le Pen only achieved 10% of the vote, half the national average. 

If Hollande makes it, as seems likely, what effect will his tax-and-spend policies have on the village?  No-one knows.  Local concerns will be: how will it affect rural unemployment and poverty?  Will small local business thrive or wither further?  What effect will it have on agriculture?  Will there be more or fewer tourists and will they have more to spend or less?  And since the village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will there be more cash for the maintenance of historic buildings? I think it's fair to say that on the hill no-one is holding their breath.  The most eloquent body language in front of the posters last week was the Gallic pff and shrug of the shoulders.  I doubt that will change.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Sunday in Vézelay

It's Sunday in our hill-top village.

We awaken to the sound of shutters rattling in a keen north wind. When the wind is up it howls cruelly around this hill. Locals say the isolated hill-top attracts 'weather'. We are near the top so imagine we feel it more up here. The sky is like gun-metal, the street deserted. Only the early leaf on the beech tree across the road belies the impression that Vézelay is still in the grip of winter.

By mid-morning a stream of people heads up the hill towards the Romanesque Basilica. As in Durham, because we live so near it we are often the last to arrive. Some drive from further afield, their four by fours bearing number-plates from the Cher, the Aube and even Paris, evidence that people are prepared to travel far to come to services in this great pilgrim church. In front of the church are several fire appliances and officers standing about talking, so probably a practice rather than an emergency. A car-park attendant tries to keep order. Some pilgrims are setting off down the hill to Compostela.

Often there are wayfarers sitting by the main door of the narthex begging for alms, but not today, the cold probably. The narthex is dark, thronged with people: It is like a grand station waiting room, one of the functions of a Galilee porch. The nave is light and airy by comparison. Almost everyone heads straight for the front of the nave, quite unlike the C of E. The church which is very long is about a third full; not a bad attendance for Low Sunday. We do not see many villagers there. Some, like the elderly devout Madame who used to live across the road and died in the heat-wave or canicule of 2003 would sniff at the elaborate liturgy and music of the Basilica and go instead to one of the village churches where mass would be over in half an hour. The church is as cold as a tomb. I long for scarf and gloves: I have not brought the right clothing for Easter worship in this glorious but icy place.

The brothers and sisters of Jérusalem have been here since the 1990s. Their liturgy is celebrated in the Basilica three times a day. The sisters sit on the south side if the quire, the brothers on the north. The liturgy of both offices and eucharist is entirely sung to contemporary music of an eclectic mix of styles but is said to be inspired by Orthodox chant. The organist plays voluntaries on the little Cavaillé-Coll organ.

Liturgically, things are done with a studied Gallic informality (some might call it casualness). Today the president is one of the ordained brothers; another concelebrates, an English ex-Anglican priest who crossed the Tiber many years ago and took vows to live in France with the community. The lessons are read in French and then another language, today Dutch and Spanish. The president gives a homily about Thomas and speaks about how faith reaches out to touch the pierced hands and feet and side of the risen Christ. Everyone is paying close attention, even the teenage scouts just behind us. A lay person reads the bidding prayers. Children accompany the offertory procession and place candles round the the foot of the altar. At communion there are no stewards telling us when and where to go. After communion, some leave straight away. Meanwhile tourists ('they' - 'we' are worshippers or pilgrims) wander irritatingly up and down the aisles taking photographs while we pray. Afterwards no-one except us stays to listen to the final voluntary, so the organist stops playing her well-practised Bach fugue half-way through.

When we emerge the village is thronged with people. Sunday afternoon attracts visitors even in winter. Tourist sites are exempt the strict French Sunday trading laws so everything is open. The cafes and restaurants do well on Sundays, whether it's frites at the top of the hill or a Michelin star at the bottom. We wander down the street. Claude next door paints large surrealist-style canvases and is always up for conversation in his broken English and our broken French. Further down a bee-keeper sells different kinds of honey; she does this single-handed following her husband's bad accident two years ago. She tells us that he is beginning to walk again which is welcome news. Where the roads meet there is a tabac with fair-weather tables outside. Opposite is our favourite gallery that sells works by a 20th century painter and sculptor who worked in this region, Francois Brochet. We have two paintings of his in Durham. Our friend Elaine who works there helps us run this house for visitors. She is a lively Scotswoman whom we've known since we first started coming here. She is a fund of good advice on everything local. She tells us that in this economic crisis visitors are not buying as they used to. Everyone says the same: there are plenty of tourists but they are not spending. As we are not.

After an amicable catch-up on village affairs we head uphill again. I go back into the church to study and photograph the extraordinary array of Romanesque carvings for which it is famous. After an hour the cold has got the better of me. It is time to light a fire and have a cup of tea.

At home in France

Vézelay is awakening out of its winter sleep. It is cold, but the shops and restaurants are opening and the visitors are starting to arrive.

We are in the medieval hill-top village in Burgundy. The great Basilica crowns the hill; you can see it from miles away. From the top, old buildings tumble down the hillside towards the valley, never quite reaching it. Vineyards (Chardonnay) spread across the hill's south flank. The limestone responds wonderfully to the light. When the sun is low the whole village is lit up with a warm golden glow: you could imagine you were walking the streets of the celestial city. From afar the effect is extraordinary.

In the middle ages Vézelay was called La Colline Éternelle. You feel it is a very ancient place. What made it famous was the pilgrimage both to it and from it. Pilgrims came here to venerate the relics of Mary Magdalen, so this was a good place for penitent sinners to come. It still is. But in the middle ages it was also one of the four gathering places in France for the long pilgrimage to Compostela in north-west Spain. So there are reminders everywhere of St James and his coquille or scallop-shell. A line of brass shells is set in the main street for pilgrims to follow (only 1000 miles to go....). At this time of year there are a lot of pilgrims here, setting out on the long march so as to arrive in Santiago on the Feast Day of St James, 25 July. Some are religious, some not, but they have had their pilgrim passport or Compostela officially stamped, and they wear or carry the coquille.

The Basilica is one of the great Romanesque churches of Europe. It was begun at the same time as Durham Cathedral. It has an enormous narthex where pilgrims and worshippers would gather. Above the ceremonial entrance to the nave, the huge tympanum of Christ sending out his disciples at Pentecost (so different from the more usual last judgment) is a masterpiece of Romanesque carving. Sadly it is obscured by scaffolding at present, because of fears that the wall may be shifting. The long nave is light and graceful and has over 100 sculpted capitals depicting scenes from the Bible, classical myth and early Christian history. At the summer solstice a radiant sunlit pathway leads up the central alley to the high altar. The quire is early Gothic, a luminous climax to the building. Underneath is the ancient crypt where Mary's relics are. It sits directly on the bedrock of the hill, a dark, numinous and moving place.

About three quarters of a million visitors come here each year. That has a massive impact on a village with a population of only a few hundred. Cultural and religious tourism are big business: there are retreats & 'centres' that cater for lovers of heritage and followers of different spiritualities, galleries where painters and sculptors try (with varying degrees of success) to reflect the spirit of this intriguing place, book shops that give generous amounts of space not only to Christianity and Romanesque architecture but also to esoteric literature about ley lines, numerology, sacred geometry and the Tarot: there are 'energies' here. The Jérusalem Community of brothers and sisters sing the offices three times a day in the Basilica and with others in the village, encourage the pilgrimage, offer interpretation of the building and run retreats and study events.

But underneath, this is an ordinary village. The villagers are native rural Burgundians who both benefit from and are somewhat suspicious of tourism. Some seem to hide away from April to October only to emerge from their houses when the visitors have gone and the village is quiet again. Then it is a silent, peaceful place. The galleries and restaurants are shuttered: only the boulangerie and the tiny Co-op are open for business. It is bitingly cold. Wood smoke hangs in the calm clear air. Villagers hold brief conversations in the empty streets. Firesides beckon. A bell calls the community to prayer.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter with St Mark

There are no Easter bonnets or bunnies in Mark’s Easter story.  How strange it is, and how thin.  There is the empty tomb, the young man's message that Jesus is risen, the command to tell the disciples that he has gone ahead to Galilee, and the promise that they will meet him there. And the women fleeing for sheer life.  That is all: there is so much it doesn’t say. There are no appearances like in Paul’s letter, no meetings with the risen Lord, no gift of peace, no restoration of fallen disciples, no shared Easter meal. The music is powerful but is in a minor key. It is true that our Bibles print longer endings to St Mark, but they are not in the best and oldest manuscripts; there is none of the vividness of Mark’s writing. They are inept tidying up jobs with the tendency of well-meaning religious people to spell everything out and tie up loose ends. That makes us suspicious.  And we can see off ideas that Mark died before he could finish his work or that the last page was lost. We can trust the manuscripts: what we have is what Mark intended. 

The spirit of this resurrection story is in keeping with Mark’s portrait of Jesus. The Son of Man has not gone about drawing attention to himself; he has kept people guessing. A few have followed him, but apart from the women even they have abandoned him by the end. There is something enigmatic about him, something hidden: his words and works point to the kingdom but it is not disclosed yet. Only at the cross do things become open to the world so that the centurion looking on can say ‘surely this was God’s Son’. After that there is a great silence and a great mystery. The resurrection happens in secret. No-one sees or knows what takes place inside the sepulchre at night time. 

Public was death, but Power, Might         
But Life again, but Victory,
Were hushed within the dead of night
The shuttered dark, the secrecy.
And all alone, alone, alone,
He rose again behind the stone. 

The body is not there.  That is the baffling evidence that confronts the women who come to the tomb at sunrise.  What could it mean?  The young man inside the cave says, in three ways. Death could not hold on to the crucified one. God has vindicated his Son who was put to death. And Jesus belongs not to the past but to the present and the future.  The tomb is empty.  ‘He has been raised’, he reigns as lord and king, and we shall see him.  It is just as he told them.  They don’t yet know the fullness of his risen presence.  But it is promised.  And even if the resurrection plunges them into the heart of a mystery, they are told not to be afraid.  They are given a symbol of the promised meeting: Galilee with its remembered meetings and greetings and beginnings.  It tells them that the empty tomb is not a destination, not the end of the journey.  It’s the dawning of a new day. In Galilee they shall find the risen Jesus and know him.

Faith, says the New Testament, is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’. Mark’s faith is in the gaps, the silences, the hints. For him, the place of God's power is a void, like the holy of holies at the heart of the temple, like the vacuum of empty space in the first instant of the big bang. Emptiness can be potent, mysterious and explosive.  It can open up huge unimagined of possibilities.  So how do we live Mark’s Easter today?  What has it got to say to our longing for truths and values to live and die for?  How will Carola Elin live it as she is incorporated by baptism into this strange, compelling Easter story today? 

Most of life, the world’s life, ours, is lived on this threshold between emptiness and meeting, in the dawn that is not night but is not yet the full light of day. Sometimes we are nearer the dark: life is too painful or hard for us to do more than hope against hope that there is some good purpose in it all.  But at other times we are nearer sunrise. We are pulled forwards into the promise that our hungers will be met, that stones of death can be rolled away and the tombs that surround us can become empty through the limitless power of the resurrection.  Wherever we are on this journey it is not what we know that counts but having faith and hope. We believe with all our hearts that Easter is true, because the tomb is empty.  And if the full experi­ence of it eludes us, or we are silenced or bewildered at this place that bears God's footprints, ‘Galilee’ stands for our desires and hopes and longings. Hope is what we have; hope is what we live by, hope is what we need if we are to flourish, hope is what the world cries out for, an end to fear, a new reason for living.  Galilee is the symbol. ‘There you will see him, just as he told you.’ 

So there is no closure in St Mark, no happy ending because as every child has to learn, the project of human life is not about neat closures and tidy resolutions. It consists of open doors, journeys to unknown places, crossing thresholds. Easter is for our unfinished lives and unfinished business: we must put ourselves into the story and inhabit it, allow resurrection to become true in ourselves. That is why we need a message as tough as Mark's. It tugs at us, beckons urgently, shakes us out of sleep, shatters our illusions and our false selves, asks to change us, questions us about who we want to be and what we shall live for; summons us to believe in a way that demands everything.  It takes us back to the summons that first rang out by Galilee and that echoes out of the gospel for all time: follow me.  So at Easter we renew our baptismal promise to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.  This is the faith Carola Erin is baptised into today. Because of the empty tomb, what other choice is there for her, for us?  What other way of living can there be than this resurrection way, this Christian way, this human way? 

I find Mark’s story very much in tune with our own times. For his readers, faith was under pressure as it can be for us.  Like the women we bring to the tomb our con­fusion, emptiness, unbelief, pain, despair. We hardly know why we come, but some instinct tells us that here life can begin again. And as we look into the mystery of the tomb, perhaps we find that an angel is rolling away the heavy stone that lies across our heart, opening up space for hope. Ruth Fainlight has a poem: ‘Sometimes the boulder is rolled away/but I cannot move it when/I want to. An angel must.’  And an angel will come to those dark and fearful tombs in us and in our world.  If we don’t run away but dare to stay, dare to listen to the angel telling us not to be afraid, dare to believe the promise and dare to hope, everything will change.  If we dare to stay, we shall glimpse the sunrise and the dissolving shadows and a new, clearer light penetrating the dark.  If we dare to stay, we shall know that God has raised his lost and perished Son, and that he will raise us too.

Durham Cathedral, Easter Day 2012 
 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; Mark 16.1-8

Friday, 6 April 2012

Creeping to the Cross

Good Friday is a time for passion in every sense.  It's hard to be dispassionate on the day that lies at the heart of our redemption. 

For me and I suspect for many others, the heart of the service today was the veneration of the cross.  A great wooden cross draped in red hangings was processed into the Cathedral as we sang the ancient passiontide hymn 'Sing my tongue the glorious battle'.  The cross was set up on a platform in the middle of the crossing, our own hill of Golgotha underneath the tower.

Then we were invited to come right up to it and touch it, kiss it, embrace it, stand or kneel before it - whatever you wanted to do to express your own response to the crucifixion.  In medieval England this was called 'creeping to the cross'.  Almost everyone in the nave seemed to want to do this.  Some came tentatively as if unsure if they were worthy or welcome.  Others came briskly as if there was business to do at Golgotha and they wanted to do it.  All came willingly; many were clearly moved.  I was. 

Some people stayed at a distance from the cross, on the kneelers that lined the platform.  Others came closer, knelt on the steps up to the cross.  A few prostrated themselves.  Many went right up to the wood.  Some touched it reverently but lightly as if it would not do to be too intimate with it.  Some seemed to wrap themselves around it, clinging to it as if they did not want to let it go.  Some carressed it tenderly. Some stayed near the ground at the foot of the cross as if to stay as low as possible; some seemed to reach up for the body symbolically pinned to it. 

Three memories are imprinted on my mind at the end of this day of pain and mercy.

The first is a young woman who laid herself face down,  motionless, on the steps in front of the cross.  It was her stillness that I remember, the eloquent beauty of a person utterly caught up in the passion and its meaning, unselfconscious, oblivious to anything and anyone else.

The second is of a teenage boy (an ex-chorister, as it happens) who stopped in front of the cross and stood still there, as if to attention, saluting it.  His way of honouring it was formal and dignified, yet it was touching in its honesty and simplicity.  Then he kissed the foot of the cross and quickly turned away. 

The third is of an elderly and infirm woman who walked with great difficulty.  One of our Bedesmen took her by the arm and slowly, ever so gently, walked her towards the platform.  I did not think she would manage the steps but she did, went right up to the cross and with great devotion kissed the wood.  The journey back needed equal patience and determination.  It was a real pilgrimage of grace, I thought, with the Bedesman doing loving service like Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus' cross for him.

During all this, the choir sang the Reproaches: 'O my people, what have I done to you?  Answer me.'  This was followed by King John of Portugal's exquisite Crux Fidelis.  Then we all sang 'When I survey the wondrous cross', and still they were coming forward.

Such a simple ceremony, yet deeply powerful and affecting. Acts like this have a sacramental quality: they are words in action when spoken words run out.  'Faithful cross above all other' indeed: what would we not do to express our gratitude on this day when we celebrate 'love's endeavour, love's expense'?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bach's St John Passion: a Very Brief Introduction

Let me speak personally.  Bach’s St John Passion was the first choral work I sang as a schoolboy in the early 1960s.  Singing the treble line gave me a lifelong love of Bach’s music.  More than that, it sowed the seeds of religious faith.  I look back on that spring half a century ago as a life-changing time that defined the course of my entire life.  What I have since learned is that Bach is one of the great commentators on the Bible.  His music is art, not analysis, poetry rather than prose.  Yet the insights of his sacred music make him a true theologian. 

The heart of St John’s Gospel is the passion story.  Bach’s St John Passion sets the last part of this story to music.  These are the chapters that tell of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and burial that are read at the Good Friday liturgy.  All the great themes of St John’s Gospel feature here: love as sacrifice, glory as life laid down, the majesty of the suffering Christ whose crucifixion is exaltation and whose cross is a royal throne.  All this Bach understands with a profoundly theological and spiritual perspective.

Two examples from the Passion show how Bach the theologian inspires Bach the musician.  The first is the great opening chorus.  Lord, our Sovereign, your glory fills the whole earth! Show us by your Passion that you, the true Son of God, are glorified even in the deepest humiliation.  This is a prayer to the Christ of the cross.  The key word is Herrlichkeit, ‘glory’.  It’s the clue to the music of the chorus and to the whole work.  ‘Glory’ is St John’s most distinctive word.  ‘We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth’ John says at the beginning:  a word picked up frequently as the Gospel unfolds, where it specifically means the glory of the crucified Jesus.  So the chorus sets the scene in which Bach conveys the paradox of glory revealed through suffering.  The restless string semiquavers and the woodwind dissonances create a disturbing, almost wild, sense of disorientation and unease.  Yet underneath the turmoil are the long pedal points in the bass that stabilise the music and ground it; while the cries of the chorus rising above the chaos establish who is in control of the sufferer’s destiny.  The answer is: Christ himself who, says St John, does not have his life taken from him but lays it down of his own will.  So the chorus acclaims his kingship even in his passion. 

My second example is the work’s climax, the moment of Jesus’ death.  The four gospels each depict his death in distinctive ways.  In Matthew and Mark, Jesus dies with a cry of abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  In St Luke he dies as the obedient servant with a goodnight prayer on his lips: ‘into thy hands I commend my spirit’.  But in John, the last word from the cross is a single word in Greek: tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished!’.  That word is the clue to the entire Passion and indeed to the Fourth Gospel.  What does it mean?

Bach sets the words Es ist vollbracht to a motif that seems to fall to the ground and die, echoing the bow of the head with which John says Jesus ‘gives up his spirit’.  Does Bach mean it to die away into nothing, as if it stands for resigned acceptance of an inevitable, tragic destiny with the overtones of defeat: ‘it’s all over’?  I doubt that.  We must read his meaning in the light of the movement that immediately follows it.  Es ist vollbracht begins as one of those poignantly beautiful contralto arias where the soul meditates on the mystery of death.  But he suddenly interrupts this serene atmosphere with a stirring victory song: ‘the hero of Judah wins with triumph and ends the fight’.  His message is that while death is indeed ‘the last enemy’, this death marks the beginning of the great reversal through which life is given back to the world: not defeat but victory.  This means that the singer of Christus who takes his leave of the work with these all-important couple of bars somehow has to marry the fall of the 6 note musical phrase to the rise of spiritual hope and the expectation of triumph. It calls for musicianship of the highest order. 

And Bach will not let the word vollbracht go.  After the briefest of recitatives telling how Jesus ‘bowed his head and died’ comes one of the great surprises of the Passion.  Precisely where we would expect another sombre meditation on mortality, Bach instead launches into a radiant D major aria for bass and chorus. Here the soul converses with the departed Christ about how the gate of heaven is opened through his suffering.  ‘My beloved Saviour, let me ask you, as you are nailed to the cross and have yourself said it is accomplished: am I released from death?’  So this time es ist vollbracht features in a dance of joy and release.  Golgotha is a place not only of pain but of transfiguration. 

The artistry with which Bach works recitatives and choruses, arias and chorales into a seamless work of art is his great achievement.  John’s passion narrative is skilfully constructed as a series of scenes in which the action shifts between personal encounters on the one hand and public activity on the other.  Now we are in the high priest’s house, or Pilate’s chamber, or with Mary and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross.  Their inner complex worlds are explored with acute psychological awareness.  But then we find ourselves abruptly thrust into the large arenas where history is forged: the garden of the arrest, the praetorium, the via dolorosa, Golgotha.  The interplay of private and public, intimacy and empire Bach exploits to the full.  He understands how the inward drama of individual hearts is played out as games of politics and power in front of an entire world.  He knows that the passion is a story that works on many different levels.  This is reflected in the colouring and texture of the music, the symbolism of its motifs, and a finely judged pace that respects the hectic energy that drives the narrative, yet provides spaces for meditation at the critical points that allow the drama, and us, to draw breath. 

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar, liturgical historian or musicologist to appreciate the depth of this work. Its greatness and its poignancy do not derive from any self-conscious artifice on Bach’s part, nor simply from his technical skill.  It comes from the direct appeal it makes to us to both mind but heart.  And that is what Holy Week is for. 

Durham Cathedral, Holy Week 2012

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Bach in Holy Week

We have had a lot of Bach in the Cathedral today.  At evensong we sang two hymns that Bach used in his Passions, one of them the famous Passion Chorale ('O sacred head surrounded').  Before the service there was Bach organ music, and afterwards we were treated to the mighty Passacaglia in c minor.  The whole congregation (bar one) sat still, listening in silence; afterwards there was enthusiastic applause. It's good that worshippers at Durham Cathedral understand that organ voluntaries are a vital part of the service and appreciate the immense amount of hard work our musicians put into them. 

You can't beat Bach in Holy Week.  After the morning service we came home to lunch and idly turned the radio on. We've had a week of Schubert on Radio 3.  But now it was Bach: the St Matthew Passion, all of it.  We came into it at the sublime aria 'Erbarme dich', the lament that follows Peter's denial of Jesus.  Yehudi Menuhin called it the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin. Peter's tears are in the cello part, the soprano voice is his soul.  It was a real gift to take us up to evensong on this Sunday when we had read the passion story in full at the eucharist.  For me, it wouldn't be Holy Week without a Bach Passion.   

It goes back to my school days.  I was 12 when the school choral society sang the St John Passion one Lent.  I had only just started singing and although I had played some of Bach's keyboard music, I'd never sang any of his sacred works.  The St John was a revelation.  I remember being completely absorbed by this wonderful work, and at the same time, drawn not only into a new musical world but a new spiritual one too.  In so far as we can ever trace the first conscious stirrings of faith, I look back on that spring as a life-changing time.  It was through Bach's music that I began to glimpse the meaning of the cross and the love of God it reveals to us.

What I didn't appreciate as a schoolboy is that Bach wasn't just a great musician.  He was a supremely good theologian too.  His passions and masses and cantatas are wonderful commentaries on biblical and liturgical texts which he understood with the insight of a true spiritual guide.  Albert Schweitzer, scholar both of Bach and Bible, said that ‘if we have once absorbed a biblical verse in Bach’s setting of it, we can never again conceive it in any other rhythm’. For me that's true of the Passions when they are read at services at this time of year.  I could say a lot about this, how well he understands the distinctive emphases with which Matthew and John tell of the cross.  (I am going to say a little about the St John Passion later this week in a Passiontide reflection in the Cathedral.) 

But this Palm Sunday, 50 years after first encountering the St John Passion, I find myself simply wanting to give thanks for JSB and the way in which his music has enriched the church's worship and countless lives.  Including mine.