Bach and the unrealized resurrection: A meditation on St Matthew Passion

On Monday, I visited Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, England to hear a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. This piece was originally intended to be performed on Good Friday.  Seated in the choir section, between the ante-chapel and the chancel, I was moved by the confluence of place, music, and time. As a classical music neophyte, these reflections are unsystematic, ill-formed, and invariably personal.

For post-Easter Christians, Bach’s St Matthew Passion (MP) is dominated by the absence of the resurrection.  He alludes to it at points but the focal point is always Christ’s death.  Because of that absence, this recitation of Christ’s passion is particularly relevant to me personally because I have struggled with the resurrection. Most salient in Jesus’ movement toward death is the immediacy of his sacrifice for those who he loved then, at that moment, and, I hope, whoever would constitute the future kingdom of God. Yet, despite the unrealized resurrection it is impossible not to be swept up in the hope of two days hence.

Bach is silent on Jesus’ inner world. He never lets us forget that this story is far more about us, and our response to him, than to our faulty attempts to understand his suffering. Thus St Matthew’s Passion is not really the Passion narrated by Matthew but rather it is the passion of Matthew as the author witnesses the death of Christ.

At times I felt scandalized by Bach. Jesus’ words (recitatives) are often noticeably more elaborate and are frequently accompanied by, at times, quite intricate compositions. Yet, when the chorus sings ‘he is guilty of death’ and then ‘Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee?’ during an especially beautiful moment in the production I felt bruised by Bach’s betrayal.  By his refusal of more a somber or subdued recitation of these despicable words.

And yet, there was some hypocrisy in my outrage for, as Bach repeatedly tries to show, the boundaries between us and them, the captors and the disciples, the accusers and the defenders, are not so clear. Often MP is performed with two choirs so that the call/response structure which pervades the piece can be literally performed. Mine had only one choir, with various sections performing each part. Bringing together these voices highlighted the porous quality of the boundaries between the different protagonists: the same voices who praise the Lord, who suffer guilt and pain because of their sins, and who want to bath His feet  in their tears are also the ones who cry for his crucifixion and death. In fact, this entire composition plays with identity in a way that is reminiscent of the temple. The identities of the performers bleed into each other and there is not a clear distinction between one actor and another.

Between sections 45b and 46 the chorus moves immediately from ‘Let him be crucified’ to ‘O wondrous love, this sacrifice to offer’. Bach plays with the identity of Peter in much the same way. Peter’s recitative denying the Christ is often performed by a bass but who then is performed by an alto for the subsequent aria, crying out ‘Have mercy, Lord, on me, regard my bitter weeping.’ We are constantly unsettled, never allowed to draw clear lines between the good guys and the bad.

Such ambiguity forces me to realize that the words of these dual identities have all been mine. Although I may not have called for the death of Christ there have been times when I have wanted to reject God’s love, when I have wished that God would leave me alone with my sins and my self-deception. Terry Eagleton has described God ‘as a terrorist of love’. The sinner can experience God as terror precisely because he threatens to pries us apart, to break us down, to make us something new. His ‘implacable forgiveness is bound to seem like an intolerable affront to those who cannot let go of themselves’. No wonder we can both fight God and love him at the same time.

And yet, without the resurrection, this wrestle is incomplete. God’s affront to mortality and sin is not fully realized without the resurrection because the possibility of something else, of another way of living, of a new life is bound up with God’s own newness. Christ’s death, in Bach’s MP, is a demonstration of that ‘implacable forgiveness’ but it is also without the reality of redemption. Through this Good Friday meditation on Jesus’ death we are constantly pushed forward to the resurrection.

As the the Jesus and his disciples move toward the Garden, the chorus sings:

I would stand here beside thee;
Do not then scorn me!
From thee I will not depart
Even if thy heart is breaking.
When thy heart shall grow pale
In the last pang of death,
Then I will grasp thee
In my arms and lap.

Like Elder Holland reminds us, “My… plea at Easter time is that these scenes of Christ’s lonely sacrifice, laced with moments of denial and abandonment and, at least once, outright betrayal, must never be reenacted by us. He has walked alone once. Now, may I ask that never again will He have to confront sin without our aid and assistance, that never again will He find only unresponsive onlookers when He sees you and me along His Via Dolorosa in our present day.”

Today, we mourn the death of Christ. And we should mourn.  Our grief should be driven, in part, by the recognition that resurrection is not yet upon us.  We grieve because we live, now, in a perpetual Good Friday. Our Lord has feasted with us, he has anointed us with oil and suffered for our sins, but now he is dead. The resurrection is still a hope, a faith not yet actualised. We live in the midst of death and sin, and, like those first disciples, we too live in the shadow of the unrealized resurrection.


  1. “Such ambiguity forces me to realize that the words of these dual identities have all been mine.”

    Yes — this. Thanks, Aaron. It’s a painful realization.

    Question for you: the resurrection was amazing to the disciples because they did not expect to see their risen Lord. For us, for whom the resurrection is a given fact, how can we preserve the sense of amazement? I ask because you mention mourning the death of Christ and that mourning seems to me somehow central to it all.

  2. There is no brighter light and no heavier weight than the cross of Jesus. One must be overwhelmed by its beauty or unhappy at their inability to respond.

  3. I adore the St. Matthew Passion and am happy for you that you got to see a live performance on Good Friday. I stole a little time and listened to a recording this afternoon while my daughter napped. Mache dich, mein Herze, rein is one of the most beautiful arias ever composed.

    I loved how you pointed out that they way the chorus is both the angry mob and the followers of Jesus. “We are constantly unsettled ” – yes! This is what great art does.

    On Steve’s question – I wonder the same. Tonight I was at an AME Good Friday service with my family and they started with a man singing “Were You There” while a (quite gory) video of the trial and crucifixion played. I shot my husband a look of panic and he distracted our 6 year old son through most of it, but Simon looked up as they were hammering in the nails and I reflexively covered his eyes. He kept trying to swat my hand away but I persisted. I’m just not ready to let my child see that violence. I was able to feel horror at the crucifixion. But do I feel grief? Do I mourn? I did a little tonight. I think music and words like in Bach’s Passions or the homilies and music around the 7 last words of Christ that I heard tonight are irreplaceable in taking us through the range of feeling inherent in Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It’s a sweet kind of grief, that makes Easter even sweeter.

  4. Thank you Aaron. Beautiful.
    ‘Fight God and love him at the same time.’ My life in nine words.

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