Bach’s Passion for today’s Church

George Austin views the St John Passion in a new light


Since I retired my Good Friday devotion is to listen at home to one of Bach’s Passions and this year’s was the St John, my favourite. Every year the emotion, the meditations differ, never quite so much as this year. Before it began, I had looked at a postcard of the Mount of Olives sent by a friend to remind me of my own visit to the garden of Gethsemane some thirty years ago. The city of Jerusalem, walled and glowing, is way below and glorious in its biblical memories.

Interrogation

The difference for me began when the narrative moved on from the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot to the arrest of Jesus, taken down the hill as he was by the soldiers and servants of the High Priest. There seemed to be a pause as the shocked disciples recovered from what had happened, and then Peter and ‘the other disciple’ – presumably John? – decided to rush down after them.

The lovely aria that follows – ‘Ich folga dir gleichfalls’ – suddenly became a picture in my mind of the two men running, in a headlong canter, to the column of soldiers way below by the city wall. And as a result the story, the Passion, now came to have for me a more modern context.

The interrogation of Jesus was no longer a trial by the Jewish religious leaders but by an ultra-liberal General Synod, determined to silence for ever this troublesome preacher. When asked by Pilate if they wished their king to be released, the House of Bishops replied ‘We have no King but Caesar. When we became bishops, we – by oath – handed over to the monarch not only our temporal powers but also our spiritual powers.’

A cross to bear

‘But what of the rumours that he has healed the sick and raised the dead? That he was born of a virgin, that when he dies he will be resurrected on the third day, and that he will ascend to heaven. Or more astonishingly that he is in fact the Son of God?’ All this they were asked and a tumult broke out.

‘Some of us believe all this, some only a part and a few barely at all,’ a senior member replied. ‘But we are a comprehensive and inclusive church and we respect all points of view.’

‘So there is nothing that you must definitely believe in this inclusive church?’

‘Nothing at all – save of course that women can become priests and bishops, and this we shall soon require of all clergy.’

And this will be the cross, promised by Jesus, that we, brothers and sisters, his orthodox followers, will have soon to bear. ND

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