Bach’s Passion for Lent

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
    and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6 RSV

Fair copy in Bach’s own hand of the Passion of St Matthew

This last year I suggested that we might accompany our Advent reflections with Handel’s Messiah. In this same vein, I would like to suggest that Bach’s Passion of St Matthew can help us to think more deeply about the the passion of our Lord Jesus.

Alan E. Lewis in his book, Between Cross & Resurrection notes that Christians pass far too quickly from the crucifixion on Friday to the resurrection on Sunday. We do not give Holy Saturday its due. I would say that most Christians today (myself included) do not spend enough time meditating on the end of Christ’s earthly life.

A slow reading of the canonical Gospels will most certainly aid us. In addition to the reading of Scriptures, the contemplation of arte sacro or liturgical music can help us meditate upon the meaning of the events that brought us salvation through the person and work of Christ.

Here is an excerpt from the Passion of St Matthew by Bach:

Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder;
Dadurch erhebt er sich und alle
Von unserm Falle
Hinauf zu Gottes Gnade wieder.
Er ist bereit,
Den Kelch, des Todes Bitterkeit
Zu trinken,
In welchen Sünden dieser Welt
Gegossen sind und häßlich stinken,
Weil es dem lieben Gott gefällt.

The Savior falls down before his father;
Thereby he raises me and all people
From our fall
Upward to Godís grace again.
He is ready
The cup of death’s bitterness
To drink,
Wherein the sins of this world
Are poured and stink odiously,
Because it pleases dear God.

For a greater understanding of Lent, I recommend the following books:

Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.

Alan E. Lewis. Between the Cross & Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001. 

Philip H. Pfatteicher. Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 

Fleming Rutledge. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015. 

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