For all the strenuous, sacrificial, serious self-denial that we usually associate with the season of Lent, there is one rich self-indulgence which I permit myself, from which I fast the rest of the year: listening to the musical settings of the Passion story by J.S. Bach, The St. Matthew Passion and The St. John Passion. There are reasons to believe that Bach also set the passion narrative of St. Mark to music, but anything we have of that is a reconstruction. The Passion According to St. Luke, attributed by some to Bach, is most likely his reworking of another composer’s Passion oratorio, for an urgent deadline. Composers did a lot of that back then. Tellingly, Bach did not affix his name to any original copy of The St. Luke Passion.

Two years ago I wrote a few comments on Bach’s St. Matthew Passion . This year, I am listening to the St. John Passion. Something about the texts and the music seems to fit the age of angst and anger in which we now live, politically and culturally. The opening movement, Herr, Unser Herrscher, (Lord, Our Ruler) probably raised many eyebrows in its first performance, with its taut and savage harmonies and steady, throbbing rhythm. Play it at the right speed, let the bass parts equal the higher voices in volume, and it sounds like a medieval Totentanz, or Dance of Death, the depiction of which Bach would have seen in the artwork of many medieval German cathedrals The driving rhythm of the first movement expresses the heartless, terrifying and unstoppable approach of Christ’s death. The bass notes may also remind us of hammer blows, while the tight harmonic tensions in the wind and string parts are excruciating to the ear (in the literal sense), as were the nails to Christ’s flesh. All this dark musical drama and drive stand in stark, ironic contrast to the words, “Lord” (Herr), “Glory” (Herlichkeit) and “Fame” (Ruhm). Bach, the theological son of Luther, who was the theological son of Augustine, Athanasius and the creeds, is confronting us, musically, with the tension, contrast, and yet also the beautiful partnership, on which they often meditated and preached: the tension and partnership between Christ’s eternal, pre-existent glory as the Son of the Triune God, and the sacrifice, suffering and vulnerability of his mortal human nature. The librettist who wrote the words for the Passion (apart from St. John’s own words), and Bach, who set them to music, together captured the glorious irony of St. John’s use of the word “glory.” St. John wants us to understand that true glory, like that of the Divine Son and Living Word of God, is revealed most powerfully in Jesus’ suffering servanthood, not in the power to conquer and destroy others, but in his willingness to wash their feet and even to die for others.

Another way in which Bach showed himself a son of Martin Luther is in the use of Lutheran church chorales in these Passion settings, and in the vast majority of his church cantatas. These are the simple, stately, yet easily sung hymns by which Reformation Germans often learned scripture, theology and their devotional heritage, such as Bernard of Clairvaux’s poem, “O Sacred Head.” Many of them were composed by Luther himself. Nowadays, when “new” automatically means, “improved,” you most often find these chorales in the older, dog-eared Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican hymnals gathering mold in some dank and dusty church basements. Their presence in a Bach cantata invited the congregation into deeper inclusion in the performance. Worshipers and attendees may even have sung along with these movements, by memory. The St. John Passion includes several chorales that would have been well known to the original audience.

Scholars talk and write about the “chorale cantatas” of Bach, meaning, those cantatas in which Reformation chorales are the centerpiece and foundation of many or most movements. But I’ve become convinced that the Reformation chorale is the very foundation of Bach’s sacred music; the difference between a “chorale cantata” and other sacred works is only the degree to which the chorale is featured. If the cantata is a setting for the chorale, and if the chorale is the primary vehicle for God’s Word, and if, according to Reformation theology, God’s Word is the vehicle for God’s power and presence, then it’s hard to escape this conclusion: Bach wrote each cantata, and each movement of a cantata, as a musical temple in which to host God. His sacred compositions even have proportion, balance, symmetry and structure like that of a Greek or Gothic sanctuary.

In addition to setting the chorales in stately, harmonic settings, Bach often wove the chorales into other movements and arias, often in subtle and surprising ways.  Movement 32 of the St. John Passion,  “Mein Teurer Heiland,” (My Precious Savior) is a case in point: while the bass aria addresses Christ upon his death with questions about his own destiny, the choir interjects phrases of the chorale, “Jesus Leiden, Pein und Tod” (Jesus Suffers, Pain and Death…). Without the chorale phrases, Bach would still have composed a lovely bass voice and cello aria. The inclusion of the chorale only adds another layer of genius and meaning.  Listeners who caught and recognized the chorale were drawn deeper into the message of that movement with a wink and a nod by Herr Bach, der Leipziger Kappelmeister.

The St. John Passion, like all of Bach’s church cantatas, also contains some dramatic elements familiar to opera goers of the time, even though opera was then only a newly developing form, and Bach himself is reported to have thought little of those unremarkable “little ditties,” as he called them. And yet, for quality of music and dramatic elements, Bach out-opera-ed the opera composers with each church cantata, most of them a drama pitting fear and guilt against faith and assurance. Today, we tend to think of Baroque music as clever little wind-up pieces, technical little exercises in the mathematics and mechanics of canon and counterpoint. Some of the repertoire is just that, sadly. The full range of emotional expression in music was not discovered, nor expressed, we are sometimes told, until the Romantic Era, when Beethoven or Berlioz came storming along. But Bach could also bring out all the emotions of words through music, especially in his Passion settings. The melody and the harmony which Bach sets to the word, “Kreuzige!” (Crucify him!) convey the rage of the crowd screaming for Christ’s blood. After his death, the soprano aria conveys a sobbing motif in movement #35, around the words, “Dein Jesus ist tot” (“Your Jesus is dead”). Some contemporary performances of Bach’s Passion settings even stage them like operas.

True to his Lutheran suspicion of human nature and perfectibility, Bach plays an ironic twist on us in the soprano aria, “Ich folge dir gleichfals mit freidigen Schritten,” (“I will follow you likewise with happy steps”). In it, the singer promises to follow Jesus always, wherever she goes. The combination of violin (or flutes) and soprano voice expresses the sweet, naïve self-confidence of youth. With just a little bit of happy resolution, what could be easier than following Jesus? But this  aria is sung after Peter resolves to follow Jesus into the courtyard of Caiaphas, and before he denies knowing Jesus three times. Just after we have enjoyed a sweet, youthful, and confident expression of pious resolution, we are confronted with the question of whether or not our resolution would hold up any better than Peter’s did, in the face of danger. The next aria, that of Peter after his denial of Jesus, is full of torment and turmoil, worthy of any opera by Mozart or Verdi. The irony is devastating.

In much of the St. John Passion, the main character is not just Jesus, but “my Jesus.” This draws the listener in, not only into the music, but into relationship with the main character. He can be “your Jesus” as well, and is in at least one movement. It also invites us to place ourselves in and among the other characters. When have we been as irresolute as Peter? Or as jaded and cynical as Pilate? Or as enraged with hatred, jealousy and fear as the chief priests and the mob baying for Christ’s blood?

Modern, enlightened, tolerant people, like ourselves?

If all that seems strange to us, it is because the St. John Passion is an 18th Century musical masterpiece of 12th Century Christian devotion, with a few chorale settings that sound like they came from the Renaissance era (Bach could do Renaissance as handily as Baroque).  Placing ourselves into the story of the One who placed himself into ours, by the Incarnation, puts Bach and us in company with St. Bernard of Clairvaux and his devotional writings, with St. Francis of Assisi and his Nativity plays, with Hildegard Von Bingen and her morality plays, with Julian of Norwich and her visions, and with other saints and doctors of the church in the High Middle Ages.

No mention is made in the St. John Passion of Jesus’ coming resurrection. Bach would pull out all the emotional stops for too-good-to-believe confusion, joy, triumph and breathless exhilaration in his Easter Oratorio. But true to medieval spirituality, the St. John Passion takes us to where Christ’s death meets our own mortality. It makes of Jesus’ suffering and death a meditation not only on our moral and spiritual frailty, but on our physical frailty, in death and dying. In the last two movements, we go from bidding Jesus sweet sleep in death (“Ruht wohl,” or “Rest Well”) to praying the same for ourselves (“Ach Herr, lass dein lieb engelein or “Oh, Lord, let your dear little angel…”) in the words of another Reformation chorale. Thus have we been carried by the music from the terror of death’s implacable approach in the opening movement, to serenity and surrender in the last movements, and the acceptance of our own frailty and mortality, since our Savior has shared them with us.

This too reflects the faith and the prayers of our medieval forbears (and much of the world today), who lived short, precarious lives with warfare, plagues and high infant mortality. Bach and his music then stand in a unique place, not only in musical history, but in the history of Christian faith. His work links believers of any century with our ancestors of the first sixteen centuries by the very traits which we modern and post-modern people want most to deny: our spiritual, moral and physical vulnerability. Overlook that and we will miss as well the grace by which mein Jesu took his place and stood among us, and with us, in the frailty of our mortal flesh.