When I was a wee sprog, my mother used to put on St Matthew’s Passion and sing along (she was in the oratorio choir). I got that habit from her, especially when I also turned out alto in my teens. But I never wanted the closing chorus, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder. As far as I was concerned it should end at Mein Jesu, gute Nacht— after that, what could there be except the Resurrection? I did want to sit down and weep bitterly, but I preferred to go away by myself for that, like St Peter. Later I realised the value of grieving together, but I still dislike that closing chorus. That isn’t helped by my dislike of the word “sanft” –it has a whiff of powder and perfume– and the fact that the version we had on records was of the slow and heavy-handed school, before people realised the intrinsic lightness of Baroque music.
But I digress, even before I’ve properly started. I had a conversation with my Protestant swimming buddy about the mindset (not hers, fortunately) that “the Easter story” isn’t about the risen Christ, or about the empty grave, the defeat of death, but about the Cross, and so ultimately about sin rather than the victory over it. “No Resurrection without the Cross”, one Protestant site had it (I’ll spare you the long exposition about our sinful nature), but without the Resurrection the Cross is pointless, no? It would merely be death, human drama instead of great cosmic drama. The people in Gouda who put on a passion play primarily for people who have no clue about Easter got it right: they didn’t stop at the Cross or the grave but included the Resurrection on the principle that it was about the message of hope, that death isn’t the end.
Not that that helps much when you’re in the middle of it, of course. Matins with the Twelve Passion Gospels last night, and I always cry, though not always at the same moment in the service. This time the trigger was the sticheron near the end that tends to take me unawares when I’m already tired:
Each member of your holy flesh endured dishonour for our sake: your head the thorns; your face the spittings; your cheeks the blows; your mouth the taste of gall mixed with vinegar; your ears the impious blasphemies; your back the scourge and your hand the reed; your whole body the stretching on the Cross; your joints the nails and your side the lance. You suffered for our sake, and freed us from passions, you stooped down to us in your love for humankind, and raised us up. All powerful Saviour, have mercy on us.
It’s in the third tone, a good tone for wailing in, and it’s on a left-hand page after other things in the third tone so He Who Turns the Pages didn’t turn it until it was due. (He peeks, and if he doesn’t show me –She Who Reads the Verses– a change of tone I know it’s not changing).
Apropos of tones, this is also the service in which I call out “Aposticha in the first tone” when all the aposticha except the first are in the second tone.
I hear a subtly different story every year. This time I went into it expecting (from thoughts I’d had and things I’d read earlier) “this AWESOME DUDE is living RIGHT AMONG US” and what I got instead was a very strong emphasis on the God-nature of Christ, “that’s God you’re doing all those things to! Don’t you see?” And again, even more strongly than last year, I realised that Pilate is actually a good guy, a victim of circumstances, knowing he’s powerless in this particular situation but trying his best anyway. (Zeborah had some good comments on that last year, but the comments of my old blog went under with the server.)
Next: the Royal Hours with one complete passion each.