Passion Week is the time each year when Christians commemorate Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem and His suffering and death on the cross. In this period of prayerful remembrance, I often turn to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for solace and contemplation. The St. Matthew Passion is a Passion oratorio, a choral work that sets the Passion narrative to music. In the Lutheran tradition of Bach’s time, a Passion oratorio was performed on Good Friday, the day that marks Jesus’ crucifiction, to break a Lent-long cessation from music-making in the church. The St. Matthew Passion is based on the Passion narrative from the Gospel of Matthew, and it is one of many Passion oratorios Bach wrote as the resident composer for a Lutheran church in Leipzig, Germany.
There is a moment in the St. Matthew Passion that is particularly dear to my heart and that I believe speaks to the very heart of what it means to put our faith in Christ Jesus. The moment (which can be found here, starting from the beginning of the video and ending at 2:15) comes after the scene in the oratorio that depicts Christ’s death on the cross. After Christ breathes His last, a tenor sings the text of Matthew 27:51-54:
And behold, the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And the earth shook and the rocks were split and the graves opened and the bodies of many of the saints rose up. They had been sleeping there and, following his resurrection, they emerged from their graves and came to the holy city and appeared to many. But when the captain and the men who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified and said: Truly, this was the Son of God.
The first sentence of the passage is musically accompanied by rapid scales rushing up and down, representing the Temple curtain being torn from top to bottom. This is followed by shaky tremolos in the harpsichord and cello, representing the earthquake which Matthew the Evangelist describes. The tenor’s singing of the text ends on the phrase “They were terrified and said.” When he reaches the final word, time itself seems to pause for a moment as the strings linger on their notes, suspending them in midair.
Then the chorus begins to sing, “Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen” – Truly, this was the Son of God. Slowly, the voices emerge out of the stillness, passing through a haze of dissonance before arriving at their highest point on the word “Sohn,” or ‘Son.’ The tenor line briefly rises upward, as if reaching toward heaven and toward God, but then the music falls back down to earth, and the voices recede into silence.
This poignant choral passage is, to me, the heart of the St. Matthew Passion. In my mind, it musically suggests what one must have felt watching Christ give up His spirit on the cross: in the beginning, a sense of rising awe and reverence, of fear and wonder, as the earth trembled, and the graves broke open, and the barrier between God and man was torn in two; but then a sobering sense of grief and loss, of unworthiness and brokenness, at the sight of that very same God hanging lifeless on a wooden cross. What could one say on that terrible day, when God’s awful wrath was poured out upon Himself, when the purpose of His partaking in the joys and sorrows of mortal life was fulfilled, but what the chorus sings and the captain and his men exclaim: “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
I believe that this is the Christian’s confession of faith, and it is this confession that the St. Matthew Passion paints beautifully in a way that words cannot express. Although the moment is brief, it encapsulates the crux of what we believe, for it represents how we ought to respond to the story of the Passion: with mourning and reverence, with fear and repentance, with humility and love.
Daniel Shin is a senior at Harvard in Quincy House studying Philosophy and Mathematics.