The ‘Passion’ of St John Today

an interval talk at Ushaw College, Wednesday in Holy Week, April 9 2009
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

St John’s account of the trial and death of Jesus contains some of the most dense, as well as the most vivid, writing in his already astonishing gospel. Roman historians have long agreed that the detailed presentation of the to-and-fro between Jesus, Pontius Pilate and the Judaean leaders and crowds carries strong historical verisimilitude: this is, more or less, how such Roman trials would have been. But the dramatic arguments between the representatives of God’s kingdom and Caesar’s kingdom are not simply a striking account of totalitarian sneering on the one hand and theological courage on the other, though they are that. They are the place where John draws together, at last, all the rich, complex strands which have made his gospel what it is. The hour has come: this is where it was all leading. And Bach’s music, of course, matches John stride for stride in its dense complexity as well as its beauty and power.

This is where it was all leading, going back to the very beginning; which is, of course, where John echoes the book of Genesis: ‘in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh.’ John’s book is about the one God who made a good world and who loves it still, even though when he comes in person, as light into the darkness, the darkness did not understand him, just as the world itself, his own creation, did not know him. All that, woven into passage after passage in the gospel, comes to full expression as Pilate can’t be bothered to work out what Jesus is on about. He came, says John, to his own, and his own did not receive him: all of that, too, is set before us throughout the gospel, as Jesus’ own people refuse his message, and it now comes to full expression as the angry chief priests insist that they have a law according to which Jesus should die, that if Pilate lets him go he is not Caesar’s friend, and, chillingly, that they themselves have ‘no king but Caesar’.

But the gospel which opens with that prologue, so exactly anticipating the climax we witness tonight, continues as the exposition of how, precisely within this framework of misunderstanding and rejection, the Word has become Flesh and dwelt among us, so that we beheld his glory, glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. To understand John’s Passion narrative, you have to understand that climactic verse in the Prologue. John is writing, as it were, a new Genesis Chapter One; and, just as the climax of Genesis 1 is the creation of humankind in the image of God, so the climax of the Prologue is the coming into the world of the True Image, the Proper Man in Luther’s phrase. So when, in the Passion narrative, Pilate brings Jesus out to the crowds on the sixth day of the week, the day when humans were created as the climax of God’s creation, and declares ‘Behold the Man’, we ought to hear both the shocking irony of the callous Roman governor sneering at Jesus and the massive theological affirmation: here is the true Man, completing God’s loving work of rescuing his creation.

The Word became Flesh, says John in the Prologue, and he ‘pitched his tent’ among us, ‘tabernacled’ in our midst. With that, we are introduced to another major theme of the whole gospel. The glory of Israel’s God had abandoned the Temple at the time of the exile, and nowhere in the post-exilic writings does it say that the divine glory has returned to take up residence among his people. Now at last, declares John, it has happened – but not in the Temple made with hands, Herod’s rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, but in and as a human being, The human being, the perfect image, Jesus himself. The older I get, the more it seems to me that this theme, the glory of Israel’s God returning at last in the form of Jesus, is the central theme of the whole New Testament, and the stranger it seems to me that for so long the church and the world of scholarship have simply not seen it. The glory shines forth as Jesus changes water into wine, ‘revealing his glory’ and, in the next breath, declaring that the present temple will be destroyed and a new one, not made with hands, built in its place – referring, says John, to the temple of his body. And now, though the word ‘glory’ is not found in the Passion narrative, John has structured his gospel in such a way that we ought to be, in heart and mind, in the temple, beholding the glory: when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem in chapter 12, the narrative breaks off, and we have no fewer than five chapters of meditation, the so-called ‘Farewell Discourses’, where we find ourselves in the presence of the living God, promised that we, too, shall be filled with his Spirit, and commissioned for our own tasks to shine as lights into the dark world. The glory of the Lord is revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. All of that, if we know what we are about, we should have in our heads and our hearts as we come to the Passion Narrative.

And Bach, of course, knew exactly what he was about. When he finally decided on the opening chorus of his Passion as we know it today, he picked out that very theme, with wordplay which works in German though not easily in English: ‘Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist! Zeig uns . . dass du, auch in der grössten Niedrigkeit, verherrlicht worden bist!’ Herr, Herrscher, herrlich, verherrlicht worden bist: Glorious Lord, our glorious master, your glory is honoured all the world, you are glorified even in the darkness. That is spot on as an introduction to what John is trying to say.

Within and among these themes of the true Man, the true Temple, the true Glory, John has woven the sharp discussion of Jesus as the King. Are you the king of the Jews? My kingdom is not from this world. You say that I am a king. Do you want me to release the king of the Jews? Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against Caesar. Here is your king! Shall I crucify your king? We have no king but Caesar. ‘Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews’; do not write ‘king of the Jews’, but that he said, ‘I am king of the Jews’. And when we pause and ponder the ancient biblical vision that the true King of Israel, when he arrived, would be the king of the world, with a dominion from sea to sea, we realise what is at stake: two visions of all of reality, the Caesar-vision, in which truth is a function of power, creating kingdom by violence, and the Jesus-vision, in which truth is a function of redemption, and redemption generates kingdom by love. Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the uttermost,eis telos, to the end. This is the victory that overcomes the world and launches, at last, the project of new creation, a new creation that takes us not away from the world but out into the world with the news of resurrection and, once more, love.

All this is drawn to its head as Jesus dies on the cross, with the single Greek word tetelestai, ‘It is finished’. For us, ‘finished’ can mean, simply, ‘stopped’, ‘it’s over’; ‘that’s enough of that’. But tetelestai means, much more, ‘It is completed’; the work is done. And, tellingly, it echoes the word spoken at the end of the sixth day in Genesis 1: God finished all his work which he had made. Not, God stopped, as though he was bored; rather, Godcompleted the full task. Now, on the sixth day, God completes his work. Again, Luther’s German gets it exactly right: Es ist vollbracht, from the verbvollbringen: it is ‘brought to the full’. And the result, for the moment at least, is the same as in Genesis: on the seventh day God rested from all his work. Thus Bach’s setting closes with the great chorus Ruht Wohl, ‘Rest Well’. This is not the final end; as the short closing chorale will tell us, this ‘rest’ is but the prelude to the first day of the new week, the day of resurrection. But, for now, we watch the Lord of Glory laid to rest in the tomb with his work complete. And, as in all the gospel passion stories, the scene is filled out with the smaller characters with whom we are quietly invited to identify: Judas and Peter, of course, most worryingly, and perhaps also the angry and incomprehending crowds, but also the bystanders, the three Marys at the foot of the cross, the beloved disciple, and then the faithful and brave Joseph of Arimathea.

What has Johann Sebastian Bach done with this huge, towering narrative? He has turned it into a world and invited us to come into that world and make it our own. That is what art, at its best, always does. Working in the early eighteenth century, before the split-level world of the Enlightenment had separated out aesthetics from faith (as it also did with justice), Bach produced one of the greatest-ever syntheses of art and faith, art as expression of faith and art as invitation to faith, a faith which could never remain a bare belief but must turn itself into story and song, into life and love. As you have already heard, Bach loved to paint words and themes into the music; in the first half, the cheerful little song which says we’re going to follow Jesus joyfully with happy steps comes crashing to the ground as Peter denies Jesus and weeps bitterly (a bit of text Bach borrowed from Matthew; John leaves Peter’s tears unstated but strongly implied). And in the powerful and extraordinary tenor aria Erwäge, which we shall hear in the middle of the second half, reflecting on the brutal scourging of Jesus, Bach takes words which, we might have thought, belong more in a high late-mediaeval spirituality than in an austere Lutheran atmosphere, words which speak of the bloodstained back of Jesus as appearing like a rainbow in the sky after the heavy, drenching rain, the rainbow which speaks of forgiveness after our sins have been washed away. Bach creates not only the musical effect of the waterfloods but also, breathtakingly (literally if you’re the soloist) the effect of the rainbow, overarching the horizon with the message of healing and new creation.

But all this is simply the tip of the iceberg. As many commentators have pointed out, no detail is left to chance; like Shakespeare, Bach did nothing by accident. The choice of key, the orchestration, the dense harmonies, so much harder to sing than those in the later Matthew Passion (perhaps, we speculate, Bach had had some sharp comments from weary singers?) – all of these contribute both to the overall effect and the unfathomable detail. Wherever you look, or, better, listen, you will find the music telling us in our hearts and souls as well as our minds what this story is about, and inviting us to come into the world of the story and make it our own, have our own lives turned inside out and upside down by the glory of God’s love made flesh.

In particular – and this is as it were the secret heart of the second half of the Passion in particular – Bach creates a musical arch, as several movements come together, matching one another on either side of a central point. ‘Hail, king of the Jews’ is matched musically by ‘Do not write, I am the king of the Jews’. ‘Crucify, Crucify’ is echoed by ‘Take him away and crucify him’. ‘We have a law, and by that law he ought to die’ is matched by ‘If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend’. (Bach employs the same technique elsewhere, for instance in the motet Jesu Meine Freude, a meditation on Romans 8.) And in the centre of this musical arch, surrounded by the shouting of the crowds and the cynical vacillation of Pilate, is the simple but utterly profound chorale Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn, ‘Through your imprisonment, Son of God’, which itself makes something of an arch as the stately tune rises and then falls, and declares that all this is happening so that through the unjust fate of Jesus our own freedom is accomplished. And at this point Bach has brought the preceding music around so that it ends in the key of E major, the only time in the work it is used. E major has four sharps in its key signature, and a sharp is of course two crosses superimposed, so that the conductor, turning the page of the full score to this chorale, is faced with literally dozens of crosses declaring that here, at the centre of the world’s rage and blindness, stands the symbol which makes sense of it all, in which we can find our life and our hope. And the chorus which follows, ‘If you let this man go’, continues in E major, forcing the crowd to declare musically where their rage is all going.

And so to Bach’s meditation on that final word, Es ist vollbracht. As I said, for John this is not a shrug of the shoulders, ‘Well, that’s over at last’, but a powerful statement of the completion of the work of redemption, the sixth-day achievement of the Proper Man. Here Bach, in the great Alto aria accompanied by the already archaic viola da gamba, looks back on this past event, this supreme accomplishment, and makes it quite clear whatVollbracht means with the striking, almost shocking, bursting in of the military theme: Der Held aus Iuda siegt mit Macht und schliesst den Kampf, the Hero of Judah has conquered powerfully and finished the battle. You only understand Vollbracht when you know that this is the victory of all victories, the overcoming of the world that Jesus had spoken about in the Farewell Discourses. But, equally, and Bach achieves this unforgettably, you only understand the nature of that victory when you stand at the foot of the cross, as the martial music suddenly stops, and the weight and depth of the accomplishment are once again affirmed with full solemnity.

Which points us to the question, what does all this say to us today? Art tells us what it tells us, and a programme note, even a homiletic one, can only make small suggestions. But this note of victory through the completed work of the cross speaks right into today’s world. My kingdom, said Jesus, is not from this world, because if it were my servants would be fighting. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus’ kingdom is an otherworldly one, with no visible connection to the real world, the world where Caesar still sneers and the crowds still bay for blood. On the contrary. Jesus’ kingdom isfor this world; that is its point, that is why the world will still hate Jesus’ followers. Look at this last week’s New Statesman, which for the second year running has a feature on God, and which allows Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and others to pontificate about how wicked religion is, picking the depressingly soft target of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to vent their spleen on. The church today stands between the Pilates of the secular state and the Chief Priests of the shrieking fundamentalisms. Our task is not fight back, or to shriek back, but to bear witness with our lives, with our communities, with our faith and hope and above all our love, to the different sort of kingdom, the kingdom through which is revealed the strange glory of Israel’s God, the glory of the healing and rebirth of creation itself, the glory of the love which has loved us to the uttermost.

John’s gospel has often, quite rightly, been seen as the very heart of an authentic Christian spirituality. But that spirituality can never be an escape from the world, but rather a commission to go into the world. The risen Jesus breathes his spirit on his followers and says, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’. And with that ‘As . . . so’ we find ourselves thinking and praying back through the entire story, and particularly the entire story of the Passion, and asking ourselves, What might it look like for the church to bear that same witness to the Pilates and the Chief Priests of our day? And, though this doesn’t provide the answer, the question is framed again in John 21, as the risen Jesus asks Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ and then commissions Peter, forgiven and restored, to tend and feed his lambs and sheep. Bach brings us, in all our multi-dimensional human reality, into the very heart of the John’s Passion narrative. Our prayer tonight, as we listen and ponder, might be the Holy Spirit would awaken in us the answer which Peter gave to Jesus’ question: Yes, Lord, you know that I love you; and that, with that grateful love welling up afresh, we might discern, and then undertake, the tasks which will again turn the living Word into loving flesh.