On the Tuesday of Holy Week, I was privileged to undergo an extraordinary cultural experience. That it was also deeply moving and provoked me into fresh reflection on the enduring meaning of the wretched betrayal and execution of a Palestinian Rabbi, was due to the melding of so many traditions, times and unique skills in one unforgettable performance.
The occasion was a performance of Bach's St John Passion in Kings College, Cambridge. That is to say, a setting by an 18th century German composer of a translation into his own tongue of a Greek account of the trial and execution of an Iron Age Mediterranean religious radical, performed in a 15th century English church.
Bach wrote this work for the Good Friday liturgy at the Lutheran Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. Ears grown used to overt drama and lesser constraints, must be willing to listen outside modern expectations for insight into suffering portrayed within the conventions of a very different age.
King's College choir, the masterly Academy of Ancient Music and all the soloists performed with immense skill and power. It seems invidious to pick out individuals. But the singing of David Wilson-Johnson as Jesus, and Andrew Kennedy in the technically demanding role of the Evangelist – the engine of the narrative movement - had that rare quality, far beyond accomplishment, which comes from utter conviction.
When Wilson-Johnson left his last phrase “Es ist vollbracht!” (it is finished) hanging so quietly in the air of the Chapel, the silence which followed was charged with a shared emotion that bound the capacity audience with almost unbearable intensity. The singer's head fell to one side and his body seemed crumple as though the slackness of death had come upon him also. Whatever one's beliefs about the person of Jesus and the meaning of his death, this was a moment when the universality of the Passion narrative stood plain for all to see.
That this narrative has endured and spread throughout the world, inspiring music, art, drama, and architecture in so many different cultures while still retaining its essential shape, is unique. Because we in the 'Christian' west have been familiar with it for so long, it may become attenuated. That is presumably why the liturgical dramas of the 'Great Week' seek to re-enact and revivify the 'old, old story' in every generation, in every culture.
The humanity of Jesus and his death open a gateway into faith for me. Though adhering to the Quaker belief that “we take our inspiration from Jesus but refrain from making dogmatic statements about him”, I still hold him to be a uniquely inspired and God-filled individual. What I heard and witnessed (in what some of my co-religionists would call a 'steeple-house') two days ago, in reinforcing my sense of wonder at the deep levels of skill, co-operation and negation of self which make possible the rebirth and re-presentation of what is timeless, taught me something new.
Neither the Palestinian working men who followed Jesus nor the military-political power machine which killed him, would have been unable to make any point of contact with the height of Baroque musical genius which sang their story in Cambridge this week. The finely made reproductions of 18th century flutes, viola da gamba and oboe di amore would have been meaningless objects to them. The great vaulted ceiling of Henry VI's chapel and its crocketted, pinnacled exterior would not have been recognisable as a place of worship.
We have the advantage. We have taken their experience and passed it through centuries of creativity and re-interpretation. This cultural, artistic and creative hybrid has huge vitality. But if is not to trap us in an aesthetic dead end, we must use its energy to take us back to the source so we may look again and again with eyes cleared by wonder.
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen