Forget, for the moment, popes and budgets and March Madness, shall we? This week we dispense with headlines and blogs and releases, unless the latter are three-hundred or three-thousand years old. The week’s calendar notifies believers and everyone else of Passover for Jews and Easter for Western Christians, plus Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. They have in common what one notices about most profound and remembered religious festival stories. Each has a dark side, a shadow which never permits the observant to settle simply for superficial giddiness or glee.
We leave to theologians, liturgical experts, and psychologists some elaborations of the fuller implications of what we cannot evade. For Jesus-people, they begin with the story of King Herod killing the innocent children in Bethlehem. Some complain that it ruins the Happy Holiday spirit. Yet the dark side of the festival stories are integral to the whole. Profound religious events and texts are in part disturbing, the scholars remind us, because they deal with magnifications of real life, including its nether sides. Their realism suggests honesty writ large.
Relevant this week: think first of the Passover, the epochal story for Jews and among the most important for their “younger brothers and sisters” called Christians. Millions or billions cherish it as the great story of deliverance, but—the horror!—it tells of the death of the first-born in every Egyptian household, and forces the thoughtful to think of the grief of Egyptian parents. What had most of them done to deserve this? We learn to incorporate that story of death into the larger story in which the reality of life predominates as believers for ages have seen them setting a new course in history.
The Christian Holy Week story-plot includes betrayal, lying, and cowardice on the part of those closest to the central figure, Jesus. All this is on my mind in part because it points to the downside of the “up” experience with which I got to start the week. Invited to give the pre-concert lecture for the Chicago Chorale performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion According to St. John, I had to deal with the downside of that great(est) work. As a Bach devotee of almost eighty-years’ standing—literally so, because I was baby- or child-sat next to the organ bench of a father who cherished Bach—and spiritually, musically, and “organ-”ically because I never left home. (Not exactly; my Holy Week musical menu includes a Jazz Passion and one-seventh of the narration during Haydn’s Seven Last Words a different seventh of which this year is in the hip-hop mode.)
What was the problem with “John”? I’ve done pre-concert lectures for Bach’s Mass in B Minor and the Passion According to St. Matthew, but the Gospel of John, which provides the framework for Bach’s work, poses extremely harsh and judgmental accusations which turn “the Jews”—some Jews, since Jesus and his followers were all Jews—into primal and enduring villains. Being a Christian and a Lutheran, whose faith-communities include horrible records against Jews and Judaism—records finally being addressed with penitence and resolve in recent decades—I must deal with the “shadow” of this Passion. So: do we shun or evade the dark side, and make a big show of how uniquely righteous “we” and our contemporaries are? Or do we note the central, focal stream in Bach’s work, where in the classic Chorales and Arias the emphatic and even obsessive concern is for the contemporary disciples of Jesus to see that it was and is “they” who by their faults were and are guilty—until his death freed them from guilt. That’s Bach’s “bright side,” part of the allure of this transcendent musical work.
Author Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the Divinity School at The University of Chicago. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com
This essay is reprinted from Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.