Friday, March 21, 2008

On Good Friday.

In prayer this morning, I found my mind wandering back to some poignant words that I heard in a Good Friday homily a few years ago: "It is difficult to make this cross holy, and it is hard to make this Friday good."

I once posted a reflection on the above words on my old blog, suggesting that one way we "make this Friday good" is by entering into the experience of Christ's Passion as fully as we can. One way of doing this is by taking part in the liturgical services by which the Church celebrates Good Friday. Another way of entering into the Passion is through private prayer, reflectively reading the accounts offered to us by the Gospels. The visual arts can also help one enter more fully into the experience of Good Friday; images like the Russian icon of the Crucifixion shown above can help us to focus more clearly on Christ. The same may be said of such films as Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew.

Of course, music can also help us to enter more fully into the experience of Christ's Passion. As an element of my Lenten prayer this year, I've been listening regularly to Johann Sebastian Bach's Matthäuspassion. Originally composed for use during the Good Friday liturgy in Bach's own Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the Matthäuspassion has won a place in the hearts of listeners around the world - and not only within the historic bounds of Christendom but in places where Christians are rare. If you find yourself in Tokyo, for instance, you can count on annual performances of the Matthäuspassion by the renowned Bach Collegium Japan.

The Bach Cantatas Website has a putatively complete directory of over 160 different recordings of the Matthäuspassion made since 1930, together with reviews and extensive commentary on various versions of the work. My own favorite recording - and the one I've been listening to repeatedly this Lent - is Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 1970 version, which seeks to replicate the sound that Bach himself would have heard by using period instruments, an all-male choir and treble soloists. I highly recommend the Harnoncourt Matthäuspassion, but if that recording isn't to your liking you can probably find another that suits your taste.

As a coda to my Lenten experience with a masterpiece of devotional music and as a way of entering more deeply into Good Friday, I'll be going tonight to hear the New York Philharmonic and the combined forces of the Westminster Choir and the American Boychoir perform the Matthäuspassion under the direction of Kurt Masur. This concert promises to be a significant musical event on at least two counts: the robust octogenarian Masur is known as a great interpreter of Bach, and the Philharmonic is offering its first performance of the Matthäuspassion in a decade. The reviews - like this one in today's New York Times - have been positive, and I'm looking forward to the concert. After commemorating Christ's Passion in the manner prescribed by the Church, I'll be rounding out Good Friday with Masur's Bach. My hope and prayer for the readers of this blog is that you will find your own ways of entering more deeply into the experience of Christ's Passion. AMDG.


At 3/21/2008 10:45 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

St. Matthew's Passion is a marvel indeed -- and the Harnoncourt version is my favorite (I want to be there). This year, though, I discovered Avro Part's Passion. Bach makes me as if I'm present at the Passion - Part's makes me feel as if I am in Christ's mind as he moves through those most trying hours. If you haven't heard it - try it next Lent. It's modern, but pulls strongly from the Church's musical roots.

At 3/23/2008 3:25 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Happy Easter! I hope you and your family are well on this joyful day.

I'll have to give Part a listen. As for Friday's performance of the St. Matthew Passion, the New York Philharmonic and the two choirs were excellent, as were the the baritone who sang the part of Jesus (Matthias Goerne) and the tenor who took the part of the Evangelist (James Taylor). The other soloists were a bit uneven, but nonetheless I had a great time. I feel like I appreciate the work more having seen it live.


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