On Good Friday, I was very moved by a fine performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the chapel of New College, Oxford. This was not specifically because of the religious significance of the words and music. I don’t believe in the Bible story as a literal account of events, but I do think that the story of Christ’s passion has the resonance of great literature because it is so much about everyday human life, today as twenty centuries ago. The word passion, of course, refers to suffering as something that both has to be endured and is fully felt in the body. Christ’s suffering is evident, but many people endure great physical and emotional pain in their everyday lives that is hidden and private. The passion of Jesus Christ, whether read in the pages of the New Testament or heard in the Bach oratorio, channels the feelings of many.
Is a story of betrayal – several betrayals – and of heroism; a story of the use and misuse of political power, of “false facts”, and the compromises required by circumstance. Judas, one of Christ’s disciples, betrays him for ”thirty pieces of silver” to a detachment of troops and officers from the Jewish Chief Priests and Pharisees, who are jealous of Christ’s influence with the people. Simon Peter, another disciple, enraged, attacks the High Priest’s servant; but he later denies three times his association with Jesus. When the High Priest asks Jesus about his disciples and his doctrine, Jesus replies:
I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing … Ask those who heard me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said.
One of the officers interprets Christ’s testament of openness and honesty as insolence, and strikes him with the palm of his hand: “Do you answer the High Priest like that?” They take Jesus to the Praetorium, where Pilate, the Roman governor, has ultimate legal power. Pilate asks to know of what Jesus is accused, but is diverted by an answer that asserts authority without evidence: “If he were not an evildoer we would not have delivered him up to you.” Pilate has the ambivalence of a sensitive colonial authority. He finds no fault in Jesus, but doesn’t want to contravene the law and customs of a subject people. Having interviewed Jesus again, he asserts strongly: “I find no fault in him at all,” and attempts to resolve the situation by following the custom that one prisoner should be released at the Jewish celebration of the Passover. But the crowd cry for the release not of Jesus but of Barabbas, a robber.
I find it impossible to read or hear this story without being reminded of the everyday betrayals, small or large, that we commit and experience; of the recent spread of “fake news”, with its emphasis on the “fact” rather than the evidence; of attempts to avoid offence and displeasure that merely worsen a situation. Pilate asks, in response to the Pharisees’ insistence that Jesus be crucified: ”Shall I crucify your King?” With acute mendacity, they reply: “We have no king but Caesar!” During the performance in Oxford, the near-shouting repetition of the chorus (representing the crowd) that they preferred Barabbas to Jesus was to me a sickening recollection of the populist preference of Trump over the previous president.
Pilate attempts to redress the situation by insisting, against the wishes of the Chief Priests, that the the crucified Jesus be labelled “The King of the Jews”. He replies with dignity to their protests: “What I have written, I have written.” But the fact remains that crucifixion was the supreme Roman punishment, used to humiliate and degrade as well as to execute. The soldiers at the Cross think it normal to strip the body of clothing. This, as Katie Edwards and David Tombs have recently pointed out, was done to humiliate the captive and expose him to mockery; it is sexual violence or abuse. In this respect, too, the meaning of The Passion is not confined to the history of religion.