The meaning of the Passion is not just religious


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.

Christmas Services

ImageThis Christmas I decided to attend a Christmas morning service.  I like going to church at festivals such as Christmas and Easter.  At school I was in the choir, and every year we replicated the King’s College Nine Lessons and Carols.  This repesented the cultural aspiration of the school: the first carol, Once in Royal David’s City, was sung by a first year boy, and each reading was performed by someone of higher status, concluding with the Chair of Governors. The penultimate reading – the visit of the Wise Men – was by the Headmaster, who maintained the title of Brigadier after his war service. The final line of the reading was always the most dramatic:

“And they brought unto him gifts: of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”

The Brigadier would paused dramatically after “frankincense”, and remove his monocle before pronouncing “myrrh” in a rising tone that resounded from the nave to the chancel.

These school-day experiences left me with high expectations of Christmas services. The quality of the choral singing was high, and the readings (always from the King James Bible) filled my desire for wonder. I didn’t know what frankincense and myrrh were, but that didn’t matter.

Recent experiences of Christmas services have often seemed lacking in comparison. Even those (hard to find these days) that use the traditional Bible text and carols often seem a bit perfunctory, like a ritual whose death is lingering. Two years ago, I attended a service in Auckland at an Anglican church. The leaders took an informal approach but fumbled with a powerpoint presentation that often gave the wrong words for the carol or reading, and there was little recognisable ritual until near the end of the event.

So, as I entered the Teignmouth church on Christmas morning, my expectations were not high.  St James’ is an octagonal Victorian church with large stained glass windows: a bright, broad space where the congregation – about forty parents and children – sat close to the chancel. Behind the unobtrusive rood-screen sat an elderly man and woman: the man wore a bright red jumper, and the woman’s white hair fell in waves over her black top. She welcomed us and asked the children: whose birthday was it today? The children, who sat with their parents, seemed comfortable and several gave the right answer, which led to a further question: What do we do on someone’s birthday? “Sing Happy Birthday!” replied a child, and forthwith we did: “Happy birthday, dear Jesus!” I looked around and wondered whether to leave. The service proceeded with crackers (pulled by the clergy and children) that revealed jokes that drew on minimal Biblical knowledge: “How did Noah see in the Ark?” – “With floodlights.” “What did Adam say on December 24th?” – “It’s Christmas, Eve.” The children were invited to come to the front and show their Christmas presents. These were quite modest: a pair of slippers with a fabric animal pocket; a ukulele; some princess dolls. In between these child-centred events, we sang carols (mostly modern but with good tunes) and the children read short passages from the Christmas story. They had to use a microphone to be heard, but they read well enough and were clearly pleased and proud to do so.

Towards the end of the service, the atmosphere became more profound. The male leader read prayers firstly for individuals who were sick, lonely, or experiencing bereavement, and then for the problems of the wider world. These were not from any prayer book I recognised, but seemed to be meant, and many people knelt in prayer. The final carols were traditional, and heartily sung. As the parents and children left, they thanked the leaders and looked as if they had had a good time.

Despite its apparent frivolity, the service succeeded in engaging the congregation. It wrapped us in a homely, nurturing spirituality very different from the portentousness of King’s College Carols.