The opening of Bach’s Johannes-Passion plunges us into the midst of Christ’s violent death. The swirling strings and plaintive winds establish an air of helpless distress.
The first word, “Herr!” (Lord!), is a cry for help. Its repetition and extension into the slightly longer “O Lord, our Lord!” only accentuates the state of extreme crisis.
Even when the pace slackens, and the call for aid becomes pensive or stunned, it is accentuated with piercing shrieks.
None of this is surprising given the theme, but it may be a bit puzzling when we consider the text Bach chooses to render with such agonizing dissonance:
O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth! (Psalm 8:1)
In what way is this paean to the magnificence of God and his works related to the bitterness of Christ’s suffering?
One clue is found in the traditional Lenten liturgy, where the same verse is coupled with Gospel readings in which the conflict between Christ and the Scribes and Pharisees becomes increasingly heated.
In these passages we are reminded that Christ was convicted on very specific charges. His crime was not healing the sick or teaching the golden rule. According to his accusers, Christ broke the law and was worthy of death “because he made himself the Son of God” (Jn. 19:7).
Though all four Gospels testify to the divinity of Christ, John’s Gospel is famous for singing this truth from beginning to end with sublime insistency.
St. John is the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 13:23), and who proclaims the love of Christ most emphatically in his epistles. He is also the only apostle who witnessed the Lord’s Passion with his own eyes.
Imagine John at the foot of the cross. Seeing his beloved Master scourged and pierced, bleeding and suffocating to death, his heart erupts in desperation.
Who can help? As the disciple well knows, there is only One whose help is strong, One whose “magnificence is elevated above the heavens” (Ps. 8:1).
Where can John turn when all salvation comes from the One who needs saving? All that is left to sustain his love in hope is faith.
In conclusion, the chorus prays to our admirable, suffering Savior: “Show us through thy Passion that thou, the true Son of God, at all times, even in the most lowly state, art glorified.”
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