Monday, April 11, 2011

Two Passions Each Year: Part Two

My opinion that the church read two passions each year is informed by an unusual context. This year I have the remarkable opportunity to prepare and perform Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion with the Bach Society at Christ the King Lutheran Church. Last year I was able to prepare and perform Bach's St. John Passion also with the Bach Society. Preparing and studying these two large works, created by Bach for the Good Friday Vespers in 1724 and 1727 respectively, gives anyone who does such preparation a unique perspective.

Bach Society Houston

Bach's setting of Matthew's passion story accentuates Anselm's theory of the atonement. This theory understands Christ as a sacrificial lamb, willingly going to his death, out of love (aus Liebe) to redeem humanity of sin and death. Such was the orthodox Lutheran position that dominated Leipzig in Bach's day. Bach's setting of John's passion story illuminates the "Christus Victor" paradigm, where God in Christ goes deeply into sin and death and swallows it up in a cosmic battle, destroying death forever. For this, Bach goes back in time, skipping over Lutheran orthodoxy, and uncovering Luther's theology of the cross. See, for instance, Luther's Easter hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden:
Our Savior Jesus, God's own Son,
here in our stead descended;
the knot of sin has been undone,
the claim of death is ended.
Christ has crushed the power of hell;
now there is naught but death's gray shell --
its sting is lost forever. Hallelujah. (ELW 370, Stanza Two)
Bach inherited the pattern of presenting the passion accounts from the four gospels in the communal worship of his time. That he tried to balance the best of orthodoxy with the best of Pietism, and that he seeks to tell the stories of Christ's life, death, and resurrection in remarkably different ways can serve as a model for us in our time of competing pieties, where religion of the heart and mind always need to be held in balance and creative tension, lest we arrive at a practice that is either too intellectual or too emotional.

My defense of the RCL appointment of two passions each year is motivated by a hope that the church take the opportunity to go deeply into both (all?) of these ways of thinking about Christ's loving act for the world on the cross. I urge the use of the lectionary not only for all of the ecumenical churches that shared in its creation, but especially for Lutherans who have a history of honoring both (all?) of these ways of looking at the atonement. The passion stories from Mark and Luke, while different from Matthew, share the viewpoint of Christ in his humanity. The current RCL proposal is still very good for our churches -- we should embrace it.

The stated goal of liturgical renewal in our time toward the recovery of the Three Days, spanning sundown Maundy Thursday through sundown on Easter Day, and the encouragement to the church to attend the worship of the Three Days is still urgent. We should not discard the lectionary because current attendance figures show that people don't come on Good Friday. And we should not imagine that the RCL on Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday was created out of practical concern that people hear at least one passion each year. Instead, we should commit to teaching about the bible, the liturgy, and even the lectionary, so that we encourage people to observe the richness of the year by attending both Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday and Good Friday, so that our proclamation is like a deep well and not a shallow stream.

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