The Beginning of the End

A Decisive Instant in the Gospel of John
This story is included in these collections

I have never been to Jerusalem, but I have crossed the brook Kidron, and that has made all the difference. J. S. Bach, with the St. John Passion, conveyed me across; but I am getting ahead of the story.

Don DeLillo’s novel The Names begins at the Acropolis, the place that for many people is the point or end of a visit to Athens:

It daunted me, that somber rock. I preferred to wander in the modern city, imperfect, blaring. The weight and moment of those worked stones promised to make the business of seeing them a complicated one. So much converges there. It’s what we’ve rescued from the madness. Beauty, dignity, order, proportion. There are obligations attached to such a visit.

The speaker is a risk analyst posted to Greece by an international bank, but here he speaks in the voice—a distinctive oracular-vernacular—that DeLillo has made his own. “What ambiguity there is in exalted things,” he declares. “We despise them a little.”

The ruins stood above the hissing traffic like some monument to doomed expectations. I’d turn a corner, adjusting my stride among jostling shoppers, there it was, the tanned marble riding its mass of limestone and schist. I’d dodge a packed bus, there it was, at the edge of my field of vision. One night (as we enter narrative time) I was driving with friends back to Athens after a loud dinner in Piraeus and we were lost in some featureless zone when I made a sharp turn into a one-way street, the wrong way, and there it was again, directly ahead.

He slams on the brakes. The sudden vision of the “white fire” of the Parthenon “floating in the dark” pulls him up short. It arrests him—stops him in surprise. That’s something like what happens to us as readers when we run across DeLillo’s parenthetical declaration that we are entering “narrative time.” It’s as blunt as a security broadcast at the airport. Now entering the zone of what happens next. Abandon all general truths. No oracular pronouncements past this point. Here the story begins. It happened one night.

And that’s something like what happens to us at the point in the Gospel of John when Jesus and the disciples cross the brook Kidron. The passage, at the beginning of Chapter 18, is akin to what photographers after Henri Cartier-Bresson call “the decisive moment.” It’s the moment when the hide-glue cut-and-paste job that is this gospel enters narrative time once and for all. It’s the beginning of the end, a giant step into the drama of crime and punishment whose end is the reason the story is still told.

The gospels are exalted texts, daunting to write about. So much converges there and is shown to be complex and paradoxical. But the crossing of the brook Kidron is a piece of the action that stands alone, a slice of time as distinct as anything in the New Testament.

Who really “understands” the Gospels? I can’t say that I do (though I can’t help but try). But the crossing-over into narrative time: this is something I can begin to understand. The crossing of the brook Kidron: this I can approach undaunted.

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place; for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.”

The four Gospels take up 125 pages in the zippered leather Bible I’ve had since college, less than a tenth of the whole. In English translation John’s gospel, with its cradle-to-grave depiction of the Son of Man, is about fifteen thousand words—about the length of an old New Yorker profile or a new Kindle Single.

Even by gospel standards the scene at the brook Kidron is exceptionally brief. It takes up a third of a page of that zippered Bible. Jesus and his disciples cross a valley and enter a garden, and Judas musters a militia and goes after them, and Jesus puts a question to them and they reply, and he replies in turn—all this in a hundred words, in a scene lit with lanterns and torches and shadowed by the threat of violence.

The scene seems even tighter when read in sequence with what has come before. This is because what has come before is the Last Supper, and the Last Supper in John’s gospel is the longest episode (nearly five chapters) and most verbose one (if you doubt it, take a look) in all the Gospels.

“When Jesus had spoken these words...” That’s how Chapter 18 begins. Among biblical scholars “these words” are called the Farewell Discourses, or the Last Discourse. In the New Jerusalem Bible, they are typeset with a ragged right edge akin to poetry; they run down one page after another, a kite-tail of exhortation and prophecy. In the thirty-volume Anchor Bible—text and learned commentary—the Last Discourse is found in Volume 29A; the chief commentator, the late Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown, treats the Last Discourse as three “divisions,” each with several units, and his commentary, polyglot and closely spaced, runs from page 545 to page 782. It’s long.

“When Jesus had spoken these words...”: this, then, may be a piece of wit on the part of John the Evangelist or his redactors—a way of saying that even Jesus Christ tended to go on for a bit. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word refused to end. More likely it’s a structural punctuation mark: an exclamation point. George Herbert in the great poem “Prayer” calls prayer “the soul in paraphrase”; and in John’s gospel “these words”—Jesus’s words at the Last Supper—are the whole gospel “in paraphrase,” as the Herbert poem has it. First Jesus tells the disciples what is going to happen next: one of you will betray me, and the cock will not crow till you have denied me three times. Then he tells them what they ought to do and why, in a series of epithets as consequential as any words ever spoken by anybody. And then he spells out the limits of the words he has spoken.

Few of us know all of them, but most of us know some of them and some of us know most of them and just about all of us know a few of them. Here they are in paraphrase: Love one another as I have loved you. Keep my commandments: that is how they will know you as my disciples. I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father, but by me. I am in the Father and the Father is in me, and he who has seen me has seen the Father. I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Peace I leave you; my peace I give to you, but not as the world gives do I give to you. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in me, as I abide in you. No longer do I call you servants; I call you friends, and greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. A little while, and you will see me no more, for the ruler of this world is coming; again a little while, and you will see me. You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. I have said all this to you in figures; the hour is coming when I shall no longer speak to you in figures but tell you plainly of the Father.

What more was there to say? He had said enough, done all he could do in figures. “When Jesus had spoken these words,” then, he crossed the brook Kidron with the disciples—passing over to a place beyond words. He entered narrative time, that is, and became fully a fallen creature like the rest of us.

 

WHEN WE THINK of the fall—if we think of the fall (do we think of the fall?)—we think of it as a fall into sin, or into disobedience, or into carnal life and the life of the body, or war and violence, or the realm of conscience that Flannery O’Connor, concluding her story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” called “the world of guilt and sorrow.”

For St. Augustine in The Confessions the fall was a fall out of eternity into time. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The book’s famous early insight, the starting point of Augustine’s peregrinatio, or wandering back to God, leaves unstated a conviction that was so obvious to him that he hardly needed to put it into words. It is the conviction that before he was restless, all astir in this mortal coil, he was at rest with God outside of time. The sense of that opening sentence, a sense that emerges distinctly in the course of The Confessions, is something like this: Once upon a time before time I rested in you. Now I no longer do. I fell away from you and into time. But I yearn to rest in you again. Meanwhile I am restless, as I try to find my way back home—back out of time.

It’s a conviction shaped by the same philosophical outlook—known to us as Platonism, or Neoplatonism—that shaped John’s gospel. Nothing so much as that conviction brings home just how different the outlook of the early Christians was from ours. Just as the Christian believers of late antiquity were so convinced of Jesus’s divinity, so imbued with the sense of it, that they required two ecumenical councils to settle on the affirmation that Christ was not only fully divine but fully human as well, so Augustine and his contemporaries were so full of the sense of their participation in eternity that they were matter-of-factly convinced that they’d fallen out of it into human time. The question was not whether but how and why.

In The Confessions Augustine sets out what many modern commentators call psychological evidence for the human person’s past participation in eternity. We seem to have memories of an earlier, better time. We see things trans-historically. We feel, each of us, our own self as a constant presence running through time. These pieces of evidence are apt enough to remain persuasive today. Even so, that Augustine evidently felt the remnants of his pretemporal life so powerfully, and that he described them so confidently, makes him, and his outlook, strange to us.

“In my beginning is my end,” T. S. Eliot wrote near the beginning of Four Quartets, a work that, toward the end of the Western Christian literary era that entered a major phase with St. Augustine, takes something like a Neoplatonic view of time and eternity and makes of it something new. In John’s gospel the brook Kidron is the site where eternity and time meet, and the crossing of the brook Kidron is the moment when Jesus and the disciples pass from the world of antique Neoplatonism to a world something like ours—from a world charged with the eternal to a world of space and time. The world back there is a world of immutable forms and divinity undivided. The world over here is a world of false kisses and trumped-up charges, where the clock is always ticking and the swords are kept sharp.

What happens next is like a scene out of Caravaggio:

So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.

It is like a scene out of Caravaggio because it is a scene in Caravaggio. The Taking of Christ, as the painting is called, is a work as powerful as anything Caravaggio ever painted, even though it hung in the refectory of the Jesuit house in Dublin for a hundred years without being recognized as his. Caravaggio’s biographer Helen Langdon characterizes it as “an elaborately orchestrated tableau vivant, in which every aspect of the composition is concentrated on creating the unprecedented immediacy and reality of the figures.”

Judas takes hold of Christ, pressing himself on him: arm, beard, lips. A soldier in gleaming armor goes for Christ’s neck. A young man flees: John the Evangelist, it is said—the author of John’s gospel, that is. A bearded man holds a lantern: Caravaggio himself, illuminating the scene, at once practicing and highlighting his technique of biblical realism.

It is the beginning of the end; and the use of light, the arrangement of the figures, the equality of attention paid to Jesus, Judas, and the band of soldiers—all these effects work together to create the sense that the taking of Christ is happening once and for all. This isn’t a decisive moment. This is a decisive instant.

The Taking of Christ derives much of its power from what is left out of the four-by-six-foot panel of the painting—all that leads up to the taking and all that leads away from it.

Johann Sebastian Bach, treating the episode, included all that surrounded that, and much more. And yet this St. John Passion, which runs about two hours in performance, derives its power from similar effects of excision and concision. This is clear from the very opening of the work. Following the liturgical convention of the Passion narratives—the way they were read in churches—John’s account of the Last Supper is left out. The transition at the beginning of Chapter 18—“When Jesus had spoken these words”—is lopped off. In this Passion, the beginning of the end comes at the beginning.

The St. John Passion was a new beginning for Bach himself, and, in telling his story at a dramatic moment in a book about Bach (called Reinventing Bach), I tried to get behind the work’s canonical authority and recover the sense of discovery that surrounded it in the beginning. It happened this way. After serving for several years as the court musician to the prince of Cöthen, in 1723 Bach took a new job in the market city of Leipzig. The city’s cantor and music director had died, and Bach had been hired to replace him. He arrived on a Saturday afternoon in two carriages with his family, following on “four wagons loaded with household goods.” The role would be a step down socially, and would involve more teaching and administration than he wished. But he took it, in part because it would give him supervision of the sacred music at two grand churches and two smaller ones. These churches required programs of sacred music week in and week out. In them, through them, he would broadcast his work to a wide public.

The Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche are a short walk apart: the one a gray stone Gothic church with a steep roof softened by a Baroque bell tower and a baroquely remodeled interior, the other older, of brown stone, its Romanesque design highlighted by ribbed arches throughout. Bach wore a path between the two churches. As the role of cantor and music director enabled him to focus, so city life enabled him to conduct his affairs with efficiency in the shops, taverns, market square, and town hall.

His family numbered a dozen people, including a newborn daughter. He settled them in a rambling apartment in the schoolhouse, equipped with a composing room, or Komponirstube, which contained a large music library. There, he turned to writing music. In his first nine months in Leipzig he composed a vast body of sacred works: cantatas, motets, a radiant Magnificat—about fifty pieces of twenty minutes or more. The city churches were suddenly filled with his music. The cantatas were not all wholly new, but as music composed serially, week by week, they are astonishing.

They were exhausting, too. “The singers or instrumentalists or the composer, or indeed everyone involved including clergy,” the Bach scholar Peter Williams proposes, “had found the cantor’s initial efforts too taxing.” Even Bach was relieved to reach the tempus clausum: the forty days of Lent, when liturgical music was set aside in favor of chant or silence. But he didn’t rest. Lent opened up time for him to compose. In those forty days he completed the St. John Passion for rendition on Good Friday at the Nikolaikirche—at once taking up a form new to him, composing a work more intricate than any he had done, and dramatizing the central event of Christianity for the first time.

Given the demands of the new job, it is amazing that Bach composed the St. John Passion at all. But it may be that the chance to compose a Passion was a key reason for his move to Leipzig. In the Passion, a profound new form of sacred music was emerging, one that would allow him to deploy all his musical strengths at once.

The words of the opening chorus make his ambitions clear. As one English translation has it, they go: “O Lord, our Sovereign, Whose Glory / Is magnified in all lands, / Testify to us by Thy passion.” With this work Bach would see his own work magnified, so to speak—all his talents concentrated on a setting of the story of God put to the test.

The grand, doleful opening chorus; the Evangelist’s plainspoken recitation; the sonorous voices of Jesus, Pilate, Peter, and the others; the crowd, wide-eyed and sharp-tongued, exultant, fierce, righteous, astonished; the rueful piety of the individual believer as expressed in a sacred aria; the chorales, softened by five centuries of Sundays; and all this over the polished stones on the streambed of the orchestra—this musical plan, this set of patterns in satisfying alternation, is so right as to seem permanent, and makes it seem as if the St. John Passion is a sacred work that existed “in the beginning.” And yet the Passion form was substantially new to Bach. The cantatas he was writing were settings of discrete gospel passages: adages, sayings, and the like. The Passion text was a story. Where the cantatas are slices of the Christian drama, the Passion is the thing itself; where the cantatas follow the seasons of the year, the Passion (it seems) happens on a particular Friday afternoon. Composing a Passion to be heard at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig on Good Friday—Friday, April 7, 1724—Bach entered narrative time once and for all.

It happens this way. After the opening chorus (ten minutes or so in most renditions), the singer known as the Evangelist begins, declaiming the gospel text in German in a plangent tenor voice:

Jesus ging mit seinen Jüngern über den Bach Kidron...
(“Jesus and his disciples crossed the brook Kidron...”)

In German, the word for brook is Bach. With the St. John Passion, Bach created a brook of music, a work of art, that fills the gap between eternity and time as a river runs through it.

 

SOME YEARS SHY of three centuries later I crossed that brook of Bach, and did what the ancients claimed you just can’t do: I stepped into the same river twice.Holy Week began on April 1 that year, and on Palm Sunday (as we enter narrative time) I made the crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Carnegie Hall was hosting a St. John Passion performed by a crack Baroque ensemble called Les Violons du Roy. Ian Bostridge, a celebrated tenor, would be the Evangelist. WQXR would broadcast the performance live on FM and online. Friends who were out of town gave me their tickets—an apt gift as I reached the end of the Bach book I had spent several years writing—and as I made my way down the aisle, it became evident that the tickets were for seats in the front row.

I took a front-row seat uneasily. I had heard the St. John Passion live and in person only once before, an evening performance on Good Friday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine the year after I graduated from college—twenty-five years earlier. That year Holy Week came early. Winter stayed late. The midtown workday fluoresced endlessly. I had never heard Bach’s sacred music performed live. I got to the cathedral after dark and claimed a rickety seat at the rear. The St. John Passion began: violins, harpsichord, voices by the dozens. The chill of the place, the remoteness of the sound and action, the length of the performance after a day of soul-sapping office work, the forbidding aura surrounding Bach.... Reader, I fell asleep during that St. John Passion, like a disciple in the garden.

Since then I had heard it dozens of times, but always through recordings; I had come to own half a dozen CD sets of the Johannes-Passion, filed together in a shoe box in the small workspace in our apartment where I’d spent a thousand and one nights. Now I was here at Carnegie Hall, coaxed out of the interior castle of recordings and into the metropolis of live performance. I was in the front row, and that I was in the front row was both a gift and a challenge. I had to stay awake no matter what.

The musicians entered European-style: singers and orchestra, trailed by the soloists. There was Ian Bostridge, six foot six in formal dress but without a tie, as boyish as on the CD booklets but tall and lean to an extreme that no head shot could show. He stood diplomatically off to the side as the music director, Bernard Labadie, led the ensemble through the opening chorus: five minutes, and then another five as the whole section was repeated, concluding emphatically. The audience went as silent as 2,800 New Yorkers sitting together in a big room on West Fifty-Seventh Street can be. A spotlight followed the Evangelist. With my eyes I did likewise. I had never seen a singer this close-up before.

He strode to the lip of the stage and planted his feet, in shoes black and highly polished, on a prestigious spot of hardwood. He crossed his arms at the elbows. He leaned back, like a tennis player about to serve; he opened his mouth—unscrewed it, screwed it open: that was the effect from up close—and out came the first words of recitative:

Jesus ging mit seinen Jüngern über den Bach Kidron...

So we entered narrative time: the triple time of Bach’s passions, where biblical time, the time of Bach, and what can be called “the time of this hearing” converge. And I felt, from a cubit’s distance away, the power of art, and live art in particular, to lead us across and into the far country of narrative and make us apprehend a familiar moment as if for the first time. When he had finished those words, all together we heard all that happened next.

 

This essay is included in The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passagespublished in November 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

Published in the November 13, 2015 issue: 

Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG), is writing a book about the music of Bach in the age of recordings.

Also by this author
Why & How Day Wrote It
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Culture
Books
Collections