The current issue of Commonweal features "The Beginning of the End" by regular contributor Paul Elie. This piece also appears in The Good Book, a new collection of essays by well-known writers about their favorite parts of the Bible. Among the other contributors: Lydia Davis, Robert Pinsky, André Aciman, Edwidge Danticat, Colm Tóibín, Thomas Lynch (another Commonweal contributor), and Tobias Wolff. The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik introduces the collection.

In the "The Beginning of the End," Elie writes about the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus and his 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.[...]

Even by gospel standards the scene at the brook Kidron is exceptionally brief. It takes up a third of a page.[...] 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.

Elie's essay is about many things: the seams between time and eternity, the way narrative time expands and contracts, and some of the many ways great artists have represented the Passion. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach:

With [St. John's Passion] 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.

You can read the whole essay here. The Good Book, edited by Andrew Blauner and published by Simon & Schuster, is now available in bookstores everywhere. Just in time for Christmas.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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