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Connecting the Circuits

The leitmotif of the great father of the Church, Origen, in his commentaries on Scripture was: "not only then, but now." The narrative of faith is not merely "in illo tempore," but "in hoc tempore."

It is the challenging task of the preacher to proclaim God's Word as relevant in our own day. But, of course, it is the task of every believer to appropriate the Good News, to pass over from a merely "notional" to a "real" apprehension and assent.

Here the great artists – poets, painters, musicians – can be occasions of grace for us. Perhaps none more so than Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach's two surviving Passions coincide in the current liturgical year with our reading of Saint Matthew and Saint John today and Good Friday. I have been listening these past days to the Saint Matthew Passion and will towards midweek begin to play/pray the Saint John Passion.

In his masterful, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner devotes ninety dense pages to an analysis and appreciation of the Passions. Here is an excerpt:

As everyone familiar with either of Bach’s surviving Passions knows, participating either from the outside as a listener or from the inside as a performer, the placement of the chorales is central to the overall experience – pulling the action into the here and now, confirming, responding to, or repudiating what has just happened in the narrative, and obliging one to consider its significance.


It is the judicious choice and placement of chorales that provide the essential scaffolding and punctuation of the narrative and that simultaneously articulate the underlying theological themes. You could of course remove them (together with the meditative arias) and the piece would still make sense at one level; but to do so would break the circuit –obliterating the connections to Bach’s time and to ours.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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E. M. Cioran was not known for his Easter cheer, but he did say this, “The ideal: to be able to repeat oneself. . . like Bach.” The effective preacher reiterates the good news in such a way that it is heard afresh.

I have been listening to the opening chorus of the Matthew-Passion conducted by Klemperer these mornings -- it gathers such force, such majesty as it leads to its sublime, towering threnodic climax... I listed to Rilling as well, who skips through the music in half the time. There seems to be a crazy notion abroad that because the text says "Siehet. Wen? Der Bräutigam" it should have a jolly wedding-celebration tempo. The main point of the text is "Als wie ein Lamm" and the ripieno choral comes in with the words "O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig..." This is passion music, equal in noble tragic grandeur to the Pietà etc.

Josrph O'Leary I have the Herreweghe performance. Tucked into the libretto I found an old review by the New York Times critic, Edward Rothstein, who recommends Herreweghe for finding a mean between what he considers Klemperer's too weighty version – "the conductor's tempos seem conceived on bended knee" – and the "refined and light" attempts by the early Early Music crowd. De gustibus.

On another note: Rowan Williams delivered a public lecture last week at Boston College. In the course of it he mentioned appreciatively a book by one Joseph O'Leary. Catherine Cornille and I exchanged gnostic smiles!

Delighted to hear that (though curious to know which book).

I have or had Herreweghe's version of the opening chorus on his sampler disc. I am a huge fan of Herreweghe, on whom I once conferred an honorary doctorate (!), but I still much prefer Klemperer. There is no need to justify his performance -- every note speaks for itself, and is allowed to speak -- and yes, the singers are (figuratively) on their knees -- would one wish it otherwise?

I'll root out Herreweghe tomorrow if I have him.

Just taught first class of our academic year today -- on the Bible as literature (Genesis). One student wrote: "I hate the Bible because it split up my family"! Wondering what to make of this. 

J O'L,

Williams' public lecture was on "Revelation and the World Religions" and he mentioned a book of yours on, I believe, inter-religious dialogue.

The lecture was, of course, very good; but the next day he held a remarkable two hour session with Theology Department faculty and graduate students. It was memorable, for the respectful and in-depth exchange. R.W. has the capacity to take a good question and, by his response, elevate it into a generative moment of insight.

I think he is almost the only theologian to have read "Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth", published or buried by Edinburgh University Press in 1996 -- but what is there that he has not read?

On music, I was overwhelmed by Jonas Kaufmann as Werther, Live from the Met -- I would not be surprised if he sparked off a suicide epidemic as happened in 1774 -- he seems to ward off that danger by his denunciation of Werther as sick in his entr'acte interview. Today I give the first lecture in a course on The German Genius (Peter Watson) which will begin with Werther and an impassioned recording by Jésus Etcheverry with Albert Lance and Rita Gorr. The refined Carreras and von Stade under Colin Davis are staid in comparison.

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