Made Clean by His Body by Ken Myers

From Heavenly Harmony

Made Clean by His Body

by Ken Myers

The term "Passion" is used to describe both the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross and a genre of pictorial, dramatic, or musical works recounting those sufferings. Musical Passions typically follow the narrative structure of one of the Gospel accounts of the events of Holy Week. They present a narrated story—the characters portrayed by singers often include an Evangelist as a narrator sharing the stage with Jesus and Judas, Peter and Pilate.

Early Passion settings were simply chanted, but by the late fifteenth century, more elaborate "through-composed" settings began to emerge, which made room for distinctive musical devices to provide an expressive interpretation of the events. With the emergence of the "oratorio" Passion in the seventeenth century, commentary and reflection on the significance of the story could be provided by singers representing the community of faith or the individual soul responding to the details of the most moving and momentous of all stories.

So, for example, in J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, after Peter's third denial is described, the tenor Evangelist tells us that Peter went out and wept bitterly. At this point, the story gets put on pause, and Bach offers one of the most poignant movements of the work, the soprano aria "Erbarme dich": "Have mercy, my God, for my tears' sake; look hither, heart and eyes weep bitterly before thee. Have mercy, my God, for my tears' sake." This aria is not strictly a soprano solo, but a duet between violin and soprano, both given melodic lines that express tension and torment. As listeners, we enter into Peter's distress and are encouraged through the music to acknowledge instances of similar betrayal or faithlessness in our own lives.

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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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