The Passion of Bach

colson2Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day when Christians all over the world recall Jesus’ Passion: the suffering that procured our salvation. Given the centrality of the Passion to the Christian faith—and Christianity’s role in shaping Western civilization—it is no surprise that the Passion has inspired some of the West’s greatest art, including the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Between 1724 and 1731, Bach set at least three, and possibly all four, of the Gospels’ accounts of the Lord’s Passion to music. Unfortunately, only two of these survive in their entirety, but what we have are among Western civilization’s greatest achievements—music that should inspire our gratitude on several levels. The first of these, the “St. John Passion,” was performed as part of a church service during Holy Week in 1724. Its text is based on Martin Luther’s translation of John 18 and 19. Bach sets the mood immediately with the opening chorale, “Lord, our Master.” After acknowledging that God’s glory fills all of the earth, the choir, on our behalf, asks Him to show us how triumph can come out of the deepest humiliation. [Listen to audio of today’s “BreakPoint” commentary at the top of this page to hear an excerpt from “Herr unser Herrscher,” or “Lord, Our Master.”] Three years later, on Good Friday in 1727, what is regarded as Bach’s greatest work, the “St. Matthew Passion,” was first performed at the Thomas church in Leipzig. Like the “St. John Passion,” it combines the biblical text with commentary and meditation. Unlike the “St. John Passion,” though, you have probably heard parts of this one in popular music. Excerpts from it have figured prominently in many movies—not only those with religious themes, but also in movies like The Talented Mr. Ripley or even Demolition Man. Listening to it, it’s easy to see why: Rarely, if ever, have love, sacrifice, devotion, and tenderness been brought together like this. When the soloist sings “make yourself pure, my heart” and urges the world to depart so that only Jesus may dwell within, his longing becomes our own. [Listen to audio of today’s “BreakPoint” commentary at the top of this page to hear an excerpt from “Mache dich, mein herze rein.”] Unbelievably, Bach’s music was largely forgotten after his death until Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered the “St. Matthew Passion” ninety years later—a rediscovery for which we should all be grateful. Join me again on “BreakPoint” tomorrow, Good Friday, as we reflect further on the Passion of Christ.  
Today's BreakPoint Offer
See BreakPoint’s “Must-Have Music Recommendation List.”  
For Further Reading and Information
Steven Ledbetter, “St. Matthew Passion,” Academy of Ancient Music, 1999. Julian Wachner, “Bach’s St. John Passion,” La Scena Musicale 8, no. 6, March 2003. BreakPoint Commentary No. 061009, “So Easy a Caveman Can Do It: Music and the Human Soul.” Roberto Rivera, “Money Well-Spent,” The Point, 15 March 2007. See follow-up posts here and here. Mark Galli, “The Good Friday Life,” Christianity Today, 4 April 2007. Susan Wunderink, “Images of Calvary,” Christianity Today, 3 April 2007. Richard A. Kauffman, “Resurrected Life,” Christianity Today, 2 April 2007. T. M. Moore, “To Purchase a Field: Art as a Symbolic Act,” BreakPoint Online, 9 November 2006. Regis Nicoll, “He Is Risen!” BreakPoint Online, 30 March 2007.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary