From Good Friday…
It is the tradition on Good Friday at the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity Brussels to put on a performance of a Bach passion. The idea began as a way of marking the events of Christ’s passion in an appropriately serious and intensive manner, as well as celebrating Anglo-German friendship and building links between the Pro-Cathedral and the Brussels musical community. This year the Pro-Cathedral performed the St. Matthew Passion. The St. Matthew is the greatest product of Lutheran Church Music. And what better way to mark this 500th anniversary year of the German Reformation?
Bach wrote the St. John Passion on his arrival in Leipzig, and it was first performed at Good Friday Vespers in 1724. Three years later the greater St. Matthew Passion was completed and performed on Good Friday 1727, 290 years ago. It was played by two antiphonal choirs and orchestras situated in the north and south transepts of the Thomaskirche, with a children’s choir singing from the back gallery. That must have been a remarkable experience for the burghers of Leipzig!
The Holy Trinity performance aimed to represent faithfully the sound of 18th century Baroque music as Bach’s Thomaskirche congregation would have heard it. The Brussels Conservatory is a centre of Baroque excellence. Our musicians played on modern copies of Baroque instruments, with wooden flutes, oboes da caccia and d’amore, viola da gamba. The performance featured two choirs and a children’s choir plus 10 soloists.
I first heard the St. Matthew Passion performed at London’s Festival Hall, as a young man. I remember being overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience. Being part of the congregation for this performance at Holy Trinity Brussels seemed to me the best way of entering again the experience of Christ’s passion. Bach dwells on certain aspects of the narrative – listening to the performance this year I was drawn especially into the binding of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – the decisive moment when he loses his freedom, in which Bach has the crowd angrily interject: ‘release him, stop, do not bind him!’. And Peter’s betrayal, with Bach’s anguished aria:
My God for my tears’ sake;
Heart and eyes weep before thee
There is no ‘resurrection’ in Bach’s Passions, of course. The St. Matthew ends, after some three hours of sublime music, with Jesus resting, life exhausted, in the tomb.
…to Easter Sunday…
Holy Trinity’s main Easter Sunday morning service begins with the lighting of the Easter candle, procession of choir and ministers into the church, and Easter acclamations.
It was a great joy to share in this international celebration of Easter morning, with people of all ages, from all over the world, in a packed church building.
The church was beautifully decorated with white and yellow floral displays. Music was led by a large choir augmented by a brass trio and timpani. “Thine be the glory” sung with trumpets and drum rolls on Easter morning is a truly spine-tingling experience.
In his Easter sermon, Canon Paul Vrolijk referred us to the biblical image of the garden, moving from Eden, to Gethsemane to the garden of the resurrection. He invited the congregation to meet with Jesus, as Mary Magdalene had done in the garden of the resurrection, so that areas of desolation and sadness that represent the ‘Gethsemanes’ in our lives can be opened to healing and transformation. We gathered around the Lord’s Table, praying that Jesus would make himself known to us in the breaking of the bread.
It was an especial joy for Helen and me to celebrate Easter at the Pro-Cathedral with our family – four children and two sons-in-law. All of our children have a living Christian faith and are regular church attenders themselves. We don’t have many opportunities to gather together, so to be family on the greatest day of the Christian year was particularly important for us.
Across our widespread diocese, Easter is celebrated in many different ways with varying formality, liturgical splendour and musical tradition. In each place we bring together communities of people to celebrate a risen Lord, whose resurrection continues to burst into our lives and into our world.
I wish every member of our diocese and its churches a blessed and happy Easter.