Finding Beauty and Sublimity in the St. John Passion

By: Tim Rosenberger

April 17, 2015

Over the past year, the Berkley Center has shown me the beauty of interfaith work. The social justice-centered community of scholars that has come together in this year’s “Doyle Engaging Difference” program has been inspiring to me as much for its diversity of viewpoints as for its numerous accomplishments. Despite my newfound appreciation for interfaith work, I was able to appreciate a very different type of spiritual beauty this past week while attending Bach’s St. John Passion at the National Cathedral. The attendees of this event were predominantly older, predominantly Christian, and all more or less unified in a desire to experience a musical offering to God.

The 2015 Ignatian Q, a conference hosted by Georgetown exploring the intersection of religious and queer identity, having concluded just an hour before, I was very much in need of a break when I met Georgetown’s own Sonia Jacobson, an assistant in academic affairs, on the front steps of the cathedral. The National Cathedral has long been one of my favorite sites in DC, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to hear the St. John Passion there. As we walked in and found our seats, I recognized numerous musicians who have been featured in Georgetown Friday Music programs. Before the evening concluded, we ran into a former dean of the Georgetown College and read the program notes written by Sonia’s daughter, another Georgetown graduate. Clearly the Hoya connections remain strong even up the hill at the cathedral.
The St. John Passion is not a simple piece of music. Featuring a decently sized orchestra, an adult choir, and a cadre of boy choristers, any performance of it is quite the undertaking. This version was no exception, and the sound I was hearing worked as a conversation with the space. The soaring music perfectly fit the lofty ceilings and beautiful windows. Given that the work’s subject matter is the trial and death of Christ, the Passion’s beauty is not a particularly soft, gentle, or uplifting sound. Rather, it is strong and profound. The dimly illuminated stonework of the National Cathedral, as well as the unusually muted flower and banner arrangements in the sanctuary that day, further emphasized this spirit of profound rather than superficial beauty.

At times, the work we do with the Berkley Center seems to call into question this form of religious devotion. Who has time to sit around in a decadent concert setting when so much of the world is hurting? Knowing the great trials faced by humanity, does any religious framework put a premium on the creation of music? I would posit that, while the work we do as God’s hands in the world is of the utmost importance, it is moments like the one I experienced at the cathedral that explain why God is a part of this conversation at all. In a space without God, some might choose to serve others out of humanist benevolence. The universal command to serve others must come from a deity that inspires the kind of beauty and sublimity that is the St. John Passion. It is in trying to commune with this form of God that we experience the divine and thus the mandate to serve.
While I earlier mentioned the non-interfaith, homogeneous beauty of this performance, I did ultimately experience an interesting ecumenical phenomenon. Although the National Cathedral is proudly a part of the Episcopal Church, the music of the St. John Passion was incredibly familiar to me. It turns out that almost every chorus in the work has been repurposed as a hymn tune for the Lutheran Hymnal. Although the language was different, and the orchestration far more complex, the evening was almost a tour of the church music of my childhood. 

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Finding Beauty and Sublimity in the St. John Passion