Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew is truly a masterpiece of the oratorio repertoire. I listened to pieces of it all through Holy Week. The Passion is often performed with two separate choruses and orchestras, which finally come together in a triumphant but haunting final meditation. The partial orchestras, sometimes without strings, sometimes without bass, often in minor progressions which are difficult to understand and evocative of a desperate situation, resolve into unity and end with these words:
We sit down in tears
And call to thee in the tomb
Rest softly, softly rest!
Rest, ye exhausted limbs!
Your grave and tombstone
Shall for the unquiet conscience
Be a comfortable pillow
And the soul’s resting place
In utmost bliss the eyes slumber there.
If you listen carefully, amidst the sad and breathtakingly beautiful string progressions, there is a glimmer of hope. I am no Bach scholar, but I wonder if he just couldn’t bring himself to leave the Passion with Jesus in the tomb. Instead, he offers the hope that, for those whose conscience might be tugging at them when meditating upon the Passion (something that, I dare say, happens to all of us), their comfort lies in the death of Christ. But the death of Jesus could not be a comfort without the sure knowledge of the Resurrection and the victory that this death has won.
On Holy Saturday each year, I attempt to meditate on that awful day some 2000 years ago when the tomb was sealed. I try to imagine the utter hopelessness that Jesus’ friends must have felt. The one who would be the savior of the world, the Jewish Messiah, had been slaughtered on the cross. His death was witnessed by but a blessed few. He died having been betrayed by Peter who said he would never betray him, abandoned by Thomas who claimed to be prepared to die with him, left by the very disciples he had chosen and to whom he had given the gift of the sacramental priesthood.
But I find it impossible to continue the meditation for long because it simply becomes too sad. My mind will not allow me to imagine such horror without also imagining its sublime resolution. I think that Mary and the disciples must have had shock to help them through—the same shock that sets in when we lose a close loved one—a physiological process that the body undergoes to protect itself from the real and lasting damage that can be caused by such traumatic sadness. We don’t tend to think of shock as a good thing, but I simply don’t see how the disciples could have withstood the grief and despair of Good Friday and Holy Saturday without it. Cardinal Ruini in the Papal Stations of the Cross on Good Friday explained, “Only by believing in the Resurrection can we meaningfully advance along the way of the cross.” The disciples did not yet have the experience of the Resurrection. How could they possibly advance?
And then, just as they were beginning to settle into reality, just as the Sabbath was ending, just as the disciples were preparing to see Golgotha and the tomb for the first time, the horrible stained wood of the cross still standing on the rock where the blood of the lamb had been poured out, they discover that his tomb has been vandalized and his body removed. The grieving women were hysterical after visiting the tomb and were making up wild tales, but the disciples had to see. They had to go and lay eyes on that which had now added to their already unimaginable grief.
Thus, Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb. Peter was slower, but John waited there in an act of deference to the Rock. Peter was the first to see; John was the first to believe. There was the shroud, and the cloth that covered Jesus’ face, but the body of the God that called them friends was not to be found. All of this happened just when they thought their pain could not be worse.
They returned to the room in which they had shared their Passover meal, the room in which Jesus had washed their feet before having his own pierced by their betrayal. Mary Magdalene came, saying she had seen the Lord. They all probably thought that she was probably imagining things, seeing only what she wanted to see. It couldn’t be true, could it?
The door was locked. The disciples were in fear. Did they dare hope? Could they open their hearts to the possibility that Jesus was alive? They had trolled the depths of despair, and their shock was still great. John had made his act of faith; he was certain, as was Mary Magdalene. But could it possibly be?
Where was Jesus’ mother? Did hope remain flaming in her? Had she understood the Scriptures those many years ago as she kept all of those things she had seen and heard in her heart? Had her meditation cleared a way for love to offer such audacious possibilities?
I don’t know that I would have believed. Every year in Holy Week, I am presented with the question: would I have followed Jesus, and if so, what would I have done when I heard he was dead? I’m quite sure I would have abandoned him in the Garden and denied him; I am no better than Peter. I certainly would have doubted longer than Thomas. Would I have run away? Would I have retreated along that Road to Emmaus saddened and defeated? I don’t know.
But I do know that I cannot imagine the Passion without the Resurrection. Because of that, I will never know what they felt, what explosion of emotion erupted from the bottom of their souls when he appeared in the room and said “Peace be with you.” Peace is the very thing that I can never find in my Holy Saturday meditation, right up until the point that I, just as I suspect Bach did, look to the Resurrection and then see the beautiful gift that was the death of our Lord.
Then, as words fail, as we realize the significance of the prophesies as we rejoice over the stone rolled away, over Golgotha broken, over the temple veil torn, we proclaim the words, “Resurrexit! Sicut dixit! Alleluia! Alleluia!” with exuberating joy.