St. Luke's Gospel narrates that as Peter passed Jesus from within the temple confines, the Lord's eyes met his. Like a laser beam, they bore into Peter's entire soul. Unable to bear the shame, he went out and wept bitterly. Never would he forget the experience. Never would Jesus let him forget.
Scattering in all directions, the other disciples abandoned Jesus, and with Peter, they left their Lord standing alone. Brown notes that every Christian stands on stage as do Peter and the disciples, Pilate, his wife, and other venal characters in the Paschal drama of redemption.
J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion: "Erbarme dich"
If you would like to experience in music Peter's denial, you need only listen to the aria, "Erbarme dich" from J.S. Bach's great St. Matthew Passion. Peter's guilt is taken up by a solo violin that keeps grinding out the same eight-note motif over and over. Round and round, up and down they go to symbolize Peter's anguished mind, obsessed with his descent into treachery. Shame paralyzes him. The motif expresses only one thought: "Erbarme dich, mein Gott' that is, "Have mercy, my Lord, have mercy." Or, 'What have I done; 'how could I?' How?' 'I'm so sorry; forgive me, have mercy on me, my God.' Over and over, the words grip his soul. Through the music, he wails: 'What did I do, what did I do?'
The tears drop with a steady rhythm. The organ together with pizzicato (plucked) cellos and double basses play the drip-drip. For a few moments the ensemble abates while the grinding motif of the violin bores more deeply into his soul: 'What have I done? Have mercy on me, my God, Erbarme dich, mein Gott.' Peter can't shake his grief. Still Bach gently treats his sorrow and repentance.
To derive benefit from this aria, you don't need to know German. The text is simple and repeats itself. The music speaks for itself. If you do not have the recording, the aria is available on YouTube. It is one of the finest musical expressions of a soul in anguish. The emotional tug of Bach's music on the listener springs from the recognition of dashed dreams and failed resolutions to follow Jesus as his companion and disciple without hesitation or compromise.
Text: J.S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, 39. Aria A, "Erbarme dich"
Erbarme dich, mein Gott,
um meiner Zähren willen!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge
weint vor dir bitterlich.
Erbarme dich, mein Gott.
Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
See here, heart and eyes
weep bitterly before you.
Have mercy, my God.
Before Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., Cardinal-Archbishop of the Chicago Archdiocese died last year, he predicted with stark hyperbole, what a completely secularized society would mean in the future: "I expect to die in bed; my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history."
(To be completed next week)
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