Essay / Culture

Bach as Theologian

Johann_Sebastian_BachI couldn’t let the 326th birthday of the great Kappelmeister go by without some short reflection on my favorite choral piece, the great St. Matthew Passion.

As a devout Lutheran, Bach heavily meditated on the passion of Christ, influenced heavily by Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. For Luther, Christ as the “suffering servant” is the paradigmatic image of God’s revelation to humanity, a visible sign of what how our sins necessitated a suffering savior. For Luther, the centurion at the foot of the cross is the model theologian, for in Christ’s death, he sees God’s ultimate revelation of himself to humanity. Bach reflects this attitude as the centurion’s words are given a special setting and chorus after the Evangelist’s dramatic recitative on the convulsion of nature following Christ’s death. It is interesting to note that the famous Passion Chorale, which punctuates much of the oratorio, also figures prominently in the Christmas Oratorio. The passion dominates even Bach’s reflection on the birth of the savior.

This makes Bach’s St. Matthew Passion a quintessential theological reflection on the tragedy and power of the cross.

Happy birthday, Kappelmeister!!!

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