St. John Passion

Collegium Vocale Gent Choir and Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday, April 8.

Attending a performance of J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion was the perfect way for me to celebrate Easter. It’s a gorgeous, moving work—heartstoppingly grand and yet, during the arias and chorales, heartbreakingly intimate. A masterpiece of one of my favorite composers, it’s the sort of devoutly felt music that makes me feel the presence of God.

But the Passion is also “problematic,” to use that wonderfully weaselly word. A setting of John’s account of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion inevitably includes that Gospel’s identification of the “the Jews” as the villains: Pilate insists the prisoner is blameless, but John’s Jews howl for blood.

In other words, the St. John Passion encapsulates what I treasure about religion and what troubles me deeply. It is a testament to the Good that divinely inspired people can accomplish, maybe even a glimpse of the profound Beauty of the divine itself, and yet it is also an example of the damage religion can do. Although the work is, arguably, not itself anti-Semitic, it reflects a tradition of hate and cruelty and ignorance that is as much a product of organized religion as the Goodness and Beauty to which I cling.