I had no idea why tears so abruptly filled my eyes. I was crying before I understood why I might be crying. But the sense that the reaction meant something was as real to me as the tears.
I was seated alone in a packed crowd at Duke University’s stunning neo-gothic chapel, listening very intently as Scottish composer James MacMillan conducted his St. Luke Passion for choir and orchestra. The core text of the piece is taken word for word from Luke’s Gospel. The narrative begins as Jesus and his disciples prepare for their last meal together and ends with the last breath of Christ on the cross, the centurion exclaiming what the angry crowd moments earlier would not: “Certainly this man was innocent.” At any point, for any number of reasons, tears were certainly explicable, appropriate even. But there was something very particular about this moment which gave me pause months, even years, thereafter. My body seemed to rush ahead of any sort of conscious thinking. This was not a slow climb of emotion welling up as tears that eventually fell. I was not reckoning with a particular thought or concept that suddenly clicked. Rather, my eyes seemed to confess that my brain and body were up to something, caught up in an activity that the conceptual part of me hadn’t yet realized.
Neurologists and therapists experienced with the power of music wouldn’t find in my description anything much out of the ordinary. “Listening to music is not just auditory,” writes the late neurologist Oliver Sacks, “it is motoric as well: ‘We listen to music with our muscles,’ as Nietzsche wrote. We keep time to music, involuntarily, even if we are not consciously attending to it, and our faces and postures mirror the ‘narrative’ of the melody, and the thoughts and feelings it produces.”(1) The use of music in a wide range of therapies has long been known effective, helping patients who have difficulty with language, cognition, or motor control, even as the processes involved remain somewhat mysterious. Recent advancements in the field of neurology and brain-imaging offer much insight into the brain’s activity in the midst of music-making and music-hearing. With increasing light being shed on the brain’s plasticity (its ability to change) and music’s ability to activate and engage entire regions and networks within the brain, music is increasingly being engaged as an effective component of rehabilitative care.
For my own encounter, there was just as much going on, therapeutic inasmuch as theological. Examining it has not only prompted tools for re-conceiving the story of the Passion itself—the subject of the oratorio—but also re-imagining the dynamics of God’s creation and God’s ways of acting within it; within me. Theologian Jeremy Begbie, a musician himself and foremost thinker on theology and music, offers ample help, even as he would offer the helpful caution to resist turning music or the experience itself into a mental construct. “We are dealing with practices, interaction with sounds, concrete encounters with the physical world, drawing on many facets of our human make-up… Certainly, musical activity can generate conceptuality for the theologian, but it does so in and through being just that, an activity.”(2)
Like other passion oratorios, MacMillan’s St. Luke’s Passion narrates the passion of Christ using the text of the gospel writer, in this case following Luke 22-24 in its entirety. Perhaps somewhat uniquely, however, MacMillan adds two short but significant passages, also from Luke, as prelude and postlude to the passion narrative. The piece begins with a short section from Luke chapter 1 and ends with a short text from Luke 24:38 and Acts 1:9-11. This is to say, the narration of Christ’s crucifixion begins with the announcement of his birth and concludes with his return to the Father. Stated another way, the narration of Christ’s death begins with his young and frightened mother and ends with his frightened and grieving disciples who think they are seeing a ghost as the crucified Son stands in their midst. Though I would not have been able to articulate this at the time, the passion of Christ stands between humans with fear and the One who invites us not to be troubled.
Fittingly, the angel Gabriel’s admonition to Mary, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30) figures prominently in the music. It is sung twice by male voices of the chorus in the prologue. But the sequence of notes which first carried the words is also repeated in insightful, telling moments of the narrative, each time powerfully carrying the first embedded encounter of the phrase, with or without the presence of the words. As Jeremy Begbie notes, “Repetition in music is not a one-level succession of ever-receding events on a straight time-line but occurs only in a composite of metrical waves in relation to which musical events cannot be conceived as falling back into vacuity.”(3) In the case of this oratorio, as the sequence of notes was repeated in various points of the passion, the new sequence seemed to carry with it what had been—the consolation of a young mother to set aside fear for the sake of the Son. And yet, each time something further was provoked, bringing the possibilities of Mary’s fear into a disrupting sense of fear in the crowd, or in my own anticipation of what was coming. Each repetition provoked a desire for further resolution, including the instrumental repeating of the notes again and again and again after Jesus has just breathed his last.
It should be noted that the voice of Christ is sung by a children’s choir, a choice that makes the innocence of Jesus, at times, almost unbearable. For their own part, the adult voices of the choir move into polyphony (combining a number of parts at once) to show the chaotic and angry world of the crowds. As chapter 22 gives way to chapter 23, Christ has been interrogated at the home of the High Priest and is about to face Pilate. Answering the angry words of the court of the High Priest, “Are you the Son of God, then?” Jesus replies in slow and wrenching innocence: “You say that I am.” The adult voices of the choir at once ignite in a contrasting, angry condemnation of Jesus. Here, as Christ moves closer towards his destiny, MacMillan tellingly inserts the words of Gabriel once again, though this time it is sung by the entire chorus as almost a very slow and cautious lament. After a period of silence that is full and palpable, the same voices which just erupted in anger, now sing quietly, perhaps for Christ’s sake, perhaps for our own, echoing words given to his mother as she carried him as a child: “Do not be afraid.”
Of the many objections and difficulties that arise from hearing the Gospel, and perhaps particularly the crucifixion story, the problem of time is intricate. Does this story, this death, these characters hold anything for the present; anything more than an ever-retreating event, re-collected only in memory? Do we call to mind in the passion story an unreachable past, an unreal future? How is it that our own sense of temporality, as the New Testament affirms, along with all of time and history, is decisively gathered up in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ?
As Jeremy Begbie notes, and my encounter seemed somehow to enact for me, music performs possibilities for theology. I seemed somehow with Mary and the possibilities of her fear in a way I hadn’t ever quite been able to muster outside of an arm’s length recollecting. This is perhaps because in music we are participating in something temporal, yet which does not presuppose a linear view of time. What this might mean for us in terms of clarifying the nature of temporality and our involvement with it, Begbie notes eloquently: “In the midst of our fractured and distorted temporality we are given to participate in a temporality in which our past, present and future can be at peace, co-inhere.”(4) Each time the invitation to not be afraid was repeated musically, it held its own temporal integrity while relating both to the over-arching wave of the story of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, as well as to every other sequence of every previous invitation to not be afraid. As such, the musical repetition seemed somehow to open me to the continuity of God’s summons in history in the midst of complicated waves of my own fear in the present; as well as the continuity of God’s summons to be re-formed by Christ’s gathering efforts in the midst of time and history and the present work of the Spirit as one who directs temporal things toward their eschatological fulfillment in Christ. “The Holy Spirit opens our present (and us) to Christ’s past and future,” writes Begbie, and significantly, “as in the case of music, this entails not the refusal of ‘our’ temporality, but its healing and re-formation.”(5)
I still cannot pinpoint what exactly made my eyes pour forth as if in a kind of speech in the midst of McMillan’s St. Luke Passion. I suspect the moment defies reduction to any one explanation, even as it does offer caution against reducing our theology and the Christian life to an activity of the mind alone. But that tears did come while listening to music and the words of St. Luke left me with the very comforting sense that the Spirit is at work within us in ways unaware—unlocking us to the possibilities of the ways God works in creation, provoking our attention in groans too deep words, opening us out to Christ himself, compelling us to encounter his past not merely as past but as our future.
Indeed, Do not be afraid.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Toronto: Random House, 2008), xii.
(2) Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2000), 272. Notably, as director of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, Jeremy Begbie led a research collaboration between Duke University and Cambridge University, a group of ten scholars and artists who worked collaboratively as MacMillan shaped this musical account of Christ’s death as told in the Gospel of Luke.
(3) Ibid., 171.
(4) Ibid., 172.
(5) Ibid., 173.