Seven Last Words of Christ

Reflections for a presentation of Haydn’s classic work,  adapted for piano and violin from the contemporaneous piano solo arrangement by Peter Douglas, Music Director at Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, Lent 2015

Performed by Peter Douglas (piano), Krista Solars (violin), Rosalind Hughes (narrator)

View the performance on YouTube

Introduzione in D minor – Maestoso ed Adagio

*

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

How many crosses do you think they could sling up in an hour? These were professionals: they knew what they were about. Like executioners through the ages, they were proficient in the details of their trade; consummate technicians. Armed with the authority of the state, of the might, the right of Rome, they knew just what they were doing. Like the ones who set the fuse, and check the failsafe. Like the ones who sharpen the blade, weigh the scales of justice and find them wanting, take up the first stone. Like the ones who wait in the shadows, known only by their acronymous, anonymous codename. Extraordinary rendition rendered ordinary by the magicians, the specialists. The expert hand on the cockpit controls. Shall I bring it closer to home? The ones who find the vein, set the needle, select the cocktail, such a merry word for a sterile act. Carefully metred discipline, executed exactly. We, with the soldiers at the cross, we know what we are doing. When we know what we are doing, we get lost in the details of doing what we know, and doing it just right. Lost in our own righteousness, we might so easily forget to look up; to look up to find sweet mercy looking back at us:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Sonata I (“Pater, dimitte illis, quia nesciunt, quid faciunt”) in B-flat major – Largo

*

Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

The dying seek solace from one another Even at the last, beyond hope of rescue or reprieve, bodies exhausted, even bored with pain, still, the human desire to hang together, to reach out: I am with you. We are in this together. I will stay with you. Together, we will get through this. Together, we will find a way to paradise. Jesus, even on the cross, still playing Emmanuel, God with us, to the end, through our own endings, holding the hands of the dying. We’re in this together, he says. Do not be afraid.

Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Sonata II (“Hodie mecum eris in paradiso”) in C minor, ending in C major – Grave e cantabile

*

Woman, behold your son.

Behold your son, as if she could look away. Remembering the angel, the strange visitors, the star. Remembering his rejection of her at the temple, at the house in Galilee – “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Was this one more word to push her away? “Son, behold your mother.” They looked at one another, doubtful. He thought of all that she knew, the stories he had half-heard, all that she could tell him about this man he had come to love with all of his heart and soul and mind, as though he were God himself. She saw the days and years that he had spent following etched in his face, the years she had missed as he travelled beyond her reach; here was another angel, perhaps, more ragged than the first, come to tell her things beyond her reckoning. She was perplexed, the first time the angel came, and told her, “Behold, you will bear a son.” Since that moment, she had loved him. Since that moment, she had not been able to look away. Yet he had said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” With an effort, she turned her head once more to the young man, the rough-hewn angel, come to share him with her. They leaned heavily on one another as they turned together to contemplate Jesus, to wonder how it had come to this. Woman, behold your son.

Sonata III (“Mulier, ecce filius tuus”) in E major – Grave

*

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

It was not the first time he had said it. It would not be the last time any of us would hear it. In the wilderness, tempted, taunted, hungry and afraid, unsure and unable to hold back from his purpose, Jesus cried out, but there was no one to hear. From the cross, they heard him, and they hung their heads, uncertain how to respond, what to believe. At Auschwitz, writes Elie Wiesel, witnessing the death of a child, a man asked, “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .” At Hiroshima, Nagasaki, in Dresden and yes, in New York and in the skies over Pennsylvania, the cries were repeated. Breathless, Eric Garner, dying on the sidewalk. Wordless, Tamir Rice, lying on the sidewalk. Speechless, the mother grieving her child, the child unconsolable at the unexplained abandonment of death, the spouse echoing through an empty home. The addict at the end of his strength. The desolate at the end of her rope. Teardrops dripping into an empty glass.

He was quoting the twenty-second Psalm, a prayer already centuries old. It is a cry as old as time. It is a cry that echoes all around. And yet, it perseveres, it is repeated only because at its heart, at its depth, at the height of its agony it holds out hope against hope that someone is still listening. That God will, in fact, return, to comfort us.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Sonata IV (“Deus meus, Deus meus, utquid dereliquisti me”) in F minor – Largo

*

I thirst.

You can hear the running water playing through the melody, the thunder of the flood, the tender banter of the woman at the well, the water turned to wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Now, the young Messiah who promised living water presses dry lips together. The very waters of creation draw back in fear before the spectacle of God Incarnate, dry as dust. Without fresh water, living water, we are as arid as the desert, as sterile as the Dead Sea. Without living water, the Spirit of God broods not over creation but our destruction. Jesus! “But you have saved the best wine till last,” he remembers them saying, as the vinegar sets his teeth on edge.

I thirst.

Sonata V (“Sitio”) in A major – Adagio

*

It is finished.

It is not the last word. “Consummatum est”; it is finished. Done. Complete. It is not the end. When the last note dies, is all that follows silence? When the last stitch is placed, the life of the garment is just begun. When the last step is taken, the destination reached, is the story over? When the stage is set, when the plate is composed. When the last page is turned, is the book ended? Do we throw it on the fire, return it to the shelf, or pass it on? When the last breath falls, what next? This is not a statement of defeat. It is not a submission, but a decision: the order is fulfilled, the life that has been lived; the file has been saved, the bow has been set. And it can never, now, come undone.

It is finished.

Sonata VI (“Consummatum est”) in G minor, ending in G major – Lento

*

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.

It is the final act of love, to entrust ourselves wholly to another, to hold nothing back. We come close, at times, before an operation, boarding a flight: when we reclaim ourselves, our self-control on the other side, we are a little embarrassed at what we gave away, how trusting we were, how foolish. Foolish or not, it is love that says, in the end, I trust you. I am ready, finally, God, to love you with all of my mind and body and strength and spirit, all that is left of me is yours.

Father, into thy hands, I commend my spirit.

Sonata VII (“In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum”) in E-flat major – Largo

*

Il terremoto (Earthquake) in C minor – Presto e con tutta la forza

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One Response to Seven Last Words of Christ

  1. Pingback: Liturgy of the Palms and the Passion | over the water

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